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Under lockdown: States of perpetual emergency, the death of satire, and the return of the Lebanon protests (Demo)

The era of pandemic lockdowns continues to provide impetus for authoritarian states in MENA to restrict freedom of expression and quash public dissent. From Egypt’s growing population of critics in overcrowded prisons, to the rapidly shrinking civic space in Algeria, and the return of Lebanese protesters to the streets, the pandemic has underscored the extent to which vocal opposition is under threat across the region.

Egypt’s perpetual state of emergency 

As cases continue to climb in Egypt, President Sisi has used the pandemic to further clamp down on freedom of expression. This includes ratifying controversial amendments to the emergency law that rights groups say will further erode judicial independence, and gives the president and armed forces additional powers during the pandemic. In a country that has been under a state of emergency for decades, the amended law gives security agencies more powers to detain suspects and seize property without judicial review. 

Meanwhile, the plight of Egypt’s prisoners of conscience in the time of COVID-19 persists. Stuck in the confines of crowded cells throughout the country’s notorious prison system, calls for their release have fallen on deaf ears. Moreover, courts have actually renewed the pretrial detention of hundreds of political prisoners without their presence, in what the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) described as “countrywide security raids” seeking to add more prisoners of conscience to “its already dangerously overcrowded prisons.”

Musician Ramy Essam has led calls for an investigation into last month’s shocking death of imprisoned filmmaker Shady Habash. The 24-year old artist directed the music video for Essam’s ‘Balaha’, which mocked President Sisi. Imprisoned without trial, his death has underscored the urgency to release pretrial detainees amidst the growing public health crisis. 

Essam and human rights lawyer Andra Matei submitted Habash’s case to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Agnès Callamard, calling on her to intercede with the Egyptian authorities to investigate the death and hold perpetrators accountable.. 

People imprisoned for their connection to ‘Balaha’ have also included Mustafa Gamal, a social media administrator who managed the artist’s Facebook page in 2015 when ‘Balaha’ was published. Gamal was recently released after rights groups mobilized to highlight his case.  

Amidst the sweeping crackdown that has included young social media influencers, independent media has been increasingly targeted. Mada Masr Editor-in-Chief Lina Attalah was briefly detained after interviewing activist Laila Soueif, the mother of imprisoned activist Alaa Abd El Fattah, outside Tora Prison. Authorities also arrested freelance journalists Sameh Haneen and Shimaa Samy, with the Ministry of Interior later publishing a video of Haneen allegedly confessing to having received Qatari funding to produce videos critical of the Egyptian state. Samy most recently contributed to the blocked news website Darb, where she criticized the government’s pre-trial detention of political prisoners, including blogger Alaa Abdelfattah.

The death of humour, and other developments 

Throughout the pandemic, President Abdelmadjid Tebboune of Algeria has increasingly been using lockdowns as an opportunity to repress the Hirak movement, keeping protesters off the streets through extended curfews, blocking news sites, and arresting critical journalists. 

Faced with no active opposition, Tebboune recently presented a draft constitution that was seen as failing to present the systemic changes demanded during the country’s year-long protests. 

Human Rights Watch (HRW) noted the irony of how the government’s draft reaffirmed the constitutional provision that “No press offense shall be punished by imprisonment,” and even strengthened current provisions defining pretrial detention as an “exceptional measure,” all the while continuing to jail opposition leaders and independent journalists like Khaled Drareni.

The journalist, editor and the country’s Reporters without Frontiers (RSF) correspondent who covered the Hirak protest movement, was arrested in March and jailed on charges of “agitating for participation in a public gathering” and ” acting against the integrity of the nation”. While rights groups and public intellectuals have increasingly called attention to Drareni’s plight, his ongoing detainment is a reminder that Algerian jails are still home to many journalists, activists and protesters, including three opposition activists who received harsh sentences for their Facebook posts

For now, the atmosphere of state regression engulfing the country’s shrinking civic space has injected fear and self-censorship into the public arena. This reality might best be exemplified by the recent closure of El Manchar, Algeria’s only satirical news publication. 

“The climate of repression of freedoms, the imprisonment of citizens following their activities on social media has led us to reflect on the risks that we run,” read the publication’s editorial statement. “We lived moments of fear and we resisted for 5 years trying to contribute in our own way, through satire, to the difficulties that our country and our citizens were going through. We didn’t think we would get there.”

No laughing matter: attacks on the region’s independent media

The state of free expression during the pandemic has not fared much better in neighbouring Tunisia and Morocco, where humour has also come at a price during the lockdowns. In Morocco, a young woman was arrested for posting a 15-second TikTok video featuring her spot-on imitation of a local security figure notorious from her unique way of scolding Moroccans who don’t comply with the mandatory lockdown. 

