Mass surveillance, press crackdowns, and punishing prisoners of conscience — impunity reigns in MENA

August 2021 in Middle East and North Africa: A free expression roundup produced by IFEX’s Regional Editor Naseem Tarawnah, based on IFEX member reports and news from the region.

A demonstrator confronts a police officer during a rally in support of the leader of the PDL party, and in opposition to the current government, Tunis, Tunisia, 3 September 2021, Hasan Mrad / Eyepix Group/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Spyware targets Bahraini activists. Tunisia and Algeria’s worrying state of free expression. Prisoners of conscience denied medical care in Egypt and Iran amidst the pandemic. Enforced disappearances persist amidst unaddressed impunity:

Spyware attacks and unchecked mass surveillance

A new report from Citizen Lab and Red Line for Gulf identified nine Bahraini rights workers, including three staff members of IFEX member Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), who were hacked with NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware between June 2020 and February 2021. The report found some of the activists were hacked using two zero-click iMessage exploits: the 2020 KISMET exploit and a new exploit dubbed FORCEDENTRY, which bypasses the iPhone’s messaging security features.

The news comes in the wake of recent Project Pegasus revelations which highlighted the extensive use of NSO Group’s notorious spyware and spurred calls from rights groups in the region for a moratorium on the export and use of surveillance technology — “until a clear human rights regulatory framework is established.” UN experts backed a moratorium, underscoring how these advanced surveillance tools have been used to violate the rights to freedom of expression, privacy, and liberty, saying: “It is highly dangerous and irresponsible to allow the surveillance technology and trade sector to operate as a human rights-free zone”

Given Bahrain’s longstanding history of oppression, the authorities’ use of spyware to target critics and activists comes as no surprise. However, the question of accountability remains. “The real concern is: what now? Will all parties involved in these violations still enjoy impunity?,” said Nedal Al Salman, president of BCHR.

In Egypt, the country’s Public Prosecution has been officially monitoring internet users under the pretext of protecting national security and family values. According to IFEX member the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), Egypt’s Public Prosecution has expanded its powers in recent years to include the mass surveillance of internet users, violating their right to privacy and freedom of expression.

Authorities in the region have also increasingly wielded digital surveillance to target members of the LGBTQI+ community throughout the pandemic, according to Human Rights Watch. A combination of digital surveillance supported by anti-LGBTQI+ laws and online discrimination were used to justify digital attacks against LGBTQI+ people under the pretext of responding to the crisis.

In Palestine, IFEX member the Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media (7amleh) released a new investigative study titled “The Reality of Privacy and Digital Data Protection in Palestine”, which examines how Palestinian digital privacy rights are being violated and highlights the growing need for a comprehensive data protection law.

For more on how increasingly sophisticated digital surveillance tools are being sold to and deployed by authoritarian states in the region to target human rights defenders, and how civil society is fighting back, read IFEX’s recently-published regional spotlight: The Smartphones are listening’: Regulating exports and abuses of cybertools.

Troubling signs in Tunisia

In the weeks following President Kais Saied’s power grab, Tunisia’s political crisis continues to take its toll on the country’s civic space. Tunisian rights groups met on 5 August to form a joint working committee “to follow up on developments in the political situation of the country,” and called on the President to consult with civil society to formulate a “plan of action” leading to a new government.

In the absence of a parliament and constitutional court, repressive steps taken by authorities have signalled a ‘worrying trend’. Journalists faced assaults while covering anti-government demonstrations after Saied’s 25 July announcement and a 1 September protest marking the first street demonstration since Saied’s imposed exceptional measures that resulted in several journalists injured. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the targeted violence prevented journalists from covering the demonstration called by Manech Msalmine (“We won’t let go”), a movement demanding justice and accountability for the politically-motivated murders of two left-wing leaders, Chokri Belaïd and Mohamed Brahmi, who were gunned down in 2013.

Amnesty International also documented the cases of at least 50 people who were barred from travelling abroad since 25 July, without any judicial authorization or explanation, including judges, senior state officials, and a member of parliament.

Rights groups criticized Tunisian authorities for extraditing political activist Slimane Bouhafs — who was sentenced to jail in 2016 for “insulting Islam”- to neighbouring Algeria. Tunisian authorities also issued an arrest warrant for former presidential candidate Nabil Karoui, who was detained in Algeria.

Algeria’s Arrested Development

The increasing crackdown on press freedoms in Algeria saw authorities revoke the accreditation of Saudi channel Al-Arabiya last month over allegedly spreading misinformation, and shut down the broadcasting of privately-owned news channel Lina TV. The press censorship comes after French public broadcaster France 24 had its operating license in the country cancelled in June over its coverage of anti-government protests.

