Vengeful crackdowns and MENA’s battle for access to information
September in the 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.
Egypt: Crackdown with a vengeance
Having spent the past year actively eliminating dissent in the country, Egyptian authorities marked the one-year anniversary of anti-government protests sparked by allegations of military corruption last September by further intensifying their chokehold on free expression.
In recent weeks, state security forces were deployed in public spaces ahead of the anniversary, arbitrarily searching citizens’ phones and detaining hundreds amid sporadic protests that were quickly dispersed. After initially denying the presence of protests, 68 minors arrested in the security campaign were released by the Public Prosecution in a rare public acknowledgement.
The September 2019 protests in Cairo and several cities resulted in the unprecedented arrest of thousands, as well as a year-long escalating campaign of repression against human rights defenders, journalists, and activists.
Many of those imprisoned remain behind bars awaiting trials based on fabricated charges. These include notable human rights defenders like Mohamed El-Baqer, Mahienour El-Masry and Amr Imam, as well as activists like Alaa Abdel Fattah. In a further demonstration of how far President El-Sisi’s vengeful crackdown has extended, family members of dissidents have also been targeted, including Alaa’s sister Sanaa Seif, who was recently detained for seeking information on her brother’s condition.
In his testimony before the US House of Representatives last month, prominent human rights defender and director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights (CIHRS), Bahey eldin Hassan, aptly described the grim state of freedoms in Egypt, saying: “kidnapping, enforced disappearance, physical assaults, torture, imprisonment and fabricated charges have become the only channels of dialogue President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi allows with human rights defenders.” The prominent human rights defender’s testimony comes with first hand experience having recently received a 15-year sentence over a critical tweet.
Meanwhile, control over online free expression and access to information has expanded throughout the global pandemic. According to the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), security apparatuses have detained dozens of citizens, activists, and even doctors for their online comments criticizing the regime’s handling of the pandemic, under a growing lawsuit known as the Corona Case.
News sites have also been routinely blocked throughout the pandemic, and are among a growing list of websites that remain blocked in the country since authorities launched a massive campaign in May 2017. Last month, rights groups like the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) and the Community for Technology and Law “Masaar” launched a campaign to demand the public’s right to access information and pressure authorities to “stop the block”.
Iran: Hunger strikes, arrests, and the battle for access to information
Imprisoned human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh was hospitalized after ending her month-long hunger strike at the notorious Evin Prison. Sotoudeh and several other imprisoned activists have been protesting the continued detention of human rights defenders in Iran’s overcrowded prisons amidst the pandemic. Arrested in June 2018, Sotoudeh is serving a combined sentence of 38 years on various vaguely-defined national security charges.
The sudden execution of champion wrestler Navid Afkari also sparked international outcry from rights groups last month. Afkari, along with his brothers, was arrested in September 2018 and convicted of killing a security guard during protests the previous month based on a coerced confession.
On 9 September, journalist Khosrow Sadeghi Borojeni began a seven-year jail term at Evin Prison reportedly over his coverage of the government’s mismanagement of the pandemic. Charged with “colluding against national security and insulting the Islamic republic’s founder”, Borojeni is one of many journalists arrested amidst an ongoing crackdown on access to information where reporters have faced “fake news” charges for their reporting on the regime’s handling of the pandemic, as well as the country’s dire economic situation.
Marking the International Day for Universal Access to Information on 28 September, IFEX member ARTICLE 19 renewed its call for Iranian authorities to revise the 2009 Publication and Free Access to Information Act to ensure the right to information. According to the rights group, the information law continues to be mired with vague exemptions that have rendered it ineffective as a tool for government transparency and accountability — a demand that has been central to anti-government protests.
Iranian authorities have also been trying to further restrict access to information through a new draconian bill that would give the military control over social media platforms in the country. According to Iris de Villars, head of Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Tech Desk, the total control over social media the bill proposes “amounts to blocking access to information and denying the Iranian people the fundamental right to be informed, by offering them just a limited vision of reality via the previously established Halal Internet.”
Saudi Arabia: Injustice, impunity, and silencing dissent
Ahead of the two-year anniversary since the gruesome murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia sentenced eight people charged with the killing to prison terms between seven and 20 years, in what it said was a “final” ruling in the case. UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings, Agnes Callamard, who conducted an extensive investigation into the killing, called the verdict a “parody of justice” and the product of a trial lacking in transparency.
