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Updated: 1 year 4 weeks ago

In Lebanon, journalists and activists who cover protests face threats

Fri, 02/14/2020 - 11:31

Lebanon needs laws to protect journalists and media practitioners

Journalists covering an anti-government protest near one of the blocked entrances to the Lebanese Parliament in the capital Beirut. Photo credit: Hassan Chamoun, used with permission.

Since the anti-austerity protests broke out in Lebanon on October 17, 2019, reporters and journalists have been flocking to the scene to provide up-to-date coverage. 

Tens of thousands of people reflecting Lebanon’s diverse religious and class sectors took to the streets to demand social and economic reforms. What started as socio-economic protests have grown into a movement demanding the fall of political rulers who have governed the country under a sectarian political system since the end of the civil war in 1990, using the popular slogan, “All of them means all of them.”

Journalists and camera crews who showed up at the protests became the target of harassment not only by the country’s police and army but in some cases — protesters. 

Media professionals have raised their voices against the use of excessive force against journalists who cover the mass protests. Many said they were harassed or had their equipment confiscated, or both. The SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom at the Samir Kassir Foundation (SKeyes) reported multiple incidents of injury and harassment of journalists from the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC), Murr Television (MTV), Agence France Presse (AFP) and Al-Jadeed on January 18 alone.

In one incident reported by Skeyes center on January 15, 2020 freelance journalist Saada Saada was covering a roadblock staged by protesters in the Furn al-Shubak area in Beirut, the capital, when a couple of soldiers started to beat him. He declared that he was a journalist and presented his press identification card, but soldiers reportedly tried to snatch his phone from his hands as they dragged, kicked and beat him. His injuries demanded medical attention and transfer to a local hospital. 

In another incident on January 22, a correspondent for France 24, Leila Molana-Allen shared a video in which she says the police targeted a camera crew with water cannons: 

Just got hit by water cannon myself after riot police turned the cannon on a group of journalists and onlookers filming the scene.#LebanonProtests

— Leila Molana-Allen (@Leila_MA) January 22, 2020

On January 21, SKeyes reported that an Associated Press photographer was pepper-sprayed by the police as he was covering protests in Beirut: 

@LebISF also decide to mace journalists in downtown #Beirut tonight, after shooting them with rubber bullets two nights ago. #LebanonProtests

— Bachar EL-Halabi | بشار الحلبي (@Bacharelhalabi) January 21, 2020

On February 11, the same organisation reported that another journalist was hit with a rubber bullet.

Security forces shot photojournalist Jad Ghorayeb in the mouth with a rubber-coated steel bullet. #LebanonProtests #لبنان_يتنفض

— Timour Azhari (@timourazhari) February 11, 2020

This treatment also extends to activists who report from the ground and express their views about the protests. This puts almost every active citizen at risk of harassment or arrest. Political expression on social media is getting more popular but also more risky, as several independent journalists and activists face interrogation or physical violence and threats for sharing their opinions on their social media profiles.

When the protests started, activist and blogger Joey Ayoub was one of many who headed to the scenes of the protests to report what he witnessed. On October 25, 2019, when he was recording on his mobile phone, a soldier tried to snatch the phone away, in an attempt to stop him from filming. 

You can hear Ayoub tell the soldier in Arabic, “I have the right to record.”

Soldiers tried to take my phone away. Furn El Chebbak now#lebanonprotests#لبنان_ينتفض

— ابن بالدوين (@joeyayoub) October 25, 2019

This is problematic not only because it violates freedom of expression and freedom of the press, but also because digital media and content creators on digital media platforms are not protected under the Lebanese press law.

The current press law — adopted in 1962 and amended in 1977, 1994 and 1999 — covers print media only. Cases concerning broadcast journalists and content creators on digital platforms like web outlets and social media are dealt with under criminal law. As social media becomes increasingly more widespread among youth, activists and even officials, Lebanon has yet to adapt its legislation to expand protections to freedom of expression online and digital media. 

Privacy threats

Police have reportedly taken away phones of people they arrest and force detainees to give up their passwords to grant authorities full access to their devices. 

Mohamed Najem, the executive director of Social Media Exchange (SMEX), a digital rights advocacy group working in the Arab region, told Global Voices that his organization received complaints and reports of cases of protesters having to leave their phones behind even after they have been released, and police stations asked them later to go back and give them the passwords to their phones.

Najem says this issue has not gotten the attention it deserves yet and has called for a law that protects the personal data and the privacy of citizens: 

We really need a law for data protection in #Lebanon. After the release of protestors, the security agency kept the protestors phone in custody and now asking them to give their phone passwords. This is a breach of privacy, and laws are not protective. #LebanonProtests

— Mohamad محمد (@monajem) January 22, 2020

Protests are ongoing in different parts of Lebanon, as the parliament approved a new government on February 12. Protesters, who have been calling for an independent transitional government and new parliamentary elections, see this government as part of the old political establishment.

As the protests continue, journalists and activists remain at risk of arrest, harassment and physical violence.

SMEX has circulated tips to help activists and journalists minimise risks to their privacy during protests. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has put out a list of steps and measures journalists should take before heading out to cover the protests — including logistical planning and things to pack —to digital security and privacy protection.

These tips and precautions are useful for journalists and activists seeking to protect their right to privacy and avoid harassment and attacks as they report on the ground. However, unless the Lebanese authorities put strong measures in place to ensure the protection of press freedom and freedom of expression, violations will continue to take place. 

Jordan's online censorship decisions: Non-transparent and — at times — arbitrary

Mon, 02/10/2020 - 11:50

Censorship decisions in Jordan are often non-transparent

Anti-austerity protesters in Amman, Jordan on June 2, 2018. Photo credit: Ali SaadiCC BY-SA. 

The Jordanian government is increasingly monitoring and restricting access to online content, possibly as a direct result of the Arab Spring protests, during which protesters made use of online platforms to organize and disseminate news about events on the ground. 

At times, this moderation leads to censorship that comes in the form of blocking websites, citing failure to obtain a press and publications law license. Other times, it manifests through the restriction of entire services, from access to messaging apps like WhatsApp during Tawjihi (university) exams to blocking an online LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) magazine.

In Jordan, online censorship has become almost normalized and, at times, arbitrary. 

During the late 2018 anti-austerity protests, Jordanians reported being unable to access Facebook Live videos. When probed, government officials stated that they placed no restrictions on the internet in the area where the protests took place, blaming instead the disruption on a ‘’technical error’’ from Facebook’s part. This claim has since been disproved by independent research conducted by the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) and the Jordan Open Source Association (JOSA), which concluded that “Facebook Live Stream was temporarily interfered with during the protests.” The report demonstrated that the blocking was a cunning move — users were barred access to Facebook Live only, while the rest of Facebook’s platform ran normally.

Technical prowess aside, Jordan's legal framework enables blocking of online content in a methodical manner. The 2012 amendments to the press and publication law accorded Jordan's Media Commission the ability to block websites that categorize themselves as “news websites,” and do not comply with strict licensing conditions such as having an editor-in-chief who is a member of the Jordan Press Association (JPA) for at least four years. The government promptly blocked 291 websites as a result of the amendment. Authorities have continued to use the amended law to block access to websites without granting citizens the right to appeal decisions. 

In 2017, the Media Commission issued an order to block the website of the Amman-based Arab LGBTQ magazine, MyKali, stating that the website failed to obtain a license that adheres to the press and publication law. In reality, the website became a target following an interview with Dima Tahboub, a member of parliament and representative of the conservative Islamic Action Front party, on Deutsche Welle. During the interview, Tahboub blatantly declared that homosexuality does not align with “Jordan’s ideals and morals.” Following that interview, Tahboub continued to attack Jordan’s LGBTQ community — singling out MyKali for criticism — and less than two weeks later, the website was blocked by the Media Commission.

To bypass censorship, MyKali started publishing its content through The Jordanian authorities’ disruptive efforts, however, did not stop there. In 2018, the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC) requested that Jordanian internet service providers block MyKali on While Zain and Orange failed to comply with the request, Umniah blocked the entire domain for a few weeks before they lifted the block.

This was not the first time Jordanians were denied access to a major international platform or website. From September 2016 until January 2017, was blocked. is the internet’s archive, providing not only free and open access to almost half a trillion archived web pages, but also digitized books, movies, and music. CitizenLab, 7iber and the Jordan Open Source Association investigated the matter but to no avail: the Media Commission “stressed that the blocking decision had not been issued by [them]” and that the website did not experience downtime. When pushed even further about the technical reports that proved the website had indeed been blocked, the director of the Media Commission replied that he “cannot answer.” The reason behind the blocking remains unclear.

According to a 2017 report by Citizen Lab, the process for blocking access to websites usually involves the following three entities, the Media Commission, the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission, and telecoms to activate it. 

However, as the cases mentioned above illustrate, these decisions are often arbitrary and non-transparent, and usually, once a blocking decision has been made, users cannot appeal. 

In an increasingly digital age, the digital space has become instrumental to the mobilization of activists, and for users to express themselves and access information. Maintaining uninterrupted and uncensored access to online information and channels, therefore, is crucial. 

The Jordanian government should take steps to ensure that rights to online freedom of expression and information are protected, including clarifying which authorities hold the regulatory power to block content and providing citizens with the necessary means to appeal the blocking of content. Additionally, authorities should amend online filtration and censorship regulations in accordance with international standards on freedom of expression.

To apply for a national ID card in Iran, members of ‘unrecognized’ religious minorities now need to deny their faith

Sat, 02/01/2020 - 15:02

National ID card of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has removed the “other religions” option from the national ID card application form, a move that appears to be designed to deny millions of Iranians full citizenship.

Members of unrecognized religious minorities such as Baháʼís, Yarsan, Mandaeans and Christian converts will either have to lie or hide their beliefs in order to enjoy citizenship rights in Iran. Under the new regulations issued by the National Census Bureau, ID card applicants may choose only from the following list of recognized religions: Islam, Zoroastrianism, Judaism and Christianity.

Recognized religious minorities have long faced discrimination in Iran, and many of them have left the country since the 1979 revolution.

This latest move by the Iranian state represents another chapter in the drama that has been unfolding in the country in recent months. It follows the cold-blooded repression of protesters and the killing of around 1,500 people, including at least 17 teenagers, in the government crackdown on anti-regime protests last November, not to mention the shooting down by the Revolutionary Guards on January 8, 2020, of a Ukrainian passenger plane, killing the 176 people on board. Another mass arrest took place when protests erupted after the government, under international pressure, confessed it had in fact shot down the aircraft by mistake. There is still no news of what has happened to the thousands who were arrested during November and January protests.

