Regional updates: Middle East and North Africa

What were the main digital policy regional updates in the Middle East and North Africa region? This space brings you the main updates month by month, summarised by the observatory's curators.

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December 2018

Curated by 

Noha Fathy

DNSpionage malware targets websites in Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates

1 Dec 2018 | 

Cybersecurity, Cybercrime

Cisco’s Talos Intelligence Group unveiled a new espionage campaign targeting government and private domains in Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The malware, dubbed ‘DNSpionage’ by Cisco Talos, supports HTTP and DNS communication with the attackers. The targeted operation hinged on two different campaigns hosted on the same server: 1) Circulating fake job websites which run malicious code when downloaded, and 2) Redirecting .gov domains administered by the Lebanese Ministry of Finance, Middle Eastern Airlines, and the UAE’s Telecommunications Regulation Authority (TRA). According to Warren Mercer and Paul Rascagneres at Cisco Talos, the attackers targeted email and VPN traffic to collect email usernames, passwords, and VPN credentials. Additionally, both campaigns were run by the same actor, but the location and motivation of the actors were not identified.

Foreign investment gains can promote the Lebanese digital economy

5 Dec 2018 | 

Economic - other issues

The United Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) released a new Investment Policy Review (IPR) of Lebanon that denotes the country’s potential to promote employment and drive the development of information economy through foreign investment. The UNCTAD report acknowledges the Lebanese government’s endeavours in the adoption of e-government solutions. The report proposes a strategy to increase FDI attraction, especially in the information and communications technology (ICT) and ICT-enabled sectors. It further pinpoints several recommendations to help Lebanon improve the digital economy, which include advancing the investment climate and embracing a strategic approach to investment promotion. To position the country as a leading regional and global destination for investors in the information economy, the report also recommends several reforms to the structure and functions of the Investment Development Authority of Lebanon (IDAL).

Jordanian Cabinet endorses a new cybercrime law

11 Dec 2018 | 


A new cybercrime law was approved in Jordan with an addition of new amendments [in Arabic] to the old law. The new law redefines hate speech to include any writing, speech or action that is intended to incite sectarian or racial strife or to call for violence, or to provoke conflict between sects and various segments of society. Additionally, it criminalises rumours and false news with a penalty of three months to two years imprisonment. As for third-party content on social media and media outlets, the law provides that the liability of the comments is on the commentators. The law was condemned for not being opened for public comments or published after endorsement. It was further denounced for addressing crimes that are already tackled in other operative laws.

Policies of telecommunication companies in Egypt lack privacy and data protection measures

13 Dec 2018 | 

Privacy and data protection, Other human rights

The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) published a report that posits the question of whether telecommunication companies in Egypt protect the privacy of their customers. To address this question, four major operators on the Egyptian market: Vodafone, Orange, Etisalat, and Telecom Egypt were investigated. The key findings showed that the four telecommunication companies have not adopted mechanisms or obligations to protect the huge amount of personal data that they have, nor do they restrict their disclosure. Moreover, they retain this data indefinitely without informing their users about how their data is being used.  

Diagnosis of e-commerce readiness in the Republic of Iraq embarked

13 Dec 2018 | 

Economic - other issues, E-commerce

The International Islamic Trade Finance Corporation (ITFC) and the United Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) signed a partnership agreement to support an e-commerce readiness assessment of the Republic of Iraq, under the Aid for Trade Initiative for the Arab States programme. The first ‘enhanced’ eTrade Readiness Assessment ‘will follow the standard methodology used for the past ones but will include a deep-dive into one or two key sectors where digitalisation is particularly relevant in the context of the Iraqi economy’, noted Mukhisa Kituyi, UNCTAD Secretary-General. The assessment has three immediate objectives: 1) Enhance the understanding of Iraq’s overall readiness for e-commerce through stocktaking and surveys, 2) Increase national actions aimed at improving the adoption of e-commerce in Iraq, and 3) Developing access to technical co-operation available among e-Trade for all partners.

Joint Arab vision for the digital economy is the outcome of the first Arab Digital Economy Conference

16 Dec 2018 | 

Economic - other issues

The first Arab Digital Economy Conference was organised in Abu Dhabi on 16-17 December 2018 during which the Arab League launched the Joint Arab Vision for the Digital Economy. In addition to Arab institutions and organisations, the conference was attended by a number of international organisations including the United Nations, the World Bank, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). ‘By 2030 the Arab countries adoption of the digital economy strategy could grow GDP from 2.6 trillion USD up to 4.15 trillion and the total digital growth effect at full maturity could reach up to 333 billion USD a year’, said Dr. Hesham O. Dinana, Head of Research for the Arab Digital Economy Strategy. The main recommendations of the conference focused on producing policies and laws to regulate the digital economy and support digital transformation, building the capacities of Arab citizens to deal with advanced digital technologies, and building partnerships with the private sector to invest in the sustainable development of the digital economy.

