Freedom of Opinion and Expression in the Arab world 2016 Report
By the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI),
Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR)
And Maharat Foundation
The United Nations has long promoted the idea that expression is a fundamental right to democratic participation, accountability, sustainable development, human development and the practicing of all other rights. In fact, expression – and not punishment, fear or silence – should raise controversy, reactions and debate, and stimulate the development of opinion and critical thinking. Expression should not also be restricted by law unless the government proves how legal, necessary and convenient the measure is in protecting a specific goal.
By looking at the incidents taking place in the region alongside the documented facts, we can figure out that counter-terrorism policies and laws are unnecessarily putting media outlets, critical voices and activities at risk of being undermined. It has become clear how governments muddle up calls to public debate and threats to public order, which leads to the suppression of legitimate dissent and the diminishing of accountability. This explains how official or religious doctrines often criminalize any discussion critical of religious ideas or of officials. It also demonstrates the enormous and growing risks threating the existence of an open and safe Internet network.
Ms. Pansy Tlakula, Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information at the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, says that there should be a strong commitment to “make freedom of expression and access to information a matter of reality, not just words on paper.”
Journalists are not only the main party using the right to freedom of expression, but also they represent a symbol of how society can tolerate or support freedom of opinion. But, do journalists work in a legal environment that would allow them to investigate information, write reports independently, or cover critical topics? And are journalists targeted for carrying out their work? What are the available mechanisms to protect them? And how effective are investigations with regard to the attacks and violations they are subject to?
This report highlights the real situation of freedom of opinion and expression in 14 Arab countries, and documents the violations against journalists and activists as a result of carrying out their duties or voicing their opinions. It points out that crackdowns, detentions, torture, unfair trials, revocation of nationalities and travel bans have been on the rise; stifling the opposing voices of activists and journalists, which diminishes the margin of freedom available within the Arab countries and gives a greater space to increase political propaganda. Cold wars in the Arab region continue to endanger the lives of journalists and activists putting them at impending risk of abduction, torture and murder. The economic crisis has also influenced the growth and prosperity of journalism as well as the social and economic stability of its workers.
This report comes within the framework of the joint work between the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) and Maharat Foundation; to raise awareness about the challenges of human rights in the Arab region, not to mention the conditions of freedom of opinion and expression, which are most affected in times of political change and wars.
Tunisia is still standing in the same place in terms of respecting freedom of expression. The Tunisian parliament has ratified a revised version of the draft law that regulates information sharing, which puts a limit to the broad and vaguely-worded terms that were hindering access to information in the previous law.
Journalists in Tunisia are still subject to several pressures. Earlier in 2016, a number of Tunisian journalists were interrogated by the competent counter-terrorism security bodies after they had published media articles. Three other journalists were also brought to trial before the military courts.
The head of the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalsits’ house was stormed by some armed men in an incident appears to be driven by purposes other than robbery.
It seems that there is a clear confusion between fighting terrorism and freedom of assembly, as security forces used excessive violence in breaking up demonstrations for job seekers, a blatant violation of the right to collective expression of opinion.
Media freedom in Algeria witnessed a sharp deterioration, as officials’ statements showed hostility towards press freedom during 2016. Algerian Minister of Communications Hamid Qarin has explicitly called for refraining from dealing with newspapers which he deems to have “stirred up sedition in the country by offering a false image of Algeria.” As well, Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sallal stated that he assigned Qarin to “regulate and cleanse” the conditions in the Satellite media sector, and shut down the offices of more than 50 private TV stations to end what he called the “chaos” in this sector.
Media outlets are also subjected to great pressure as well as clear and systematic encroachments. Topics, such as corruption and the President’s health, are still banned from being discussed. Four bloggers and media workers were sentenced to prison on criminal charges in 2016.
The news of the death of the Algerian blogger and journalist Mohamed Tamalt on 11 December 2016 shocked the public opinion. Tamalt, 42 years old, was the director of a news website that was operating from its headquarters in the British capital London. He was convicted of “insulting President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and a statutory body “in a poem posted on Facebook. He died after falling ill from a hunger strike protesting his arrest in Algiers.