What will be the impact of new policy?

National ID cards are a prerequisite for everything official in Iran, including enrolling in a university, obtaining a passport, selling and purchasing property and cars, making hotel reservations, booking flights, obtaining work permits, bank transactions, filing complaints, entering into contracts, and accessing one's pension. As Simin Fahandej, Baháʼí representative in United Nations, told Global Voices, “not being able to get it makes one's everyday activities almost impossible.”

“The Shiite state wants to keep minorities marginalised in order to hold onto power itself,” Behnaz Hosseini, a Europe-based researcher who has published numerous articles and books on religious minorities, told religious rights organisation Article 18. “The regime intensifies the pressure on minorities to make them immigrate, or, in the case of the Yarsan, to rob them of their own identity by Islamising them.”

40 years of persecution and discrimination

The persecution of religious minorities began in the early days of the revolution, with the arrest and execution of Baha’is and extrajudicial killings of Christian converts and those who stood up for them. Persons belonging even to recognised minorities, including Sunni Muslims, became at best second- or even third-class citizens.

“The persecution of the Baha’is by the Islamic Republic has been a consistent policy over the last 40 years,” Afshin Shahi, a senior lecturer in Middle East politics and international relations at Bradford University, told Global Voices. “Even under more moderate governments, the Baha’i community has faced discrimination. Historically the regime has regarded members of the Bahai Community as the potential fifth column. This stemmed from a political paranoia which is fused with religious prejudice. At a time that the regime is facing mounting challenges I’m not surprised that they have taken new measures to put further pressure on this vulnerable community.”

According to Simin Fahandej, Bahá’ís continue to be denied access to higher education in Iran, as well as barred from employment in the public sector and receiving benefits from the pension system. “Bahá’í university applicants are turned away at the first hurdle by being mendaciously told that their files are “incomplete”,” Fahandej told Global Voices. “Even when Bahá’ís are able to register, they are expelled soon after they are identified as Bahá’ís.”

“Essentially, over the past 40 years, the Iranian government has used every tactic to force Baha'is to lie about their faith,” Fahandej said. “In the early years of the revolution, Baha'is were told that if they simply denied their faith, they would not be executed. They were made to choose between their faith and the right to work, and now between their faith and the right to citizenship. Truthfulness is considered by the Baha'is to be the “foundation of all human virtues” and so the Baha'is do not lie about their faith. The new issue with ID cards is simply another ploy to try and make Baha'is deny and lie about their faith.”

What can be done?

With this latest move, the Islamic Republic is not only breaching the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which it is a signatory, but also its own Constitution.

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

Article 19 of Iran’s own constitution states: “All people of Iran, whatever the ethnic group or tribe to which they belong, enjoy equal rights; and colour, race, language, and the like, do not bestow any privilege.”

With the removal of the “other religions” option from the national ID card application, millions of individuals in Iran belonging to religious minorities find themselves excluded from “all people of Iran.”

Simin Fahandej believes in international action. “The Baha'i International Community reports these violations to UN agencies at the international level,” Fahandej says. “International pressure is always useful in bringing in holding governments accountable based on their own commitments and obligations at the international level. Governments do not want to be seen as human rights violators and so bringing these issues up international and raising awareness about them is an important aspect of seeking justice.”

Is Trump's Middle East peace plan a one-state solution?

Wed, 01/29/2020 - 15:24

The plan has been criticized as a ‘farce’ and ‘disgrace’

Bethlehem is a Palestinian city located in the central West Bank, Palestine, south of Jerusalem, October 9, 2016. Photo by Dennis Jarvis via Flickr CC BY 2.0.

On Tuesday, January 28, 2020, U.S. President Donald Trump announced his long-awaited Middle East peace plan known as the “deal of the century.” The plan calls for a separate Palestinian state and promises Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital. 

“Palestinians are in poverty and violence, exploited by those seeking to use them as pawns to advance terrorism and extremism. They deserve a far better life,” Trump said in a speech on Tuesday.

According to Trump's plan, a Palestinian state will only be realized if Palestinians meet demands made by Israel. Palestinians widely rejected the plan before it was even announced. 

So, what is the new peace plan?

The plan includes a “conceptual map” that shows territorial compromises that Israel is making to accommodate a Palestinian state. According to the BBC, Trump added that the map “more than doubles the Palestinian territory and provide[s] a Palestinian capital in eastern Jerusalem.” The U.S. would open an embassy in the “new Palestinian state.”

“No Palestinians or Israelis will be uprooted from their homes,” Trump said in his speech. He added that the existing Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank — illegal according to international law —  will remain. 

He said that territory allocated to Palestinians “will remain open and undeveloped for a period of four years.” During those four years, Palestinians “can study the deal, negotiate with Israel, and achieve the criteria for statehood,” according to the BBC

Finally, “Israel will work with the king of Jordan to ensure that the status quo governing the key holy site in Jerusalem known to Jews as the Temple Mount and al-Haram al-Sharif to Muslims is preserved,” according to the BBC

The plan asserts that the current physical separation barrier between Israel and Palestine should remain and will be considered the border between the “two states.” Over the decades, the U.S has attempted to mediate between Israel and Palestine to create what is known as a “two-state solution” where both Israelis and Palestinians live independently.

On Twitter, Shahed Amanullah compared the plan to the United States’ Native American reservations:

This doesn't look like a state. It looks like a Native American reservation.

— Shahed Amanullah (@shahed) January 28, 2020

Following the announcement, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said that Israel is free to annex settlements at any given time.

Hours later, Netanyahu’s spokesman Jonathan Urich announced on Twitter that the prime minister will ask the cabinet to back the full annexation of settlements in the West Bank on Sunday.

The following tweet shows the changes over time in the proportions of the land in Palestine versus the Israeli settlements:

The PLO [Palestinian Liberation Organization] does not agree with the math…

— Mariya Petkova (@mkpetkova) January 28, 2020

A ‘farce,’ a ‘sham,’ a ‘disgrace’

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, — who is also indicted on corruption charges in Israel, — stood at the White House in Washington, D.C. alongside Trump while he made the announcement. Ambassadors of Egypt and Jordan — the only Arab countries that have a peace treaty with Israel, — were both absent.

“My vision presents a win-win opportunity for both sides, a realistic two-state solution that resolves the risk of Palestinian statehood to Israel's security,” Trump said during his speech.

Political analyst Marwan Bishara called the plan a “farce” on Twitter, given that both Trump and Netanyahu facing charges in their respective countries and aim to redirect attention away from that. As Trump made his peace plan announcement, his defense team was in the Senate battling his impeachment. Meanwhile, hours earlier, Netanyahu was formally indicted on corruption charges. 

My early assessment of the Trump's ‘peace plan': The farce, the fraud and the fury @AJEnglish

— Marwan Bishara (@marwanbishara) January 28, 2020

The plan has been highly criticized as an endorsement for the unilateral Israeli annexation of the settlements. 

When was the last time anyone made an agreement about a third party, with the third party not present? #DealOfTheCentury

— Shay (@shayandahalf) January 29, 2020

Arab states have called for a conversation that includes all parties to reach an agreement. Meanwhile, the Kingdom of Jordan has said that establishing an independent state of Palestine is the only route for peace in the region.

Want to know why this “ultimate deal” is a sham & a disgrace that will never lead to peace? @OmarBaddar explains:#DealOfTheCentury #Apartheid

— Arab American Instit. (@AAIUSA) January 28, 2020

Farewell to Lina Ben Mhenni, Tunisian blogger and human rights defender

Mon, 01/27/2020 - 23:32

Lina Ben Mhenni, June 2013. Photo by Habib M’henni, used with permission, Wikimedia Commons.

Prominent Tunisian blogger and human rights defender Lina Ben Mhenni passed away at the age of 36 on Monday 27 January, 2020.

Lina was a key figure in the Tunisian revolution that toppled the 23-year dictatorship of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011. When the revolution began in December 2010, Lina travelled to Sidi Bouzid and Kasserine, where she reported on the very first protests before they spread to other regions of the country. Her reporting helped publicize the authorities’s deadly crackdown on protesters, at a time when media freedom and press freedom were greatly restricted in Tunisia, and the internet heavily censored.

Prior to the regime’s collapse, she blogged and wrote about the human rights situation in the country on her award-winning blog, A Tunisian Girl. She was also a contributor to Global Voices, where she wrote extensively about internet censorship, the crackdown on bloggers and freedom of expression under the Ben Ali regime.

Lina continued her tireless activism after the revolution. She was critical of the rule of the Islamist Ennahdha movement, which governed with two other parties from late 2011 and early 2014. During this period, violations of human rights and individual freedoms continued to take place, including on religious grounds. Ben Mhenni also received death threats for her criticism of the Islamists and the authorities.

Ben Mhenni also campaigned for the socio-economic and cultural rights of all Tunisians. She was a strong supporter of the rights of those who were injured for protesting during the revolution, including their right to compensation and adequate healthcare. In 2016, along with her father Sadok Ben Mhenni, a political activist and human rights defender who was imprisoned under the regime of Bourguiba (Tunisia’s post-independence president), she started a campaign to collect books for prisoners to help fight radicalization in prisons. They collected more than 45,000 books in two years.

The award-winning blogger died of a chronic illness that required her to have a kidney transplant in 2007.

Speaking to a local radio station on 14 February 2019, Lina paid tribute to her mother for donating her kidney to her and for supporting her activism. She said:

Thanks to her I got to live another 12 years I may not have lived, or I would have lived a prisoner in my own body. But I have fully lived these years thanks to her. I travelled, I moved, I filmed, I ran, I screamed, and I lived the Tunisian revolution, something I may not have been able to live…

Morocco intensifies crackdown on freedom of expression

Fri, 01/24/2020 - 18:30

Two rappers have recently been jailed

Over the past fews months, authorities in Morocco arrested several individuals for expressing themselves online. Photo by user Pierre Metivier on Flickr [CC BY-NC 2.0].

The Moroccan government has intensified its crackdown on freedom of expression, arresting several people in recent months for merely expressing their opinions, including online.

According to a local rights group, a total of 15 people have been arrested in recent months and six were convicted in December 2019 alone.

Independent journalist Omar Radi was arrested on December 26, 2019, after a public prosecutor charged him with ‘’insulting a public servant’’ under the country’s penal code over a tweet he posted eight months earlier. In the tweet, Radi slammed a verdict by a Casablanca appeals court, which confirmed harsh prison sentences against dozens of activists of the Hirak protest movement in the Rif region. Some of the defendants, including a leading figure of the protest movement, Nasser Zefzafi, were sentenced to 20 years in jail. 

