I was taking a visit to the Reporters Without Borders website and decided to read some of the 2004 reports on Internet situations in various Arab countries. I was sort of inspired by the latest posting about a Syrian man arressted in Jordan for making terrorist threats on the JIC website; and also because Jordanian bloggers have always been wondering (in the back of their minds) about the monitoring of their blogs. So this information is essential to Arab bloggers, especially new commers who have not checked out the RWB Handbook for bloggers and cyber-dissidents (are all Arab bloggers cyber-dissidents?), which is essential reading material.
This post isn’t going to be one of my long boring commentaries or rants. I’m just going to cut and paste some interesting reading material (especially the parts in bold). Give it a quick read, it’s interesting to see how every Arab country despite all the things they have in common, differ in their approach to Internet regulation. It’ll bring up some interesting comments and questions I hope; such as what are governments more scared of? Porn or Politics? I’ll start with Jordan.
The Internet was much freer in Jordan than in other Arab countries until 2001, when it became more restricted. The government asked ISPs to block access to some independent news sites and pushed through laws threatening freedom of expression in the media, including the Internet.
Access to the news sites www.arabtimes.com
and www.arabmail.de is blocked from inside the country and they can only be reached through anonymizers (proxy sites). The radio station www.ammannet.net, the only Jordanian media exclusively online, has been harassed by the authorities and its journalists avoid sensitive topics.
Saudi Arabia has created one of the worldÃ¢??s biggest Internet filtering systems. The authorities have officially announced that they block access to nearly 400,000 webpages, with the aim of “protecting citizens from offensive content and content the violates the principles of Islam and the social norms.”
The Internet blacklist in Saudi Arabia covers some very broad fields, including the websites of political organisations and Islamist movements that are not recognised, and any publication dealing directly or even very indirectly with sexuality. Saudi women, who represent nearly two thirds of the countryÃ¢??s Internet users, can only access online content that has been expunged of any reference to their rights, their health or their intimate lives.
The sites blocked by the Saudi authorities are mainly those of a sexual, political or religious nature. (The banned religious sites do not, of course, include approved Islamic ones.) Homosexuality and womenÃ¢??s rights are completely absent from the Saudi Internet. Music sites such as www.rollingstone.com, humour sites such as www.poopreport.com, online translation software such as www.systransoft.com and the best-known anonymizers such as www.anonymizer.com and www.megaproxy.com are also on the ISU blacklist.
The Saudi government blocked the site of the Jordanian-based Arab Region Resource Center on Violence against Women (www.amanjordan.org) on 5 August 2003 after it posted articles on the violence undergone by women in Saudi society. The blocking was lifted on 30 September 2003.
President Ben Ali often reiterates his desire to develop the Internet in Tunisia but he cracks down ruthlessly on free expression. The government censors the Internet and uses alleged cyber-crime to justify arbitrary imprisonment. Nine young Internet users were sentenced in April 2003 to sentences of up to 26 years in prison for just downloading files deemed by the authorities to be dangerous.
Control of telecommunications, including the Internet, was stepped up further in 2002 and an all-out cyber-police was set up to track down and block “subversive” websites, intercept attempts to reach sites containing “political or critical” material, hunt for and neutralise “proxy” servers used to get round the blocking of banned sites, and track down and arrest “over-active” Internet users – the cyber-dissidents. The LTDH said the authorities often use viruses to attack the e-mail systems of human rights organisations including the LTDH itself.
Zouhair Yahyaoui, the founder and editor of the news website TUNeZINE, was conditionally released on 18 November 2003 after serving more than half of a 28-month sentence. He had been arrested in a Tunis publinet on 4 June 2002. He used his site to put out news about the fight for democracy and freedom in Tunisia, and to make opposition material available. Using the pseudonym “Ettounsi” (“The Tunisian” in Arabic), he wrote many columns and essays and was the first to publish an open letter that his uncle, Judge Mokhtar Yahyaoui, sent to President Ben Ali criticising the Tunisian judiciaryÃ¢??s lack of independence.
The government set up a unit in September 2002 to investigate Internet crime and its director, Ahmed Essmat, told the daily Al Ahram that his staff monitored the Internet in real time. Police especially seek out those visiting pornographic websites and can very quickly go to the home of someone doing so. Surveillance is easier because all ISPs pass through the state-run Egypt Telecom.
At the end of 2001 and early 2002, Internet users were warned off taboo issues (such as relations between Copts and Muslims, publicising terrorist ideas, human rights violations, criticising the president, his family and the army and promoting modern versions of Islam) and told that too much outspokenness was unwelcome.
Five people belonging to a “revolutionary socialist” group were sought by police for using the Internet to publicise human rights violations in Egypt, mainly against Copts.
Hopes that Bashar el-AssadÃ¢??s installation as president in 2000 would bring improvements for free expression have been dashed. The government limits Internet access to a privileged minority, filters online content and monitors e-mail closely. Two people are currently in prison for posting information online or just e-mailing content taken from a banned site.
The authorities concentrate their blocking efforts on publications dealing directly with Syrian politics such as www.thisisyria.net, as well as Kurdish, pro-Israeli and pornographic sites. The Internet users get an error message saying : “Access refused by the control list.”
Qatar has some of the worldÃ¢??s best Internet facilities. It went online in 1997 and the system was first developed by the state telecommunications monopoly Q-Tel. Privately-owned ISPs were later allowed to operate.
The media is partially free, though all criticism of the Al-Thani royal family is taboo. The government says it does not censor the Internet but appears to have drawn up a list of “undesirable” websites. Q-Tel reportedly blocks access to them with special software and has the means to spy on messages sent through the other ISPs.
The pan-Arab satellite TV station Al-Jazeera, which has more than 35 million viewers, is based in Qatar. Its website is one of the worldÃ¢??s most frequently visited news sites. The portal Lycos said that during the Iraq war, the term “Al-Jazeera” was the most popular term typed into search-engines, three times more often than the word “sex.”