A media worker was also dismissed from the TV channel he was working for because he did not mention the term “His Excellency the President” while speaking about the president on TV.
The Algerian authorities forcibly dispersed a peaceful assembly organized by some Mauritanian students to raise legitimate demands.
The National Intelligence and Security Service (NSS), which has boosted its power, is used to crackdown on journalists, put them under surveillance, and control printed media through censorship and the confiscation of its issues.
Press freedom wasn’t spared during the bulk of these violations. The confiscation of five issues of “Al-Jarida” newspaper during 2016 is a good example. This is in addition to the seizure of the issues of the regime-backed newspapers “Al-Sundai” and “Al-Tagheer”. The Sudanese security apparatus carried out 16 confiscations of six newspapers during five days (from 28/11/2016 to 1/12/2016). These papers included: “Al-Watan”, “Al-Sayha”, “Al-Ayam”, “Al-Tayyar” and “Al-Youm Al-Taly”.
As for Internet freedom, the Sudanese government is one of the most severe Arab governments in Internet censorship. It has a long history in blocking electronic sites. The National Telecommunications Authority (NTC) allocates a special unit to block websites under the pretext of what they used to call “risk aversion.”
In 2016, the Sudanese authorities did not respect international human rights conventions that provide for freedom of assembly, freedom of association and the peaceful exercise of freedom of expression without arbitrary restrictions. They continued to use their methodology in breaking up peaceful demonstrations, most notably during the Kordofan University Protest when more than 10 students were left injured. Student Abu Bakr Al-Siddiq Hashim Ali was killed as a result of excessive force used by security forces, besides the detention of about 70 male and female students and the forcible disappearance of 33 others.
Human rights defenders weren’t spared the escalation of violations witnessed in 2016, including the crackdown on civil society organizations and their staff. These violations ranged from shutting down organizations, confiscating their property, suspending their activities and banning their re-registration, in addition to revoking membership of their staff and implementing travel bans.
Egypt’s severely deteriorating situation of freedom of thought and expression continued in 2016. Freedom of the press was influenced by the declining conditions of freedom of expression. In several cases, combatting terrorism and maintaining national security were used as a pretext to suppress activists and civil society workers. Dozens of journalists and media workers are languishing in prison because of their work.
Under the Anti-Terrorism Act adopted in August 2015, journalists are obliged to only report the official narratives of “terrorist” attacks; for reasons related to national security. It is expected that the Institutional Regulation of the Press and the Media in Egypt, issued in December 2016, will allow the government to further control media outlets.
The authorities also imposed restrictions on peaceful demonstrations, labor strikes, and civil society organizations, including those that work on developing education and health.
The Egyptian government continue to crack down on human rights defenders. Case No. 173 of 2011, which was opened in the wake of the January 2011 Revolution and whose investigations haven’t yet come to an end, is being used as a sword to threaten civil society workers in general. Under this case, a large number of prominent activists have been banned from traveling, and the assets and properties of many human rights organizations and figures have been confiscated.
The year 2016 saw the storming of the Journalists Syndicate’s headquarters at the hands of security forces, and the arrest of two journalists who had staged a sit-in inside the syndicate’s building to denounce their prosecution in connection with the protests against the Egyptian-Saudi maritime demarcation agreement. The security forces also detained three journalists who were filming video reports in the vicinity of the Journalists Syndicate, under no clear grounds, pressing charges against them pertaining to attempting to overthrow the regime, changing the principles of the constitution, damaging public security, disrupting social unity, and spreading false news and data that would disturb public security and peace.
Three members of the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate (Chairman, Undersecretary, and Head of the Freedoms Committee) were all sentenced to two years in prison, on charges of harboring fugitives and propagating false news relating to their arrest.
In 2016, Mauritania saw numerous violations against human rights defenders, in particular against the anti-slavery movement IRA-Mauritania (Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement.)