Radi was released on bail on December 31. He appeared in court  on January 2, and his trial was adjourned to 5 March. However, Radi still risks up to one year in jail under the penal code if found guilty. Many more are also still in jail. Following his release, he tweeted:

Cependant, si aujourd'hui je suis libre, ce n'est malheureusement pas le cas pour beaucoup de nos concitoyens qui aujourd'hui sont incarcérés pour avoir exprimé une opinion, une colère, une blague ou une chanson.

— Omar Radi (@OmarRADI) January 3, 2020

Though I am free today, it is unfortunately not the case for many of our fellow citizens who remain incarcerated for expressing an opinion, anger, a joke or a song.

Rappers jailed

Rapper Gnawi. Photo is a screenshot from one of his video clips on Youtube.

On November 25, 2019, a court sentenced rapper Mohamed Mounir, known by his stage name Gnawi, to one year in jail and a fine of 1,000 dirhams (around 103 USD) for cursing the police on social media for ‘’mistreating’’ him. His lawyer told Reuters that the authorities may in fact have targeted him over a song he and two other singers recorded and published on YouTube. The song, titled ‘’Long Live the People’’, denounces the socio-economic conditions, corruption and torture in the country, and also contained criticism of the country's rulers, including the king.  On January 15, a court of appeal confirmed Gnawi's one-year-jail term.

On December 19, a court in Meknes sentenced a high-school student to three years in jail for merely posting the song’s lyrics on Facebook. The student was released on January 16, 2020. 

Another rapper, Hamza Asbaar, was arrested on December 28 at a football stadium. His family told independent news site Lakome that the arrest occurred after Asbaar had performed his song “We understand’’ at the request of spectators. In the song, published on YouTube on October 20, Asbaar, who is a high school student, criticized the social and economic conditions and the rights situation in Morocco. On December 31, he was sentenced to four years in jail and a fine of 10,000 dirhams (10,000 USD) for ‘’insulting sanctities’’. 

Hamza Asbaar is a 18 yo #moroccan high school student and a young rapper who got sentenced to 4 years in jail for a rap song he wrote, practicing #FreedomOfSpeech is one of the most fundamental human rights, let Hamza go! #FreeKoulchi #Morocco

— Hajar El Fatihi (@HajarElFatihi3) January 5, 2020

A court of appeal reduced his prison sentence to eight months on 16 January.

Crackdown on YouTubers

The crackdown has also affected individuals who have taken to YouTube to express opinions on social, political and economic issues.

On December 26, a court in Settat sentenced YouTuber Mohamed Sekkaki to four years in jail and a fine of 40,000 dirhams (4,150 USD) over a video in which he criticized the king and described Moroccans as ‘’stupid’’, and ‘’donkeys’’.

Another YouTuber, Mohamed Bodouh, was sentenced to three years in jail on January 7 over videos critical of corruption and the authorities.

Mohamed Boudouh is a shop owner who got sentenced to 3 yrs in jail because of some @YouTube videos he filmed in which he talks about precarity and the lack of justice and equality in #Morocco. The regime is losing it and for all I know I could be next or you could! #FreeKoulchi

— Hajar El Fatihi (@HajarElFatihi3) January 8, 2020

Morocco has a dire record of cracking down on freedom of expression, independent media and press freedom media.

Yasmina Abouzzouhour, an associate fellow at the Moroccan Institute for Policy Analysis (MIPA) writes:

The regime has displayed a pattern of repressing activists through judicial proceedings, sometimes under false pretexts. Indeed, famous activists perceived by the regime as dissidents- such as Radi, the journalist Hajar Raissouni, and the rapper Gnawi- are taken to court over unrelated issues, such as a supposed abortion in Raissouni’s case or a video that allegedly incited violence against the police in Gnawi’s case.

Moroccans continue to advocate for the release of all those imprisoned for expressing themselves, including activists, journalists, artists and protesters under the #FreeKoulchi [“Free everything’’] campaign.

‘An interplay between Western and Eastern Cultures': Two art exhibitions on cultural collisions

Tue, 01/14/2020 - 03:20

Negin Sharifzadeh, “Modern Girls, Ancient Rite,” 2019, mounted museum print (1 of 3) 30’’ x 18.17’’

Two women artists from Iran and Pakistan recently exhibited new bodies of work in New York, in which they portrayed the interplay between Western and Eastern cultures, evoking histories of iconography and the way women, in particular, are represented by others in canonical art history.

In an interview with Global Voices, the artists, Negin Sharifzadeh and Qinza Najm, stated that by using contemporary tools such as photography and animation they aimed to “question traditional narratives.”

In each case, the artists appropriated works from the Western canon, then inserted themselves in a tension of opposition and integration, subversion and homage, by claiming agency over their own bodies and the right to sit within positions of power inside art, history, and society.

‘Appearance Stripped Bare’

Negin Sharifzadeh, a cross-disciplinary artist and storyteller based in Brooklyn, New York, received her BFA in sculpture from Tehran University in Iran in 2002, and her BFA in Performing Arts from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2010.

In her show “Appearance Stripped Bare,” Sharifzadeh interrogates the concept of the European Renaissance as an isolated phenomenon rather than a period in organic conversation with movements that had started earlier in the Middle East.

In Italian Renaissance paintings such as “Annunciation,” by Pierro Della Francesca and “Lamentation of Christ,” by Andrea Mantegna, Sharifzadeh appears sometimes as Mary, sometimes as Jesus, sometimes as herself simply observing.

Negin Sharifzadeh, “When Caravaggio meets Gentileschi”, 2019 Mounted Museum Print (1 of 3), 40’’ x 40’’

“I have placed myself into photographic recreations of iconic paintings from the Italian Renaissance, creating works that are simultaneously homage and subversion, with the aim of exploring the impact of the broader Mediterranean culture, art and ideas that helped spark and inform Europe’s rebirth,” Sharifzadeh said.

“Too often,” she added, “art historians have placed European arts in a position of privilege, exorcising and minimizing arts from the broader Mediterranean regions. Through this re-contextualization and reclamation, I aim to challenge the very idea of European and Middle Eastern otherness.” That re-contextualization and reclamation occur as Sharifzadeh places her own contemporary, Middle Eastern, female body within the imagery, iconography, and physical geography of the Italian Renaissance.

Her work is also a commentary on present-day cultural collisions.

“Negin’s point of view, influenced by her Iranian identity and her American life, is very remarkable as it is able to inspire a sense of dialogue and reconciliation, very precious in the current political turmoil,” said curator Giulio Verago, director of Via Farini Artists-in-Residence in Milan. “The use of irony, especially in a time of great depression and disillusion, celebrates the freedom of artistic expression. She takes into account the divergences in the representation of the female body between East and West—how, for instance, the influence of classical representation of female nudity gave shape somehow to the way we see women’s bodies and women’s desires and ambitions nowadays.”

Negin Sharifzadeh, “Anodyne (Triptych)”, 2019 Mounted Museum Print (1 of 3) 40’’ x 28.65’’

Sharifzadeh said that she has brought lots of questions to the forefront about the exchange of art and architecture between the Italian Renaissance and its broader Mediterranean Ottoman Empire. “Hopefully, these conversations will make my audience more curious about that specific era with the silver lining [being an awareness] that our interconnectedness through arts and culture has been a phenomenon throughout history.”

‘Still, I Rise’

Pakistani-American Qinza Najm, born and raised in Lahore, pursued her studies in fine arts at Bath University in the UK and The Art Students League of New York. Originally trained as a psychologist, Najm uses performance, video, painting, and other mediums to create empathy and understanding between societies and cultures in order to address the deepest social traumas.

Drawing from a broad swath of art history, Najm uses a wide range of techniques to “break the frame.” For instance, her “stretched carpets” works take the Persian-style rug, ubiquitous across much of the Middle East, and emblazons the carpets with elongated female figures that explore the contradictions and cultural clash between contemporary life and the reactionary traditional world. One powerful work in the show, based on an earlier performance piece, was “Veil of Bullets,” which depicts Najm encased in a 40-pound veil made of a fishnet and 1,100-plus empty bullet casings representing both the honor killings in Pakistan during the previous year as well as the 1,100 children and adults killed during school shootings in the United States.

“Story of Rashida,” photo in a lightbox, 17×11 inch each, 2017-18, by Qinza Najm.

In another series, “The Story of Rashida,” Najm explicitly explores gendered violence and female subjectivity. She does this using photos of her own mother, cousins and friends holding quotidian household objects—from cheese graters to scissors—that have been used against women as tools of domestic violence in Pakistan, a country where honor killings are still a pervasive and sanctioned practice.

The exhibition’s title, “Still, I Rise,” refers to a poem by Maya Angelou that celebrates female empowerment in the context of slavery and black culture. Curator Tami Katz Freiman explained that “Najm chose words that promise redemption, thus endowing her personal story with a universal feminist context, while also attending to the themes of empathy, generosity, transformation and change.”

“Her fluid movement,” Freiman added, “between different disciplines is illustrated in this exhibition which features a selection from four bodies of work that resonate with one another.”

“I am interested in the body as both medium and subject—the circumstances surrounding its physical occupation of space, the norms and laws that govern bodies as political subjects, and the uneven burden these norms often place on women and minorities,” writes Najm in her statement for the exhibition, adding that, “drawing from my upbringing in Lahore, Pakistan, and adulthood in the United States, my sculptures, installations, and performances address gender politics, displacement and cultural power through lenses of geography and social identification.”

In her art Najm says she often uses “…motifs of bodies stretched, deconstructed, distorted, and pushed beyond their limits. A manipulated body is a reflection of how power is exerted on our being. However, I am more interested in the depiction of human potential—an extended body claims space beyond its expected role, both physically and figuratively. In particular, I aim to raise questions about how we might transcend and combat cultural stereotypes, prejudice, displacement and sexist norms.”

“Veil of Bullets,” 66×44 inch, Print on Aluminum, 2019, by Qinza Najm,

Najm told Global Voices that the theme of violence is universal, and possibly it can bring us together through the empathy and compassion that is currently missing in the international dialogue of the East and the West, dividing narratives and what media portrays, especially between the U.S. and Islamic countries.

“This exhibition and the conversation the came out of the exhibition is giving me material to take the dialogue of this exhibition further,” she emphasized. “I am excited to see what comes out of it and I like to surprise myself through taking more risk and experimentation.”

