The crackdown on critical political speech continues unabated in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries around the Arabian Peninsula. In the GCC, local press outlets and journalists have been long-stymied by government censorship. Social media activists have attempted to fill the void through blogs and social media. But, Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have all recently taken action against citizens who expressed digital criticism of or called for reforms to their governments. In an interview with Muftah, Jessica Dheere, the executive director of the Beirut-based Social Media Exchange, said that Gulf states are tinkering with controlling speech in a post-Arab Spring environment. “They’re in a kind of trial-and-error calibration period to see how much control they can exercise over critical online speech, selecting various pressure points, without spurring any serious threat of public dissent that would galvanize mass protest,” Dheere said. Dheere’s organization studies media laws and legal frameworks for online speech and digital rights in the Arab region. She said that around twelve Arab countries have updated their cybercrime laws in the last four years. Many countries use these laws to prosecute critical or dissenting speech on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.
In January 2015, Bahrain sentenced human rights activist Nabeel Rajab to six months in prison for posting comments that were deemed insulting to the Ministries of Interior and Defense. These included the following statement from Rajabon Twitter: “Many #Bahrain men who joined #terrorism & #ISIS came from security institutions and those institutions were the first ideological incubator.” Rajab’s conviction highlights the dangers of legislation that can turn any criticism or observation into a criminal offense. Bahrain has also arrested the leader of the main opposition group Al-Wefaq, Sheikh Ali Salman on charges of encouraging overthrow of the government. In announcing his arrest, the Bahrain government did not mention Salman by name or indicate which of his statements were considered seditious. According to Dheere, Bahrain has also set up a “hotline that encourages citizens to report on each other if they see critical speech online.”
Also in January, Saudi Arabia publicly lashed blogger Raif Badawi fifty times as punishment for running a website accused of “liberal thinking and insulting Islam.” After international outcry, the Saudi government twice delayed additional scheduled lashings for Badawi, citing advice from medical personnel. In October 2014, the Saudi government prosecuted three prominent lawyers for criticizing the Justice Ministry on social media. The lawyers had complained about the ministry taking action against a judge who had also criticized the ministry. They were charged using a vague cybercrime law that prohibits “producing something that harms public order, religious values, (and) public morals.”
In Kuwait, a series of tweets landed a former lawmaker in jail in early January. Saleh al-Mulla criticized the government for giving additional public money to Egypt as foreign aid. For his statements, Mulla was charged with insulting the Emir, as well as the president of Egypt, and endangering relations between the two countries. But, Mulla’s social media speech seemed like nothing more than mild political criticism. One Arabic-language tweet read: “We have given enough, and this money belongs to the people of Kuwait.” Earlier in January, a Kuwaiti court upheld a two-year prison sentence imposed in 2013 against online activist, Sagar al-Hashash, for insulting the Emir. In December 2014, another lawmaker was targeted for criticizing the UAE government on a television show. Mubarak al-Duwailah criticized the UAE for describing the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliate groups as terrorist organizations.
In December of last year, a blogger in Oman was charged with “undermining the status and prestige of the state” for his comments on digital media. Although the precise nature of his speech remains unclear, Oman has a long history of making arrests over calls for political reform. In September 2014, the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression observed a “pervasive culture of silence and fear affecting anyone who wants to speak and work for reforms” in Oman.
In the UAE, a court in Abu Dhabi sentenced Osama Al-Jajjar to three years in prison in November 2014. Jajjar had complained on Twitter about the treatment of his father who was convicted of sedition in a mass trial in 2013. Another government critic, Obaid Al-Zaabi, remains in detention despite being exonerated of charges of “offending the state security apparatus” and “instigating people against the rulers and the security of the state.” Zaabi had spoken to CNN about the lack of free speech in his country and disappeared only a few days later. He was likely charged under the cybercrime law which prohibits using social media to “damage the reputation, prestige or stature of the state or any of its institutions.” In January 2015, the government-owned UAE newspaper The National published an article titled, “Media freedom in the UAE: a ranking that doesn’t tell the full story.” The article largely defended press freedoms in the country while omitting many glaring details such as the Zaabi case and its complete absence from the local press, the arrest and conviction of young Emiratis who published a parody of Emirati youth “gangsters” on YouTube, and the barring of international media from the 2013 mass sedition trial.
While Qatar has not recently taken action against its citizens, the country moved with prevailing winds in the Gulf when it agreed to shut down the Mubasher Misr television station in Egypt. The channel was one of the last major voices of dissent in the country, and had been under attack by the Egyptian regime since the ouster of Mohamed Morsi in July 2013. The move placated Qatar’s neighbors, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as well as Egypt, all of whom consider the channel to be a mouthpiece for the Muslim Brotherhood, a group they have all labeled a terrorist organization. Since the coup that ousted Morsi, the new Egyptian government has made thousands of arrests aimed at stifling public dissent challenging the country’s return to military rule.
Free Expression in the Gulf: the Long View
Gulf leaders and their allies would do well to note the positive connection between free expression and security. Countries with strong legal and judicial commitments to the rule of law and free expression tend to be more secure. To date, the GCC states – and much of the Arab world – are failing to embrace that connection. James M. Dorsey, who studies the Middle East as a senior fellow at the School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, told Muftah that these attempts to chill open discussion in the GCC “may work short term but ultimately will fail and bares the risk of aggravating rather than reconciling differences.” But, Dheere sees some room for optimism, albeit limited given the current environment. “There is still potential for breaking down the restrictions to online speech in the region,” she said. “But, it will require both a change in attitudes among citizens themselves (especially those who think it’s okay to restrict speech) and serious and consistent international pressure that holds these governments accountable for protecting the right to freedom of expression, while also living up to their own constitutional promises to do the same.” As for international pressure, many Western government, such as the United States and Great Britain, seem to value “stability” over human rights reforms in the GCC. Traditionally, these governments have tended to ignore or downplay freedom of speech abuses among their Gulf allies, and concentrated instead on uninterrupted business relations, including lucrative sales. Regardless, international pressure has its limits. Any real reforms must come from within. Perhaps a new generation will or is emerging— raised in a media environment inculcated with free ideas and innovation –to shape media and public policies that value dissent and criticism over the protection of powerful figures.