May 30, 2013 | By Jillian York

From Bad to Worse: Online Repression in the Gulf

In Kuwait, dozens imprisoned in an effort to stifle online dissent.  In the United Arab Emirates, a sentence of 10 months in prison for describing a court hearing without “honesty and in bad faith.”  And in Qatar, a draft cybercrime law that threatens the relative freedom of expression enjoyed by residents.

We’ve written before about the online repression in the Gulf Arab states.  After a period of relative calm, the issue is once again rearing its ugly head.  Despite attempts toward openness and—from Qatar, at least—explicit support for the Arab uprisings, it seems that the largely unelected rulers of these countries can’t help but attempt to silence their citizens on the Net.


So far, 2013 has seen the arrests of dozens of activists and at least six journalists in the semi-democratic state of Kuwait.  For example, Hamed Al-Khaledi was sentenced in April to two years in prison for insulting the emir on Twitter.  Others have been accused of “threatening state security” or “offending religion,” despite the fact that Kuwait is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which it ratified in 1996.  The ICCPR protects the right to freedom of expression, including peaceful criticism of public officials.  

United Arab Emirates

In the UAE, two recent cases demonstrate the country’s commitment—or rather, lack thereof—to free expression.  Abdullah Al Haddidi was recently sentenced to 10 months in prison after his May 22 appeal was denied.  Al Haddidi, whose tweets asked searching questions about a trial of activists in the UAE, is being punished under Article 265 of the country’s Penal Code, which criminalizes describing a court hearing without “honesty and in bad faith.”  As Matt J. Duffy—an American professor discharged from the country last year, likely for pushing the boundaries of free speech in his journalism teachings—explained in a recent piece, the law essentially makes it a crime to disseminate false news.

The second case is that of Salah Yafie, a Bahraini allegedly detained at Dubai International Airport for a “controversial” tweet.  Little has been reported about Yafie, but a recent article from Bahrain’s Gulf Daily News reports that human rights groups in the country are urging Bahrain’s Foreign Ministry to secure Yafie’s release.


Qatar, the home of Al Jazeera, has been responsible for very few of the region’s crackdowns on speech, perhaps due to its status as a regional media hub.  Nevertheless, and despite its soft power support of the Arab uprisings, the country is now considering a cybercrime law that would threaten free speech.  The draft law, among other things, would punish anyone who

...infringes on the social principles or values or otherwise publishes news, photos, audio or visual recordings related to the sanctity of the private and familial life of persons, even if they were true, or infringes on others by libel or slander via the Internet or other information technology means.

The proposed law echoes a law passed last year in the UAE that has already been used to stifle dissent.  Qatar’s overly broad law will be a threat to both free expression and to the country’s reputation as a media haven.

Rather than fear dissent, these countries should take a cue from the recent uprisings and recognize that, no matter how hard they try to stop their citizens from using the Internet to speak their minds, the tech-savvy young citizens of their countries will find a way.  Instead of censoring the Internet, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE would do well to embrace it.

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