Internet freedom initiative mere lip service?

The US and EU decry Syria’s actions, but remain silent on the threats faced by bloggers in other Middle Eastern nations.

In the United Arab Emirates, blogger Ahmed Mansoor was arrested for petitioning for democratic reforms [Al Jazeera]

For years, the Middle East has led the world in online repression. Over the course of the past year, the region has changed drastically but, it seems, some things are intent on staying the same. In the past few weeks, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Syria have all detained bloggers and online activists, while elsewhere in the region, self-censorship is the name of the game.

While the United States and the European Union have repeatedly condemned the actions of the Syrian government – where they have virtually no influence – both have remained largely silent on the threats facing bloggers in allied countries across the region, at a time when arrests are at an all-time high.

Since the fall of Mubarak, Egypt’s Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) has kept a tight leash on free expression, enacting emergency law and using it to crack down on speech. In August, Twitter user Asmaa Mahfouz was interrogated for tweeting, “If the judiciary doesn’t give us our rights, nobody should be surprised if militant groups appear and conduct a series of assassinations because there is no law and there is no judiciary”.

Blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad, who spent more than 50 days on hunger strike before being transferred to a mental institution, was arrested in March and sentenced to three years in prison for accusing the military of conducting virginity tests on female protesters, an accusation later found to be true.  

If the judiciary doesn’t give us our rights, nobody should be surprised if militant groups appear.

– Asmaa Mahfouz, Twitter user

Most recently, prominent blogger Alaa Abd El Fattah was summoned by a military prosecutor after another blogger accused him of inciting violence and throwing stones during the October 9 protests that resulted in a massacre – largely incited by the military – that left 27 dead and more than 300 wounded. Abd El Fattah has also been the target of a smear campaign over the past few months on Twitter, purportedly for his leftist views.  

Forced into silence

While a few brave Syrians continue to blog and upload videos, Syria’s ongoing campaign against online activism – which includes government support of the Syrian Electronic Army – has some bloggers scared into silence.

In recent weeks, the list of arrested bloggers and journalists has grown. In the past month alone, more than 12 bloggers and online journalists have been arrested.  

“I think this huge crackdown against bloggers means that blogs have proved to be a very effective tool for exposing human rights abuses in contexts where media attention wasn’t focusing before,” says Spanish-Syrian activist Leila Nachawati. “Arab bloggers in particular have done an excellent job at exposing repressive regimes that not only wish to retain power but also want worldwide legitimacy. Their legitimacy is now lost, and bloggers have contributed a lot to this.”

As protests rage on in Syria and journalists are prevented from reporting freely, it becomes all the more important to listen for independent voices. But if those voices are forced into silence, then the continuing atrocities in the country will go unwitnessed.

The US government has enacted sanctions on Syria in an attempt to force the government’s hand, a tactic that could, eventually, work. But at the same time, seven-year-old export controls enacted by the Department of Commerce choke Syrian citizens off from online communication technologies and other opportunities, such as Google’s Summer of Code, preventing them from entrepreneurial opportunities.

Gulf bloggers persecuted

The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia both rank low on press freedom, with the latter coming in 157 out of 178 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ 2010 report. Both countries have also managed to avoid the large-scale protests seen by neighbouring Bahrain, which some analysts say is a result of fear on behalf of dissidents.

Their fear is certainly justified: In the UAE, five activists – including one prominent blogger, Ahmed Mansoor – were arrested for signing a petition calling for democratic reforms. All five men face charges of threatening state security, undermining public order and insulting the president, the vice-president and the crown prince of Abu Dhabi.

The men have refused to appear in court, protesting what they see as a political crackdown. Meanwhile, Reporters Without Borders claims that the trial is deliberately being dragged out over a period of several months for the purpose of keeping the activists in prison.

In next-door Saudi Arabia, a similar theme as three men detained on October 18 remain in prison more than a week later. Their alleged crime? Creating a video showing poverty in Riyadh. The three men – Feras Bugnah, Hosam al-Deraiwish and Khaled al-Rasheed – produce a regular web programme called “We Are Being Cheated”. The programme, launched this past summer, tackles problems in Saudi society that aren’t often discussed. Previous episodes of the programme focussed on traffic police, inflation of food prices and Saudi youth.

“These people did nothing wrong, nothing that crossed the line.

– Saudi journalist

In her groundbreaking 2010 speech on internet freedom, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on the US to champion internet freedom around the world. And while in some ways the State Department has stayed true to its word, condemning the blocking of websites and internet shutdowns in Egypt and Libya, its silence on bloggers in allied countries has been deafening. The US has been entirely silent on the bloggers named in this piece.

Europe’s reaction has been somewhat better. Individual EU parliamentarians such as Marietje Schaake – a champion for internet freedom – have spoken out against blogger repression in Bahrain, mentioning Alsingace and Abdulemam, while the parliament recently called for the unconditional release of peaceful political prisoners, including bloggers, in Bahrain. But like the US, Europe seems only capable of words, not action.

The hypocrisy is not lost on bloggers. In June, Bahraini journalist Lamees Dhaif, while on a State Department-sponsored tour of the US, spoke out against the government’s support of her country, stating that the State Department was aware of Bahrain’s repression of journalists and bloggers, but remained silent.

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Ali Abdulemam – the Bahraini blogger sentenced to 15 years in absentia this year – had criticised the State Department for hypocrisy toward Bahrain before his 2010 arrest as well, calling out the US government for allowing American companies to sell censorship technology to Bahrain. And after his initial imprisonment in 2010 (he was released briefly in February then went into hiding), Abdulemam testified that he had been tortured in prison.

As the US halts a planned $53m arms sale to Bahrain at the behest of lawmakers and human rights groups, it becomes clearer that any movement towards condemning repression of free speech in those countries will have to come from outside the State Department.

Internet freedom is a worthy goal, and Hillary Clinton’s words offer something to aspire to. But as long as Clinton’s words are not coupled with action and remain contradicted by other foreign policy goals, the State Department’s internet freedom initiative is just lip service.

Jillian C York is director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. She writes a regular column for Al Jazeera focusing on free expression and Internet freedom. She also writes for and is on the Board of Directors of Global Voices Online.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.