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Cyberspace: Once a haven for free expression, now a battlefield

Autocratic governments across the Middle East and North Africa have woken up to a perceived threat from the online sphere. Their response has been draconian.

In this picture taken 6 February 2015, members of the Austrian Greens attend a protest against the punishment of jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi
In this picture taken 6 February 2015, members of the Austrian Greens attend a protest against the punishment of jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi

AP Photo/Hans Punz

This statement was published on cihrs.org on 8 April 2015.

By Kirolos Nathan

"Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather. […] I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us."

With those few words, John Perry Barlow started "A Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace". Those were the words of a man with a dream. But now – after 19 years – I am sorry Mr. Barlow, your dream has been crushed by these weary giants of oppression and prosecution.

The Internet played a huge role during the Arab Spring, and continues long after, wherein Arab online activists have increased in numbers and developed louder voices.

During the week leading up to former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak's resignation […] the total rate of tweets from Egypt — and around the world — about political change in that country ballooned from 2,300 a day to 230,000 a day, according to a 2011 study by the University of Washington.

This gives us a glimpse into how totalitarian undemocratic states may view this as a threat to their existence. Their fear of words has grown. Their increased awareness of their fragility is now in control, and so they start to act upon it, by putting bloggers behind bars or suppressing civil society and harassing human rights defenders.

"The recent arrest of Ahmed Samih, director of the [online radio station] Radio Horytna and the Andalus Center for Tolerance and Anti-Violence Studies, is politically motivated and aims to limit the tools civil society uses to spread a culture of human rights," declared 18 human rights organisations in a joint statement after Samih's release on bail of 5,000EGP (US$655) with five charges against him including disseminating audio and visual content without a license from the competent authorities and managing a facility without a permit.

According to Egyptian political researcher Bassem Zakaria, such practices by the regime cannot lead to a democratic country.

"This regime has an antagonism towards politics as an idea and as a practice in the sense of a free debate in a public space, and this is manifested in the attempts of closing spaces such as the cyberspace," he said.

This is not only happening in Egypt, but in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, and unexpectedly Tunisia.

In these countries, nine people can being arrested for "misusing social media", a charge that could result in a fine or up to two years in prison in Bahrain. Usually this charge is used in massive government campaigns to shut down free voices. Nabeel Rajab, a prominent Bahraini human rights defender, was sentenced in January 2015 to six months in prison over nothing but a tweet he posted expressing an opinion.

"They don’t want you to know, and if you somehow knew, they don’t want your opinions about it."



In March of this year, a Muscat court convicted and sentenced Saeed Jaddad, a prominent pro-reform Omani blogger, on charges relating to his online activities including undermining the prestige of the state and using information networks to disseminate news that would prejudice public order, resulting in three years in jail, and 1,000 Omani Riyals (US$2597).

In these countries, a person could be sentenced to 10 years in prison, 1,000 lashes, a fine of 1 million Saudi Riyals (approx. US$266627), a 10-year travel ban, and a 10-year ban from participating in visual, electronic and written media on charges of founding a liberal website and insulting Islam. The first 50 lashes were delivered to Raif Badawi on 9 January 2015. Is jailing a blogger for his peaceful views and thoughts not punishment enough?

Mona Nader, head of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies' media unit, sees that organized repression of freedom of expression is followed by a hidden oppression of freedom of information. "They don't want you to know, and if you somehow knew, they don't want your opinions about it," she said.

"The Internet is the new enemy for these regimes, despite what people see as a free space for expression in traditional media," Nader added.

"People who work for traditional media channels have realized that guaranteeing their safety and continuity is bound to support for the regime, so they developed a kind of self-censorship on what they say or write. But online media activists are against censorship in the first place, that's why they are using cyberspace to express their opinions. Therefore, the Internet became a bigger space for free opinions, and a bigger battlefield."

Under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. This right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

But in a world of cruel arrogant regimes, Barlow's dream will not materialize. Under such regimes, no dream can be fulfilled. These cases of censorship and persecution are mainly political, and they demonstrate states' obsessions and fears regarding online interactions. Only strong political will can counter the direction in which we're heading. We cannot let the dream fade.

Click here to read this article on al-Araby al-Jadeed.

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