The Internet and social media are enjoying explosive growth across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in the wake of the Arab Spring, but that has made the governments of the region more fearful than ever of the online community and spurred them into employing new and innovative forms of censorship.
Lucie Morillon, head of the new media desk at the press-freedom monitoring group Reporters Without Borders, told The Media Line that the Arab Spring has boomeranged on the on-line activists.
“We had evidence early in 2011 that [the Internet] can be a wonderful tool for freedom, especially in countries where the government controls mainstream media,” she said. “But then what happened is that the countries of the Arab world – and not only them, also China, Vietnam and other authoritarian regimes afraid that Arab Spring could spread to their countries – took steps to better control information online.”
The Arab Spring has claimed a small victory with Reporters Without Borders
announcing on Monday that it removed Libya from its annual list of countries “under surveillance” for online censorship. But it added Bahrain to its more notorious “Internet Enemies,” thereby keeping the MENA region among the most Internet-chilly places in the world.
Four out of 12 countries designated Internet Enemies – Bahrain joined Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria – are in the MENA region, according to the Paris-based media-freedom group. Even with Libya dropping off the list, four out of 14 of the world’s countries under surveillance – Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – hail from MENA.
“The reaction of governments to Arab Spring has been very strong and resulted in a lot of repression in the Arab world and elsewhere,” Morillon said.
As the Internet Enemies report was being published, the UAE’s prosecutor’s office brought Saleh Al-Dhafairi to the state security court on charges of “incitement through writing or verbally spreading ideas that damage national unity or social peace,” the official WAM news agency reported. Al-Dhafairi was arrested after comments he posted on Twitter on the Arab Spring, which officials said “endangered the interests... and security” of the seven-nation confederation.
In fact, by arresting a blogger, the UAE may be behind the times - a kind of Censorship 1.0, according to Reporters Without Borders.
“Repressive regimes have learned the lesson. Keeping the media at bay, intimidating witnesses and blocking access to a few news websites are not enough to ensure the success of a news blackout,” it said. “A much more effective way is to seal off the area concerned to prevent unwanted witness from entering and any digital content from leaving.”
Shutting down the Internet entirely can create bad publicity for the authorities and damage the economy, the report said. The preferred solution for many regimes is to slow Internet connection speeds, making it difficult to send or receive images or videos, said Reporters’ Morillon.
“In times of trouble, bandwidth is slowed on a national level or in areas affected by demonstrations or where the authorities think there will be demonstrations. It’s very effective because you don’t look as bad as countries that just cut the Internet,” she said.
Bahrain, which remains in turmoil after its king put down mass protests by the country’s Shiite majority a year ago with the help of Saudi troops, earned a place on the 2012 Enemies List with what Reporters Without Border called “a remarkable array of repressive measures.”
These include banning the international media, harassing human rights activists, arresting bloggers, prosecuting free speech activists and disrupting communications, especially during the major demonstrations.
Social Media Club-Bahrain Chapter Director Ali Sabkar defended his country, citing big increases in Internet usage and insisted there was little or no censorship. “Low prices for Internet services has played a crucial role in boosting the number of users,” he was quoted as saying by the state Bahrain News Agency.
Libya was taken off the under surveillance list, not because the new government has proven itself so much as the old government, under strongman Muamar Gaddafi, is gone. “Many challenges remain, but the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime has ended an era of censorship,” Reporters Without Borders said.
Online repression comes as Internet usage is growing nearly everywhere across the region.
Internet penetration remains low, with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) estimating in a report
released last week that about 29% of the region’s population has access, below the world average of over 34%. Nevertheless, the ITU says that between 2006 and 2011, the region’s Internet user penetration increased by an average of 22% annually, among the highest rates in the world.
The Arab Social Media report estimated that the number of new Facebook users grew by more than 15 million in the first 10 months of last year to 36 million by November, with Egypt alone adding 4.2 million users.
Paul Budde, an independent Internet and communications consultant speaking at Connect Arab States Summit
in Doha, said that ruling elites around the world were both enticed by social media as a way of communicating with their people but fearful of the affects of a freer flow of information.
“Their function, their status, is threatened,” he said. “Suddenly information is spread. Suddenly you can't hide from information. And that's what real democracies are,” he told the conference according to the Al Jazeera television network.
According to the Arab Social Media, fear of the government remains the biggest deterrent to people in the Arab world expressing themselves freely on the Internet. A survey it took found that 26% of the respondents cited “I could be held accountable by the authorities for my views” as the biggest “negative repercussion” of using social media.
But the Arab Spring has created a divergence of views about state repression. In Egypt, only 16% of the respondents pointed to government repercussions, compared with 31% in Saudi Arabia and 32% in the UAE.