Security forces violently broke up peaceful protests and unduly detained a lot of activists. Mauritania had witnessed the swiftest trial of electronic journalists for allegedly defaming the President of the Republic’s son.
Also, articles of the Cybercrime law, issued in December 2015, entail the publishing and sharing of content that serves the public interest, and provide for lengthy prison sentences in defamation cases. The law also voids old legislations that aims at protecting journalists through the use of digital technology. Fear of reprisals makes most journalists watch themselves while covering topics such as corruption, the army, Islam or slavery – which still exists in Mauritania.
In 2016, the country witnessed many violations against journalists, who had been prevented from carrying out their work or conducting investigative press reports on people’s conditions and problems, under the pretext that they don’t have the necessary licenses from the Ministry of Communications. For instance, a journalist had been interrogated while he was covering a protest supporting the IRA-Mauritania Movement, after the security bodies deleted the photos he took during the demonstration.
One of the most salient violations committed against writers and authors was Mauritania’s Court of Appeal upholding, in April 2016, the death sentence handed down against journalist Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir on charges of “apostasy and insulting the Prophet Muhammed.”
Lebanon’s printed newspapers crisis was on full display in 2016; as it led to the shutting down of “Assafir” newspaper, both the electronic and printed versions, in addition to the dismissal of about 130 of its journalists and employees. Dozens of journalists in other newspapers were also subjected to expulsion and the non-payment of their wages. Most notable examples were that of “Al-Nahar” and “Al-Mustaqbal” newspapers, whose deadlock wasn’t alleviated except until an intervention by the Ministry of Information which proposed some suggestions and ideas to ease the problem and its impact on the future of press institutions.
As well, the authorities seek to muzzle the mouths of social media activists through detentions and arrests carried out by the Judicial Police’s Information Branch alongside the Office of Combating Cybercrime, in contravention of the law. Religious censorship, as well, continues to intervene in order to ban cinema and art works that are deemed to have contradicted its religious beliefs and concepts.
The Lebanese authorities are still not showing any seriousness or consideration towards passing the new Media Law, which was submitted to the House of Representatives in 2010. The parliamentary committee finished reviewing the law’s first draft in late 2016. It insisted on maintaining the penalty of imprisonment for journalists over libel crimes, besides crimes pertaining to insulting or defaming the head of the state or the head of a foreign state, disturbing public peace, stirring up sectarian strife, and insulting any of the religions recognized in Lebanon, using broad and vaguely-worded provisions and ambiguous terms that would threaten the freedom of the press and expression of opinion.
The committee also refused to free printed newspapers from the pre-licensing requirements that are imposed on all non-political periodicals, including those released by universities, scientific research institutions or associations. The bill also consolidated the Public Security’s pre-censorship of political or media/press releases, statements and reports. The Minister of Communications is also given absolute power to decide whether to allow or ban the entry of any foreign publication into the country, and to automatically confiscate copies of the publication before any judicial order is issued.
Political tensions in the region have been reflected in some reactions which affected many media institution in Beirut, most notably the attack on the offices of the Saudi newspaper “Al-Sharq Al-Awsat” by some angry youths, after the newspaper published a cartoon they deemed “offensive” to Lebanon. Moreover, the Egyptian Nile Sat satellite administration decided to suspend airing the Lebanese channel “Al-Manar” for violating the signed agreement and broadcasting programs provoking sectarian strife.
Throughout 2016, practices restricting and banning activists from freely expressing their own opinions on social media (most notably Facebook) have been on the rise. The Lebanese security forces detained more than six activists – among them was a lawyer – on several charges, including inciting sectarian strife, insulting the head of the state, defaming public administrations and sectors alongside government and officials.
Journalists were also summoned for investigation into the publishing of some confidential documents and secret information related to corruption cases of public concern.
As for freedom of art and cinematic works during 2016, they were also subject to encroachments by Lebanon’s General Security Service (GSS) in charge of censoring and banning these kinds of works. This apparatus works in accordance with the decisions issued by the Film Control Committee, under grounds pertaining to insulting religions, God and clerics, or defaming Lebanese parties, figures and sister nations, besides promoting homosexuality, which is prohibited by law.
Freedom of opinion and expression in Jordan is still a matter of concern; for Jordanian journalists are subject to close surveillance by the intelligence services in addition to the fact that they have to be affiliated with the state-controlled Press Syndicate. Authorities have boosted their power, especially through the Internet, since 2012, when the Press and Publication Law was amended. And since 2013, hundreds of websites have been banned because they do not have licenses to be operating as electronic news sites. Journalists are always prosecuted under security grounds and sometimes imprisoned under the Terrorism Law and its broadly-worded articles. Publication bans/gag orders, handed down by the Jordanian Media Commission, often restrict public debate and limit journalists’ access to information when it comes to critical issues.
Freedom of publishing in Jordan is governed by the amended Press and Publication Law No. 32 of 2012, which obliges any electronic publication (and Internet news site) to obtain a license from the Publications Department in order to be able to publish news, reports, articles or even comments tackling the internal or external situation of the Kingdom. The license has to be also issued in the name of a journalist who is a member of the Jordanian Press Syndicate. The law also allows the authorities to block any website that violates any of its provisions upon a court order.
The Jordanian authorities have introduced an anti-terrorism law, which involves legal provisions criminalizing expression of opinion crimes, including disturbing relations with brotherly or foreign countries. The authorities have also used the Electronic Crimes Act No. 27 of 2015 to arrest many citizens for a Facebook post or Twitter comments, which is considered a threat to Internet activists. The above-mentioned law also imposes strict regulations and harsh penalties for those who violate it through some writings by which they can voice their views on social networking or Internet websites.
Throughout 2016, a lot of political activists have been arrested because of social media comments, in accordance with the Cyber-crimes, Counter-terrorism, Press and Publications laws and the Penal Code, over insulting, hostility against Jordan, and religious contempt charges.
The Jordanian authorities were unable to protect the life of writer Nahed Hattar, who was killed on 25 September 2016, while entering the Amman court to attend his trial hearing. Hattar was brought to trial for publishing a cartoon on his Facebook page criticizing ISIS (Daesh), which led the Jordanian government to accuse him of insulting religion under Article 278 of the Penal Code.
Furthermore, during 2016, the Jordanian authorities increasingly imposed restrictions on the freedom to share information, through gag orders to ban public reporting about issues the authorities deem critical or sensitive that shouldn’t be publicly debated.
The human rights situation in Syria continues to deteriorate as the conflict continues. Freedom of expression is severely curbed. Journalists and Internet activists are targeted because of their work.
During 2016, there have been 183 cases of violations against journalists, citizen journalists and media centers in Syria. The Syrian Center for Journalistic Freedoms at the anti-government Syrian Journalists Association has documented the killing of 52 media activists.
Syria has become the deadliest country in the world for journalists, with the murder of 19 journalists in 2016 compared to 2015 when the number was only nine, according to Reporters Without Borders.
Based on a report released by the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 14 journalists in Syria were killed while doing their jobs in 2016, making the total number of war reporters who have been killed there since the outbreak of the conflict at least 107.
Human rights defenders are being targeted by all parties to the conflict. Prominent human rights defenders who had been forcibly disappeared remain missing despite international calls for their release.
The whereabouts of human rights defender Razan Zaitouneh, along with other members of the Violations Documentation Center (VDC) in Syria – Samira Khalil, Wa’el Hamada and Nazem Hamadi, who are known as the “Douma Four” – are still unknown.
During 2016, joint human rights statements by non-government organizations were released to call for the release of rights activists and human rights defenders who were detained by known bodies, and seeking the disclosure of the location of others subject to forced disappearance, or to denounce the attacks against human rights centers and activists.
The human rights situation in Iraq was very critical in 2016, as the country remained in a state of conflict and human rights violations were being committed by all conflict parties. Human rights defenders, including journalists and those who are practicing the right to freedom of expression, were subjected to harassment, threats and murder in 2016.
