Right to roam: Internet freedom in MENA

In the wake of the government surveillance scandal that has rocked America, Arabian Business reviews the implications of internet freedom for the MENA region

Whether it came as a surprise or not, much of the world was horrified to learn last month that the US National Security Agency (NSA) had been spying on internet users and collecting their data in a massive clandestine electronic surveillance programme known as PRISM. It had remained a secret for six years until it was leaked by NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who was forced to flee the US and is now struggling to find asylum.

The programme is believed to be the most comprehensive — and invasive — collection of online data and at least one NSA report showed PRISM was “the number one source of raw intelligence used for NSA analytic reports”. A colour-coded map released at the same time highlights the international spread of the surveillance, with Jordan and Egypt particularly standing out as hotspots for government web scrutiny in the Middle East.

But the internet has long been a controversial talking point in the Middle East and North Africa, from access, to government censorship and surveillance and the jailing of those who dare speak their minds online in a manner deemed offensive to local authorities.

Government attempts to control the technology seem to have heightened since social media played such a dominant role in the so-called Arab Spring revolutions in 2011, helping to bring together like-minded opponents. Governments and ruling families that managed to avoid the domino effect, which started in Tunis in January 2011, witnessed the power of social media and the internet and in many cases have clamped down on it in their own countries.

Scores of MENA residents are in jail for comments posted on websites such as Twitter and Facebook, or on personal blogs. Last month, it was revealed Saudi Arabia had sentenced seven government critics to jail time ranging from five to ten years for inciting protests using social media website Facebook. All of the men were from the Eastern Province, which is home to many of the kingdom’s Shia majority and where there has been recent unrest.

Human Rights Watch claimed the case had not implicated the men in directly taking part in protests and the court had failed to investigate allegations of confessions obtained via torture.

“Sending people off to years in prison for peaceful Facebook posts sends a strong message that there’s no safe way to speak out in Saudi Arabia, even on online social networks,” Human Rights Watch deputy Middle East director Joe Stork says.

Also in June, a Kuwaiti court sentenced Huda Al Ajmi, a 37-year-old teacher, to eleven years in jail for insulting the Emir, inciting regime change and insulting a religious sect via Twitter, according to sources close to the case. She is believed to be the first female to be convicted for such crimes.

In one of the most high-profile cases, Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef, who hosts the weekly prime time programme El Bernameg (The Show), was detained in March for making fun of then-president Mohamed Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood.

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