The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information released on Wendnesday a report on internet use in the Arab world that focuses on the use of online platforms for self-expression and governments’ attempts to stifle this use.
The report, titled One Social Network with a Rebellious Message, includes a series of 20 country studies as well as separate reports on the online media tools used by activists, such as blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, and Flickr.
The report highlights the increasing use of online expression by activists in the Arab world as an alternative to other channels, which are under stricter government control. Arab governments, however, are increasingly scrutinizing cyberspace. “The gap between Arab governments is widening day after day. Governments are taking the role of policeman after these activists, while activists are striving through the use of the internet for a democratic life,” reads one of the introductory statements of the 260-page report.
“The reports comes as a continuation of the previous reports and a confirmation of the previous findings,” said Amro Magdy, one of the researchers who worked on the report. ANHRI has previously produced two reports about the state of the internet and freedom of expression in the Arab world.
“In the Arab world, there are no laws yet that regulate electronic publishing and content, hence sites are blocked and activists intimidated under the cover of the traditional excuses of national security and social customs,” said Magdy. “Whether we agree or disagree with blocking sites, there have to be clear laws regulating such practices. The law has to be both clearly and precisely articulated. But of course, the danger lies in the misuse of such laws whenever drafted.”
The Egyptian chapter of the report was titled "All This Hostility."
“In Egypt, the oppression does not take place through blocking sites, but through scrutinizing internet activists and intimidating them,” said Magdy. The government employs a number of tactics to intimidate bloggers, including arrests, physical assault, libel and defamation charges, and confiscation of computers.
But the internet has still provided a space for expression by marginalized groups. “In Egypt, blogging gave the opportunity to many groups to express themselves freely, while they didn’t have the space to do so prior to blogging, such as homosexuals, Baha’is, and others. Their blogging contributed to removing many stereotypes associated with their groups,” said Shahinaz Abdel Salam, another researcher in the team.
Saudi Arabia, another country with restrictive internet policies, resorts to blocking websites, particularly those that deal with sexual content, politics, or human rights. “In Saudi Arabia, there has been a lot of online censorship. But blocking websites has become difficult because of many tools such as the RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feed, through which, in a matter of minutes, a post is circulated and copied to other sites,” said Abdel Salam.
Arrests of internet activists are also common in Saudia Arabia, according to the report, which cites a series of prominent examples. Fouad al-Farhan, one of the first Saudi bloggers and human rights activists to write using his real name, was arrested in 2007 and jailed for 16 months without trial.
The report cites Jordan as one of the better examples of internet freedom in the Arab world. The kingdom issued new regulations on internet use in 2003 and 2007. The 2003 document states, “Acquired experience dictates that censoring is one useless measure that the government is unwilling to take.” The 2007 document says, “The government still does not consider content control to be a necessity. Self-control is the most suitable. However, if self-control is lacking, government intervention may be called for.”
Similarly, the report highlights Qatar’s constitutional allocation for freedom of expression and prohibition of privacy violations. Yet despite this relative freedom, the Qatari government still blocks websites at times, and even goes as far as to block the proxy servers that make it possible to access blocked websites, something that no other country does.
The report dedicates a section to online social media tools used by activists and defenders of freedom of expression. In the portion on blogs, the report estimates that there are 600,000 blogs in the Arab world, 100,000 of which are active. Eighty-three percent of Arab bloggers live in the region. Many of them blog using fake names in order to protect their identity. Egypt has the most bloggers in the Arab world–a third–followed by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Morocco.
Facebook is also featured as a platform for freedom in the Arab world, where politics and religion are often discussed. Egypt, Lebanon and Algeria are the most active Facebook users. The report also discusses the micro-blogging social network Twitter, focusing on how it is used by activists to break news about riots and assaults.
Online forums discussed briefly, as they remain the dominant form of digital activism in some countries. Ibtessam Ta’alab, who wrote about Oman, explained how forums are the most popular platform for expression and online activism there. “It’s country where forums play a more important role than mainstream media in shaping the public opinion,” she said.
Vivian Murad, from the team of researchers, said that the report sought to give an overview of the policy landscape, rather than a specific review of communications and the internet. She also said that providing facts and figures about Internet use was one of the project’s goals. “One of the main challenges encountered was the fact that a lot of Arab governments do not have available statistics. That’s why figures in use are only estimations,” Murad said.
In a review of the report, Abdu el-Baramawy, a researcher, criticized the analytical dimension of the report. “For example, since this is a rights-based report, there needs to be a description to human rights activists on what is a violation, how it can be defined and responded to. There needs to be a measure of advocacy and not only reporting.”