November 2018

Curated by 

Noha Fathy

Freedom on the Net 2018 report sheds light on the improvement and decline of Internet freedom in the MENA region

1 Nov 2018 | 

Freedom of expression, Other human rights

Freedom House released its annual publication, Freedom on the Net 2018: The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism. Out of the 65 countries assessed, 26 experienced a deterioration in Internet freedom, half of which was related to elections, and 19 demonstrated minor improvements. In the Middle East and North Africa, improvements were tracked in Bahrain, Jordan, Libya, and Syria, whereas declines were reported in Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan. The report also denotes that among the biggest offenders to Internet freedom in the Middle East and North Africa are Iran and Syria, followed by Saudi Arabia.

Libyan journalist Mukhtar al-Halak charged over a Facebook post

8 Nov 2018 | 

Freedom of expression, , Other human rights

The Libyan authorities have charged freelance journalist, Mukhtar al-Halak, with criminal defamation and publishing state security secrets. According to Al-Halak, he is accused of defamation for publishing an article on Facebook about the disappearance of vehicles received by security directorate in the western city of Ajilat from the Ministry of Interior, and of publishing state secrets by posting an image of a telegram between Libyan security forces who were anticipating an attack. He told the Committee to Protect Journalists that he was arrested at the security directorate’s office upon covering a meeting and was verbally abused during interrogations. In October 2018, Al-Halak was released on bail as reported by the Libyan Center for Freedom of the Press.

EU officials urged to bring up Turkey’s freedom of expression crisis during EU-Turkey high political dialogue

21 Nov 2018 | 

Freedom of expression, Other human rights

Nine international organisations sent an open letter to the European delegation engaged in a high-level political dialogue with Turkey, urging them to address the freedom of expression crisis in the country. The letter refers to the clampdown on journalists and media outlets through the introduction of new legislation, widespread closures of media outlets, prosecutions of journalists, and the dismissal of 10 000 media workers. The letter further criticises the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) for failing to recognise the impact of repression on Turkish journalists and civil society, saying that the ECtHR’s response has thus far been weak. Moreover when there were rulings on journalists, they were ignored by the Turkish authorities. In the same line, the Freedom on the Net 2018 report, published in early November 2018, showed that the Internet is not free in Turkey due mostly to violations of users’ rights and limitations on online content.

22 Nov 2018 | 

Gender rights online, Other human rights

The Arab Center for the Development of Social Media (7amleh) and the Swedish Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation released a study on gender-based violence on social networks and the Internet entitled: A Violent Network - Gender-Based Violence Against Palestinian: Women in Virtual Space. The research reveals that gender-based violence has augmented during the past few years in the form of hacking accounts, publishing personal details, extortion, receiving pictures with inappropriate content among other practices. As a result, one in four Palestinian women closed their social media accounts and withdrew from the Internet. The study recommends enhanced legislation to counter such phenomenon which the study participants attributed to male chauvinistic upbringing and lacking of supervision by the family.

October 2018

Curated by 

Noha Fathy

NSO’s Pegasus Spyware found in Canada and allegedly linked to Saudi Arabia

1 Oct 2018 | 

Cybersecurity, Privacy and data protection, Other human rights

The Citizen Lab reported that a Canadian permanent resident and Saudi Arabian human rights activist was targeted by the NSO Groups’s Pegasus spyware technology in Quebec. Pegasus is a mobile phone spyware which is capable of reading passwords, contact lists, calendar events, text messages, and live voice calls. The Citizen Lab suspected that this attack was operated by Saudi Arabia-linked Pegasus operator which could reportedly ‘amplify the dispute between Canada and Saudi Arabia’, according to Ron Deibert, Director, The Citizen Lab. In September 2018, The Citizen Lab reported that the NSO Groups’s global proliferation signified a risk to human rights, and that Pegasus operators were linked to abusive use of spyware, targeting civil society in four MENA countries including Bahrain, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Syrian government is considering the censorship of VoIP services

19 Oct 2018 | 

Privacy and data protection, Other human rights

The Syrian Telecommunication Regulatory Authority (TRA) declared [link in Arabic] that the censorship of VoIP services is being examined, as it has adverse effects on the revenues of licensed telecommunication companies. Ibaa Oueichek, General Director of TRA, explained that 'these apps which are known as audio and visual communications service apps, without charge, benefiting from the arrival of the internet to a huge number of users around the world. But this affects the revenues of the communications companies licensed to offer the service, and thereby lowers the return on investment for these companies and reduces their incentives to make new investments to improve the network and offer better services for a lower price.' Social Media Exchange (SMEX) argues that such policy violates the rights to privacy and promotes self-censorship, since licensed telecommunication companies do not provide the end-to-end encryption supported by VoIP services. This censorship will further threaten the communications between Syrians and their family and friends who were forced to escape the country amid the war.

Tightening the net: The internet in the time of currency crisis

21 Oct 2018 | 

Privacy and data protection, Freedom of expression, Access, Other human rights

ARTICLE 19 published a report on the recent Internet policy developments in Iran which sheds light on major political and economic events that influenced policy decisions vis-à-vis online freedoms and Internet access. While the government is promoting crypto currencies and transparency initiatives to countervail the crumbling economy, it is advocating local messenger apps and blocking crypto exchanges. The report further provides an assessment of the leading messaging platforms in Iran based on the numbers of users, affiliations, and implications for Internet freedom. It also analyses the new laws on censorship, data, and privacy that were introduced in 2017 and 2018.

Yemeni writer Marwan Almuraisy was arrested and disappeared in Saudi Arabia

25 Oct 2018 | 

Freedom of expression, Access, Other human rights

On 1 June 2018, it was reported that the Yemeni writer, Marwan Almuraisy, was arrested at his home in Riyadh. Four months after the arrest, his whereabouts are still unknown, and he has been held incommunicado, as reported by human rights organisations. Almuraisy used to tweet on technology, innovation, and science and did some reporting for a privately-owned Saudi Arabian website and other outlets that focused on science and technology. He also managed several Twitter accounts on world statistics and data and short films in Arabic. Advox argues that Almuraisy was not publically involved in political or human rights activism.

July 2018

Curated by 

Noha Fathy

Eye Police app intimidates the privacy of Lebanese citizens

27 Aug 2018 | 

Privacy and data protection

The Lebanese Ministry of Information kicked off the Eye Police app on 12 June to improve public service delivery, by providing a platform for citizens to report issues directly to the pertinent ministries. Social Media Exchange (SMEX) reported that the app does not provide the necessary safeguards to user data. According to SMEX, ‘[o]nce users file complaints, the NNA allegedly publishes them on its website to give them greater visibility.’ Further threats include the requests for unnecessary permission to install Eye Police on Android devices which jeopardies the privacy of users. Moreover, the app allegedly requires users to submit personal data and stores it on unprotected servers that do not have Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) encryption for data exchange.

August 2018

Curated by 

Noha Fathy

Telegram app traffic was illegally rerouted in Iran

1 Aug 2018 | 

Access, Freedom of expression, Other human rights

The Telecommunications Company of Iran (TCI) rerouted the traffic of the Telegram app for one hour on 30 July which is in contradiction to the Iranian Computer Crimes law, Articles 736 and 737, which stipulates a fine of up to two years in prison and a maximum fine of 40 million Iranian Rials (approximately USD$ 906) for such a crime. Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, Iranian Telecommunications Minister, tweeted on 30 July, acknowledging the engagement of the TCI ‘in changing its topology and consolidating its provincial network in Shiraz and Bushehr [cities].’ He added that ‘[i]f confirmed, the TCI’s misdeed, whether intentional or not, will trigger a heavy fine.’

Law to protect personal data endorsed by the Egyptian Cabinet

7 Aug 2018 | 

Privacy and data protection

A new data protection law was approved by the Egyptian Cabinet on 7 August 2018. The bill, which has still not published, outlaws the collection, process, or disclosure of personal data without the legal permission or consent of the person in question. If the law is not complied with, a prison sentence of no less than one year and a fine between 100 – 100 000 Egyptian pounds (approximately USD$ 5605 – 56 050) shall be imposed. The new law aims at promoting investment and ‘organis[ing] transboundary movements and electronic marketing activities [in order] to control the process of electronic processing of personal data and to ensure the rights of citizens …’ explained Amr Talaat, Minister of Communication and Information Technology. The bill is still awaiting the approval of the Council of States and Parliament.

Social media is threatened in Turkey

14 Aug 2018 | 

Freedom of expression, Other human rights

In the light of the financial crisis in Turkey, a clampdown on social media was instigated when the government embarked on investigations into the ‘manipulative stories on media and operational social media accounts’ that threaten ‘social peace, unity and economic security,’ clarified the Chief Prosecutor's Office. Additionally, ‘a judicial investigation has been launched into 346 social media accounts who shared posts to provoke the rise in the dollar exchange rate’, reported Turkey's Interior Ministry. Turkey’s Financial Crime Investigation Board (MASAK) is also investigating the fake news that aimed at manipulating the economy. Amid the state of emergency declared after the abortive coup, Twitter accounts of an array of pro-Gülen journalists and media outlets and pro-Kurdish media outlets among other advocates were further blocked by court order at the end of July.

Online activists are under interrogations by Lebanese authorities over social media posts

13 Aug 2018 | 

Freedom of expression, Other human rights

Ten online journalists and advocates were questioned by Lebanese security agencies over Facebook and Twitter posts that reportedly included advocacy for online activism, sarcastic comments about religious figures, and the criticism of politicians. Some of them were forced to sign pledges to refrain from publishing ‘slanderous’ content, and some, to deactivate their social media accounts or else cease posting on them for a specific time. According to the Lebanese Penal Code [in Arabic], defamation of the president and public figures is a crime punishable by imprisonment.

Six online journalists sentenced long jail terms in Iran

22 Aug 2018 | 

Freedom of expression, Other human rights

The Tehran Revolutionary Court ruled against six journalists and editors for Majzooban Noor; a website for the Sufi religious community of Gonabadi dervishes in Iran. Members of the editorial committee alongside citizen journalists were issued sentences from seven years up to 26 years in prison and 74 lashes for each. After completing their jail terms, they will still have an internal exile and a ban on all civil society and journalistic activity simultaneously for two years. Since they rebuffed to attend the hearing due to the absence of legal representation, the sentences were passed in absentia.



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