The dangers of speaking your mind online – lessons from the Middle East

Kuwaiti graphic designer Mohammed Sharaf @MohammadRSharaf created the following image to support Nasser Abdul during his trial for tweeting offensive material

The internet is full of misconceptions. I often feel that most people think that the world wide web is a place where they can go to say anything, both positive and (most often) negative. The past 18 months and pending legislation should make anyone and everyone think twice about the above. Cases in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait have cast aside the notion that cyberspace is a domain where anything and everything goes.

A number of trials and guilty verdicts both underline the importance of tempering what people say online as well as underscore what authorities do and do not deem as illegal. The first high-profile legal proceedings took place in Kuwait when in June of last year a Kuwaiti national was charged with slandering Bahrain’s royal family and a religious group.

Despite claiming that his Twitter account was hacked Nasser Abdul was found guilty and sentenced to three months in jail which he had already served by the time his sentence was pronounced. There have been other cases in Kuwait, including the prosecution and sentencing of Mubarak Al-Bathali to six years in jail (this was commuted to six months) for Tweets attacking certain religious groups.

The most famous case of jailing for tweeting is that of Hamza Kashgari, who published three tweets about an imaginary meeting between himself and the Prophet Mohammed. His comments drew an instant reaction from Saudis online; in the hours that followed over 30,000 tweets regarding Kashgari were published online. Kashgari was accused of apostasy and fled to Malaysia. He was deported back to Saudi Arabia and jailed. Kashgari is still in detention, despite pleas by his family for his release and his apology for his actions (the basic story and roundup can be read here on Wikipedia).

Bahrain’s authorities have also taken to court individuals for publishing their thoughts in online public forums. The most famous and most recent case is that of activist Nabeel Rajab who tweeted about the Prime Minister’s visit to Muharraq in June and was accused of publicly insulting Muharraq’s residents for their support of Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa. According to Bahrain’s prosecutor Rajab had claimed that Muharraq’s residents had only welcomed the Prime Minister during a visit because he had offered them subsidies.

Bahrain’s Information Affairs Authority said his acquittal on defamation charges “was due to the judge’s uncertainty regarding the evidence submitted to support the lawsuit”. Rajab, who has spent two months in jail while awaiting the outcome of this and another case, had been faced with possible charges before for his use of Twitter, in 2011, in what would have been the first such case in the Middle East.

Clearly the Arab Spring, which has led to regime change in three Middle East countries and is still being felt across the region, has sharpened the thinking of numerous governments across the region. According to media reports in June of this year, Bahrain is introducing legislation to curb misuse of social media.

I am still trying to fully understand the full implications of Bahrain’s proposed social media law, but I am assuming that this would cover and make an illegal offense the publishing of any comments online or through social media that would appear to contradict government policy or government statements. Kuwait is also leaning in this direction, as this editorial by Reuters makes clear.

What is clear is that the Middle East’s online community is becoming increasingly politicized. I’d argue that many people, frustrated with the lack of political debate in traditional media, are going online to voice their issues and concerns. The Dubai School of Government has estimated that there are 1.3 million active users on Twitter in the region.

Switching tack slightly, how will the increase in political discourse affect online communication efforts/campaigns? Will communication professionals and agencies steer completely away from anything that could be construed as political or biased to one community? And will we see more people using online aliases? While many governments would like to regulate online activity, how are they going to force users to reveal their true identities when using services that are based in Europe or the US?

Would we even see sites such as Facebook or Twitter blocked by governments in the region (this did happen in Egypt during January 2011 when the authorities tried to stop any and all access to social networking sites)? That’s the logical conclusion, but how would you do this when these sites have become part of people’s everyday lives? As always, there seem to be many more questions than answers when it comes to the Middle East. The freedom to voice one’s thoughts online are no exception.

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