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Free expression in MENA: death by a thousand cuts

Human rights defenders in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are suffering a wave of arrests and convictions in an escalating attack on the right to free expression. These courageous advocates are at risk due to overly broad and vague laws that are tailored in the government’s favor and facilitate the silencing of dissent and imprisonment of activists.

Notably, across the region, authorities are leveraging accusations of spreading misinformation (“fake news”), and are imposing harsh prison sentences — in some cases, 10 years — based on what an advocate has posted online.

Egypt: arrests, prison, and broad online censorship

In Egypt, the arrest and imprisonment of bloggers, activists, or even ordinary citizens for criticizing the government is becoming more and more common. Those recently arrested include bloggers Shady Abuzaid, Sherif Gaber, and Wael Abbas. Abbas is known for documenting alleged police abuses on his blog, “Misr Digital.He is accused of publishing “fake news” and being involved with an illegal organization.

After a detention period of almost two and a half years, Ismail Al-Iskandarani, a journalist and Egyptian scholar, has been sentenced to 10 years in prison by a military court. He was convicted under charges of disseminating “fake news” relating to alleged human rights violations by security forces, and publishing military secrets. Before he was arrested, Ismail was one of the few journalists actively monitoring human rights in the Sinai.

The crackdown on free expression includes (more) blocking of websites in Egypt, the continuation of a deeply troubling pattern of broad state censorship of internet communications. On May 28, the Supreme Administrative Court in Egypt ordered authorities to block YouTube for a month because the site hosts a video published in 2012 that denigrates the Prophet Mohammed. According to Social Media Exchange (SMEX), YouTube remains functional so far, and should be accessible until the Supreme Administrative Court ruling is delivered to the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (NTRA), which would begin blocking for 30 days.

In Algeria, a blogger is accused of espionage and jailed

In a case similar to Ismail Al-Iskandarani’s, a blogger in Algeria, Touati Merzoug, was sentenced to 10 years in prison on May 25, accused of “espionage with foreign agents to subvert the diplomatic position of Algeria” and “incitement against the state.” Merzoug, only 30 years old, had been detained since 2017 after he published a video on YouTube and a post on Facebook that called for protests against a new financial law.

In the United Arab Emirates, Ahmed Mansoor gets 10 years in prison

On May 29, there was yet another shocking conviction: renowned human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor was sentenced to 10 years in prison and fined one million dirhams (approximately $272,000 USD) for publishing posts on social media that authorities said contained false information that could harm national unity and social stability.

Ahmed Mansoor’s human rights work garnered him the prestigious Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders in 2015. But this work and recognition also came with reprisals, including imprisonment in 2011, several hacking attempts with dangerous malware that has been used by the UAE government, confiscation of his passport, loss of money and his car, and physical beatings. Human rights groups, including Access Now, have condemned the conditions of his most recent arrest and called for his immediate release.

In Saudi Arabia, women’s rights advocates are arrested, jailed 

Saudi Arabia also witnessed multiple arrests recently, most of which were targeted against women’s rights activists. This wave of arrests is taking place a few weeks before a ban on women driving is scheduled to be lifted on June 24.

Authorities issued official statements in state media announcing that at least six activists have been accused of forming a group that purportedly represents a threat to state security for “communicating with external parties to undermine the security and stability of Saudi Arabia and its social fabric.” A hashtag was also created to further undermine the activists, tarnish their reputation, and compromise their safety, branding them as a threat to security as عملاء_للسفارات# (#Agents_to_the_embassies).

Among the arrested activists are Aisha al-Mana, Madeha al-Ajroush, Eman al-Nafjan, Aziza al-Yousef, and Loujain al-Hathloul. Loujain al-Hathloul is a well-known figure in the fight for women’s rights and opposition to the driving ban. Saudi Arabian authorities have arrested and detained her several times before. In 2014, she was held for 73 days for attempting to cross borders driving her car from UAE to Saudi Arabia.

In Bahrain, five years in prison for Twitter posts and “fake news”

This month, charges against human rights defender Nabeel Rajab have been upheld on appeal. In a  Bahraini criminal court, he was sentenced to five years in prison on the basis of posts on his Twitter account in 2015, as well as for retweeting information about alleged torture in Bahrain’s Jaw prison, and for criticizing the war in Yemen. He was charged with disseminating “fake news” in a time of war and insulting public authorities. According to a judge in the Bahraini criminal court, Rajab’s trial will not stop here. There are at least 14 more cases against him.

Also in Bahrain, photographer for National Geographic Sayed Baqer Al-Kamel and online blogger Sayed Ali Al-Durazi were each sentenced to two years in prison. This development makes it clear that there is a renewed crackdown on dissent in the Gulf country.

Free expression is a human right, and must be protected online and off

We are deeply troubled by the mounting attacks on activists and human rights defenders in the MENA region. Access Now will continue to use our platform and work within international human rights bodies to call out the ongoing and relentless violations to the right of freedom of expression and the misuse of the judicial system to criminalize online expression, silence human rights defenders, and muzzle government critics. We will also work to change policies that put human rights defenders at risk, including work to expose the use and prevent the export of surveillance technology to countries that employ these tools to attack government critics.

We hope you join us to stand with those who are bravely speaking out.