Regional updates: Middle East and North Africa

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

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October 2019

Curated by Noha Fathy

Iraqi authorities shut down Internet amid protests

4 Oct 2019 |  Access, Human rights principles

On 2 October, NetBlocks reported that the Iraqi authorities had disabled access to social media channels including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and the messaging application WhatsApp. Several days later, on 8 October, Internet access was cut off in Baghdad amid violent anti-government protests. Services remained accessible via virtual private networks (VPNs) which allowed Iraqis to document and follow the events taking place during the protests on social media. The Internet blackout was denounced by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) for restricting news coverage of the protests and freedom of the press. ‘By shutting down the Internet and forcibly preventing journalists from covering the protests, Iraqi authorities seem to be intent on creating a black hole for news. We call on the Iraqi authorities to immediately restore full Internet access and ensure that journalists can do their job freely and safely’, stressed CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa representative, Ignacio Miguel Delgado. Following the events, an Iraqi lawyer filed a lawsuit against the Iraqi minister of telecommunications for restricting Internet access during the protests and requested compensation for the ‘damage of infringement on freedom’.


Huawei kicks off 5G OpenLab during its Middle East Innovation Day 2019

10 Oct 2019 |  Artificial intelligence, Telecommunications infrastructure

Huawei organised its Middle East Innovation Day 2019 on the second day of the GITEX Technology Week at the Dubai World Trade Centre from 27 September – 1 October. The day gathered telecom operators and industry partners and leaders from the Middle East to collaborate on 5G, artificial intelligence (AI innovation), and support for local developers. During the day, Huawei announced the establishment of the 5G OpenLab in the Middle East to improve connectivity, with special focus on the 2B market, AI solutions, fixed wireless access (FWA), closed-circuit television (CCTV), and campus private lines. ‘We will keep expanding and enhancing our collaborative partnership in the Middle East to cultivate a strong and inclusive 5G ecosystem in its journey to building a fully connected intelligent Middle East’, noted Anjian, president of the Carrier Networks Business Group, Huawei Middle East. ‘The increasing scale of intelligent technologies are bringing disruptive changes to enterprises across the Middle East … We believe that AI will promote innovation across the region and will change the way entire industries are run’, highlighted the Managing Director and Vice President of the Huawei Enterprise Business Group, Alaa ElShimy.


NSO Group’s spyware targets human rights activists in Morocco

10 Oct 2019 |  Freedom of expression, Privacy and data protection

Amnesty International has reported digital attacks in Morocco undertaken by NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware. The attacks work through SMS messages carrying malicious links. When the links are clicked on, the NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware is installed. Since 2017, the attacks have been targeting two prominent Moroccan human rights defenders; Maati Monjib, an academic and freedom of expression activist, and Abdessadak El Bouchattaoui, a human rights lawyer involved in the legal defence of protestors in a social justice movement in Hirak El-Rif that took place in 2016 and 2017. The research also unveiled network injection attacks against a human rights defender’s mobile network between March and July 2019, which aimed at installing spyware which could be attributed to the NSO Group in order to reportedly clamp down on opposition.

Deepfake technology threatens women human rights defenders in the Middle East

14 Oct 2019 |  Freedom of expression, Artificial intelligence

The Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR) published a statement to denounce potential exploitation of deepfake content in targeting human rights defenders in the Middle East. Deepfake technology can be used to produce fake content that looks real, and is hence an infringement on basic human rights. According to the GCHR, gender-based deepfake technology is particularly dangerous in the Middle East where women activists are vocal and active and can risk their security because of malicious uses by such technology. ‘Innovatively, Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) took the virtual space as an alternative to mobilise, solidify and sound their voices on a louder scale. However, the risks which come with online activism are increasing, and we are very concerned as such technology will only lead to further gender-based targeting against WHRDs, particularly through defamation and smearing campaigns, and systematic stigmatisation attacks’, stressed GCHR’s WHRDs Programme Coordinator, Weaam Youssef.

Internet blackout reported in Syria

15 Oct 2019 |  Access, Human rights principles

The Guardian reported an Internet shutdown across Northeastern Syria on 13 October, which was also confirmed by the Rojava Information Center’s Twitter account. Furthermore, phones stopped working, officials disappeared, and the streets were left empty. Journalists and reporters working in Northeastern Syria have been reportedly subject to different violations that range from physical injury to killings.

Prominent Iranian dissident arrested

18 Oct 2019 |  Human rights principles, Freedom of expression, Freedom of the Press

The administrator of the anti-government Telegram channel ‘Amad News’ – which has around 1.4 million subscribers – Ruhollah Zam was arrested. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) announced on Iran's state television that Zam was arrested amid a ‘complex operation using intelligence deception’ and accused him of contributing to ‘the enemy's media network’ and conducting a ‘psychological warfare.’ Additionally, they took control of his Telegram channel. ‘Election campaigns are increasingly waged on Telegram, Twitter, and Instagram. Social media networks serve as major platforms for Iranians to discuss political, social, and cultural issues; and mobile applications are being rapidly developed for business start-ups’ according to the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI).


Electoral campaigning on social media subject to disinformation in Tunisia

21 Oct 2019 |  Freedom of expression, Freedom of the Press

During the three elections that Tunisia witnessed from mid-September to mid-October 2019, misinformation was spread on social media platforms, the most effective communication channels for political parties and candidates to reach voters. To this aim, a substantial number of people started following political party and candidate-affiliated Facebook groups and pages. This also included unofficial Facebook pages without clear affiliation, which diffused disinformation and sponsored content praising certain parties and produced 38.5% of the political messages between 15 May - 15 July, according to a report on social media monitoring published by the Tunisian Association for the Integrity and Democracy of Elections (ATIDE) and Democracy Reporting International. The fake news which aimed at adversely influencing citizens, included presidential candidates withdrawing to support other candidates, political figures or celebrities supporting certain candidates, the arrest of some candidates, and the assault of a polling centre official by a candidate.


Hotline for protestors in Lebanon to report violation of digital rights

24 Oct 2019 |  Freedom of expression

On 18 October, demonstrations erupted in Lebanon to protest against a government proposal to impose taxes on calls made via WhatsApp and the severe economic conditions. To support the Lebanese demonstrations and help protesters stay safe online, Social Media Exchange (SMEX) launched a digital media initiative. To this aim, a hotline was launched to allow protesters to report on infringements against human rights online. Through this hotline, SMEX offered to help protesters regain access to their hacked social media accounts, improve security of users’ accounts through activating two-step verification, and unblocking access to live streaming. SMEX is foreseeing possible Internet shutdowns or disruptions during protests and has thus proactively published technical guidelines on how to communicate securely in case of a network disruption.

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