The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain have threatened criminal sanctions under existing laws against people who criticise moves taken by their governments against Qatar, or who have expressed sympathy towards the country, Human Rights Watch said in a report released on Wednesday.
“Individuals have a right to express a variety of perspectives on current events,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
“Governments don’t have the right to close down media outlets and criminalise speech to shut out criticism they find uncomfortable,” she said.
“The media need protection from political interference, not official muzzling,” Whitson added.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and a number of other countries severed diplomatic and trade relations with Qatar last week, accusing it of supporting armed groups and Iran. Qatar strongly rejects the accusations.
On May 24, Egypt blocked access to 21 websites, including the websites of Al Jazeera, the Huffington Post’s Arabic website and the prominent local independent news site Mada Masr.
Al Jazeera journalist Mahmoud Hussein has been held in Egyptian prison without charge since December 2016.
On May 25, Saudi Arabia and the UAE blocked Qatari media outlets, including Al Jazeera.
Human Rights Watch said that international law on freedom of speech prohibits the banning of peaceful criticism of governments, and crimes such as insulting the president or state authorities, and the rights group called on authorities to repeal or amend laws that are used to criminalise peaceful expression.
“The offending governments should demonstrate they understand and respect the role of media outlets, even those they don’t agree with,” said Whitson.