In August 2016, journalist Wedat Hussein was found dead with signs of torture on his body, after being kidnapped in the city of Dohuk in Kurdistan, where journalists are brutally attacked with impunity. Other journalists are subjected to self-censorship when covering issued related to religion or corruption in the region of Kurdistan. Another four journalists were also killed in Kurdistan, and none of the perpetrators of these crimes has been brought to justice.
At least six journalists were confirmed to be killed in 2016, as reported by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Some of them were murdered for covering ISIS-related conflicts, while others were targeted by unidentified assailants.
Activists and journalists see that security bodies are incapable of protecting citizens in general. During 2016, 60 cases were documented of violations and abductions of activists and journalists, the latest of whom was journalist Afrah Shawki, who was kidnapped from her home in central Baghdad, according to France 24.
It was alleged that the kidnapping of journalist Afrah Shawki, on 26 December 2016 from her home in Baghdad by a group of armed men, was linked to the publishing of a recent article in which she had called on the state to control whoever uses weapons in an illegal way in addition to the illegal armed groups. She was released unharmed a week later.
The revocation of citizenship seems to have become the preferred option for the Bahraini government to get rid of unwanted citizens and silence those who are opposing its political or doctrinal views. The Bahraini government has strategically expanded in stripping of citizens of their nationality, forcing them to leave the country. Amendments to the Citizenship Act of 2014 have enabled the government to strip citizenship from any Bahraini, under the pretext of damaging the Kingdom’s interest or acting “contrary to their allegiance to the Kingdom;” or if they hold – without prior authorization – the nationality of another state which is not a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). This led the Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Rupert Colville, in Geneva, on 18 March 2016, to express his concern about the wave of citizenship revocations carried out by the Bahraini government.
The Bahraini authorities also intensified their restrictions on electronic media outlets, when the Minister of Information issued, on 16 July 2016, a decision banning licensed newspapers from using online media outlets unless they obtain a one-year renewable license from the media sector administration, without setting any specific criteria for granting the license approval or stating how one can appeal against the decision in case of refusal.
Electronic media is subject to the same standards of supervision and surveillance on media content provided for in the Press Law; which states that electronic media content shall be part of the printed one and shall reflect it, and that a copy of the printed one shall be preserved for one year since the date of its broadcasting or publishing.
Electronic newspapers were also banned from posting an audio or a video – or both – of a maximum of 120 seconds for the same subject, and in all cases, the content cannot be broadcasted on air (live).
The Bahraini authorities continued to use the Penal Code, the Anti-Terrorism Law, and the Telecommunications Law No. 48 of 2002 to curb freedom of opinion and expression and to prosecute activists and human rights defenders.
Independent journalists or foreign media workers have also been harassed for covering issues related to protests inside Bahrain. They were charged with taking part in an “unlawful gathering with the aim of committing crimes and disrupting security,” as well as working with foreign media outlets without having a permit, or participating in an unlicensed march. The authorities also refused to renew licenses for many other journalists working for foreign news agencies in Bahrain.
Violations against social media activists and human rights defenders continue. Prominent human rights defender Nabeel Rajab is still held in pretrial detention, for allegedly “publishing false new, data and rumors, insulting a sister nation, and defaming the Ministry of the Interior, against the backdrop of tweets criticizing Bahrain’s participation in the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, known as “Operation Decisive Storm”.”
On 9 June 2016, former MP Khaled Abdel-Aal was sentenced to one year of imprisonment, suspended on bail, on a charge of “insulting the Ministry of the Interior”, after he posted tweets saying that the Interior Ministry is a “home of torture” forcing detainees to confess to trumped-up charges. Abdel-Aal was sentenced in May 2016 to one year in jail for having also published a series of tweets on his Twitter account.
Furthermore, Bahraini security bodies arrested Bahraini blogger and journalist Faisal Hayat, who was put in custody after being summoned by the Criminal Investigation Directorate on 9 October 2016, on the basis of a tweet deemed offensive to religion. After interrogation, Hayat was ordered to be imprisoned for a week pending investigation.
