In response to a major rift between Qatar and its fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, the United Arab Emirates denounced “inclination or favoritism” towards Qatar by social media users this summer. Citizens displaying their sympathy online may face up to fifteen years in prison and a minimum fine of 500,000 dirhams ($136,000).
This rule has been adopted under the government’s longstanding social media policy that punishes any post, photo or video disseminating “false news” and threatening national interests. Similar legislature exists throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
In Kuwait, for example, Hamad Al Naqi was sentenced to ten years in prison for comments he posted on Twitter criticizing the rulers of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. His charges included “spreading false information that was deemed to have tarnished Kuwait’s image abroad.”
In a study conducted by Northwestern University Qatar, nearly seven in ten Internet users from the MENA region say they changed how they use social media due to privacy concerns.
Social media thus seems to be the latest and greatest threat to every country in the Middle East. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan even went as far as to say, “Social media is the worst menace to society.” Much of the suspicion surrounding social media use comes out of the 2011 Arab Spring. In order to circumvent state-owned media apparatus, activists took to social media.
According to Hisham Al Miraat, a Moroccan blogger and member of the Association for Digital Rights, “The Arab Spring has had two consequences. It showed that you can change things in your country, but it was also a wake up call to those governments – it was a paradigm shift in the online world. Before, those governments thought the Internet could not undermine the structures they had spent centuries building.” Now, six years after Arab Spring, Middle Eastern governments operate under the assumption that if they can control the information, they can control the outcome.
In the beginning, and particularly in Gulf States, governments framed dissidence as an almost irreligious act. They benefited from the support of primarily conservative parliaments to set the bare bones of their Internet policies. Governments also tapped the ever-present nationalistic attitudes of the region in order to encourage censorship. Nothing bad should ever be said about land and leader, you were not a true citizen otherwise. Thus, the pillars had been set, not only for an uncompromising policy, but also a population that celebrated the silencing of others. For every ten that protested an imprisonment, there were twenty that called for it.
So what does this mean and what else can be said? Online dissidents will continue to be imprisoned, and soon even the most banal platitudes will be considered national threats. However, what should serve as a true cause for concern is when the dissidence ceases. Seven in ten Internet users in the MENA region are actively engaged in self-censorship. And sadly, most critics see this number increasing.
The fact of the matter is that governments will only get worse and people will only become more frightened. Human rights organizations ranging from Amnesty International to Freedom House have taken up arms in the fight against these basic violations, yet nothing has come of it. Other countries will continue to extradite victims back into the line of fire and regional governments will remain unquestioned in their censorship policy. If oil runs out or religious fervor dies down it may be a different story.
This article was written by Sarah Tahir. Please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Cassandra Ulvick