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As UN HRC takes place, governments in the MENA region step up repression

Concerns about abuses and Bahrain's Grand Prix; the risks of protesting and covering protests in Iraq; Egypt's media attacks extend beyond its borders; a controversial online game censored; a new report from Syria.

Electoral workers count ballots at the end of the final day of the Egyptian presidential election in Cairo, 28 March 2018
Electoral workers count ballots at the end of the final day of the Egyptian presidential election in Cairo, 28 March 2018

Fayed El-Geziry/NurPhoto via Getty Images

In the wake of the passing of Asma Jahangir, UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in the Islamic Republic of Iran, ARTICLE 19 called on states at the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) to "stand as she did with Iranians and civil society in calling for immediate reforms to protect freedom of expression and information in the country." Just days earlier, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reported that two Iranian journalists had been arrested and beaten into a coma during three days of clashes in the north Tehran district of Pasdaran.

As Saudi Arabia's seat at the 47 Member-strong HRC was renewed, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) said that the HRC "must audibly speak out and become capable of stopping the violations of human rights in many countries around the globe, including Saudi Arabia."

The sham elections in Egypt were widely condemned even before taking place between 26 and 28 of March. President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi was running virtually unchallenged, and nearly all signs of opposition to his rule were met with further repression. With echoes of the Trump administration, Egypt's top prosecutor ordered authorities on 28 February to monitor media for "fake news". The timing, as the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported, was no coincidence: it was "part of a larger government crackdown on the media in Egypt ahead of scheduled presidential elections".

Not satisfied with limiting local outlets, the Sisi regime set its sights on foreign media. As RSF wrote, "after stifling the national media and censoring information on social networks, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi's regime has been stepping up its harassment of foreign media."

On 26 February, viewers of ON TV, a pro-government commercial TV channel, saw a strange confession by a young woman called Zubeida claimed she had secretly married without telling her mother and denied being held incommunicado by the police for the past ten months. This came just a few days after her mother reported that her daughter was missing, in a moving account by the BBC. Shortly after, Um Zubeida, Arabic for 'Zubeida's mother', was arrested, the government ordered a boycott of the BBC, and Egypt's chief prosecutor accused the "forces of evil" of "trying to undermine the security and safety of the nation through the broadcast and publication of lies and false news."

As the Egyptian government continues to urge "the public to mistrust foreign journalists", al-Sisi's supporters have "not only approved this draconian measure but have also been calling for foreign reports to be expelled as 'sponsors of terrorism'".

On 7 March, RSF reported that prosecutors were seeking the death penalty for well-known Egyptian photographer Shawkan [Mahmoud Abou Zeid] "in connection with an anti-government protest in Cairo's Rabaa al-Adawiya Square in August 2013", referring to the Rabaa massacre of 2013. Devastatingly, Shawkan's case is one of "the more than 700 defendants in a political mass trial in Cairo for whom the "maximum penalty" - death by hanging - was requested by the prosecution on 3 March 2018."

There is also a new cybercrime law in the mix. On 16 March, Global Voices Advox reported that "Egyptian parliamentarians will soon review a draft anti-cybercrime law that could codify internet censorship practices into national law." And to top it all off, RSF published a report detailing "deep concern about the fate of press freedom in a country reduced to silence by the incumbent."

Increases in repression led to the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) condemning "recent violations of freedom of expression in Egypt and called on the government to "accept all freedoms in general and freedom of the media in particular".

With national elections in Iraq coming up on 12 May, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and its affiliate the Kurdistan Journalists Union (KJS) have called for greater press freedom and the right of journalists to report freely and safely throughout the country. This comes as journalists in Iraqi Kurdistan have faced attacks and arrests while covering campaigns, protests or even simply celebrations. In December of 2017, Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) security forces had detained some men who had taken part in demonstrations around Sulaymaniyah, held them for eight days, and forced them to sign statements promising not to criticize the government. In response to complaints by Human Rights Watch, the KRG coordinator for international advocacy said that "Sulaymaniyah security forces were extremely lenient and accommodating during the protests". Just a few months later, on 25 March 2018, CPJ reported that "Kurdish security forces have assaulted at least seven journalists and detained at least two while they were reporting on anti-austerity protests."

There has been no relief for journalists in Syria covering the war in the past seven years, and the besieged rebel-held Eastern Ghouta of the Damascus countryside has seen some of the war's most devastating episodes. Under the circumstances it comes as no surprise that the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM) has documented the death of 55 media professionals in Eastern Ghouta alone in the past seven years.

As the bombardments by the Syrian regime and its Russian ally intensified, the safety of journalists, as indeed of all civilians, has been a primary cause of concern for many human rights groups. On 22 March, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) expressed its concern for the reported disappearance of opposition TV reporter Hadi Al Monajid and called "on the international community to do everything possible to protect journalists caught in the fighting." His colleagues fear that he has been arrested. CPJ also reported that eight unidentified gunmen assaulted independent reporter Mohamed Abdulqader Sbeh on 1 March in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib.

In Brief

In Yemen, CPJ reported that unidentified gunmen abducted at least seven people from a media foundation's offices on 23 March in Aden.

In advance of the Formula One Grand Prix Event in Sakhir, Bahrain on 8 April 2018, Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) highlighted the fact "that the presence of Formula One in Bahrain has coincided with renewed crackdowns and police brutality, sometimes fatal."

In Tunisia, two controversial online games were censored by the government. The games, according to Advox, "raised public concerns about self-harm" but the government's response also raised concerns "about arbitrary internet censorship."

In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), award-winning human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor's whereabouts remain unknown a year after his disappearance. GCHR wrote that "the authorities should reveal the whereabouts of prominent human rights defender and citizen-journalist Ahmed Mansoor and release him immediately and unconditionally, over two dozen human rights organisations said today. He is being held for his peaceful human rights work."

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