Freedom of Expression and Internet in Middle East

The Human Rights Watch has issued a report on the Online Censorship in the Middle East and North Africa. This report documents online censorship and cases in which Internet users have been detained for their online activities in countries across the region, including Tunisia, Iran, Syria and Egypt. Furthermore, Human Rights Watch said,

"This report examines Internet trends and policies in the Middle East and North Africa region as they affect freedom of expression, focusing particularly on Egypt, Iran, Syria, and Tunisia. Human Rights Watch selected these four countries for closer scrutiny as much for their differences as for their similarities, and their inclusion should not suggest that their policies are worse than those of other countries in the region. For each of the featured countries, Human Rights Watch examines government policies affecting Internet access, the role the Internet has played in fostering freedom of expression and civil society, laws restricting free expression, online censorship, and cases in which people have been detained for their online activities."

This report indicates important matters and illuminates significant facts. Although it talks about internet policies, it indicates the nature of the authoritarian governments, which based on repression and lying (the official-only-legitimate propaganda). They fear the truth, for that, they fear even the words.

The free opinion and expression are essential and effectual prerequisites for change in the Middle East as antidotes to the authoritarianism. The more the freedom of expression exists, the less the political system is authoritarian and vice versa. The freedom of conscience and expression is a real and indispensable foundation of the political reform and progress in the Middle East.

The U.S. and EU should support directly the freedom of expression in the Middle East and should pressure the authoritarian governments on that. Those governments should find no choice on that to alleviate any possible foreign pressure on more direct political issues.

By the way, to give you a practical example, every single word of mine here besides my sent email—when they could--are under close surveillance.

To Middle East liberals, danger is real; fear is legitimate.

Here are the summary, the regional overview and the recommendations of this report:

Report webpage

PDF file of report


The speed with which the Internet has spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa testifies to the region’s appetite for alternative means of getting and transmitting information. In countries where the press is rigidly controlled, the Internet has opened a window for greater freedom of expression and communication. Anyone with access to a computer, an Internet connection, and “blogging” tools can now publish to a potential audience of millions, free of charge, within minutes. Faced with this new technology, many regional governments have pursued contradictory policies. With varying degrees of enthusiasm, they have sought to facilitate the spread of information and communications technologies with economic benefits in mind. At the same time, they have sought to maintain their old monopolies over the flow of information.

In a Tunisian Internet café, not far from where the second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society is being held in November 2005, there hangs a portrait of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. This is not remarkable in itself: similar portraits hang in nearly every business in Tunis. But in this Internet café a sign posted immediately beneath the president’s likeness reads: “Opening disk drives is strictly forbidden. Do not touch the parameters of the configurations. It is forbidden to access prohibited sites. Thank you.” These “prohibited sites” include those the government blocks for publishing reports of human rights abuses in the country or criticizing the president.

The dilemma governments perceive in responding to the Internet is evident on this wall. The café exists thanks in part to the Tunisian government’s investment in fostering information technology. The restrictions speak to the Tunisian government’s desire to control information. Governments realize that they cannot live without the Internet, that to shut the country out from the World Wide Web would be to close the country to the world economy. But to one degree or another, they have also sought to control the uses of this technology.

This report examines Internet trends and policies in the Middle East and North Africa region as they affect freedom of expression, focusing particularly on Egypt, Iran, Syria, and Tunisia. Human Rights Watch selected these four countries for closer scrutiny as much for their differences as for their similarities, and their inclusion should not suggest that their policies are worse than those of other countries in the region. For each of the featured countries, Human Rights Watch examines government policies affecting Internet access, the role the Internet has played in fostering freedom of expression and civil society, laws restricting free expression, online censorship, and cases in which people have been detained for their online activities.

In countries such as Iran and Egypt, where the government began licensing private Internet service providers (ISPs) and network service providers earlier than in other countries in the region, the use of the Internet—including the use of the Internet to report news or express opinions—has grown more quickly than it has in countries such as Syria and Tunisia, which initially sought to limit the number of ISPs. In Egypt, the early entry of smaller, private ISPs that promised their customers unfiltered access to the Internet reportedly prompted the government to stop blocking hundreds of Web sites.