In Tunisia, blogger Emna Chargui reposted on Facebook a short text entitled “Sura Corona” (the corona verse) – a satirical take on the pandemic, written and formatted in the manner of a Quranic sura. Two days later she was interrogated by a team of public prosecutors. “There is no freedom of expression when it comes to religion,” one member told Chargui, who was charged with “inciting hatred between religions through hostile means or violence” and could serve a three-year sentence.

In the midst of this encroaching repressive environment, which includes Facebook’s abrupt removal of dozens of pages belonging to Tunisian political bloggers and activists, the country’s hardened civil society has continued to push back against attempts to restrict freedom of expression. Tunisian organizations condemned recent moves to amend constitutional provisions establishing the country’s independent media regulator as a concerted effort to deprive the body of its independence. According to rights groups, the Ennahdha Movement-led initiative: “constitutes a new episode in a long-running soap opera, intended to make the media landscape more chaotic.” 

Tunisian women activists, journalists, and politicians continue to be targeted in online gender-based attacks and disinformation campaigns. In February, the Monitoring Unit of the National Union of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT) reported a drop in physical assaults against journalists, but said online attacks against them were on the rise. In March the SNJT warned against social media being used as a “field for campaigns of defamation and incitement against gender identities.”

In Morocco, Slimane Raissouni was arrested and charged with “violent indecent assault and detention” after a member of the LGBTQI+ community accused the Akhbar al Yaoum editor of sexually assaulting him in 2018. Same-sex relations are also illegal in Morocco, carrying sentences of up to three years. However, critics and rights groups in the region say the charges are suspicious, calling attention to the deliberate targeting of the critical Akhbar al Yaoum, including the 2019 arrest and conviction of journalist (and Silimane’s niece), Hajar Raissouni, who was convicted of having pre-marital sex and an abortion.

#LebanonProtests 2.0

In Lebanon, protests have returned as financial woes made worse by the pandemic have compelled people to forgo social distancing guidelines in the pursuit of change. Protesters have even staged sit-ins outside the homes of public officials, while activists and journalists have faced arrests and death.

Meanwhile, HRW produced a series of compelling stories from the LGBTQI+ community that has actively mobilized the country’s larger protest movement to also demand their rights. 

In Brief

In Saudi Arabia:

In the country’s ongoing crackdown on dissent, women have been particular targets of the government. Recently, Saudi Internet activist Amani Al-Zain was arrested after a social media campaign by pro-government loyalists circulated an old recording of a video chat between her and Egyptian Internet activist Wael Ghonim. In the video, Al-Zain called MBS by the nickname “Abu Munshar” (“father of the saw”), in reference to ordering the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, The online smear campaign saw pro-government Twitter users chastising Alzain for appearing in a tank-top, saying her outfit was too revealing. 

As women are increasingly targeted online for their activism, those detained in Saudi Arabia have reportedly faced sexual harassment, torture and other forms of ill-treatment that go unchecked in a country where, according to Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB), a culture of impunity has rapidly become policy. 

Meanwhile, the PEN America Freedom to Write Index recently listed Saudi Arabia as one of the biggest jailers of writers and public intellectuals in the world. According to the organization, nearly 60 percent of those detained are held by just three countries: China, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, the latter of which is home to 53 writers and intellectuals held in detention on secret, unknown or undisclosed charges. 

In Yemen:

Four Yemeni journalists’ lives are still at risk from a death sentence handed down in April by Houthi authorities. Over 150 organizations from around the world have called for their immediate release. In another blow to journalism in the country, AFP photojournalist Nabil Al-Qaiti was assassinated in his car, while prominent journalist Abdullah Awad Bakir was arrested by security forces in the Hadramout Governorate. 

In Iran:

The cyber police force (FATA) has been cracking down on women sharing photos on social media platforms like Instagram without their veil, accusing them of “promoting immorality”. Arrests have centered on those that officials have called “Instagram celebrities”. FATA’s deputy chief Colonel Ramin Pashaei said Iran’s Computer Crimes Law would not discriminate against Instagram users based on their follower count. As one of the few remaining open social networks in the country, the photo-sharing platform has only grown in popularity during recent COVID-19 lockdowns.

In Palestine:

According to a new MADA Center report examining the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Palestinian press and its future survival, the mounting financial challenges independent media outlets are facing during the crisis might see many forced to close. The report highlighted how such a fate would likely result in a media landscape where: “other  voices will be gone and only the official voice will be present”.  

Lastly, 7amleh has produced a digital rights handbook that informs users about their digital rights, and offers insight into how they can protect their digital security.

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