*Syria’s membership in the League was suspended in November 2011.
Since 2011 several new laws (we’re still counting how many) have been drafted, updated, and/or passed in Arab countries that further threaten freedom of expression and other civil and political rights. These laws—which include amendments to press laws, counter-terrorism measures, and legislation against cybercrime, as well as executive decrees—not only add to the chilling effects on speech of existing legal restrictions, but they also create a new web of red lines that target expression, both private and public, on the Internet and over mobile phones.
While legislation aimed at curbing online speech is not unique to the Middle East, the potential effects of these practices in the Arab region (here defined as the 22 members* of the League of Arab States) is particularly worrisome, given the region’s importance, geographic size, and population of more than 300 million people.
Across the region, journalists, bloggers, activists, musicians, clerics, and ordinary netizens not known for their political activity are suffering the consequences. For their acts of expression in tweets and retweets, Facebook posts, YouTube videos, WhatsApp messages, private photos, and more, they are being arrested, held and prosecuted without due process, convicted in absentia or in secret, and subjected to sentences and fines that not only violate multiple rights but also defy all standards of necessity and proportionality with regard to permissible restrictions on free speech.
Such legal harassment, cautioned international law scholar Wolfgang Benedeck at the 2014 Internet Governance Forum in Istanbul, “is increasingly in the online field, because this is where the free expression is moved to, as the offline field is more or less under control.”
The “Working Drafts” Series
Creative Commons–licensed image by wiertz on Flickr.
Tuesday Wednesday, to get a better grasp on these threats, SMEX will begin publishing weekly “working drafts” on the emerging legal framework for online expression in Arab countries. Our aim is to build a foundation for future advocacy, activism, journalism, and other work on digital rights in the region. We hope that this work will be useful to an array of people who care about the future of digital rights in our part of the world, including local and international activists, journalists and bloggers, technologists, lawyers and judges, and ordinary netizens.
While the working drafts draw from a wide range of English and Arabic sources—including reports from the UN, international and regional NGOs and networks, publications such as the Digital Citizen newsletter, and observations from conferences and discussions with peers in the field—we use the name “working drafts” to indicate that these are unfinished posts that we want to complete collaboratively, with your comments, corrections, perspectives, and resources. We’re also hoping that this series will inspire guest posts and cross posts on related topics. Ultimately, we want to compile the posts into a coherent report, crediting contributors accordingly, and share it widely.
We hope to be able to publish the full series in both Arabic and English, but at the moment we will need to rely either on volunteer translators or contributions to fund the translations (which we prefer, because we think people ought to be paid for their work). At the moment, this is an entirely self-funded initiative (a little more on that below). If you’re interested in helping out, please let us know.
Starting next Tuesday, we plan to publish weekly posts organized into three main parts, as follows:
Part I: Background on the Legal Frameworks for Free Expression
- Week 1: With Free Expression in the Arab World, Where Do We Begin?
- Week 2: The Curse of Constitutional Powerlessness
- Week 3: Champions of International Lawlessness
- Week 4: A Regional Arab Human Rights Framework: More Elusive than Justice Itself?
Part II: Applications of the Legal Frameworks to Online Expression
- Week 4: Expansion of existing restrictions through censorship and insult charges and anti-defamation restrictions in penal codes and press and publications laws
- Week 5: Counterterrorism laws and free expression online
- Week 6: Cybercrime laws and free expression online
- Week 7: Enhanced technical and human approaches to surveillance
Part III: Current Responses
- Week 8: Activist and civil society responses
- Week 9: Government-led programs to protect digital rights as a foreign policy priority
- Week 10: Crowdsourced recommendations for future action
We will include a list of sources with each week’s post and after each of the three parts, we plan to host an online hangout to discuss the issues. To get the posts delivered to your inbox and learn about related events, please sign up for updates to the Weekly Drafts series.
How This All Came About & Other Notes
The desire to gain a better understanding of the legal landscape for digital rights began at SMEX with the #stopthislaw campaign in 2010. Over the next few years, we kept listening and learning through participation in other campaigns, and networking with peers. Last year, we worked with the IGMENA program at Hivos to catalog laws related to digital rights in six Arab countries and Iran. At about the same time, the Doha Center for Media Freedom commissioned a paper on legal trends in online expression across the region. This series is an outgrowth of that paper, which for reasons unknown, was never edited or published. Not wanting to lose this work, we shared the paper with several colleagues who have provided invaluable guidance on how to make it more better and relevant to a wide audience. We especially express our gratitude for this help to Reem Al Masri, Leila Hilal, Deema Al-Ghunaim, Danielle Kehl, and Robert Morgus and to the International Security Program and the Open Technology Institute at New America.
Except for the fee from the original Doha Center commission, all research, writing, and publishing has been voluntary. If you would like to support this project—especially translation into Arabic—and our future work, please make a contribution via Paypal or our Lebanese bank: