By William Fisher
Internet use in the Arab Middle East is growing rapidly, but there is evidence that many countries in the region are increasing their crackdowns on what they consider to be dissident content.
A study of 11 countries carried out by the Cairo-based Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (HRINFO) – “The Internet In the Arab World: A New Space of Repression? “ – finds many of the area’s estimated 14 million Internet users facing shutdown of websites and Internet cafes, and prosecution for a variety of crimes.
The study charges that "Arab governments typically use the protection of Islamic values and public morals to justify banning websites of human rights or political opposition groups that censure these governments; even forums are banned in Arab countries." Gamal Eid, HRINFO's executive director and the writer 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 websites of the oppositional parties or groups, other countries use the Internet to trap socially rejected segments in violation of regulatory and legal requirements.
The study charges that Arab governments use not only traditional methods of curtailing freedom of expression -- censorship and confiscation – but have also developed technologies such as electronic filtering programs to control access to ‘trouble’ sources.
According to Najla Al Rostamani, head of the Gulf News Research Centre, “The building of a networked society is policy-driven…The policy followed in the Arab world goes against the very concept on which the Internet is based. The Internet thrives on freedom to exchange and debate and not on censorship. So long as the barriers to information accessibility remain in place, the Arab world will never become part of the information revolution.”
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 prosecutions, to stop Internet use by opposition political groups, homosexuals, Islamic fundamentalists and religious minorities. In most of these countries, Internet Cafes have been shut down, websites blocked, and numerous users sentenced to prison for ‘improper’ Internet use.
More enlightened, according to the study, are Jordan, Qatar, the UAE, and post-Saddam Iraq.
In Egypt, improper Internet use is being used to justify 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 twelve 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 website containing articles critical of Egyptian syndicates, and another user convicted of "disseminating abroad false news that could harm the state's national interests."
In Tunisia, the government bans opposition websites as well as several international websites, including such well-known sites as "Hotmail", and many Palestinian, Egyptian, and human rights websites.
In 2002, a Tunisian court sentenced a journalist, founder and editor-in-chief of the news website, “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 websites claimed by authorities to be terrorist websites."
The situation in Syria is equally discouraging. The government bans numerous websites and e-mail service providers, and has arrested and convicted many who have attempted to bypass these bans to criticize the government. Syria bans websites with pornographic content and those it considers "hostile” -- pro-Israel, Islamic, web pages with articles about Syrian news and issues, and Kurdish-language news websites based in Germany which provided news, pictures and video clips of demonstrations by the Syrian Kurdish minority. The HRINFO study estimates that, in addition to pornographic web pages, there are 137 blocked websites.
Dozens of Syrians are detained every month for "defamation", or for “disseminating false news abroad” -- criticizing the Syrian government. HRINFO reports they are referred to military courts or detained without trial for periods ranging from three months to three years, or arrested and detained in police stations, where they are more vulnerable to torture and ill-treatment.
In Saudi Arabia, the study finds, 400,000 web pages were banned and filtered to “protect Islamic values and culture” in 2004. The Saudi government has blocked several Shi'a and Islamic websites that offer interpretations differing from the official Wahhabi line, banned international websites like Yahoo, American Online, and the well-known Arab Tawy Forum, and has even banned medical websites that use words like "chest" or "breasts", even though these words are used in explicitly medical contexts.
In Bahrain, the government justifies Internet bans on grounds that the government is the defender of morality and by claiming that certain websites are responsible for creating “domestic turmoil”, the study reports. However, it also bans the websites of political opposition groups.
By mid-2003, the number of Internet users in Libya was estimated to be 850,000, and is rapidly reaching a million. The Libyan Government has invested heavily in the IT sector. But the growth of Internet service has also provided Libyan dissidents scattered around the world with the opportunity to contact Libyan citizens and to strengthen their networks in the country. Most opposition, human rights, forums, news, and even literary websites are based abroad, and the Libyan government attempts to block these sites.
In Yemen, there are some 150,000 Internet users. Both the Yemeni Ministry of Communications and the Yemeni Ministry of Culture have banned and monitored many websites, and these actions have led to a decline in Internet usage. The Yemeni government justifies the banning and blocking for the preservation of "morality." The ban extends to political and cultural websites.
Until the end of 2002, Internet use in Iraq was limited to those who could afford it. In 2002, the number of Internet users among Iraq's total population of 24 million people was only 45,000, and many of these were state officials. Former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein justified his prohibition of Internet use by claiming the Internet as an "American propaganda tool."
The study says “it is too early to state that the occupation has brought about the freedom of Internet use and the absence of censorship.” It adds: “Though Iraq's state of disorder has opened up a space of freedom, it has also produced serious fears. Living conditions continue to deteriorate. 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 ‘blogging’ community, with hundreds of sites hosted by Iraqis and US and other Coalition soldiers.
The study finds Jordan, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates among the more promising states in the Arab cyber world.
Jordanians were quick to seize the medium’s new opportunities for expression. Users included 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. There are many Cyber Cafes, and the admission age has recently been reduced from 16 to 13. In general, there is little censorship, though the country is considering a new law to regulate audio and visual broadcasting.
In the United Arab Emirates, the report estimates the number of Internet users to be 1.25 million, or 31% of the population. This places the UAE among the most advanced nations in Internet use not only among Arab states but internationally as well. In its assessment of national e-government programs, the United Nations ranked the Emirates number one among Arab states and 21st in the world.
But censorship is nonetheless the subject of considerable debate. Some say the “Proxy Filtering System” has contributed to the growth of the net because it allows people access from inside their homes upon condition that there be some sort of censorship to protect their families from ‘morally offensive’ websites. Others have called for absolute freedom and cancellation of the Proxy Filtering System.
Compared with most Arab states, the study finds, Qataris enjoy more Internet freedom of Internet use and less censorship. There has been no news of website bans other than those placed on some pornographic websites.