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How authorities in MENA are leveraging the COVID-19 pandemic to silence critical voices (Demo)

As the number of COVID-19 cases in MENA continues to climb, the impact on civil liberties and freedom of expression is growing throughout the region. While prisoners of conscience fight to be released from their overcrowded confinement, the region’s media is struggling to provide accurate information to counter official narratives, amidst significant blowback by authorities. 

Prisoners released… and not

Last month, thousands of Egyptian prisoners were released in a presidential pardon that notably failed to include prisoners of conscience, activists, and journalists. According to rights groups in the country, many of those pardoned were violent offenders and the deliberate exclusion of dissidents “reflects the Egyptian government’s disdain of the right to free expression, and reveals a disturbing reality in which free expression is considered to be a crime constituting a greater threat to public safety than murder and other violent crimes.”

Prisoners in Egypt face horrendous prison conditions and medical neglect. This lethal combination resulted in the recent death of filmmaker Shadi Habash who had been imprisoned since 2018 for directing a satirical music video critical of the president.

Among those who remain imprisoned is prominent activist blogger Alaa Abd El Fattah, who recently went on a hunger strike to protest his dire prison conditions and his inability to access updated information regarding the pandemic’s status in the country. Abd El Fattah’s hunger strike has called attention to the restricted access to information prisoners receive about the deadly pandemic. Similar restrictions extend to families of those detained, who have been denied vital updates on preventive health measures being undertaken by prison authorities to stop the virus’s spread.

In Bahrain, a similar situation has been playing out. Rights groups, including IFEX members, highlighted how unsanitary conditions and lack of adequate medical care in the kingdom’s overcrowded prisons are putting activists, political opposition leaders, and journalists at heightened risk from exposure to COVID-19. 

Journalist Mahmoud al-Jaziri, currently serving a 15-year prison sentence, was placed in solitary confinement last month for publishing an audio clip online in which he disputed official reports that authorities had taken measures to protect prisoners from the virus and that family visits had been replaced with video calls.

Prisons in Bahrain have a notorious track record of medical neglect. According to a recent study by the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) which analyzed the country’s deteriorating prison conditions between 2011 and 2020, denial of medical treatment has been one of the most common violations of prisoners’ rights.

In the midst of the pandemic, rights groups have called on governments in the Gulf region to lift their ban on VoIP applications that would allow residents and migrant workers to communicate with loved ones and access critical information. 

Silencing coverage and squashing dissent

As prisoners of conscience remain behind bars, authoritarian governments in the region have also sought to capitalize on the opportunity the global pandemic presents to squash dissent within their borders. Under the guise of public safety and national security, authorities have used the outbreak to bring the region’s recent protest movements to a grinding halt, and place a chokehold on media coverage and online dissent. 

Despite the recent pardons, Egypt’s prisons are still being filled with dissidents and citizens critical of the government’s response and transparency concerning the COVID-19 outbreak in the country. The expanding Case No. 558 of 2020, also known as the “Coronavirus Case”, has seen an undisclosed number of people forcibly disappeared and arbitrarily detained for their online expression. Charged with “spreading false news”, they range from political activists Aya Kamal and Noha Kamal Ahmed and human rights lawyer Mohsen Bahnasy, to numerous social media users, two translators, and, at one point, seven children.

Meanwhile, news websites in Egypt have been blocked and at least a dozen journalists have been detained for expressing their opinion about the pandemic or questioning official narratives on social media. According to an Amnesty International report, journalists working for government-owned or aligned news organizations receive specific instructions via WhatsApp telling them what to report and to omit.

In Algeria, the longest-running peaceful protests the country has seen in 30 years were hard-hit by a recent ban on all public gatherings. Rights groups in the Maghreb region condemned Algerian authorities for exploiting the pandemic to launch a blatant attack on the right to freedom of expression, which in recent weeks included blocking three news websites and jailing several journalists, including Khaled Drareni (Reporters Without Borders Algeria correspondent and editor of the Casbah Tribune) and France24 correspondent Sofiane Merakchi. 

