Freedom on the Net in 2016: Online Criticism of Saudi Arabia Punishable by Imprisonment

2016-11-29 - 7:09 ص

Bahrain Mirror (Exclusive): Freedom House listed Bahrain in its annual Freedom on the Net report for 2016 among the 26 "Not Free" countries that implement tight censorship on political opposition-related online content.

The US-based organization noted that the Bahraini authorities resorted to a number of policies within the framework of their efforts to contain protests marking the fifth anniversary of Bahrain's "Day of Rage". This included the Messaging app Telegram which was blocked for several days, and 2Connect, a small mobile and internet service provider, which had its licensed revoked by the regulator for failing to provide security agencies with a tool to access users' data.

The reported added that the Bahraini government also implemented a nationwide filtering system in a move to boost the sophistication of internet censorship, and handed down prison sentences to social media activists, particularly Twitter users, over tweets that were critical of the regime's policies.

According to Freedom House, the Bahraini authorities did not only block websites, they also manipulated online content in order to fabricate greater public support for government policies. According to the watchdog group, Bahrain Watch, the government has hired 18 public relations (PR) firms for promotional campaigns since February 2011, representing at least US$32 million in contracts. In October 2014, one of these PR companies tried to force The Huffington Post not to write on the United Kingdom's investigation of torture allegations against the Bahraini king's son.

Internet Policies in Bahrain: Monitor, Filter and Censor

Freedom House says this year was marked by a number of significant decisions by the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA), as the TRA "implemented greater restrictions on the purchase of SIM cards in the name of counterterrorism, limiting the ability of Bahrainis to use ICTs anonymously."

The report said that the Government of Bahrain "moved forward with plans to implement a nationwide filtering solution. A tender was won by Netsweeper; the Canadian company was reportedly the only one to submit a bid," noting that the move "will likely boost the authorities' ability to monitor and censor banned content, which includes controversial views on the monarchy, religion, and foreign affairs."

"Ironically, the government minister in charge of the Information Affairs Authority (IAA), which is responsible for monitoring online content, was dismissed from his post over a photo he shared on WhatsApp," the report further read.

Online Criticism of the Saudis Punishable by Imprisonment

The report highlighted that "tensions between the ruling Sunni monarchy and majority Shiite citizenry spill over into the online domain, particularly surrounding the regime's close ties to Saudi Arabia."

An example of this was the imprisonment of activists. Three users, for instance, were sentenced to five years in prison for the crime of spreading false news during wartime in tweets related to the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen, to which Bahrain has contributed.

The report added that other users have been imprisoned for "insulting a brotherly nation" due to criticism of the Saudis' poor crowd management at the 2015 hajj that led to the death of hundreds-some say thousands-of pilgrims, or outrage over the Saudis' execution of prominent Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr.

39% of Blocked Sites Related to Politics

Freedom House noted in its report that any site that criticizes the government, the ruling family, or the country's status quo is subject to blocking by the Information Affairs Authority (IAA). Authorities ramped up censorship after the 2011 protests, in which online media played a decisive role.

"YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and international blog-hosting services are freely available. However, other applications are permanently blocked, and specific content on social networks can be inaccessible," it added.

The Freedom House report further stated that according to estimates from several years ago, the IAA has blocked or shut down at least 1,000 websites, including human rights websites, blogs, online forums, and individual pages from social media networks. "A crowdsourced list of 367 blocked websites reported as of February 2016 that 39 percent of blocked sites were related to politics, while 23 percent related to the use of various internet tools, such as anonymizers and web proxies," it noted.

Tweeters Prosecuted Even When Behind Bars

Violations of user rights in Bahrain were rampant, with at least 32 users arrested, detained, or prosecuted over the coverage period, stressed the report. Collectively, 447 months of prison sentences were passed down to 10 users, while others remain on trial or in arbitrary detention.

Prisoners have even been interrogated for tweets emanating from accounts holding their name. In January 2016, Shaikh Ali Salman, leader of the largest political group in Bahrain, who is already imprisoned, was brought from detention to be questioned by the public prosecutor about tweets on "democracy" and "reform" posted by his account @AlwefaGS on Martin Luther King Day.

The report further pointed out that in December 2015, award-winning photographer Sayed Ahmed al-Mousawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison and stripped of his nationality over "terrorism" charges that included "taking photos of protests and giving SIM cards to terrorists." He was detained in February 2014 and reportedly subjected to beating, hanging, and electrocution to force his confessions.

The report stressed the top reasons for user prosecution during coverage period was criticizing actions taken by Saudi Arabia, criticizing Bahraini members of parliament, and "insulting the king and instigating hatred of the regime."

Surveillance and Cyberattacks

Freedom House said that the Government of Bahrain is known for active usage of spyware against dissidents, noting that in November 2015, "new evidence showed that Bahrain had used Remote Control System (RCS) from Italian cybersecurity firm Hacking Team during 2014. The spyware allows remote monitoring, including recording phone calls, logging keystrokes, taking screenshots, and activating cameras, among other functions."

"Malicious links are often sent from Twitter and Facebook accounts impersonating well-known opposition figures, friends, or even accounts of arrested users," it added.

The report further stated that cyberattacks against opposition pages as well as other websites are common in Bahrain, adding that "accounts operated by the opposition are frequently subjected to mass reporting campaigns to have them closed by Twitter.

"In June 2015, Bahraini Human Rights Watch Society, a government-owned non governmental organization working to promote a positive image of the government, stated that its website and Twitter account were hacked a few days before its participation in the 29th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva. In August 2015, the Twitter account of the February 14 Coalition was temporarily hacked."

Arabic Version    

التعليقات المنشورة لا تعبر بالضرورة عن رأي الموقع

comments powered by Disqus