Regional updates: Middle East and North Africa

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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.

Follow the GIP's June 2019 briefing on Internet governance, which will include updates from the MENA region during June. Register to attend.

June 2019

Curated by Noha Fathy

Bahrain authorities launch new legal campaign to clamp down on social media activists
4 Jun 2019 |  Freedom of expression, Other human rights

In response to the reported restrictive measures taken by the government of  Bahrain to crack down on online activists in May 2019, the Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) denounced such practices that quell on freedom of expression online and called upon the authorities to amend the legislation that falls short of protecting basic human rights. They further requested the release of the detainees who were arrested for exercising their right to free expression. On 22 May 2019, a draft law on heightening the penalty for social media misuse was launched by the Council of Representatives’ Committee for Foreign Affairs, Defence, and National Security. The draft law focuses mostly on crimes such as ‘defamation, insult, spreading rumours and infringing on individuals, bodies, entities and state institutions.’ Additionally, On 30 May 2019, the Ministry of Interior conveyed a message from the Ministry of Interior’s General-Directorate of Anti-Corruption, Economic and Electronic Security (GDAEES) via Twitter stating that ‘Anti-cybercrime: Those who follow inciting accounts that promote sedition and circulate their posts will be held legally accountable.’ Following the message, it was reported that Bahraini individuals were targeted with a text from the Cybercrime Division, which stated: ‘Dear citizen be careful not to follow the accounts inciting hatred and spreading rumors since you will be legally accountable. Regards, the Directorate of Cyber Crime.’

Internet shutdown in Sudan amid reports of human rights violations
11 Jun 2019 |  Access, Other human rights

On 3 June, NetBlock reported Internet disruptions, the same day that the Rapid Support Forces clamped down on Sudanese demonstrations. According to NetBlock, the restrictions targeted service providers which, in turn, adversely impacted Internet connectivity. The shutdown was described as ‘a near-total restriction on the flow of information in and out of Sudan.’ It was also reported that the military leadership has, for the first time, admitted to shutting down the Internet. The Internet outage affected Facebook users who count mostly on it to organise demonstrations. However, the Facebook page of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) militia remained active during the shutdown which suggested they use fixed Internet connections. In response, the Sudanese people launched a petition campaign requesting that Facebook remove the RSF page which promotes violence against the pro-democracy demonstrations. Disruptions to social media and media censorship have been reported since December 2018, when the protestors started taking to the streets. The longest lasting shutdown to date was from 21 December 2018 until 26 February 2019 when social media were cut for 68 consecutive days.

RightsCon 2019 discourses the impact of technology on society and human rights
12 Jun 2019 |  Other human rights

Access Now organised RightsCon 2019 in Tunisia from 11-14 June with 17 thematic tracks, over 450 sessions, and more than 1000 speakers who participated to reflect the breadth and depth of technology’s impact on society and human rights. This year the thematic tracks revolved around elections, digital identities, technology-facilitated gender-based violence, and content moderation. During the landmark session on 'Human Rights Heroes and Villains', the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet spoke about the courage of human rights defenders in the digital world. She highlighted how digital tools were deployed to support encroachments on human rights, including the surveillance of human rights defenders, journalists, oppressed minorities, and dissenting voices. ‘We’re here at RightsCon, to try to turn that around, and ensure that digital tools don’t overpower our human rights – and instead, empower us all to enjoy them,’ she noted. She further stressed the importance of state regulation to ensure digital spaces are open, inclusive, safe, and just.

Jordan: Measuring Facebook live-streaming interference during protests
12 Jun 2019 |  Access, Other human rights

The Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) and Jordan Open Source Association (JOSA) published a research project ‘Jordan: Measuring Facebook Live-Streaming Interference during Protests’ that investigates the reasons why people could not upload videos on Facebook during the anti-austerity protests that took place in December 2018. The methodology of the research hinges on running a series of custom network measurement tests using cURL to examine the hypothesis of this research. Based on such tests, the research found that ‘Facebook users in Jordan could not live-stream due to overloaded networks’ and confirmed that Facebook Live Stream was temporarily interfered with during the protests.

‘Moral Crimes’ reporting app to be launched by Iran authorities
14 Jun 2019 |  Freedom of expression, Privacy and data protection, Other human rights

The Iranian judiciary declared its intention to launch a mobile app that allows Iranians to report encroachments of ‘crimes against morality and public chastity’ which include women without veils in public or people making ‘immoral’ posts on social media. The app ‘signals a fear that the Islamic Republic of Iran’s ‘morality’ norms have indeed failed to entrench themselves in society,’ said Iran technology expert Mahsa Alimardani. According to Alimardani, such an app would further be antithetical to constitutional privacy protections.

#BlueforSudan go viral in solidarity with pro-democracy struggle
16 Jun 2019 |  Access, Other human rights

On 6 June, the Rapid Support Forces cracked down on Sudanese protestors resulting in the death of 112 and the injury of 700 people. It was reported that the dead were thrown into the Nile over the Blue Nile Bridge. Among the victims was Mohammad Mattar who was reportedly shot while protecting two women. Mattar’s friends launched an online movement by turning their avatars blue in honour of him and the #BlueforSudan hashtag was trending on social media. Thousands of people worldwide, including celebrities, joined the movement and changed their profile pictures to blue to support the Sundanese pro-democracy struggle. 

Social media and websites are blocked in Algeria
16 Jun 2019 |  Access, Other human rights

According to NetBlocks report, social media platforms were blocked in Algeria on 16 June to counter cheating during national baccalaureate school exams. Among the blocked social media platforms were Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Tinder, Russian social networks VKontakte, and Odnoklassniki, as well as servers for messaging apps WhatsApp, Telegram, Skype, Viber, and Line. Additionally, two independent news websites, Tout Sur l'Algérie and Algérie Part, were reported to be inaccessible since 12 June. The websites were allegedly blocked because they covered the anti-government protests that erupted when then President Abdelaziz Bouteflika declared he would run for a fifth term in office. 

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