Both “Appearance Stripped Bare” and “Still, I Rise” evoked histories of iconography and the way women, in particular, are presented by others in canonical art history. The artists are reclaiming this representation as a site of power, using the contemporary tools of photography and animation to question those traditional narratives. Both shows powerfully interrogated the role of women across the boundaries between Western and Eastern cultures and, through their art, claimed an agency over their own bodies and their right to sit within positions of power inside art, history, and society.

The two exhibitions took place at the A.I.R. gallery in October 2019, Brooklyn, New York.

Zanzibar mourns the death of Omani sultan who strengthened historical ties with East Africa

Sun, 01/12/2020 - 14:13

Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman died on January 10

Sultan of Oman Qaboos bin Said Al Said in Muscat, Oman, May 21, 2013. United States State Department photo via public domain.

Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman, the world's longest-ruling king who reigned for 50 years, died on January 10, 2020, at the age of 79. His death was announced by the Royal Court of Oman on January 11, with the following message:

“To the people of the beloved homeland in all its districts, to the Arab and Islamic nations and to the world at large. It is with hearts filled with faith in Allah and his Providence, and with great sorrow and deep sadness— yet with complete satisfaction and absolute submission to the will of the Almighty Allah, that the Diwan of Royal Court mourns His Majesty Sultan Qaboos Bin Said, who passed away on Friday, the 14th of Jumada Al-Ula, the 10th of January 2020.”

Oman named Sultan Qaboos’ cousin, Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, as his successor within hours of his death and declared an official three-day period of mourning, with the flag at half-mast for 40 days.

When the news broke, netizens from Zanzibar and the wider East African community poured out condolences for the leader known in some circles as a “quiet diplomat” who modernized Oman and restored and strengthened historical ties with East Africa.

The sultans of Oman ruled over a substantial part of the Swahili Coast along the Indian Ocean from 1689-1856, controlling elaborate trade routes in East Africa, including those for slave labor and cloves. In the mid-1800s, they moved their seat of power from Muscat, Oman, to Stone Town, Zanzibar, and ruled as a constitutional monarchy.  

In December 1963, Zanzibar had a brief moment of independence when the British, who had shared power with the sultans as a protectorate (1890-1963), left the islands as a constitutional monarchy under Omani rule. On January 12, 1964, a violent revolution in Zanzibar overthrew the sultanate, ending over two centuries of power in the region.

Zanzibar merged with mainland Tanganyika as the United Republic of Tanzania, led by the first president of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere, and a union government soon formed between mainland Tanzania and Zanzibar, that remains fiercely contested today.

The ousting of Omanis from the islands of Zanzibar in 1964 left a hole in the hearts of many Zanzibaris who have strong familial and historical ties to Oman. To this day, many East Africans share a special connection with Oman, and many Omanis speak fluent Swahili, a Bantu-Arabic language forged through centuries of trade and connection along the Swahili Coast.

Politician Zitto Kabwe, from mainland Tanzania, was one of the first online to share his condolences and recognize Sultan Qaboos’ significance in the region:

My heartfelt condolences to the people of Oman on the death of Sultan Qaboos Bin Said. During his reign Sultan Qaboos strengthened historical relationship between East Africa and Oman, something we hope the new leadership will continue with. Inna Lillah waina ilaih raajiun

— Zitto Kabwe Ruyagwa (@zittokabwe) January 11, 2020

Kenya's cabinet secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Monica Juma, also shared her condolences on Twitter. She described the kingdom of Oman as “sisterly,” and described Sultan Qaboos, in particular, as an “inspirational, iconic leader”:

1/2..I convey sincere condolences to my brother and Minister Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah & through him the people of the sisterly Kingdom of Oman during this trying period of mourning the passing of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos. His Majesty was an inspirational, iconic leader and..

— Amb. Monica Juma (@Diplomacy_Kenya) January 11, 2020

2/ influential peacemaker and statesman that dedicated his life towards serving with distinction in pursuit of peace. May the Almighty God rest his soul in eternal peace and provide the people of the Sultanate of Oman the fortitude to bear this loss.

— Amb. Monica Juma (@Diplomacy_Kenya) January 11, 2020

Kenyan researcher and analyst Rashid Abdi also recognized Sultan Qaboos’ statesmanship and Kenyans’ historical ties to Oman:

Kenya mourns death of Sultan Qaboos – one Gulf leader to whom all came for counsel. He kept Oman out of trouble, inoculated his people against violence, extremism that blighted neighbours.

Oman has long history with East Africa. Many in Kenya's Coast trace their family to Oman.

— Rashid Abdi (@RAbdiCG) January 11, 2020

Just a few weeks before Sultan Qaboos died, residents of Stone Town, Zanzibar, gathered at Jaws Corner, a famous meeting place for coffee and politics, to pray for Sultan Qaboos’ health after news circulated that he was ill.

Journalist Ally Saleh from Zanzibar posted an image of the prayer gathering:

Uhusiano baina ya Oman na Zanzibar ni wa kidugu na historia. Barazani Jaws Corner, Jimbo la Malindi kumuombea dua Mfalme Qaboos

Relation between Zanzibar and Oman is historical and family ties. At Jaws Corner, Malindi Constituency praying for good health for Sultan Qaboos

— HAKIKISHA UNAPATA ZAN=ID YAKO (@allysalehznz) December 26, 2019

After the revolution, Oman remained relatively distanced from Zanzibar, which was closed off to the world under the new, socialist government. In the mid-1980s, as Zanzibar and mainland Tanzania slowly began to open their doors to tourism and trade under subsequent administrations, Oman also continued to modernize under Sultan Qaboos.

For many years, the Omani kingdom has quietly restored these historical ties and bonds with Zanzibar and East Africa, through various charitable initiatives as well as policies geared toward development and transformation:

#NipasheHabri Serikali ya Mapinduzi Zanzibar imeeleza kufurahishwa na juhudi za kiongozi Mkuu wa Oman, Sultan Qaboos Bin Said, katika kukuza maendeleo ya Zanzibar na kuendeleza udugu wa watu wa nchi mbili hizo.

— Nipashe Tanzania (@Nipashetz) November 23, 2019

The Revolutionary Government of Zanzibar has expressed gratitude for the efforts of Oman's leader, Sultan Qaboos Bin Said, in promoting Zanzibar's development and promoting the brotherhood of the two countries.

Omani historian Mohammad al Rahbi, who documents the historical ties between East Africa and Oman, posted this photo of the first president of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere, now deceased, on his first trip to Oman in 1985, during which he met with Sultan Qaboos:

Ziara ya kwanza ya Marehemu Mwalimu Julius Nyerere ya Oman ilikuwa mwaka 1985, na pia alikutana na Sultan Qaboos bin Said. #Oman #Tanzania #Zanzibar

— محمد الرحبي Mohammed Al Rahbi I (@MohammedAlRahbi) December 12, 2019

The first trip of the late Teacher Julius Nyerere to Oman was in the year 1985, and also he met with Sultan Qaboos bin Said. #Oman #Tanzania #Zanzibar

In 2011, Oman Air pleased Zanzibaris when it announced that it would restore direct flight routes from Oman to Zanzibar, promising that it would “build stronger business, cultural and touristic ties between the two countries,” according to an Oman Air press release.

In 2017, Sultan Qaboos sent a delegation by ship to East Africa to strengthen cooperation along the Swahili Coast. In Zanzibar, the delegation focused on strengthening tourism, manufacturing, education, investment, and oil and gas, according to a Zanzibar statehouse press statement.

Politician Ismail Jussa, from Zanzibar, posted an image of the grand mosque built by Sultan Qaboos, presented as a gift to the people of Zanzibar, in 2018:

Jami'a Zinjibar, the grand mosque of Zanzibar built by His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman and presented as a gift to the people of Zanzibar.

— Ismail Jussa (@IsmailJussa) September 11, 2018

Sultan Qaboos also agreed to invest $5,931,770 Omani rial [approximately $15,405,221 United States dollars] to restore Zanzibar's decrepit Beit el-Ajaib, or “House of Wonders” to its former glory as a cultural heritage site, according to the Oman Observer. This grand architectural gem from 1883 — overlooking the Indian Ocean — is where Sultan Qaboos’ forefathers once governed from Stone Town.

Carlos Ghosn's great escape embarrasses Japanese government

Wed, 01/08/2020 - 16:29

A ‘Gregorian band’, a Green Beret, and a big box?

Disguised as a masked maintenance worker, Carlos Ghosn is released on bail in Tokyo on March 6, 2019. Screencap from Euronews official YouTube channel.

On December 31, 2019, Carlos Ghosn, disgraced former head of automakers Nissan and Renault, announced he had broken the conditions of his bail and had fled Japan for Lebanon. Details of his flight from Japan were slow to emerge over the year-end holiday period, and various theories of Ghosn's escape have included the help of a former Green Beret soldier, passing through border security in an oversize musical instrument case, and the covert help of the Japanese government itself, who wanted to be rid of the one-time Japanese corporate titan for once and for all.

In reality, Ghosn seems to have taken advantage of systemic shortcomings in Japan's police and prosecution services, the judicial system, passport security, ports control and more.

Ghosn had been released on bail and then confined to house arrest in March 2019 after being originally arrested in Japan in November 2018 on suspicion of fraud, tax evasion, violating securities laws and other allegations. At the time of his arrest in late 2018, Ghosn was chairperson of Japanese car company Nissan and its partner Renault, and had been accused of illegally diverting funds from Nissan for his personal use.

Since helping rescue Nissan from bankruptcy in 1999, Ghosn, a Brazilian-born French citizen with Lebanese ancestry had become one of Japan's most recognizable business personalities. Following his initial success with Nissan, Ghosn would eventually become chair of the world’s second-biggest carmaker, the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance, after setting up an infusion of cash to Nissan from French carmaker Renault, and then a partnership between the two companies. In 2016, Ghosn then helped Nissan take control of another struggling Japanese automaker, Mitsubishi, further establishing his influence in Japan's automotive industry.

A corporate titan persecuted by Japanese ‘hostage justice’

Ghosn's arrest by Japanese prosecutors in November 2018 has shone an international spotlight on the perceived harshness of Japan's justice system. After being arrested, Ghosn was legally detained for 23 days without charges in a bare cell, and with no contact to the outside world. Following the end of the 23-day period, Ghosn continued to be detained in December 2018 without charge following additional allegations.

After finally being formally charged in court in January, Ghosn would then be denied release and would for several more months endure what some have called Japan's “hostage justice” for refusing to confess to charges brought against him by prosecutors.

#Ghosn was wearing a workman’s uniform, face mask, blue cap and glasses when he slipped out of the Tokyo Detention House and got into a minicar unrecognized by many of the journalists camped outside.
(@Reuters photos by Issei Kato ⁦@Hirame1972⁩)

— William Mallard (@BillyMallard) March 6, 2019

Ghosn was finally granted bail in Tokyo on March 6, 2019, and attempted to evade waiting reporters and paparazzi by disguising himself as a masked maintenance worker. He would be rearrested and released once more, with the new bail conditions restricting contact with his spouse, the fashion designer Carole Ghosn.

As Carlos Ghosn spent time under house arrest in Tokyo for the remainder of 2019 awaiting trial, his wife Carole campaigned on his behalf around the world, decrying Japan as a “fake democracy” because of its perceived lack of due process.

Citing an inability to get a fair trial and a supposed plot between the Japanese government and Nissan to “take him down“, Ghosn successfully made his escape from Japan to Lebanon on December 31, 2019.

When the news broke on New Year's Eve, the question for many was, how did Ghosn do it?

A ‘Gregorian band’, a Green Beret, and a big box?

Ghosn was supposed to be under house arrest and constant surveillance at his Tokyo home as he awaited trial in Japan on charges of fraud, tax evasion, and securities violations. Ghosn's quick trip to Lebanon obviously meant he had escaped from Japan by plane.

An early theory, since disproven, was that a “Gregorian band” had entered Ghosn's Tokyo home to help celebrate a supposedly traditional Christian Lebanese New Year's Eve. According to the theory, Ghosn was then smuggled out of his home and then Japan in an oversize musical instrument case with a fifteen-person team that included a former American Green Beret special forces veteran.


— ○イジー (@daisycutter7) December 31, 2019

Carlos Ghosn passes through security (at the airport).

In fact, a combination of lax airport security, privileges enjoyed by the corporate and diplomatic elite, dysfunctional government relationships and rigid bureaucratic rules all made it relatively easy for Ghosn to skip bail and leave the country.

The first advantage Ghosn enjoyed when deciding to escape was that, under Japanese law, as a foreign visitor of Japan, Ghosn was required by immigration rules to always possess a passport. Ghosn possesses Brazilian, Lebanese and multiple French passports and was permitted to retain one of his French passports to conform with Japanese immigration rules (so far, France has denied Ghosn used a French passport, but Lebanon says he did to enter the country).

Retaining a passport made it easier for Ghosn to legally enter Lebanon, which has no extradition treaty with Japan.

If it turns out a key part of Ghosn's escape was him having one of his passports, I wonder whether he could have been issued some other form of ID to satisfy domestic law.

— Mulboyne (@Mulboyne) January 5, 2020

Ghosn was able to travel undetected by taxi and bullet train to Kansai International Airport, 430 kilometers from Tokyo (at one point during his escape he nearly encountered Japanese prime minister Abe Shinzo). His ease in evading house arrest highlighted Japan's relatively lackadaisical attitude towards monitoring Ghosn: security camera footage actually showed him departing for the airport, but the footage is only reviewed by Japanese courts once a month. The prosecution service, rather than local police, was responsible for enforcing Ghosn's arrest, and there seems to have been little coordination between different government agencies.

This disorganization among authorities made it easier for Ghosn to get through airport security. Ghosn apparently chose Kansai International Airport (KIX) because of a special terminal reserved for government and industry VIPs. Border control at the airport may have not been alerted about restrictions on Ghosn's travel. There is also the theory that Ghosn did indeed smuggle himself out in a large box of some kind that was allowed to bypass security at the VIP terminal at KIX after checking into a hotel near the airport.

Little Japanese government can do with Ghosn safe in Lebanon

It took the Japanese government a week to issue an official response. Initially, Japan's Justice Minister Mori Masako could neither confirm nor deny any details about Ghosn's escape. Mori would later announce that Ghosn's 9 million USD bail had been revoked, that the government had notified Interpol to request his arrest, and that immigration checks would be tightened. Japan has also issued an arrest warrant for Carole Ghosn for her alleged role in Ghosn's escape.

In the wake of Ghosn's escape, Japan commentators have argued that the country's exceedingly harsh treatment of Ghosn may have been reason enough for his flight. Other's have noted that what makes Ghosn's treatment so shocking is the privileges the business elite generally enjoy in other parts of the world when accused of breaking the law compared to regular folk.

David McNeill, the Economist's Japan correspondent, suggests it's possible to believe both things at the same time:

Is it so hard to accept that Carlos Ghosn is a grasping boss who muddied the boundaries between his personal finances and those of Nissan, and that his detention highlights epic flaws in Japan's criminal justice system? They're not mutually exclusive.

— David McNeill (@DavidMcNeill3) January 2, 2020

Ghosn is determined to have the last word. On January 8, the fugitive from Japanese justice held a press conference in Lebanon defending his innocence while criticizing Japan's justice system.

Hirak protests and a presidential election triggered a surge of disinformation in Algeria

Thu, 01/02/2020 - 09:54

Fake news spread like wildfire even on some “trusted” media

Anti-government protesters in the capital Algiers on March 1, 2019. Photo credit: Wikimedia user Adjer [CC BY-SA 4.0]

Algeria’s popular protest movement, ‘’Hirak’’ [meaning “movement’’ in Arabic], brought a glimpse of online freedom, but also an aggressive wave of ‘’fake news’’ and disinformation on social media platforms. With little means to confront or fix the problem, the battle against the spread of disinformation is far from over.

The protest movement started on February 22, 2019 when then-ageing president Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced his bid for a fifth term in office. Bouteflika later dropped his plan to run again for president, and after 20 years in power, resigned on April 3. However, Algerians have continued to take to the streets to protest against corruption, unemployment and the country’s political elite, including after the presidential election on December 12, considered by the protesters as a ploy designed to keep the old regime in power.

Nassim, an Algerian activist based in France who requested not to reveal his last name, created Fake News DZ  with some friends after noticing an unusual increase in social media activity in Algeria and a surge in widely shared false stories. The page has more than 135,000 followers as of this writing.  Nassim shared with Global Voices a viral ‘fake news’ story:

For me, the most surreal fake news we debunked was not really political; an Algerian NASA engineer participated in the “send your name to Mars” NASA program which is accessible to all and suggested “Hirak Algeria” instead of his name. A journalist or many misunderstood the engineer's tweet and wrote that the next NASA spaceship to Mars will be named “Hirak Algeria”.

Fake news spread like wildfire even on some “trusted” media. A famous TV channel even made a video describing this as one of the biggest accomplishments ever. Months later I still find people believing in this story.

A post by Fake News DZ on May 25, 2019 debunking the false story of a Mars spaceship named ”Hirak Algeria”. Screenshot taken on December 30, 2019 at 13:10 CET.

Other cases of mis/disinformation, however,  were more serious since they targeted the protest movement and its activists.

With the December 12 presidential election approaching, pro-government supporters took to social media to attack anti-government activists. The protesters were targeted and subjected to conspiracy theories, such as accusing them of working for foreign governments, secret services, or paid to spread instability and unrest in the country.

Twitter bots and trolls

While Twitter is a powerful tool of information, it can also be used to influence public opinion and silence opponents through the use of bot armies.

The number of Twitter users in Algeria is around 450,000. The platform is mainly used by journalists, some football players and national entities such as ministries and public administrations. But compared to other platforms such as Facebook and Youtube, Twitter is not widely used in Algeria. There are 21 million Facebook users in a country of 43 million people

Yet, since the Hirak started, hundreds of new Twitter accounts, mostly pro-government trolls and bots, have been created.

For example, according to analysts, in September 2019, 723 accounts were created with 474 created in just two days. Subsequently, 190 accounts were created in October and 72 in November, which is pretty unusual, according to Marc Owen Jones, an associate professor of Middle East Studies and Digital Humanities at Hamad bin Khalifa University, Doha.

8/ The sample was incredibly skewed. Since 2008, the average number of accounts created per month in the sample was just 44. However, September saw this number rise to an incredible 723 accounts! That's 12%. 12% of accounts in the sample were created this month – since 2008!

— Marc Owen Jones (@marcowenjones) September 28, 2019

On September 28, Owen Jones published a Twitter thread analysing a sample of 20,000 tweets from around 5,769 accounts tweeting under the hashtags #notinmyname and #algeriavotes, which opposed calls to boycott the election and were urging people to vote. According to his analysis, the activities of these accounts point to ‘’a clear evidence of a disinformation campaign’’

The thread concluded that at least 8 percent of the accounts encouraging people to vote in the sample were bots.

13/ So yeah, at least 8% of those tweeting for Algerians to go to the elections are probably bots and/or trolls. Stay vigilant. Hopefully @TwitterSafety will suspend them soon. PM if you want the data.

— Marc Owen Jones (@marcowenjones) September 28, 2019

Some accounts have in fact been suspended by Twitter after being reported. Consequently, the suspended users created new accounts afterwards and reached back to their followers.

#Weareallzeghmati is another example of a Twitter hashtag launched by government supporters  to reinforce the argument of the existence of anti-protest or pro-Establishment online campaigns in Algeria.

On November 3, the security forces attacked magistrates who went on a national strike protesting against a new reshuffle. Footage of the attack went viral and internet users slammed Minister of Justice Belkacem Zeghmati. The National Syndicate of Magistrates also called on the minister to resign. A few hours later, #weareallzeghmati was trending on Twitter in Algeria, in support of the minister and the judiciary system. The hashtag was spread widely by newly created accounts. 

Beyond the matter of being bots or not, there is an important aspect to take into account about the number and manipulation of social media accounts in Algeria. The troll trend is from both sides. People who were willing to vote were often trolled by the pro-Hirak accounts and vice versa. Exchanges are sometimes loaded with insults and profanities, which does not bring a positive added value to any debate.

The presidential election held on December 12 was widely followed and commented in Algeria, even by those who were against the election or believed that the process was rigged. The election took place despite being rejected by the popular movement and mass demonstrations in Algiers and many other cities on election day. Mis/disinformation were also rife, and activists and journalists debunked several fake images and stories including a photoshopped image showing the coach of Algeria's football team voting in the election, and another image showing an old man being attacked by anti-election protesters to prevent him from casting his vote at a polling station in Lyon, France. The latter was debunked by Fake News DZ which traced back the image to a media report published on July 19 about an Egyptian tourist who was assaulted by Romanian police inside an airplane. A 2017 footage used by the state television alleging showing long queues of voters on election day was also debunked.