As this report went to press, soon after Syria’s “first privately owned ISP” started offering less-restrictive service, one Syrian computer programmer reported that at least one of the old, government-affiliated ISPs had lifted restrictions on protocols used to build Web sites, perhaps in a bid to keep its customers from moving to the new, less-restricted ISP. Perhaps, as Tunisian Minister of Communications Technology Montasser Ouaili recently suggested to Human Rights Watch, competition does stimulate free access to the Internet.

At the same time, all of the countries surveyed in this report continue to block Web sites for their political content or for other arbitrary reasons, and all retain and misuse vaguely worded and sweeping legal provisions to imprison Internet users for expressing unpopular or critical views. The following sketch of conditions in the region shows the broader set of problems.

Regional Overview

In Syria, the authorities censor information and correspondence with a free hand under the terms of emergency legislation promulgated more than forty years ago. The government tampers with the very fabric of the Internet, restricting the use of the basic electronic protocols that allow people to send emails and construct Web sites. Security forces have held online writers incommunicado and tortured them simply for reporting stories the government did not wish to see told. Despite these restrictions, Syrians continue to find new ways to circumvent online censorship and surveillance and have rapidly taken to the Internet as a means of getting news into and out of the country. “The Internet,” one prominent Syrian human rights activist told Human Rights Watch, “is the only way for intellectuals to meet and share ideas in Syria today.”1

In Iran, thanks in part to vigorous government investment, the number of Internet users has increased at an average annual rate of more than 600 percent for the past four years. Iranians “blog” to an extent unparalleled in the region. In 2004, the Iranian judiciary, relying on extralegal intelligence and security forces, began to target online journalists and bloggers in an effort to control this flourishing new medium. Iranian Web sites nevertheless continue to express opinions that the country’s newspapers and other media would never run. The government has imprisoned online journalists, bloggers, and technical support staff. It has blocked thousands of Web sites, including sites that offer free publishing tools and hosting space for blogs.

Innovative Egyptian policies designed to promote Internet use—notably the country’s “free” Internet program that allows any Egyptian with a computer, modem, and a phone line to browse the Web for the price of a phone call—have become models for developing countries around the world. Yet Egyptian security services have detained people for their activities online. In the past, the government used the Internet to monitor and entrap men engaged in homosexual conduct. The government blocks the Web site of the Muslim Brotherhood, arguably the country’s largest opposition group, and online writers risk imprisonment under a vaguely worded press law and emergency legislation that criminalizes a wide variety of critical expression.

In Bahrain, the government has blocked some critical Web sites, although recent tests indicate that previously reported blocks on Web sites have been lifted.2 Still, the government has sought to maintain control over the Internet by requiring all Web sites to register with the Ministry of Information under the pretext of helping to protect their intellectual property. An online bulletin board that remains popular despite government attempts to censor it, http://www.bahrainonline.org, and a site that parodies the ruling family, http://www.bahraintimes.org, remained blocked in Bahrain earlier this year.3 Over the course of late February and early March 2005, Bahraini security agents detained `Ali `Abd al-Imam, Muhammad al-Musawi, and Hussain Yusuf, who moderated http://www.bahrainonline.org. Though they are now free, the three still face charges of “defaming the king” for allowing users to post criticism of the ruling al-Khalifa family on the site.

