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Arab Spring: Ten years in, how can we reclaim the internet as an open space?


This event took place on February 17 and is part of our RightsCon 10th Anniversary Series. You can watch the full session with captions in Arabic below. If you missed our first event on Transparency Reporting, you can watch it here.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Arab spring in which activists and citizens in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya and across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) used social media and digital communication tools to organize, uprise and push for freedom as well as political and social justice.

Mohamad Najem the Executive Director of SMEX, a digital rights organized based in Lebanon, “back in 2008 when we started using social media tools, it was all about how we can use these tools more strategically, how we can get to the goals we want…everyone was jumping on these tools.”

Since then, governments have woken up to the “hazards” of the internet and placed new restrictions on what can be read, shared or posted online. Authoritarian governments, over the past ten years, have shown their commitment to counter and challenge the potential of the internet and online space to empower citizens and mobilise opposition. Social media platforms have also contributed to their repression by adopting biased content moderation policies which resulted in censoring voices of key activists, journalists and human rights defenders.

“It’s really not in the business model of these companies to ensure free expression in our region.” noted Dia Kayyali, Associate Director for Advocacy with MNEMONIC, an organisation that works on digital documentation of human rights violations.

From the criminalization of speech and increased crackdown and mass arrest of individuals exercising their right to freedom of expression, the state of internet freedom in many Arab countries has deteriorated. As a result, numerous bloggers, journalists and political dissenters including women and LGBTQ+ activists are behind bars suffering for their views under the current regimes such as in Egypt, Bahrain, Algeria, and Saudi Arabia.

Libya Idres, Editor-in-Chief, BBC Media Action shared how her journey to activism began with her posting on Facebook and tweeting as the ex-regime forces broke into her house to arrest her father. She also spoke of a noted Libyan journalist and human rights activist who was assassinated in 2014, “Libya lost our dear Tawfiq bin Saud due to his civil and political activism and digital activism.” Tawfiq was just 18 years old.

Tunisian Human Rights Defender, Emna Mizouni analysed how tactics for digital repression have evolved from censorship to “threats on everybody’s freedom of expression, media [being] targeted at many points over the last 10 years” she added that the situation is such that, if we continue saying we are a successful democracy, I would say we are lying to ourselves because unfortunately there is a huge crackdown right now on civic space.”

The chilling news of using sophisticated surveillance technology to target activists and journalists has also increased over the past ten years. Fouad Abdelmoumni, Moroccan human rights activist gave testimony of his own experiences being targeted by the Moroccan government and spoke of how spyware was used “against civil society, activists who are promoting the basic rules of good governance, freedom and stopping impunity of our rulers.”

In the Gulf region in particular Bahraini human rights defender, Maryam Al-Khawaja noted that the normalisation deal between UAE and Israel was creating a situation where “things are going to become and have become more difficult for Gulf activists … because the exchange of spyware and surveillance technology is going to happen in an even more smooth transaction.”

Speaking on how regulation around surveillance technology is being subverted, Natalia Krapiva, Tech Legal Counsel at Access Now discussed how review of EU export controls for surveillance technology began with good intentions, but was hampered by some of the EU member states “caring more about profits than human rights and listening more to the companies than civil society”, resulting in some states actually pushing for weaker protections.

The event wrapped with a conversation on the future of the internet in the MENA region, but the discussion does not end here. RightsCon (June 7-11, 2021) will be a platform for building a shared human rights agenda in the region and around the world. The program is set to cover topics of critical importance, below is a small selection of proposals submitted by experts from across the region:

  • The end of news: Internet censorship in Turkey
  • Investigations in the Arab World: New Challenges and Emerging Trends
  • Digital Rights and Iran’s 2021 Presidential Election: What’s Next?
  • Autocratic copycats? Russia and Turkey stifle social media
  • Fighting Tunisia’s Social Media Police
  • Data Protection in the MENA Region: Lessons Learned From GDPR And How It Might Be Adapted
  • The impact of online hate speech on the queer community in the MENA Region
  • Litigating COVID-19: contact tracing apps, immunity passports, disinformation and more
  • Content moderation under pressure: Social media between authoritarian internet governance and human rights responsibilities

Help us move the conversation forward. Registration for RightsCon is now open until May 14, 2021.

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