On December 13, Algeria’s Independent Election Monitoring Authority announced the victory of independent candidate Abdelmadjid Tebboune, a former prime minister and a Bouteflika ally. Tebboune won more than 58 percent of the vote, eliminating the need for a second round. 

Although, the election is now over, the future of digital platforms and the battle against disinformation is still blurry, particularly as protests against the ruling elite in Algeria continue to gather momentum. 

This article is part of a series of posts examining interference with digital rights through methods such as internet shutdowns and disinformation during key political events in seven African countries: Algeria, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Nigeria, Tunisia, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. The project is funded by the Africa Digital Rights Fund of The Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA).

Data protection policy void threatens privacy rights of citizens and refugees in Jordan

Mon, 12/30/2019 - 16:29

Government surveillance is a strong threat to privacy in Jordan

Several regional tech businesses are based in the Jordanian capital Amman, sometimes referred to as the Middle East's Silicon Valley. Photo credit: Dimitris Vetsikas via Pixabay [CC0].

This post was written by Raya Sharbain of the Jordan Open Source Association (JOSA), which works to promote open source, free culture and digital rights in Jordan. 

In November 2018, at the 31st session of the Universal Periodic Review, Jordan received for the first time in its history two recommendations on the right to privacy. Both Estonia and Brazil called attention to the need to respect citizens’ privacy. However, Jordan's experience has shown threats to privacy and digital rights come not only from the government but also from international agencies and corporations including Internet Service Providers and tech start-ups.

In the absence of a privacy law, how is personal data being handled in Jordan today by public, private, and international actors? And will the enactment of a data protection law reinforce privacy protections in the country?

Laws enabling government surveillance

It’s a long-standing belief among Jordanians that someone is always listening in, whether on phone calls or over internet cables. Government surveillance is a strong threat to Jordanians’ right to privacy which has pushed many, including journalists, to practise self-censorship.

The Necessary and Proportionate Principles

The International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance (the “Necessary and Proportionate Principles” or “13 Principles”), were drafted by privacy and technology experts, and launched in September 2013 to ”provide civil society groups, states, the courts, legislative and regulatory bodies, industry, and others with a framework to evaluate whether current or proposed surveillance laws and practices around the world are compatible with human rights.”

Privacy and surveillance regulations include the Telecommunications Law (13/1995) which states that “telephone calls and private Telecommunications shall be considered confidential matters which may not be violated, under legal liability” (Article 56:4). While it mentions a traditional medium of communication, it has no specific reference to digital platforms. Moreover, the Anti-Terrorism Law of 2006 and specifically Article 4 threatens privacy rights under the pretence of protecting public safety and security. It also fails to comply with the Necessary and Proportionate Principles, since it stipulates that a person can be subject to surveillance “if the Prosecutor General received reliable information indicating that a person or group of persons is connected to any terrorist activity.” Definitions for what constitute “reliable information” and “terrorist activity” are absent from the Article. 

In 2018, the government proposed amendments to the Cybercrime Law which included “applications” to the list of “information systems” that can be subjected to government inspection. The prosecutor was also granted more surveillance powers. During a parliamentary session in February 2019, the majority of members voted in favour of the draft amendments. 

To make matters worse, in the absence of a data protection law, the Jordanian government is imposing on its citizens mandatory smart IDs that store biometric data, and a mandatory SIM card registration plan that will require citizens to submit their fingerprints to register a new phone number.

Privacy rights of refugees

Iris scanner used by refugees to purchase groceries at Azraq refugee camp in Jordan
on April 3, 2019. Photo by the author, used with permission.

Meanwhile, international institutions also have accountability. Jordan hosts about 531,000 Syrian refugees with 123,000 living inside refugee camps (as of December 2019). Upon entering Jordan, refugees must give their biometric data. According to UNHCR’s data protection policy, data should only be obtained “either by a written or oral statement or by a clear affirmative action.” But the World Food Program partnered with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and Jordanian/British company IrisGuard in implementing a biometric transaction system whereby refugees purchase food and groceries and take out cash from ATMs by scanning their irises. There are concerns on whether refugees are aware of an option to opt out of such a system, let alone whether they have actually been given informed consent.

Role of tech companies

In the private sector, it is mostly policy voids that are threatening digital rights. Amman, the capital of Jordan, has a vibrant tech scene. Many regional companies such as online classified platform OpenSooq, Arabic-language publishing platform Mawdoo3, regional weather services company ArabiaWeather, and the regional online book retailer Jamalon, are headquartered in Amman. International companies like Expedia, Amazon, Microsoft, and Careem have engineering offices in the country. With no data protection law, these companies are left to handle user data haphazardly. Just a skim over some of these websites’ privacy policies reveals some invasive practices.

For example, job search website Akhtaboot boldly states in its privacy policy that it sells users’ data:

…we reserve the right to sell the information that is willingly posted by users on the site to third party customers seeking recruitment services. Akhtaboot is not responsible for any actions taken by any third party customer with regards to the information that is posted by users.

After developing Salma, an Arabic-speaking conversational agent similar to Siri and Alexa, Mawdoo3  appended their privacy policy stating that they “reserve the right to monitor and save sound recordings, and any correspondence made by the user through the application for the purposes of quality control and for security reasons, within legal limitations.” Users must also “agree that Mawdoo3 shall not be liable, in any way, for the compromise of user data resulting from hacking.”

Ride-hailing app Careem (acquired by Uber in March 2019) has been required by the Ministry of Transportation to give law enforcement full access to its computers, servers, and data in order to be able to operate in the country.

Internet Service Providers in Jordan have also been involved in practices that infringe on user privacy. A recent study by AccessNow and impACT has shown that not only do ISPs collect more data than necessary, they also do not reveal to users what data they collect and how they process it.

Draft personal data protection bill

In 2014, the Jordanian Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (now known as Ministry of Digital Economy and Entrepreneurship) introduced a draft bill for personal data protection, which is currently in its fourth and final draft to date.

The draft personal data protection bill partially aligns itself with core aspects of European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and applies to all private and public institutions in Jordan including international agencies and organizations registered locally. It mirrors GDPR’s concepts of transparency, accuracy, storage limitation, and data minimisation. 

As it stands, however, the bill still raises major concerns. For example, the Jordan Privacy Commission, proposed by the bill, lacks independence. In fact, under the current draft, the commission will not only be appointed by the government but also chaired by the ICT minister.

It is still uncertain when the bill will become law. It still needs to be adopted by the parliament, before it officially becomes law within a six-month timeframe through royal assent. 

The late Syrian poet and diplomat Nizar Qabbani once lamented the state of freedom in the Arab region: I am trying to draw a country that will be friendly to my poetry, a country that will not come between me and my thoughts, a country that won't have soldiers wandering over my forehead.

In Jordan, and the entire region, surveillance has been used to silence dissent. In today’s hyperconnected world, however, threats to privacy in Jordan emanate not only from the government, but also international agencies and corporations including ISPs and tech start-ups.

Data protection laws tend to be perceived as a panacea for all privacy concerns, but it is yet to be seen how the proposed bill in Jordan will take shape, and whether it will be effectively enforced after its adoption. 

Scenes from Ma'shour: On the brutal suppression of protests in an Iranian city

Fri, 12/20/2019 - 01:09

Protesters in the city of Ma'shour, in Iran's Ahwaz region. Photo courtesy Rahim Hamid. Used with permission.

By Rahim Hamid and Aaron Eitan Meyer

Southwest Iran is home to the city of Ma’shour, part of the majority-Arab region of Ahwaz. In November 2019, Ma'shour gained notoriety for crimes committed against its residents by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and its minions—but this latest episode is merely a continuation of the decades of misery experienced by people in the region under the regime's brutal yoke.

With a population of around 120,000, Ma’shour comprises five residential areas—Jarrahi, Koura, Khor Mussa (Sarbandar or Khomeini port), and the old and new city areas. The overwhelming majority of Ma`shour’s residents are ethnically Arab, and the city’s importance lies in the presence there of a petrochemical industry which refines the oil and natural gas resources of the Ahwaz region.

Because of the very real threat of reprisals by the regime, local witnesses spoke to the authors of this story on condition of anonymity, painting a devastating picture of a city experiencing population transfer by a racist regime. One person explained the phenomenon of “flying employees”, meaning top-level employees who come in to work and fly back the same day to Tehran. They also bring in relatives to fill jobs ranging from tea- and coffee-makers to housekeeping staff.

These “flying employees” and their relatives are all ethnically Persian; the people they displace are overwhelmingly Arabs.

The witness added that the reason these employees do not live in Ma'shour is because of the highly polluted air. The Arab population, meanwhile, lacks the means to escape from the hazardous air conditions caused by the petrochemical industry, and live in miserable conditions.
“The suicide rate is rising here,” the local witness told us. “Young people have lost hope for the future. You are deemed a criminal when you are born Ahwazi (Arab). You are condemned to deprivation when you are born Arab.”

Despite the region’s wealth, the local majority-Ahwazi population is denied access to the benefits of the area’s resources. Anger, despair, high suicide rates, disproportionately high rates of cancer, and erasure of cultural identity characterize the Ahwazi population here.

Ahwaz as a region had erupted in protests even before the start of the fuel protests in the center of the country. The catalyst was the poisoning of a popular Ahwazi dissident poet named Hassan Haidari while in regime custody, along with longstanding grievances at the regime’s brutality and ethnic discrimination.

The protests in Ma’shour were violently suppressed. When young people blocked roads leading to the petrochemical facilities with burning tires, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) attacked them with tanks and gunfire.

Young Ahwazi protesters fled to the nearby marshlands to escape the machine guns, but the IRGC forces opened fire into the marshlands then set it afire, killing dozens of young, mostly unarmed protesters. An eyewitness explained: “We didn't take seriously what they said because we thought they were threatening us, like they had in the previous demonstrations. But they started randomly firing at the people with machine guns.

When the IRGC forces began shooting, people, including women and children, fled to Jarrahi town and some took refuge in the nearby marshes, but the [IRGC troops] shot at them indiscriminately, without mercy. About 60 people were reportedly killed in the marshlands and dozens were injured.”

Another eyewitness who lost many relatives in the massacre said that the IRGC forces deployed heavy military equipment in the Jarrahi and Koura districts. The forces also searched the area with UAV drones and helicopter gunships, and brought in other vehicles and weapons, including tanks.

