A Kuwaiti court sentenced a local writer on Tuesday to seven years in jail after he had insulted the Gulf state’s religious minority on Twitter.
The public messaging site had already put several users in trouble with Kuwaiti authorities. Only last month, police had arrested another Kuwaiti citizen for insulting Prophet Mohammed on his Twitter account.
Similar incidents were witnessed in Tunisia where two young men were sentenced to seven years in prison last week for committing “blasphemy” in online posts deemed controversial.
In Palestine, security forces arrested on April 4, Ismat Abdul-Khaleq, a West Bank university lecturer for posting on her Facebook page a demand that President Mahmoud Abbas resign, and calling him a traitor.
A few months ago, young activists in Lebanon were detained (then released) for allegedly insulting the president of the republic on Facebook.
If it is not a government or regulatory authority passing judgment on what is posted on social media sites, it can be a community calling for individuals to be punished for expressing their views.
Sometimes it is both.
In February, Hamza Kashgari, a 23-year-old journalist in Jeddah, posted a series of tweets of imaginary conversations with the Prophet. His tweets were met with a storm of condemnation from the public, some who demanded he be tried, others called for his death.
The list of people who have been sentenced, arrested, or condemned for expressing their views on social media platforms in the Arab world is long.
People in the online community discuss topics and issues raised every day in salons, coffee shops, universities …The only major difference is that once those views are online, the messages are archived and can be used as proof.
This begs the question: what are the true limits of free speech on the Internet? And should there be any limits in the first place?
In an interview with Al Arabiya, the director of SKeyes, the center for media and cultural freedom in the Middle East, Ayman Mhanna, said: “Governments are arming themselves with technologies that allow filtering information and monitoring what people write. China and Saudi Arabia are very clear examples of this.
“It is much harder for organizations, such as SKeyes to monitor whether freedom of speech online is respected, because we cannot, by definition, detect self-censorship. As a position of principle, we’re against government monitoring of free speech, but we call for the respect of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees free speech while stating that there could be some exceptions, linked to high national security or private life issues, provided that they are openly defined in a democratically adopted law, to clearly depict the scope of these exceptions,” said Mhanna.
The dangers of freedom of speech online, according to SKeyes’ director, if any, are hate speech that can directly lead to criminal acts or calls for violence.
Talking about the Middle East, Ayman Mhnna said that “many websites and social media platforms are totally blocked in Syria for example and people are getting arrested [for] what they write on Facebook. In Palestine as well, many cases of arrests are reported based on declarations on social media networks. In Jordan, intelligence services can and are interfering with what online media outlets should publish or not on their websites.”
Mhanna continues: “Governments in the region are far from democratic standards. Their track record in respecting freedom of speech in general is dismal, so why would we trust them when it comes to online media?
“Governments have realized that people have organized themselves online to make change offline. Many important political and social topics (corruption, free speech, marginalized groups, women’s rights) are totally banned in the mainstream media. If an online space didn’t exist, all of these advocacy initiatives would certainly die, or have much harder chance to go public,” Mhanna stated.
What SKeyes is demanding from Arab governments is “lifting any filtering on websites, and increased bandwidth as well as Internet access and speed, and most importantly refrain from enacting any legislation that imposes restriction on free online speech. The only legislation that might be considered is one that tries to protect people from online identity theft, and that puts reasonable measures to protect intellectual property.”
According to Mhanna, the laws in the region are nebulous when it comes to online media and free speech: “Not only do the laws open room for interpretations, but they open ‘avenues’ for interpretations. And in most cases, the judicial authorities haven’t shown much leniency to ‘unorthodox’ messages. Open-minded judges are a ‘rare commodity’ in the region.”
The trial for violations committed online is unusual. Everyone is a witness. The law is shady. The person on trial may have posted something on an impulse or after deep reflection. And with one click, their whole life can be sent to the “recycle bin”.