Human rights abuses are still ongoing, as 2016 saw a serious escalation in the violations committed. The Bahraini authorities used violence and harsh sentences to confront protesters. There have been several cases of detention, trials, and revocation of citizenship against a number of opposition leaders in general and the Shiite community in particular.
In a harsh blow to freedom of assembly and association, the Bahraini authorities decided, on 14 June 2016, in a matter of urgency, to close the headquarters of Al-Wefaq Society, seize all its fixed and movable assets and suspend its activities, on charges of “creating an environment for terrorism and violence and calling for foreign interference in the country’s internal affairs.”
The Bahraini authorities also banned human rights activists from traveling to take part in conferences abroad. Following her release on 31 May 2016, human rights defender Zainab Al-Khawaja was forced to leave the country along with her two children. The authorities threatened Al-Khawaja that they would bring new cases against her, sentence her to life imprisonment, or take her children away, in case she didn’t leave the country immediately with her two children. Al-Khawaja, along with her 16-month old son, were detained on 14 March 2016, after they accused her of “ripping a picture of the King,” which was deemed a crime by the authorities, and “insulting a public official.”
The government of Bahrain placed further restrictions on the right to freedom of expression on the Internet in 2016. Hundreds of websites critical to the government’s policies have been blocked. The government resorted to cutting off the Internet as a means to control protests in the country, including the sit-in staged in front of the house of Sheikh Issa Qassim, a spiritual leader of the Shiite community, after the government stripped him of his citizenship on 20 June 2016.
The situation of human rights in Saudi Arabia has remained critical throughout the past years until the present. Human rights defenders have been increasingly detained, harassed, and brought to prolonged trials as a result of their peaceful activities and their participation in non-government organizations. Many of them are still being held in detention where they are subjected to constant abuse and ill-treatment.
Women and girls’ rights are still vulnerable to encroachment. Internet activists are being targeted for practicing their right to freedom of opinion and expression. Human rights defenders are being brought before a criminal court specialized in dealing with terrorism-related cases.
There are no independent media outlets in Saudi Arabia. The authorities do not tolerate the establishment of political parties, trade unions or human rights organizations. Human rights activists and defenders are being subject to a high level of self-censorship. The Internet is the only window for the circulation and sharing of information, ideas and views, although it puts its users at a considerable risk, as their comments, posts and all its electronic activities are subjected to close scrutiny and surveillance. And in some cases it could lead to detention or trial under the Terrorism Act 2014, along with the Cyber-crime law, which provides for five years of imprisonment in cases of “producing, preparing, sending or saving on the Internet any information that would prejudice public order, religious values, public morals, or personal inviolability.”
Journalists are imprisoned in Saudi Arabia for publishing their views on social media and not in the field of journalism, which is subject to strict censorship. The year 2016 saw several prison sentences against journalists and activists, including Alaa Bartagi, who was sentenced to five years in prison, fined, banned from traveling for eight years, and had his Twitter account shut down, after he was charged with posting comments that are “offensive to the ruling family” in reference to his criticism of the Counter-terrorism law.
Writer Nazeer Al-Majed received a seven-year prison sentence, followed by a seven-year travel ban, on charges of “disobeying the ruler, participating in protests, writing articles and corresponding foreign news agencies.”
Also, human rights defender Issa Al-Hamed was sentenced to nine years in prison for his human rights activities.
The Saudi Kingdom blocked, as well, many applications, electronic communication services, as well as media and human rights websites. The religious police, or the so-called “Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice”, have committed numerous violations against freedom of opinion and expression and banned many artistic and cultural events from being held in the Kingdom.
The issue of freedom of opinion and expression in Oman remains a matter of major concern. Oman is a small country with high levels of censorship which imposes strict laws and regulations on human rights activities. The government apparatuses in Oman are working to control the work of the press and media institutions trying to limit them to the promotion of the government’s achievements. They also deliberately criminalize any criticism that highlights the defects or flaws attributed to the executive authority or its practices, or exposes any facts about corruption cases within the administrative system.
