Monday, December 26, 2016

Wafa Ben Hassine - The Crime of Speech: How Arab Governments Use the Law to Silence Expression Online

Executive Summary: Since the revolts that took the region by storm in 2010 and 2011, the Arab world continues to face a diverse set of sociopolitical challenges. Each of the countries studied in this report–Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia–has responded to the uprisings differently. Government reactions range from the expansion of rights, to social upheaval, to civil war. 
Additionally, the rise of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) poses a threat to all four countries.
In reaction to fundamentalist groups often relying on the Internet for propaganda and recruiting, several governments in the Arab world have passed shortsighted cyber-crime and counter-terrorism laws ­– ostensibly to combat these groups on the digital front. It is unclear what kind of motivation lies behind these laws; however, as it stands, national security appears to give lawmakers a convenient excuse to crack down on rights.

Research has found that each country’s law enforcement uses a wide range of mechanisms to stifle dissent. These laws do little to prevent activity by terrorist groups such as ISIS. Instead, they frequently explicitly criminalize speech that the government finds threatening to its legitimacy, and are often used to supplement other totalitarian practices to target and stifle unwanted or politically critical speech.

In order to better understand how online speech in particular is targeted, this research tracked instances of arrest, detention, and imprisonment of individuals for speaking online under the pretenses of counter-terrorism or fighting cyber-crime. I tracked cases from 2011 to the present.
I have found that Saudi Arabia and Jordan rely on counter-terrorism and cyber-crime regulations to prosecute online activism. Egypt uses a new anti-protest law passed in 2014 and Tunisia, in contrast, relies on old defamation and anti-drug laws that have been used for decades prior to the revolution. In all four countries, the prosecution and imprisonment of Internet users for expressing themselves effectively chills critical speech and cripples civil discourse–all the while neglecting to create any long-term and comprehensive solution to the threat of terrorist movements.

This report hopes to raise awareness of the human rights abuses that are committed by these governments in the name of countering acts of terrorism. It also hopes to galvanize policy-makers to consider alternative measures that prioritize human rights and the rule of law as fundamental bases of the fight against terrorism. 

Introduction: As individuals concerned with rights in the Arab world, we often express concern over the possibility of law enforcement regimes abusing national security rhetoric to clamp down on fundamental rights. However, researchers do not track which laws are used in furtherance of this rhetoric, nor do we have solid data on instances of arrest and time served in jails. In some cases, we lack even the most basic consistent terminology with which to discuss these laws across regions: for instance, the terms “cybercrime” and “cyber-terrorism” have very different meanings in the United States than in the Arab world. In the United States, the term “cybercrime” is used to describe a number of individual laws whose subject matter ranges from gaining unlawful access to protected network systems to fraudulent identity theft and software piracy. In some countries in the Arab world, laws on cybercrime and counterterrorism are actually laws against certain types of online speech. My research aims to demonstrate these differences in understanding and help track how varying interpretations are used to target rights defenders in the region... read more: