Monday, December 13, 2004

Arab Internet users are caught in a terrible web

By William Fisher
Special to The Daily Star
Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Here is the view of Reporters Without Borders, an international press freedom organization, commenting on the arrest of five Iranian bloggers in less than two months, the latest on November 28: "The government is now attacking blogs, the last bastion of freedom on a network that is experiencing ever tighter control. At the same time, an Iranian delegate is sitting on a UN-created working group on Internet governance. The international community should condemn this masquerade."

The Iranian bloggers were arrested for criticizing their government, for speaking out against the arrests of other bloggers and, according to the authorities, for allegedly "publishing false information with the aim of disrupting public order." Five other bloggers, arrested earlier, are also being detained for contributing to reformist websites.

However, Iran is not alone in its crackdown on the Internet. Governments throughout the Middle East and North Africa are taking similar actions. A study of 11 countries carried out by the Cairo-based Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (HRINFO), titled "The Internet in the Arab World: A New Space of Repression?" finds many of the area's estimated 14 million Internet users facing shutdowns of Web sites, the closing of Internet cafes and prosecution for a variety of crimes, real or imagined.

The study charges that "Arab governments typically use the protection of Islamic values and public morals to justify banning Web sites of human rights or political opposition groups." Gamal Eid, executive director of HRINFO and the author of the study, adds: "Most of these governments oppose freedom of expression in particular, and other political and civil freedoms in general."

The study reveals that while some states arrest Internet users just for surfing Web sites of oppositional parties or groups, other countries use the Internet to "trap socially rejected segments of society for violation of regulatory and legal requirements." It charges that Arab governments use not only traditional methods of curtailing freedom of expression - censorship and confiscation - but also technologies such as electronic filtering programs to control access to "trouble" sources.

The HRINFO study finds the most active censorship in Syria, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. These countries use a variety of tools, including criminal prosecution, to stop Internet use by any of a number of political, social or religious groups. In most of these countries, Internet cafes have been shut down, Web sites blocked and numerous users sentenced to prison terms.

More enlightened, according to the study, are Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.

In Egypt, improper Internet use is being used to justify the prosecution of individuals from several opposition political groups, Islamists, journalists, homosexuals and political activists. Moreover, Egypt has organized a new police unit known as the "Internet Police." Prosecutions have included 12 leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, a suspect charged with using the Internet to send false information to "foreign bodies" (meaning foreign human rights organizations) about human rights violations in Egypt, an Egyptian journalist who created a Web site containing articles critical of Egyptian syndicates, and another user convicted of "disseminating false news abroad that could harm the state's national interests."

In Tunisia, the government has banned opposition Web sites as well as several international sites, including Hotmail, and many Palestinian, Egyptian and human rights Web sites. In 2002, a Tunisian court sentenced the founder of the news site TUNeZINE to two years and four months in prison for "disseminating false news" and "fraudulent use of a means of communication." According to HRINFO, at least 40 other Tunisians have been "sentenced to long prison terms and tortured, just for logging on to some Web sites claimed by authorities to be terrorist Web sites."

The situation in Syria is equally discouraging. The government bans Web sites with pornographic content and those it considers "hostile" - pro-Israel sites, Islamic sites and Web pages with articles critical of the government. The HRINFO study estimates that, in addition to pornographic Web pages, there are 137 blocked Web sites, and that dozens of Syrians are detained every month for "defamation" or for "disseminating false news abroad," and are referred to military courts or detained without trial for long periods.

In Saudi Arabia, the study finds that in 2004 some 400,000 Web pages were banned and filtered to "protect Islamic values and culture." The Saudi government has blocked several Shiite and Islamic Web sites that offer interpretations different from the official Wahhabi line. It has also banned international Web sites like Yahoo, American Online and even medical Web sites that use terms like "chest" or "breasts," even though these are used in explicitly medical contexts.

In Bahrain, the government justifies Internet bans on the grounds that the government is the defender of morality and by claiming that certain Web sites are responsible for creating "domestic turmoil." It also bans the sites of political opposition groups. The growth of Internet service in Libya has also given dissidents around the world the opportunity to contact Libyan citizens and to strengthen their networks in the country. Government-blocked sites include those of opposition groups, human rights sites, forums, news sites and even literary Web sites. In Yemen, the government bans many Web sites in the interests of "morality," but this extends to political and cultural Web sites.

Until the end of 2002, Internet use in Iraq was limited to those who could afford it. Former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein justified his prohibition of Internet use by claiming the Internet was an "American propaganda tool." The HRINFO study observes: "Though Iraq's state of disorder has opened up a space of freedom, it has also produced serious fears ... Owners of Internet centers close their stores at night out of fear - fear of both the occupying forces and those of the resistance." However, Iraq today has a thriving community of bloggers, with hundreds of sites hosted by Iraqis as well as by American and other coalition soldiers.

The study also found that Jordan and Qatar are among the least repressive in the Arab cyber world. In Jordan, HRINFO writes, Internet users include leftists, Islamists, human rights groups deprived of freedom of expression for political reasons, Shiites and Christians deprived on religious grounds and homosexuals, deprived for both social and religious reasons. The United Arab Emirates is among the most advanced in Internet use not only among Arab states but internationally as well. And, compared with most Arab states, the study finds, Qataris enjoy the most Internet freedom and the least censorship.

In her introduction to the landmark Arab Human Development Report, Rima Khalaf Hunaidi, the director of the United Nations Development Program's Arab regional bureau, wrote: "The construction of a viable 'knowledge society' requires effective economic, social and political institutions." The problem is that, "the missing links are smothered by ideologies, societal structures and values that inhabit critical thinking, cut Arabs off from their knowledge rich heritage and block the free flow of ideas and learning."

The Internet is arguably the most powerful tool since the invention of the printing press for accelerating this "free flow of ideas and learning." The leaders of Arab governments do their people much harm by censoring it.

William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East for the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, and served in the international affairs area in the Kennedy administration. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR


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