Throughout 2016, Oman saw a number of detentions and summons against several journalists, human rights defenders and social media activists, some of whom were detained or their cases are still pending before the court; others were only interrogated.
The Internal Security Service (ISS) played a major role in freedom of opinion cases, and opened doors for questioning, threatening, prosecuting and arresting opinion-makers.
On 9 October 2011, a royal decree was issued amending Article 26 of the Printing and Publishing Law passed in 1984. The amendments state as follows: “It is prohibited to publish anything that might compromise the State’s safety or its internal or external security, as well as anything related to military or security corps, their systems or internal regulations or any documents, information or news or any official confidential communications, irrespective of whether dissemination occurs through visual, audio or written media or through the Internet or by means of information technology, unless otherwise authorized by the competent authority.”
All of these amendments involve broad and vaguely-worded terms and phrases that violate freedom of expression and publishing, which prompted journalists, social media activists, and human rights defenders to call for a new media law, but to no avail.
Journalists in 2016, including editor-in-chief of “Azamn” newspaper Ibrahim Al-Maamari and editor Yousef Al-Haj, were sentenced to prison and banned from practicing their job, after the newspaper raised corruption suspicions about public officials, in addition to allegations regarding the president of the Supreme Court’s interference in court orders under the pretext of “carrying out directives from supreme bodies.”
The Omani authorities also arrested and prosecuted a number of social media activists, writers, artists and human rights defenders, as a result of their solidarity with “Azamn” newspaper, which was shut down by the Ministry of Information.
The vaguely written provisions of the Cybercrime Act, which was put into effect in January 2016, pose a threat to bloggers and online journalists who publish any critical content. A new electronic media law, adopted in the same month, forces them to apply for a license from the government. The United Nations Human Rights Council already expressed its concern in 2015 about “the excessive restrictions on freedom of expression included in the Press and Publication law and the related legislations.”
The year 2016 saw the adoption and implementation of a number of laws and resolutions, which involve excessive restrictions on freedom of expression alongside press freedom, and clearly aim at silencing people and curbing freedoms, by targeting Internet activists, journalists and human rights defenders. The most notable of these legislations is the Information Technology Crimes Act, which was signed into law in January 2016 and contains vague and broad provisions, in addition to the Law on Organizing Electronic Media No. 8/2016, which obliges the licensing of all news websites.
The Information Technology Law criminalizes a number of online forms of expression, through a number of broad terms that failed to put a specific definition for “breach of public morality,” “insulting the judiciary or public prosecution,” or “contempt of the state constitution.” The executive authorities use these terms to target online activists who express their controversial opinions about religious, political or social issues.
The law also imposes punishment for a number of acts stipulated in Article 28 of the Press and Publication Law (No. 3/2006), including “incitement to overthrow the regime,” without defining its specific meaning, which places the legitimate activities of human rights defenders at risk of a broad interpretation of the law.
The year 2016 witnessed the arrest, interrogation and imprisonment of many social media activists in Kuwait, in an attempt to silence opposition and critical voices and to limit their influence on public opinion, by accusing them of several charges, such as “insulting the Emir, spreading false news, offending KSA and contempt of religions.”
Blogger Sarah Al-Drees faces up to five years in jail over a tweet which led her to be charged with “insulting the Emir and God.” On 31March 2016, the Ministry of the Interior announced the arrest of Kuwaiti Salem Abdullah Ashtil Al-Dosari, known as “Abu Rafta”, who resides in Britain; for publishing “offensive videos and sarcastic comments through social media that would insult Gulf leaders, and was then brought to trial on charges of “insulting the Emir.”
On 20 October, the Court of Appeal ordered the suspension of the sentence delivered against Walid Faris Nawaf Hayes who was accused of running the “Gibrit Seyassi” account. The court ordered his release on the case, after he was sentenced to ten years in prison with forced labor, under the pretext that he deliberately broadcasted abroad false and malicious news and rumors about the internal situation of the country, and challenged publicly the authority of the Emir, as well as insulting the judiciary, the Attorney General and the Public Prosecution, against the backdrop of publishing tweets on the social networking site Twitter that are critical of the political situation of Kuwait.