Saudi Arabia hesitated for years before allowing public Internet access in the country in 1999. In March 2001, eighteen months after it extended service to the public, the Internet Services Unit (ISU), the state institution charged with coordinating Saudi Internet policy, boasted that it had blocked more than 200,000 Web sites since opening service to the public.4 Relative to other countries in the region, Saudi Arabia is forthright about its policies on and methods of blocking Web sites, listing them on the ISU’s Web site.5 Thousands of Web sites were consistently blocked in Saudi Arabia between 2001 and 2004.6 The vast majority of these featured pornographic material or material related to gambling or drugs, but some—such as specific pages from Amnesty International’s Web site criticizing human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia—were political. In October 2005, the ISU briefly blocked http://www.blogger.com, a service owned by Google that allows users to maintain blogs free of charge. Saudi bloggers report that http://www.flickr.com, a popular photograph-sharing Web site, remains blocked.7

In the United Arab Emirates, the sole Internet Service Provider (ISP), Etisalat, has long blocked Web sites containing pornographic, gambling-related, crime-related, gay- and lesbian-related material, as well as sites dedicated to the Baha’i faith, dating sites, and all sites whose addresses end in .il—i.e., sites based in Israel.8 In July 2005, Etisalat blocked a blog for the first time, briefly censoring http://secretdubai.blogspot.com for containing “nudity”—though the site contains no images. The anonymous blogger who maintains the site told Human Rights Watch she believes the blog was blocked because she had reproduced a poem satirizing the Dubai police’s request to tourists “not to violate the very fabric of society.”9

The Libyan government has blocked critical Web sites based outside the country. When Human Rights Watch visited Libya in April-May 2005, researchers were unable to access Libya: News and Views (at the time http://www.libya1.com) and the UK-based Akhbar Libya (http://www.akhbar-libya.com), from two Internet cafés in Tripoli.10 The editor of Akhbar Libya, Ashur Shamis, told Human Rights Watch that he believes hackers associated with the government crashed his site at least four times over the past three years, most recently on June 13, 2005. “They unpublished all the articles on the site and wiped out the archive material,” he said. “They did a lot of damage to the database.” Shamis said the reason for the online attacks has “always been something we published that hit a raw nerve with the Leader [Col. Mu`ammar al-Qaddafi] or the security people.”11 The site has published articles on the 1969 military coup—claiming that al-Qaddafi hijacked the coup with tacit U.S. approval—and a series of articles on corruption in al-Qaddafi’s entourage.

Sites such as Akhbar Libya, Libya Our Home (http://www.libyanet.com), Libya Today (http://www.libya-alyoum.com), and Libya: News and Views (currently http://www.libya-watanona.com) provide debate forums on topics previously taboo. Articles and letters from Libya talk about issues such as unemployment and health care, and sometimes address human rights violations such as torture and police abuse.

On January 12, 2005, Libyan Internal Security agents arrested 52-year-old `Abd al-Razik al-Mansuri in his hometown of Tubruk.12 Although ultimately charged with unlawful possession of a firearm (security agents found an old pistol and some bullets that belonged to his father during a search of his home the day after his initial arrest), al-Mansuri had written many articles critical of the government on http://www.akhbar-libya.com, a U.K.-based Web site.13

During an April-May 2005 mission to Libya, Human Rights Watch interviewed al-Mansuri in a private meeting in the Abu Salim prison director’s office.14 He said he had written between forty and fifty articles for http://www.akhbar-libya.com since 2004. “I study the Libyan people and life from all sides,” he told Human Rights Watch. “Why a Libyan has a beard, why they are maybe scared by someone, and why it’s not time for democracy in Libya.” He added, “What we want for Libya is that it becomes a better place, even through writing.”

Al-Mansuri published his last article on January 10, 2005, a critique of a debate between two government officials, one of whom, Shukri Ghanim, is a reputed reformer, and the other, Ahmad Ibrahim, is a reputed hardliner. Al-Mansuri expressed hope that al-Qaddafi would support the former.15 On October 19, 2005, Akhbar Libya reported that a Tripoli court had sentenced al-Mansouri to one-and-a-half years in prison for the illegal possession of a weapon.16
* * *
With this larger regional perspective as backdrop, this report details the Internet policies of Egypt, Iran, Syria, and Tunisia as they affect the right to freedom of expression. As with our 1999 report on the same issues in the region, we offer a critique of existing practices as well as a set of principles to guide policy and legislation. In so doing, Human Rights Watch seeks to encourage governments to strengthen protection for freedom of expression at this critical juncture marked by rapid growth in Internet use throughout the region.


