Trolling women’s groups, digital privacy threats, Syrian disinformation and… “normal rainbows”?
June 2022 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.
Rising threats to digital privacy in the region. Disinformation campaigns target women rights activists in Iran. Ending impunity for crimes against Palestinian journalists. And authorities in MENA go ‘Rainbow hunting’.
Across the region: privacy threats, disinformation campaigns, Instagram troll armies, and biased algorithms
About 69% of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip support a Palestinian law to protect privacy and personal data, including electronic data, according to a recent survey conducted by IFEX member the Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media (7amleh). The results support the findings of a report by the digital rights organization examining how Palestinians’ right to privacy and the protection of personal data is subjected to ‘negligence and exploitation’ by both Israeli and Palestinian authorities.
While the Israeli government exercises full control over the privacy of Palestinians through its policies, legislations, and ability to “track and surveille Palestinian communications and digital activity” — including hacking the phones of civil society organizations workers — the absence of Palestinian laws providing adequate and needed protection means citizens are faced with dual challenges to their right to privacy and data protection.
Google is moving forward with its data center plans in Saudi Arabia after parent company Alphabet rejected a civil society-backed shareholder proposal last month calling on the company to uphold human rights principles. Digital rights groups, including IFEX members, have repeatedly urged Google to take a step back from establishing a cloud region in the kingdom due to its track record of violating privacy rights to spy on citizens. Activists filed a resolution for investors to vote on during Alphabet’s annual meeting on 1 June asking Google to “commission a report assessing the siting of Google cloud data centers in countries of significant human rights concern” with 57% of shareholders voting in its favor.
A report by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) and The Syria Campaign revealed how a network of over two dozen conspiracy theorists, supported by Russian-backed disinformation campaigns, sent thousands of tweets distorting the reality of the conflict in Syria. According to the gathered data, a network of social media accounts, individuals, outlets and organizations disseminated disinformation about the conflict to over 1.8 million followers.
In Iran, a wide network of Iranian women’s rights defenders, feminist activists and public figures in the country’s #MeToo movement have come under coordinated attacks from bots and trolls on Instagram in an effort to stifle their freedom of expression and damage their online presence and influence, say rights groups. According to research by digital forensics and security organization Qurium, in April 2022 around one million fake subscribers flooded 25 Instagram accounts connected with the women’s movement, resulting in Instagram blocking the accounts after they became unmanageable. The fake followers initiated a campaign of harassment by using high numbers of comments to intimidate and silence women rights defenders on the platform.
Earlier last month, rights groups highlighted how Instagram suffers from a deficit in trust and transparency when it comes to content moderation practices for the Persian community. Following a session at RightsCon on Instagram’s Persian-language content moderation practices, rights groups urged parent company Meta and Meta’s Oversight Board to streamline processes to ensure freedom of expression is protected for users who rely on their platform in the country, especially during protests.
Considered the last remaining uncensored social media in Iran, recent content removals of protests expose deeper deficiencies in the application of Instagram’s content moderation policies in non-Western languages, and the real world impact on local communities. “While misapplications of policies and a refusal of contextual analysis prevails, users are currently self-censoring to get by on a platform that holds monopoly over the majority of public online expression in Iran,” wrote ARTICLE 19 researcher Mahsa Alimardani.
Pro-Palestinian activists have also increasingly suffered from Instagram’s censorship in the absence of transparency of the platform’s decision-making process. Users continue to face censorship and shadow-banning by the platform’s algorithmic bias. Palestinian activist Moumin Nemr told IFEX member SMEX that since early May, Instagram restricted his account with nearly 60,000 followers, and banned him from posting photos and videos, “in an attempt to suppress the truth and the voice of reason.”
Growing calls to end impunity
Israeli forces were behind the killing of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in May, concluded the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) after an independent investigation. The findings spurred continued calls by rights groups for Israel to be held accountable for the journalist’s killing, and ending impunity for crimes against all Palestinian journalists.
“The Israeli authorities can no longer shirk their responsibilities… They have a duty to carry out and complete a proper investigation in order to render justice for the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh,” Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Christophe Deloire said in a statement. “Enough bad faith! Enough disdain for the truth when journalists are killed! They can no longer decently hide behind their first hasty investigation when they are clearly responsible.”
In a letter to US President Biden, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) urged the administration to conduct its own investigation into the killing of the Palestinian-American journalist, and demand Israel hold perpetrators accountable.
“This pattern of official indifference by Israeli authorities plants the seeds of impunity that we continue to witness,” said CPJ president Jodie Ginsberg. “It also represents a blatant disregard for the rights of the Palestinian people and people around the world to be informed, to follow key developments, and to understand vital facts.”