“Algerian authorities are once again using their vague and bureaucratic broadcasting authorization procedures as a means to restrict media outlets in the country,” said Sherif Mansour, Committee to Protect Journalists’ Middle East and North Africa program coordinator.

Journalist Rabah Karèche was sentenced to one year in prison on “false news and anti-state charges,” spurring rebuke from rights groups. The Liberté newspaper correspondent has been held in pretrial detention since 19 April following his publication of several articles on land-use protests in southern Algeria. “[Karèche’s] place is in a newsroom, not in prison,” said Souhaieb Khayati, head of RSF’s North Africa desk. “The Algerian authorities should respect the constitutionally guaranteed freedom to inform and the country’s press law.”

Prisoners of conscience at risk in Egypt

Exemplifying the despair cultivated in Egypt’s notorious Tora prison, imprisoned blogger Mohamed Ibrahim, aka Mohamed Oxygen, attempted to take his life after months of harassment and harsh mistreatment by prison authorities. Languishing behind bars since his November 2020 arbitrary detention, Mohamed has been deprived of seeing his family for the past 15 months, as well as contact with his lawyers. Representing Mohamed, IFEX member the Arab Network for Human Rights Information was recently barred by prison authorities from even checking on their client’s health despite receiving a visitation permit from the State Security Prosecution.

In addition to denying prisoners of conscience contact with their families and lawyers, punitive measures taken by prison authorities include the denial of medical care. A combination of unhygienic prisons and inadequate health care continue to place thousands of prisoners at risk.

Al Jazeera Mubasher producer Rabie El-Sheikh was arrested on 1 August on his return from the news station’s headquarters in Doha, Qatar, and placed in pre-trial detention on charges of “spreading false news”. Two other Al Jazeera journalists, Bahaa Ed-Din Ibrahim and Hesham Abdel Aziz, face similar charges, remaining in pretrial detention since February 2020 and June 2019 respectively.

In some good news, Youtuber Shadi Srour, journalist Shaimaa Sami and activist Ziyad Aboel-Fadel were all set free after months of detention without ever facing a trial.

In Brief

Iran: As the country deals with a fifth wave of COVID-19, prisoners of conscience in particular have been put at heightened risk with several imprisoned environmentalists contracting the virus in recent weeks. Mohammad Najafi, a human rights lawyer imprisoned in Arak Central Prison, was also denied critical health care after suffering a heart attack.

Recently leaked surveillance videos shed light on the patterns of abusive treatment and violations of due process inflicted on prisoners of conscience in Iran’s prisons. “These leaked videos offer a glimpse of what happens behind bars in Iran, but they are likely the tip of the iceberg”, wrote Tara Sepehri Far, HRW Iran researcher.

In the continued pursuit for justice, the trial of Hamid Noury, a former senior Tehran prison authority, began in Stockholm on 10 August. According to information gathered and corroborated by RSF, Noury was a member of the so-called “death commission” during the 1988 mass executions of hundreds of prisoners, including journalists.

Saudi Arabia: IFEX member the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) has produced an extensive report on the ongoing violations of freedom of expression both online and offline faced by Saudi activists and human rights defenders since the rise of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman to power in 2017. The report highlighted how authorities established an army of online trolls to harass and intimidate activists, including detained online activists Amani Al-Zein and Areej Al-Sadhan.

Yemen: Unidentified gunmen assassinated academic and online activist Dr. Mohammed Ali Naim outside a friend’s home in the capital, Sana’a. According to a recent GCHR report, civil society activists, academics, and journalists have faced increased human rights violations, including executions by Houthi authorities.

New & Noteworthy

From Syria and Iraq, to Egypt and Libya, impunity for perpetrators of enforced disappearances remains the norm, said 33 rights groups last month. Marking the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances, the organizations called on multilateral and international institutions to end impunity and ensure accountability for the continued trend of enforced disappearance in the region, as well as to bring redress to victims, survivors, and family members affected by the crimes.

A new reportNo Access: LGBTIQ Website Censorship in Six Countries — examines the blocking of LGBTIQ websites in six countries, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The report’s findings noted Iran blocks the highest number of LGBTQI+ websites, with censorship technologies being detected in the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Originally published at https://ifex.org on September 8, 2021.

IFEX is a global network of organisations that defend and promote the right to freedom of expression and information. Email: info@ifex.org

IFEX is a global network of organisations that defend and promote the right to freedom of expression and information. Email: info@ifex.org