Falih Al-Azmi, a journalist at Kuwait’s “Al-Anbaa” newspaper, is still serving his one-year sentence delivered against him by the Kuwait Criminal Court on 01 March 2016, in connection with some comments on Twitter, in which he described King Abdullah and King Salman as “the tyrants.”
In a quick response to the Electronic Publication Law No. 8 of 2016, which came into effect on 24 July 2016, the Director of the Department of Electronic Publishing at the Ministry of Information announced on 07 August that his administration would be banning unregistered websites from attending or covering conferences. He asserted that the inspectors of the Ministry of Information will be visiting all events to monitor any violations to the new law, adding that the violators will be referred to the competent authorities.
Journalists and Internet activists are always put under surveillance by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) government. They often fell victim to the 2012 Cybercrime Act, and are always accused of defamation, insulting the state or spreading false information in order to harm the reputation of the country. They are also at risk of receiving lengthy prison sentences or suffering ill-treatment in prison.
Human rights in the UAE are still subject to restrictions. The UAE 94 Case is still underway, as dozens of human rights defenders are still being held in prison in very poor conditions. UAE authorities routinely punish human rights defenders and other activists by keeping them in secret detention facilities without contacting any of their lawyers or families.
After more than eight months of incommunicado detention during which he was subject to torture, human rights defender Dr. Nasser Bin Ghaith was brought before the court on trumped-up charges. In another case of violations, the award-winning UAE defender Ahmed Mansoor was arrested and taken to an unknown place for some Twitter comments, after he was arrested from his home in Ajman on 20 March 2017. Furthermore, human rights defender and activist Osama Al-Najjar was supposed to be released on 17 August 2017, after he had served his full three-year prison sentence, as a result of the peaceful exercise of his right to freedom of opinion and expression, and despite all that, he is still being held in illegal detention.
The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), the Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR) and Maharat Foundation recommend all governments and those in power in the Middle East alongside all other governments and powerful parties to do the following:
- Guarantee the right to freedom of opinion and expression by taking all possible measures, including protecting journalists, media professionals and Internet activists from any retaliation or judicial harassment;
- Ensure that legislation, including that of cybercrime and anti-terrorism are not used as a tool to target human rights defenders because of their peaceful work in the field of human rights, and this would involve the amendment of these legislations when necessary;
- Guarantee respect and protection for the right to peaceful assembly allowing people to peacefully protest without fear of physical violence, threats or any form of reprisal;
- Guarantee respect and protection for the right to freedom of peaceful association so that independent non-governmental human rights organizations can operate safely without judicial crackdown, detention or attack;
- Guarantee the promotion and protection of civil society strengthening its role in the community as a means to boost human rights;
- Amend any national laws to ensure that all residents have residency status and to prevent the use or threat of using citizenship laws as a tool to stifle civil society;
- Guarantee that all detainees are treated with dignity, their physical and psychological integrity is protected, and that the conditions in all detention facilities are in conformity with international standards;
- Guarantee that all detainees are protected from any form of ill-treatment and torture as prescribed in international law;
- Guarantee that in case torture or ill-treatment by State authorities is proven, a prompt and independent investigation will be carried out in order to bring those responsible to justice in accordance with international standards;
- Ensure that access to justice is guaranteed to all and that any legal action taken is committed to the right to due process and to the international standards of due process;
- Provide adequate mechanisms for preparing reports or investigating any form of crackdown, intimidation or targeting human rights defenders by State authorities and other bodies as a result of peaceful and legitimate human rights work;
- Guarantee that all human rights defenders and citizens are free to benefit from or communicate with the United Nations human rights mechanisms as well as the international human rights community;
- Deal with the United Nations human rights mechanisms as long as they benefit the promotion and protection of human rights; and
- Guarantee that human rights defenders are able to carry out their lawful and peaceful work in the field of human rights without fear of retaliation and without restrictions.