While the government’s shutdown of the nation's internet initially prevented the details of the massacre from reaching world audiences, witnesses have begun telling their stories, in the hope that the regime will be held accountable for its crimes.

One such young woman told us that protesters in the Jarrahi township of Ma'shour took to the streets in earnest after protests had swept across the country. They began demonstrating at the entrance to the town over two days. They blocked off roads, a peaceful form of protest that was occurring all over Iran.

Then, the young woman continued, “We were surrounded by deadly tanks and heavy weapons. Iranian regime forces began to harass and attack us. The young men were merely standing and sitting in the middle of the road demanding their rights to work, life, wealth, security and health. The interesting thing was that most of the armed forces who were shooting and beating the Arab protesters were speaking Arabic, but with accents spoken in countries such as Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. They were ruthless and sprayed the chests of unarmed protesters with bullets. The poor Arab protesters fell one after the other to the ground, and others desperately rushed to the marshes near the gathering place at the entrance to the city.”

The IRGC has a documented history of bringing in its terrorist affiliates to suppress Ahwazis, including Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units, as well as various entities active in Syria in support of the Assad regime, which has been increasingly propped up by Iran. Ahwazi activists both inside and outside of the region have repeatedly asked the same question: “Why do we hear about these terrorist groups when they attack others, but never when they are brought in to kill us?”

The eyewitness continued. “The forces continued shooting at those who had taken cover in the waters and reeds of the marsh. They also fired randomly at neighboring houses, and this resulted in the largest number of deaths and casualties.”

“We went to the hospital and found dozens of victims, including dead and wounded, on the hospital floor. The lack of doctors and nurses and the massive amount of blood on the floor and the walls… all stained with the blood of young people, including two dead women, one middle-aged and one in her 20s.

“We moved from the hospital to the city, and we were hearing gunfire all around. We went to the home of one victim who was a family member, when we ran into forces that started firing at us with lethal weapons that almost took down the walls. We entered the house under a hail of bullets. We all gathered in one corner of a room so that the gunfire did not hit us.”

In the days after this horrific incident, the stench of charred corpses in the marshes remained so strong that it reached across the city. Footage shows grieving families asking: “What was the crime of these deprived people? They just wanted to protest extensive oppression. In which country does the government use tanks and machine guns against public protests? But here is the Iranian regime, which burned young people alive in the canebrake.”

The devastated families were left to listen helplessly the screaming, weeping, and pleas for help from family members stranded in the marsh, and to smell their burning flesh after the regime troops set the reed beds alight.

Human rights activists in Ahwaz say the regime is even attempting to extort money from grieving families, charging them around $4,000 each to have the bodies of their loved ones returned, and even charging ‘fees’ for the bullets used to kill their relatives.

Another witness told us that “the citizens of Koura neighbourhood said ‘We have two options: to die under torture by the regime or to resist the Revolutionary Guard forces. Then the world, especially the United States government, might support our revolution against the repressive and brutal regime.’”

For four days, the eyewitness said, the protesters maintained control over Koura and Tanideh Street in Jarrahi, as well most of the neighborhoods of the city of Ma’shour, and several suburbs. “The clashes were fierce. The IRGC escaped because of the effective resistance, and the people were able to control the main road leading to the city and the adjacent petrochemical industrial complex.

“The citizens of Ma’shour were awaiting action by the international community to stop this heinous crime,” continued the witness, breaking down in tears.

That intervention never materialized. Internet service has mostly been restored throughout Iran. In Ma'shour the marshland has stopped smoking, the smell of burnt flesh is no longer in the air. But the air remains heavily polluted, and the local Arab population remains destitute, even as it reels in shock at the horror it recently experienced. The only new developments are negative: anguish for the family members of those murdered, fear for loved ones arrested and taken to unspecified prisons in the dark of night, and now despair that the world will ever take action.

There is no question that the regime's actions defy international law and fundamental morality, but as long as the powerful nations of the world fail to take direct action, there is neither comfort nor hope for the people of Ma'shour and for all Ahwazi people.

Rahim Hamid is an author, freelance journalist, and human rights advocate based in the United States. He is the editor of Dur Untash Studies Centre (DUSC), based in Canada. Hamid’s writings often focus on the plight of the Ahwazi people in Iran. Follow him on Twitter at @samireza42.

Aaron Eitan Meyer is an attorney admitted to practice in New York State and before the United State Supreme Court, and a researcher and analyst. He has written extensively on lawfare, international humanitarian, and human rights law.

‘Creating Suspension Between Contradictory States': An interview with artist Parastou Forouhar

Tue, 12/10/2019 - 17:35

Iran-born Forouhar has lived and worked in Germany since 1991

Parastou Forouhar,  Water Mark, a tribute to the drowning refugees, 2015. “This work was created within the scope of the artist residency program of the Brodsky Center, Rutgers University, and in collaboration with Anne McKeown and Randy Hemminghaus, masters of papermaking and printing at the Brodsky Center.” Image courtesy of the artist.

Germany-based Iranian-German artist Parastou Forouhar is known for creating masterful artworks that embody “the synchronicity of harmony and beauty, along with other layers that display violence and a sense of insecurity and entrapment.”

Autobiographical in nature, her work uses a range of media including installation, animation, digital drawing and photography.

In 1991, Forouhar left Iran and settled in Germany where she received her postgraduate degree in art. Her work has been exhibited widely in galleries and museums in Iran, Germany, Australia and New York, and can also be found in the permanent collections of the German Parliament in Berlin and the British Museum in London.

Forouhar is a professor of Fine Arts at the Mainz Academy of Fine Arts in Germany. Her work currently appears in a group show of Iranian women artists titled A Bridge Between You and Everything, curated by acclaimed photographer Shirin Neshat at the High Line Nine gallery in New York City (November 7-December 14).

Excepts from my interview with Forouhar follow:

Parastou Forouhar, The Eyes, 2018. Image courtesy of the artist.

Omid Memarian: Your “Eyes” collection evokes a police state and political repression. At the same time, the curved lines, recurring symbols and use of black and white show a harmony and tranquillity that clash with the meaning conveyed by the work. To me a viewer, it felt shocking. Iran is your preoccupation, but this narrative appears to be universal. What motivated this collection?

Parastou Forouhar: You pointed out something which I consider to be fundamental in a lot of my work: The concurrence of contradictory perceptions—the synchronicity of harmony and beauty, which are evident in the patterns and in their accumulation at first glance, along with other layers that display violence and a sense of insecurity and entrapment. Most of the latter layers become evident at second glance. In reality, by engaging the viewer in a work of art, I’m trying to show how to look at things and view them. I want to compel the viewer to look more carefully. As you in some way pointed out, this polarity and contradiction in perception, or the concurrence of opposing phenomena, is part of the human/social condition. You see its manifestation in Iran, but it’s not limited to a single society. Or, as you mentioned, it’s a universal narrative.

While working on the “Eyes” collection, which is one of my recent works, I was feeling a kind of intense crisis. There are social crises that stare at us and we seem to be fixated on them with anxiety, unable to overcome them. More than anything, this collection may have risen from the psychological and emotional crises that I’m going through, whether from the perpetual violence and oppression in Iran, the social collapse resulting from the various wars in the Middle East, growing confrontations with “the other” and fascism in Europe, where I live and work, or the coldhearted brutality against asylum seekers here and there.

Parastou Forouhar, RED IS MY NAME GREEN IS MY NAME III, 2015. Digital drawing on Photo Rag, 80 x 80 cm.Image courtesy of the artist.

OM: Politics, violence, discrimination, inequality and pain are major themes in your work, including “Eyes,” “Watermark” and “Red is my Name.” Sometimes they are clearly discernible, and sometimes more effort is needed to find the relationship between the various symbols and elements. What has led you to create such harmony in your repetitive symbols? 

PF: Every artist works with life experiences. A person’s emotions and channels of understanding are formed by experiences. I grew up in a family and among a group of people whose main concern in life was to fight for freedom and justice under the dictatorship of the second king in the Pahlavi Dynasty. My father and mother and many of the people around me spent part of their life as political prisoners. In my youth, I witnessed the Iranian revolution and the Iran-Iraq war, along with the brutal suppression of political opponents by the Iranian government, followed by migration and expulsion from my homeland… These situations in life shaped my human emotions and gave rise to my art. My artistic language and forms are based on ornaments and patterns which I gradually picked up over the years and tried to use to express my art. The ornamental structure allows me to present a mixture of visible and hidden meanings, to create beauty, balance and harmony with details that make you feel trapped in an organized turmoil and chaos. I try to create the potential for suspension between contradictory states that will emotionally and psychologically engage viewers and make them ask questions. From a technical standpoint, many of these sets of works are digitally created and printed with wide use of computer programs.

Parastou Forouhar, Written Room. Photo credit: Marc Domage. Image courtesy of the artist.

OM: Many of your works are spacious. Instead of being framed and hung on gallery walls, they take over the entire gallery, so that the viewer feels a common experience.

PF: You can generate a more complex and compact connection when an art form engulfs the audience, rather than just being in front of you. I see this aspect being in harmony with my work. These site-specific works take over and transform the space. As an emigrant, space has always been a challenging element. I think the desire to transform space is, to some extent, related to the experience of immigration and the struggle to open up your own space. I think you can see traces of these special works when I first started as an artist after finishing my studies in Germany in the mid-1990s. I think my first work that had this special feature was “The Written Room.” It was initially presented in 1999 and most recently I performed it a few months ago. It has been my most traveled work.

Parastou Forouhar, four-part photographic work Friday. Image courtesy of the artist.

OM: Your parents were murdered in Iran by the regime’s security agents in 1988, and since then you have been seeking justice and accountability for these political crimes and have sought to keep the memory of your parents alive. How has this impacted your artistic activities?

PF: The political murder of my parents has undoubtedly burdened me with a heavy load that I will always carry. These kinds of tragedies stay with people. I have always tried to avoid being crushed by this tragedy and as a human being, to react in a socially responsible way. Throughout the years, I have stood by the relatives of other victims of political crimes in Iran in order to seek justice and develop a culture of remembrance. There is no doubt that I have become more political and the impact of it can be seen in my artwork. But at the same time, I have always tried to be mindful of the basic difference between politics and art, and avoided taking advantage of them in favorable or detrimental ways.

Dariush and Parvaneh Forouhar were brutally murdered in their family home in southern Tehran on 22 November 1998. Dariush, 70, was stabbed 11 times. His wife, who was 12 years his junior, had been stabbed 24 times. Image courtesy of the artist.