The government also introduced a new bill criminalizing content it deems to be “fake news” and thus undermining “public order and security” especially during a pandemic. Following suit, Morocco jumped on the bandwagon by introducing a “fake news” bill that critics say sets a “dangerous precedent” for freedom of expression. Meanwhile, bloggers and journalists in Tunisia have received significant backlash for their critical coverage of the government’s pandemic response, both from authorities and a sudden surge in panic-driven patriotism. 

In Jordan, authorities arrested Roya TV channel owner Fares Sayegh and news director Mohamad al-Khalidi for a news segment featuring citizens from impoverished neighbourhoods expressing economic concerns over the country’s stringent lockdown rules. Both were later released on bail. 

In Iraq, Reuters saw its operating license temporarily revoked for its reporting of coronavirus cases in the country, while journalists in Iraqi Kurdistan are facing a wave of arrests for their coverage of the pandemic. 

Meanwhile, in Iran, the country’s cyber police have reportedly arrested thousands in a crackdown on voices critical of the regime’s mismanagement of the pandemic, including two journalists who were arrested for allegedly sharing a cartoon.

New and noteworthy

In Saudi Arabia, news of the Kingdom’s decision to end the horrendous practice of flogging brought great relief to imprisoned blogger Raif Badawi who has been spared 950 lashes from his sentence. However, the announcement came hand in hand with reports of imprisoned prominent activist Dr. Abdullah al-Hamid’s death after months of deteriorating health. 

The professor, reformist and founder of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association suffered a stroke in his cell last month. He was subsequently transferred to a hospital where he entered a coma and was reportedly denied urgent medical treatment by authorities. “It is unconscionable that Abdullah al-Hamid was forced to spend his final years in prison merely for criticizing Saudi Arabia’s rampant human rights abuses,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), who hailed Dr. al-Hamid as one of the leading lights in the country’s human rights movement.  

In Yemen 

A court set up by Houthis handed down death sentences to four journalists who had spent five years in detention. The journalists were charged with spying and spreading disinformation on behalf of Saudi Arabia, and were sentenced without their lawyers being present. While the decision is currently being appealed, six other journalists involved in the same case are set to be freed under police supervision. 

Meanwhile, according to HRW, Saudi military forces and Saudi-backed Yemeni forces are responsible for grave abuses against Yemeni demonstrators and citizens in the far eastern governorate of al-Mahrah, including arbitrary arrests, torture, enforced disappearances, and illegal transfer of detainees to Saudi Arabia.

In Syria

Last month saw the trial of two Syrian defectors begin in Germany. Anwar Raslan and Eyad al-Gharib fled to Germany after spending years in Syria’s ruthless intelligence service arresting and torturing thousands of protesters. They are facing charges of crimes against humanity in a historic trial considered to be the first trial for war crimes by the Syrian state since the conflict began.

In Palestine

In its annual report on the state of Palestinian digital rights, 7amleh examined the use of Israeli surveillance technologies being developed on Palestinians before their worldwide export, and how suppression tactics deployed by Israeli, Palestinian Authority and Hamas governments are forcing a rise in online self-censorship, with the voices of youth, women, and members of the queer community at particular risk. 

A recent recipient of the 2020 Freedom of Expression Award by Index on Censorship, 7amleh also published a report last month examining how YouTube’s policies and practices have been discriminating against Palestinian digital content. According to the report, many pro-Palestinian videos produced by journalists and activists have been removed based on unclear definitions of what constitutes violence, while content uploaded from the Palestinian territories is subject to geographic-based surveillance and content moderation.

Gulf Region

The Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR) published its annual report that tracked the cases of 321 human rights defenders across the Gulf and neighbouring countries, and examined the reclaiming of civic space by peaceful protests throughout the past year. “With continued activism of journalists, human rights defenders and civil society, GCHR celebrates all those who push back against the region’s governments when they disrespect human rights and freedoms,” said GCHR executive director, Khalid Ibrahim.

Free Internet in MENA

According to a new report from the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) examining the state of the Internet in the Arab world, more than 70% of the region’s prisoners of conscience are prosecuted and imprisoned because of what they wrote on the Internet. The report looks at the rise in website blocking, the use of surveillance technologies, and the journalists, activists, and citizens ensnared by a burgeoning array of cybercrime laws throughout the region.

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