March 2022 in 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.
Escalating threats to media freedoms in Tunisia. Cybercrimes and clampdown in Jordan. Sudanese refugees targeted in Egypt. LGBTQI+ Iraqis hunted down with impunity. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe released in Iran; Raif Badawi released in Saudi Arabia.
Escalating threats to media freedoms in Tunisia
Eight months after suspending the country’s parliament, Tunisian President Kais Saied dissolved the legislative body on 30 March, only hours after parliamentarians held an online session to vote on a bill reversing “exceptional measures” issued since his July power grab. Online video apps Zoom and Microsoft Teams were blocked across Tunisia during the online session, with 123 lawmakers eventually holding the vote on the GoToMeeting platform. Investigations have since been launched against members of the suspended parliament on charges of “conspiring against state security”.
In this increasingly authoritarian context that has seen key institutions dismantled or threatened, scores of critics and journalists face arrests for their free expression. Last month, former government minister and head of the national bar association Abderrazak Kilani was jailed over an argument he had with security officers who were denying him access to a hospital in January. “After placing scores of critics under ‘assigned residence’ house arrest or banning their travel, tossing Abderrazak Kilani into Mornaguia Prison sends a chilling new message that no one who criticizes President Saied’s power grab is safe,” said Salsabil Chellali, Human Rights Watch (HRW) Tunisia director.
Radio Mosaique journalist Khalifa Guesmi was also arrested after he refused to reveal sources of information in his recent reporting on the arrest of a group of terrorist suspects. Guesmi was later released, but still faces charges under the country’s anti-terrorism law.
Civil society has pushed back in recent weeks, with media workers protesting the arrest of journalists and shrinking press freedoms. The National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT) threatened a 2 April strike if the state did not meet their demands to reverse the censorship and deteriorating conditions at state channel, Wataniya.
Meanwhile, according to IFEX member Social Media Exchange (SMEX), pro-government Facebook pages have been systematically leading defamation campaigns against Tunisian judges, accusing members of the opposition of “ethical corruption”. SMEX Executive Director Mohamad Najem describes what they are seeing in the country as “a network that works for the benefit of influential people and politicians by discrediting critics through defamation.”
Jordan: From pre-crimes to cybercrimes
In a month that saw at least 40 people detained following riots in several cities over provincial elections results, Jordanian authorities also launched a clampdown on protests before they happened.
On 29 March, security forces arrested 25 members of the Teacher’s Syndicate – the country’s largest labour union – in an effort to prevent a sit-in planned to take place outside the ministry of interior. On 24 March, at least 40 activists of Jordan’s Hirak were arrested from their homes to head off any planned protests to mark the country’s Arab Spring anniversary.
Khaled Hussein, a spokesperson for the Jordanian opposition “Partnership and Salvation Party”, was one of dozens questioned for their intent to participate in a protest. “I was not even planning to protest, but just because they expected that I would participate, they came and arrested me in front of my home, while I was still in my pyjamas. They kept me for 12 hours, and I didn’t know why I was arrested or what the charges were against me… this was a kidnapping operation, not a lawful procedure.”
Most of those questioned were freed on the same day, but Anas al-Jamal was detained and charged with cybercrimes over a Twitter post critical of regional leaders. Facing a possible minimum sentence of five years, Al-Jamal is one of several recently targeted by the country’s notorious cybercrimes law in recent weeks, with six journalists briefly detained at Amman’s airport and/or charged with cybercrimes for their journalistic work and social media posts last month.
“This wave of arrests and charges against journalists in the space of a month is very worrying,” said Sabrina Bennoui, the head of Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Middle East desk. “The Jordanian authorities must not tolerate misuse of defamation or cybercrime laws that could result in police abuses.”
According to the International Press Institute (IPI), the recent detention of journalists involving the country’s repressive cybercrime law has put a spotlight on growing threats to press freedom in Jordan, with renewed calls by journalists and rights groups to amend the controversial legislation to prevent further harassment and abuse.
Amman.net editor Daoud Kuttab, who was detained for several hours at the airport over an article he published and now faces charges, told IPI: “the restriction of journalists is a bad sign for a country that seeks to reform… No journalist should ever be detained or imprisoned for what they publish.”
Egypt: Sudanese refugees targeted, and prison newspeak
At least 30 Sudanese refugees and asylum seekers were arbitrarily arrested by Egyptian police during raids in December 2021 and January 2022, for organizing protests over their mistreatment, and for a demonstration expressing solidarity with protesters in Sudan. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), targeted activists faced beatings and forced physical labor at a security facility.
“Refugees, like everyone else, have the right to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly,” said Joe Stork, deputy MENA director at HRW. “Egypt’s Public Prosecutor should investigate and hold accountable those responsible for arbitrary arrests and mistreatment of Sudanese refugees and asylum seekers.”
Meanwhile, in Orwellian fashion, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ratified parliament-approved amendments to a law that changed the term ‘prisons’ to ‘reform and rehabilitation centers’. Based on the amendments to several provisions of the law regulating prisons, ‘prisoners’ are now ‘inmates’, and ‘prison wardens’ are now ‘directors of rehabilitation centers.’
Rights groups denounced the changes, calling them: “nothing but frivolous formalities intended to provide an illusion of reform taking place in the country’s prisons, evocative of the National Human Rights Strategy announced by President Al-Sisi in September 2021.”
Deliberate changes to language have done little to conceal the atrocious conditions of Egypt’s prisons system where thousands of political prisoners are behind bars for their free expression. Highlighting the cases of several prominent jailed activists and human rights defenders, including blogger Alaa Abd El Fattah and his lawyer Mohamed El-Baqer, who have continuously suffered grave violations of their rights, the rights groups said “those responsible for their torture and ill-treatment are largely protected by state authorities from even the slightest accountability.”
“Everyone wants me dead” – LGBTQI+ Iraqis hunted down with impunity
Armed groups in Iraq “abduct, rape, torture, and kill” LGBTQI+ people with impunity, says a new report by HRW and Iraqi rights organization IraQueer. The report documented cases of abductions, extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, and online targeting of the LGBQI+ community by police and armed groups – primarily within the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), which fall under the prime minister’s authority.
“LGBT Iraqis live in constant fear of being hunted down and killed by armed groups with impunity, as well as arrest and violence by Iraqi police, making their lives unlivable,” said Rasha Younes, a researcher at HRW. “The Iraqi government has done nothing to stop the violence or hold the abusers accountable.”
Based on interviews with 54 Iraqis who have survived violence and discrimination at the hands of state and non-state actors for their gender expression and presumed sexual orientation, the report points to “a cycle of abuse, including a pattern of attempting to hunt LGBT people down to perpetrate harm against them, amounting to structural violence against them.” In the majority of cases, unconventional hairstyles were perceived as a punishable offence by armed groups, with even fashion or polished nails being tantamount to a possible death sentence.
In this climate of fear, self-censorship is the common outcome, extending to every sphere of life – from how people dress, talk, and walk, to the use of digital platforms and social media.
A combination of vague “morality” clauses in Iraq’s Penal Code, the absence of anti-discrimination legislation and a reliable complaint mechanism has impeded the LGBTQI+ Iraqis’ ability and willingness to report abuses to the police or file complaints against law enforcement agents. “This has created an environment in which armed government actors, including the police, can abuse LGBT people with impunity,” said the rights groups.
Such impunity reigns in Iraqi prisons where IFEX member Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) recently examined the continued practice of torture in “some of the most horrific prisons in the world”. In a new report, the rights group documented over a dozen cases of torture inside Iraqi prisons, highlighting how the absence of any effective government measures to hold perpetrators accountable “has led to their persistence in torturing prisoners, whether they have been convicted or not.”
Iran: In good news, two detained British-Iranians, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori, were released last month. During a press conference in the UK, Nazanin said she was overwhelmed to be reunited with her husband and daughter, while highlighting the plight of other dual nationals who remain in Iranian prisons on various allegations of working to undermine the regime.
This includes Iranian-American-British conservationist Morad Tahbaz, who was convicted in Iran on bogus national security charges, and went on a week-long hunger strike in March after his temporary release was abruptly ended by authorities. Tahbaz and his colleagues from local conservation group, the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, have been in detention since January 2018, accused of using an environmental project as a cover for espionage.
Meanwhile, IFEX joined 55 rights groups in calling on Iranian authorities to withdraw a draconian bill that would violate the right to freedom of expression and right to privacy for internet users in the country. Recent moves to ratify the bill in February “demonstrate that the authorities remain adamant to take forward this regressive legislation despite the domestic and international outcry,” said the rights groups, who expressed concern over the bill’s fate being “at the whim of a small committee attempting to circumvent the rights of an entire country.”
Saudi Arabia: Rights groups welcomed the release of Saudi blogger and human rights defender Raif Badawi after completing his ten-year sentence related to his online free expression. Badawi still faces a 10-year travel ban, a ban on using social media, and a fine of one million Saudi Riyals (about US$266,600).
Qatar: “Journalists, football associations, fans, and others should press both FIFA officials and Qatari authorities about human rights in the Gulf state, particularly the rights of migrant workers, women, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people,” said HRW ahead of FIFA’s 72nd Congress in Doha on 31 March. The rights group posed ten important questions to ask, including what steps FIFA has taken to protect women’s rights and the rights of LGBTQI+ residents in Qatar, and whether journalists will face any restrictions while reporting in Qatar.
Bahrain: Amidst continued government efforts to sportswash the country’s abysmal rights record, rights groups continue to call attention to the plight of Bahraini prisoners of conscience, including prominent rights defender Abdul-Hadi al-Khawaja and Dr. Abdeljalil AlSingance. Both have seen their health in critical condition in recent weeks due to medical negligence and hunger strikes. IFEX member Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) highlighted the need to free all prisoners of conscience unconditionally ahead of November 2022 parliamentary elections.
“Conditions in Bahrain at the present time make free and fair elections impossible,” said Husain Abdulla, Executive Director of ADHRB. “Unless conditions improve quickly, the 2022 elections will again be a sham perpetrated by the Government of Bahrain on the Bahraini people and any façade of democracy in Bahrain will end,” he added.
Digital Crime Scenes: A new report from ARTICLE 19 examines the role of digital evidence in the identification, harassment, and persecution of LGBTQI+ people in Egypt, Lebanon, and Tunisia. The report shows how the police’s reliance on digital evidence scraped from personal devices is “a symptom and parallel development to intensified anti-queer policing.”
Unfinished Revolutions: Marking International Women’s Day, a new report from the Nobel Women’s Initiative features 15 feminist leaders and women human rights defenders from the region – sharing their reflections on the struggle for women’s rights in the decade following the Arab Uprisings. Unfinished Revolution provides an overview of the status of women human rights defenders, documenting both the tactics deployed to silence them and the strategies they use to resist and endure. In the report, Nedal Al Salman, Acting President of IFEX member Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), emphasized the threats Bahraini women activists face, including travel bans, interrogations, surveillance, smear campaigns, and arrests.
“We have no civic space. No independent media. No political society. We don’t even have a physical, private space to work. We can’t organize events or host other women. Not even small gatherings are allowed because even those need to have the government’s permission. The only protests that take place are illegal protests because all protests are illegal now.” – Nedal Al Salman