2013 in Review: As Governments in the Arab World Crack Down, Activists Fight Back
As the year draws to a close, EFF is looking back at the major trends influencing digital rights in 2013 and discussing where we are in the fight for free expression, innovation, fair use, and privacy. Click here to read other blog posts in this series.
The uprisings of 2011 gave hope to many for a new era of Internet governance. While Tunisia made concrete steps toward a freer Internet, many governments throughout the region have grappled with finding a balance between instituting the harsh restrictions that helped create Tunisia's uprising and implementing enough control to prevent their own. In 2013, many governments tended toward the former, implementing censorship for the first time or arresting bloggers, creating a deterrent for those who might dare speak their minds. Here are a few of the threats we've tracked this year and the ways in which activists have fought back.
Censorship on the rise
By far, the biggest surprise this year occurred in Jordan, where a Press and Publications Law created in 2012 resulted in the censorship of more than 300 websites this June. Local news websites that failed or refused to obtain a license under the new law were subsequently blocked, along with a handful of foreign websites that had not been subject to the law in the first place. We've also seen efforts by the governments of Egypt and Morocco to increase censorship.
Nevertheless, activism against these measures has been strong, particularly in Jordan where groups like 7iber have fought back, with support from a wide range of international organizations. In Morocco, activists recently had success in fighting the "Code Numérique", a draft bill that threatens to rear its ugly head again. Their challenge will continue into 2014.
An increase in speech-related arrests
Perhaps the most disheartening trend is the increase that we've seen in arrests of individuals exercising their right to free speech. The recent case of Shezanne Casim, a United States citizen detained in the UAE for posting a satirical video to YouTube, is only one of many in the tiny Gulf country. In Morocco, Ali Anouzla's case has brought international attention to the country's repression of journalists. In neighboring Kuwait, dozens have faced charges of blasphemy for content posted on social networks. And the list goes on.
We've ramped up our efforts to track and advocate for such cases and will continue to do so in 2014.
Surveillance run amok
The revelations brought to the world by Edward Snowden about the NSA's spying did not go missed in the Arab world. With Jordan and Egypt close to the top of the list of the countries most spied on, activists are rightfully angry and have joined the global effort to stop mass surveillance. Amongst the signatories to the 13 Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance are more than a dozen organizations from the region, including the Arab Digital Expression Foundation, Nawaat, MADA Palestine, and Lakome.org.
Some countries in the region have taken the news about the NSA as a cue to conduct their own spying. While Tunisia's hosting of the Freedom Online Coalition conference in June seemed like good news, the government has since created a new agency that seems to have the mandate to bring surveillance back to the country. And localized surveillance remains a threat in most of the region.
The good news
Recognizing the scope of these threats, EFF teamed up this year with 7iber.com, Access, Global Voices Advocacy, and SMEX to create Digital Citizen, a monthly review of digital rights in the Arab World. We've ramped up our programs, and in early 2014 are partnering with Global Voices to host the fourth Arabloggers meeting in Amman, where we will conduct security and policy training and meet with our allies and fellow travelers from throughout the region. We are also working to support several new groups in countries where their presence is much-needed.
Our allies in the Arab world have continued to inspire us in 2013 and will undoubtedly do so long into the future!
This article is part of our 2013 Year in Review series; read other articles about the fight for digital rights in 2013.