Anti-cybercrime legislation a boon to censors

Anti-cybercrime legislation a boon to censors
4 min read
20 Apr, 2015
Comment: The vague wording of new anti-cybercrime legislation across the region can be used to clamp down on dissent, says Kirolos Nathan.
Nabil Rajab was jailed under new legislation clamping down on online 'dissent' [AFP]

Ayatollah Khomeini made no bones about his hostility for freedom of expression. “Pens that do not write for Islamic values must be broken”. Arab rulers have a similar perspective, which could be phrased thus: 'Pens that do not write for government views must be broken'.


At its last session in late March, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) announced that it would appoint a Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy in the digital space, providing much needed support to the protection of privacy on the internet and other digital platforms. A

     Censorship divides, it doesn’t unify. It leads to unrest not stability.

Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy would help develop international standards that address the interaction between privacy, freedom of expression and freedom of association in the digital context.


It is an urgent need.


"New technologies have enabled governments and businesses to intrude on the privacy of individuals and gather sensitive information on people like never before. Too often governments use these new methods not to ensure security or provide benefits to citizens, but to repress dissent and undermine democratic principles," said Jeremie D. Smith, Director of Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Geneva Office.


"The creation of a Special Rapporteur on the Right to Privacy at the UN is very important as a first step to begin to create a global system of checks and balances on this ability, address any abuses of this power and provide protection for individuals and groups against the misuse of monitoring and data collection systems," Smith added.


In 2012, both the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia were the first to pass cybercrime laws, followed by Iraq, Qatar, Bahrain, and now Egypt is on the way.


Backed with their long histories of censorship, instead of protecting the rights of people, anti-cybercrime laws threaten instead to set the stage for more rights violations. Some articles included in these laws are vague, and Middle East governments are using them to silence rights defenders and activists.


The UAE cybercrime law No.5/2012, for instance, provides a legal basis for prosecuting people who use information technology – which it classifies as “websites, any information network, or information technology means” – to criticize senior officials, argue for political reform or organize unlicensed demonstrations. Although some articles are aimed at preventing the propagation of racist or sectarian views online, the prime effect of the law is to implement severe restrictions on the use of blogs and social networking sites. The cybercrime law marks a significant step backward when it comes to free speech, Human Rights Watch said in a 2012 press release.


Article 6 in the Qatari cybercrime law sets out a term of imprisonment not exceeding three years, and/or a fine not exceeding QR500,000 (Approx USD140,000) for people who "created or managed a website to spread false news in order to jeopardize the safety of the state, its general order and its local or international peace". Without providing any clear definition for what constitutes news items that can ‘jeopardize the safety of the state’, this decree could open the door for prosecuting a rights organization for its work, or a journalist for publishing an article the state might see or choose to see as a threat.


The same applies to laws in Bahrain. In the name of national security, the Bahraini cabinet approved in late 2013 legislation to regulate websites and online content. The laws criminalize anyone who establishes a website, publishes information online or uses any information technology tools to assist or aid communication with terror cells, as well as promote disruption of public order or morale. 


In the name of national security, those laws was then used to block the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights website, jail its founder Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and its president Nabeel Rajab, and force its vice president Sayed Yousif al-Muhafdha into exile after being a target of arbitrary arrests and torture for his human rights work.


The consequences of censorship endure for a long time, and not only for those directly affected, but for the country as whole. Censorship divides, it doesn’t unify. It leads to unrest not stability. The more repression you apply, the more chaotic the situation will get. You might break the pens, but the words have already been written.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.