While justice and accountability for Khashoggi’s murder may have been evaded thus far, his vision for a democratic region lives on. In June 2018, Khashoggi founded Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), which officially launched last month under the stewardship of former HRW MENA director, Sarah Leah Whiston. The US-based organization aims to promote open government in the region by documenting and addressing human rights violations perpetrated by Washington-supported governments, specifically Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt.
Such violations in Saudi Arabia were on full display last month when a special criminal court handed down prison sentences for six men who were arbitrarily detained in Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s 2017 campaign of silencing critics. The group, consisting mostly of writers, journalists and academics arrested for expressing their views online, received harsh sentences ranging between three to seven years, which activists say is designed to send a chilling reminder to critics.
Meanwhile, posing an unprecedented challenge to the country’s ruling class, Saudi dissidents living in exile recently formed an opposition party. Considered the first organized political resistance under King Salman’s rule, the National Assembly Party has called on democratic governance in the absolute monarchy. “The government constantly practices violence and repression, with mounting numbers of political arrests and assassinations, increasingly aggressive policies against regional states, enforced disappearances and people being driven to flee the country,” the group said in a statement.
Amid the upcoming G20 summit in Riyadh, pressure has also been mounting on the country to comply with human rights and release imprisoned political dissidents and women’s rights activists. These include imprisoned human right defenders Loujain Al-Hathloul, Waleed Abu Al-Khair And Naseema Al-Sadah, who were recently nominated for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.
According to a new study from the Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media (7amleh), 72% of Palestinians say they have been exposed to fake news. The report also noted a perceptible rise in fake news during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Meanwhile, a virtual event at San Francisco State University featuring Palestinian Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine’s (PFLP) veteran Leila Khaled was canceled by Zoom after the company succumbed to pressure from opponents. The event also saw its page removed from Facebook and its YouTube live stream cut after an attempt to host the session on the video platform. IFEX member Social Media Exchange (SMEX) said the move reflected a lack of transparent content moderation standards by online platforms, often at the expense of Palestinian content as recent research from 7amleh also suggests.
Recent indications suggest that after more than a year of popular protests that led to a change in government, freedom of expression has not fared any better under the country’s new leadership. Journalists, bloggers, activists, and civil society continue to be the targets of an ongoing crackdown on free expression.
Algerian journalist and rights activist Abdelkrim Zeghileche recently received a two-year prison sentence for “insulting the president of the Republic”, in a move condemned by Tunisian rights organizations including IFEX member Vigilance for Democracy and the Civic State. Meanwhile, journalist Khaled Drareni’s sentence was reduced to two years after an appeal hearing in September. “Khaled’s detention proves the regime locks itself into a logic of absurd, unfair and violent repression,” said RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire on the verdict.
Ahead of a constitutional referendum on 1 November, 31 human rights groups, including 26 IFEX members, called on Algerian authorities to end the relentless prosecution and harassment of civil society and journalists. In a joint letter, the organizations condemned the arbitrary arrests and detentions of civil society members and called for their immediate release amidst a pandemic that has already claimed lives in Algeria’s prisons.
Recent weeks have seen a rise in demonstrations as Iraqis return to the streets to demand free and fair elections, as well as accountability for the perpetrators of protester deaths, a task Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi’s shaky government has failed to undertake. In its eighth periodic report on the country, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) documented the continuing violations of human rights in Iraq, including targeted killings and attacks on ongoing peaceful demonstrations.
Journalist Omar Radi, who has been in custody since 29 July, appeared before a court last month on charges of espionage and rape. Radi faces ten years in prison if convicted on what rights group say are the kind of trumped-up sex charges often used to target critics. This includes journalists from independent newspaper Akhbar Al Yaoum, Taoufik Bouachrine, Souleiman Raissouni, and his niece Hajar Raissouni, all of whom have faced some form of sex charge in an effort to discredit them.
Marking a milestone in Tunisia’s ongoing hit-or-miss reform process, the Press Council of Tunisia was established last month. The council, the first independent body of its kind in the region, will look to play a vital role in safeguarding press freedom, the right to information, and free expression in the country, a task made increasingly difficult amidst a rising trend of fake news, according to ARTICLE 19.
Digital Detox Kit… in Arabic
Finally, some good news for those in the region looking for steps to control their digital privacy, security and wellbeing. Tactical Tech Collective’s Digital Detox kit is now available in Arabic.
Originally published at https://ifex.org on October 2, 2020.