Also adding to the cycle of impunity, the Palestinian Authority has failed to investigate the death of political activist Nizar Banat one year after his killing by Palestinian security forces. Palestinian authorities arrested and charged 14 low-ranking officers last year, and are currently trying them in a military court, but have taken no action against top commanders. The Banat family have boycotted the flawed military trial, with their lawyer pointing out repeated obstructions to legal proceedings, including the charged officers being granted bail from detention between 21 June and 2 July.
Meanwhile, the Goethe-Institut scaled down its “Beyond The Lone Offender” conference in Hamburg after facing mass cancellations by artists protesting the decision to dis-invite Palestinian activist and poet Mohammad El-Kurd. Invited to speak on a panel on strategies used by different states to deflect from human rights abuses, El-Kurd saw his invitation rescinded after the German state-funded cultural association’s deemed him “not an appropriate speaker”. The move sparked a backlash among the free expression community, and withdrawals by invited panellists like prominent British-Pakistani author and journalist Mohammed Hanif.
‘Rainbow hunting’ in MENA
Several governments in the region cracked down on Pride month events or symbols perceived to be supporting the LGBTQI+ community. In Kuwait, the government condemned tweets by the US embassy in recognition of the month, while the country’s Ministry of Commerce and Industry published infographics on social media to help citizens differentiate between products bearing a “normal rainbow” and the LGBTQI+ rainbow, in an effort to aid in the removal of offending products. Saudi Arabia saw a similar campaign initiated to seize rainbow-coloured toys and clothing from shops, in addition to bans on recent films deemed to be “promoting homosexuality”.
In Lebanon, Minister of Interior Bassam Halawi banned Pride-related events, blaming “pressure from religious authorities”, and traditional societal values. In response, Lebanese LGBTQI+ organization Helem said that it was “perplexing why, in a country whose citizens have no electricity, no medication, no access to clean water, and no social security, and 30% unemployment, the minister thought to prioritize LGBTQI+ events as the biggest threat to national security.”
Bahrain: Prominent Bahraini human rights defender Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja received the 2022 Martin Ennals Award for human rights defenders. Co-founder of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) and the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), Al-Khawaja is currently serving the 11th year of a life sentence in Jau Prison for his human rights work. IFEX members have repeatedly called for his immediate release, in addition to other jailed prominent critics who have faced ill-treatment behind bars, including opposition leader Hasan Mushaima, and academic Dr. Abduljalil Alsingace who has been on a hunger strike for nearly a year.
On the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, IFEX member BCHR called on the Bahrain government to end the “culture of impunity” and bring those involved in torture to justice, including those in the chain of command.
Iraq: A civilian force affiliated with the National Security Service stormed a training workshop on gender-based violence organized by local NGO, Al-Firdaws Society for Peace Building in the Basra Governorate. Supervisors of the course were told by three armed men in civilian clothes that the orders were issued by the local government of Basra, which included a prohibition on organizing workshops on gender-related topics. The workshop participants were questioned about their activism and personal information, then told never to attend any training on violence against women, or related gender issues.
Yemen: Journalist Saber al-Haidari was killed in a car bombing last month, adding to the growing number of journalists targeted in the country. According to GCHR, attacks on freedom of expression in Yemen are being committed by all sides, and include ongoing imprisonment of journalists, some of whom face the death penalty for their work.
Egypt: “Has been suffering for many years from systemic human rights violations and a serious lack of fair trial standards”, said 63 organizations from around the world. Marking International Fair Trial Day, of which Egypt is this year’s focus country, the organizations called on authorities to implement steps to ensure the right to a fair trial, and for the international community to address the country’s eroded judicial independence that has seen thousands of activists, human rights lawyers, journalists, and critics jailed for engaging in any form of free expression. This includes prominent imprisoned activists like Alaa Abd El-Fattah and his lawyer, human rights defender Mohamed El-Baqer. Abd El-Fattah remains on a hunger strike protesting his detention, and El-Baqer surpassed 1,000 days in arbitrary detention on 25 June. Rights groups are calling for their release, and that of all jailed prisoners of conscience.
Check out States of Journalism, a new series by The New Arab exploring freedom, repression, and accountability in MENA and beyond, in global media landscapes.
Finally, CPJ joined partner organizations last month in unveiling a sign designating the street outside the Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C. as Jamal Khashoggi Way, in an effort to “raise awareness of [Khashoggi’s] murder, create a permanent educational marker for passersby, and serve as a daily reminder to the Saudi Embassy that U.S. residents reject their repressive tactics and strongly support freedom of the press.”
Originally published at https://ifex.org on June 30, 2022.