1) Governments should continue to invest in expanding access to the Internet. Money spent on improving networks should not be diverted to improving surveillance or censorship technology.All of the governments surveyed in this study have invested significantly in making information and communications technologies more widely available. They should continue doing so. As they do so, they should not divert funds to improve the means of censorship and surveillance. In Syria, for example, restrictions on the protocols used to publish to the Web and to send email have served only to slow the spread of the Internet. Such measures are counterproductive and do not work: determined users continue to find ways around government attempts to censor or spy on data traffic. Lowering barriers to access, be they technical, financial, or legal, will lead the Internet to become more decentralized and participatory.

2) Release all those imprisoned or detained solely for exercising their right to free expression, online or otherwise.Egypt, Iran, Syria, and Tunisia have detained dozens of online writers for their activities online in recent years. Iranian blogger Mojtaba Saminejad is still in prison for the contents of his blog. As of November 1, 2005, Syrian online journalist Muhannad Qutaish was still in prison for emailing articles to a Gulf-based newspaper, despite the fact that his sentence had expired. Mas`ud Hamid, a Syrian journalism student, risks continued torture in prison for posting photographs of a demonstration on the Internet. Tunisian online journalist Mohamed Abou is still in prison for publishing articles critical of Tunisian President Ben Ali. These and other prisoners detained for expressing their opinions or publishing information protected under international standards should be released immediately.

3) Cease intimidation and harassment of online writers.In Tunisia, online journalists who express critical opinions or report on human rights violations in the country are kept under constant surveillance. They believe their emails and phone calls are monitored and that people working on behalf of the government send them harassing emails to interfere with their ability to work and to intimidate them. In Syria and Iran, security agencies have regularly “invited” bloggers, online journalists, and their families to come in for questioning, or have phoned them regularly to intimidate them. Such practices chill freedom of expression.

4) Cease blocking Web sites that carry material protected by the rights to free expression and free information. Iran, Syria, and Tunisia extensively block Web sites for their political content. Fewer sites are blocked for their political content in Egypt, but the continued unavailability of the Web sites of prominent Islamist political parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood, stands in violation of the government’s commitments to free expression. All such restrictions should be removed immediately.

5) Governments should provide strict legal guarantees ensuring the privacy of electronic communications. Governments should have authority to monitor email or other forms of electronic communication only when authorized by an independent court of law upon a compelling showing of genuinely criminal activity.Freedom from arbitrary and unlawful interference with one’s privacy and correspondence is protected both under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and applies to electronic communications, including email and newsgroup postings, as well as electronic forms of personal data retained about individuals.

6) Governments should repeal laws that unduly abridge the right to privacy or the right to freely access or disseminate information or opinions. They should further seek to pass new laws that affirmatively protect these rights and clarify the narrow circumstances in which government interference would be warranted according to international standards.Sweeping,vaguely worded Egyptian, Iranian, Syrian, and Tunisian laws that criminalize “spreading false news,” or criticizing the president, government officials, or the system of government abridge the right to free expression. In accordance with international standards, governments should seek to pass legislation that

a. Affirmatively protects the right of writers to advocate nonviolent change of government policies or the government itself;criticize the nation, the government, its symbols, or officials; and communicate information about alleged violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.

b. Removes unlimited liability from private ISPs or Internet cafés for carrying illegal content.

c. Permits the free use of encryption and other techniques to ensure the privacy of online communications. Law enforcement agencies should be allowed to decrypt private communications only after convincing an independent court of a compelling and particularized showing of need.

7) Allow free and unimpeded access to Internet cafés and Internet-connected libraries for all, and do not require such businesses to provide customer records without a specific court order based on a compelling and particularized showing of need.

8) Do not allow criminal liability for merely visiting Web sites, even those that may legitimately banned under international standards of free expression and information.

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