A roundup of key free expression news in the Middle East and North Africa, based on IFEX member reports.
It has been said that murder is the ultimate form of censorship. The anniversaries of the uprisings in Egypt and Bahrain witnessed an unprecedented rise in death sentences in the two countries.
On the first day of February, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) released a statement in cooperation with other NGOs condemning the use of the death penalty in a country that had stopped it in 2010 but started it again in 2017. At the time of writing, over 20 Bahrainis were on death row. A day later, on 2 February 2018, a petition promoted by IFEX and other NGOs called for the release of Bahraini human rights defender Dr. Abduljalil al-Singace, who spent his 56th birthday in prison. PEN International called on people to send him birthday greetings, and repeated calls for his release. The Bahraini government was also condemned by Human Rights Watch for its practice of stripping the nationality of citizens it accuses of “damaging state security” before deporting them.
Nabeel Rajab, the renowned Bahraini activist, BCHR president, and founding director of the Gulf Center for Human Righst (GCHR), was sentenced to five more years of imprisonment for comments he made on Twitter criticizing the escalating humanitarian crisis caused by the Saudi-led coalition airstrikes in Yemen, and documenting allegations of torture in Bahrain’s notorious Jau Prison. IFEX strongly condemned the decision and called for his immediate release.
Several Egyptian and international human rights NGOs, including the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) and the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) called for an immediate halt to executions in Egypt. In the sixty days prior to 8 February, the date of the statement’s release, 26 people had been executed and an additional 20 were awaiting execution. With Egypt’s presidential elections approaching, the government is being widely condemned for severe repression. The elections themselves have been described as “neither free nor fair” by IFEX members Reporters Without Borders (RSF), CIHRS and HRW. In addition, from May to December 2017, AFTE identified at least 496 websites blocked in Egypt. In this context of rampant corruption and authoritarianism, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) drew attention to the story of Egyptian activist Wael Abbas, who had been censored multiple times, to demand that Silicon Valley’s top companies be held accountable to all users.
As for Iran, RSF declared on the anniversary of the 1979 revolution that “for the past 39 years, the regime’s control of news and information has been implacable and its persecution of media independence has been unparalleled.” Less than two weeks later, RSF reported that two Iranian journalists were arrested and beaten, and were reportedly in a coma. This happened during violent clashes between police and members of a Sufi religious order called the Gonabadi Dervishes.
Libya too has witnessed an increase in frightening attacks against journalists. RSF reported that the ongoing open conflict between two rival factions in the country “has made journalism extremely dangerous”. At least 18 journalists have been killed since 2011. According to RSF’s tally, 67 journalists have fled the country and eight Libyan media outlets are now operating from bases in other Middle Eastern countries. The ongoing conflict is seeing the country lose its journalists.
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, continues its crackdown with at least 15 journalists arbitrarily held between September 2017 and February 2018. Global Voices noted that despite being a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC), the Saudi government has continued its repression of activists, not to mention its ongoing brutal war in Yemen. This, it adds, does not reflect well on the HRC, which is “supposed to consider candidate Member States’ contributions to the protection of human rights, as well as voluntary pledges and commitments when applying for council membership”.
In Tunisia, the government’s security forces have been targeting journalists covering anti-austerity protests. As Global Voices Advox reported: “In this climate of social tension, where the role of independent media is key to dispelling misinformation and communicating the legitimate demands of protesters, the Tunisian authorities are harassing journalists and drawing criticism from rights groups.” The Vigilance for Democracy and the Civic State also reported that 48 local and international NGOs have called on the Tunisian government to withdraw a draft broadcasting bill restricting freedom of expression and independent broadcasting.
In Yemen, CPJ reported that elite security forces of the Coalition-backed Yemeni army detained a journalist of the government-aligned newspaper “November 20”.
In Syria, the ongoing attack on besieged Eastern Ghouta by government and Russian forces have led to hundred of civilian casualties, including a number of journalists. CPJ reported that Abdul Rahman Ismael Yassin, a reporter for the pro-opposition Hammouriyeh Media Office, died from injuries sustained in a 20 February airstrike.
In Iraqi Kurdistan, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) denounced multiple media freedom violations in the region documented in a new report by IFJ affiliate the Kurdistan Journalists Syndicate. These included blocking media outlets from covering the independence referendum as well as the death of five journalists.
In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), GCHR called on the government to implement UN recommendations on rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly. These include: “recommendations to ratify key international human rights instruments such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; create an independent national human rights institution in line with the Paris Principles; amend legislation to ensure that domestic laws are brought in line with international human rights standards on the right to freedom of expression; and protect human rights defenders from harassment, intimidation, and discrimination.”
As for Western Sahara, activists reporting on the occupation have reported facing threats by the Moroccan government. According to a report by Global Voices Advox, “few stories of Western Sahara reach audiences beyond the immediate region” and “local journalists and media activists reporting on the occupation and Moroccan abuses face legal obstacles and risk lengthy jail sentences in order to make their voices heard.”
Gender, safety and access to information
ARTICLE 19 released a detailed report on the state of dating apps and the safety risks they pose for LGBTQI+ communities in the MENA region. It has also compiled fact sheets around key areas of digital, legal and personal security for LGBTQI+ communities in Iran, Egypt and Lebanon.