OM: You are frequently traveling between Iran and Germany, as well as other countries. What impact has three decades of life, culture and travels in the West had on your identity? 

PF: By now I have spent more than half of my life in Germany. This second half of my life has shaped my professional career to such an extent that when I think and speak about my art, I rely on German as my primary language. In Germany and other countries, I’m introduced as a German-Iranian artist. I see myself as an immigrant who belongs to different cultures. I am attracted to spaces that are in between. Given this background and life experience, my identity is a process that is affected by many things. It’s alive and fluid, as opposed to fixed or solid.

Multiple measures failed to control mis- and disinformation in Tunisia's 2019 elections

Mon, 12/09/2019 - 18:27

Facebook's Ad Library ‘failed to provide any measures of transparency’

Tunisia's election commission announcing results of the second round of the presidential poll on October 14, 2019. Photo by the election body [Public Domain].

On October 23, 2019, Tunisia's newly elected president, Kais Saied, was sworn in before parliament. In the second round of the presidential election, Saied garnered 72 percent of the votes (2.7 million votes), beating his rival, business magnate Nabil Karoui, who obtained 1 million votes. According to estimates by the polling company Sigma Conseil, 90 percent of voters aged 18 to to 25 years old voted for Saied.

In spite of a generally low youth voter turnout, the increase in youth participation in the second round of presidential elections reignited the debate over the influence of the internet, and particularly social media, in the outcome.

In the months leading up to the elections, mis- and disinformation spread widely across social media platforms, on Facebook in particular. Observers of the political scene noted the rise of political party- and candidate-affiliated Facebook groups and pages with substantial numbers of followers. Pages without stated ties or affiliations were also actively involved in spreading political disinformation and sponsored content praising certain parties and candidates.

Read more: Ahead of Tunisia elections, social media was flooded with mis- and disinformation

Civil society groups, tech platforms, national institutions, and media professionals all adopted measures to counter the spread of mis- and disinformation during the electoral period. However, in light of the lack of transparency on the part of tech platforms, and the legal void surrounding the regulation of political ads on social media, these measures proved insufficient.

Facebook's Ad Library: limited transparency

On September 2, the start date of the presidential election campaign, Access Now, along with 14 local civil society groups addressed an open letter to Facebook, asking the company “to implement effective measures for transparency and accountability towards [its] users in the context of the upcoming Tunisian elections.”

The letters’ signatories called on Facebook to take measures ‘’to allow voters to understand how political actors are using Facebook to influence election outcomes,’’ including by allowing public access to information about the number of ads sponsored, the amount of money spent on each ad campaign, the demographics of the targeted audience, and enforcing an ad authorization process on political advertisers.

Coordinated inauthentic activities targeting Tunisia on Facebook

On October 3rd, Facebook announced the removal of 163 Facebook accounts, 51 Pages, 33 Groups and 4 Instagram accounts that were involved in ”coordinated inauthentic behavior” originating from Egypt targeting ten countries including Tunisia. This is the third time this year that Facebook removes accounts involved in ”inauthentic behavior” targeting Tunisia. In May of this year, a press release announced the removal of accounts responsible for similar activity originated from Israel. In January, the company removed 783 Pages, groups and accounts for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior tied to Iran targeting multiple countries including Tunisia.

Following the elections, Facebook responded to the open letter, stating that they have taken measures globally and in the MENA region to fight against misinformation, combat hate speech, and prevent foreign interference, AccessNow told Global Voices.

The company also said they had introduced a new authorization process for political and election-related ads in over 140 countries and territories, including Tunisia, and had made its ad library available in a number of countries outside the EU and North America, including Tunisia.

However, these measures are still not providing voters with sufficient information for them to understand who is trying to influence them and make informed decisions. This lack of transparency also makes it harder for national institutions to oversee political ad spending.

“The level of information granularity provided to users appears to depend in which country the ad is running,” reported a Privacy International analysis published in October 2019.

Facebook says that political ads are archived in its Ad library for seven years. However, Global Voices reviewed the ad libraries of three Facebook pages created in early September, at the start of the first round of the presidential election. These unofficial Facebook pages are a subset of the many that supported then-presidential candidates Abdelfattah Mourou, Salma Elloumi and Abdelkarim Zbidi, and they all ran political ads during the campaign. There are many other pages that supported the 23 other candidates that ran in the presidential election.

Today, the ad libraries of these three pages do not list any of their previous political ads.

This unofficial page supporting then-presidential candidate Abdelfattah Mourou ran political ads when campaigning for the first round of the presidential poll started in September. Screenshot taken and published on Twitter on September 6 by Mona Elswah.

Screenshot [taken on December 5] of the Ad Library of the above-mentioned Facebook page supporting Mourou. The library shows no record of the political ads posted during the presidential campaign.

“The issue lies within the inability of Facebook to determine or distinguish between those pages that have political, cultural or social content,’’ Dima Samaro, MENA policy associate at Access Now told GV. She explained:

The Ad Library that Facebook has built failed to provide any measures of transparency, and has only been functioning on a few pages. Ad Library of Facebook only shows the current running ads, but no details would be found on any of the previous/ non-current running ads, or even on any of those pages that have been taking down or its content.

This unofficial page supporting then-presidential candidate Salma Elloumi ran political ads when campaigning for the first round of the presidential poll started in September. Screenshot taken and published on Twitter on September 6 by Mona Elswah.

Screenshot [taken on December 5] of the Ad Library of the above-mentioned Facebook page supporting Elloumi. The library shows no record of the political ads posted during the presidential campaign.

Legal framework shortage

The use of sponsored posts on Facebook also drew the scrutiny of the Independent High Authority for the Elections (ISIE). Nabil Baffoun, ISIE’s president, pointed out in a press interview on October 7 that during an electoral campaign, the authority takes into account presidential candidates’ social media advertisements. Electoral campaigns and their financing are subject to the provisions of the Tunisian Electoral Law. In particular, Baffoun confirmed that sponsored pages appearing during the election campaign fall within the scope of Article 143 of the electoral law, which allows the ISIE and the Court of Auditors to impose sanctions for electoral violations, such as exceeding the spending limit and breaches of electoral silence.

In fact, on October 9, ISIE announced the cancellation of a portion of the votes obtained by the candidate of an electoral constituency representing the Tunisian diaspora in France, for breaching electoral silence through political advertisements on Facebook. The commission said that the candidate of 3ich Tounsi, a registered non-profit organisation that filed non-partisan electoral lists during the elections, obtained 207 votes as a result of this advertisement, directly impacting the electoral results in the constituency. No further explanation was given by the ISIE as to how this assessment was made.

This decision was criticized by candidates of the electoral list in question. The Tunisian Association for the Integrity and Democracy of Elections (ATIDE) also called for the electoral commission to adopt transparent measures by publishing its reports monitoring the use of Facebook in relation to the elections. ATIDE also called on the newly elected parliament to “put in place a decisive and comprehensive legal framework on social media advertising during the elections”.

Media responsibilities and fact-checking efforts

A journalist reporting from a polling station on Election Day on October 13, 2019. Photo by the election body [public domain].

Tunisia's national institutions, civil society groups and media organisations all launched initiatives aimed at countering the spread of mis- and disinformation during the election period.

In August, the electoral commission (ISIE) and the Independent High Authority for Audiovisual Communication (HAICA), the country's broadcast regulator, issued a joint decision comprising four chapters and 49 articles establishing the rules for media coverage of election campaigns. These required local and foreign broadcast media covering the elections to respect the principles of equal opportunity and equity between candidates. The rules did not apply to electronic media.

In partnership with the Council of Europe, HAICA also hosted capacity-building workshops as part of efforts to help media professionals develop the necessary skills to exercise their role in providing reliable and high-quality information.

Several fact-checking initiatives were also launched.

HAICA, along with the public broadcaster and the Tunisian Press Agency (TAP), launched a fact-checking platform dedicated to exposing misleading information spread online.

Privately-owned digital media websites also launched their own fact-checking initiatives. A few months before the elections, Business News launched BNCheck, a fact-checking platform reporting that continues to operate. Online magazine “L’Economiste Maghrébin” launched the #FactCheckTNDecides hashtag to verify statements and facts given by presidential candidates during televised presidential dabaes.

During a debate reflecting on L’Economiste Maghrébin's fact-checking experience, journalists highlighted the high financial costs of fact-checking, citing the need for additional recruitment, specialized software and training for journalists.

Beyond 2019

The relationship between technology, elections, and democracy will develop further in the long term. The spread of disinformation and the rise of foreign interference, among other concerns, have become significant threats for tech companies, national institutions, journalists and voters.

In Tunisia, the shortcomings in the current legislation and the lack of safeguards to prevent future incidents, indicate that cooperation between involved parties and joint efforts to develop countermeasures are crucial in upholding the integrity of elections, and the country's democratic process in general.

This article is part of a series of posts examining interference with digital rights through methods such as shutdowns and disinformation during key political events in seven African countries: Algeria, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Nigeria, Tunisia, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. The project is funded by the Africa Digital Rights Fund of The Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA).

Join Global Voices’ #WritingTowardFreedom Twitter chat on December 11, 2019

Wed, 12/04/2019 - 14:59

‘Writing toward freedom: Politics and digital rights in Africa’

Global Voices Twitter Chat #WritingTowardFreedom will discuss politics and digital rights in Africa on December 11, 2019.

Global Voices will host a Twitter chat to discuss “WritingTowardFreedom: Politics and Digital Rights in Africa,” on December 11, 2019.

#WritingTowardFreedom: Twitter chat on politics and digital rights in Africa Date: December 11, 2019 Time: 4 p.m. UTC / 5 p.m. WAT (click here to find your time zone) Hashtag: #WritingTowardFreedom Follow @gvssafrica for the discussion

This Twitter conversation will be anchored by Global Voices’ sub-Saharan and North African contributors. The discussants are: Amanda Leigh Lichtenstein (United States/Tanzania), Dércio Tsandzana (Mozambique/France), Sandra Aceng (Uganda) and Yosr Jouini (Tunisa). Nwachukwu Egbunike (Nigeria) will moderate the conversation.

Lichtenstein (@travelfarnow), Global Voices editor for sub-Saharan Africa, is the global security editor for Public Radio International's The World. As a freelance writer and poet, she has worked on a variety of literary arts advocacy initiatives in Zanzibar, Ethiopia, and the United States. Tsandzana (@derciotsandzana), Global Voices Lusophone Africa editor, is a doctoral candidate at France's University of Bordeaux. Aceng (@sandraaceng) is a gender and ICT policy advocate in Uganda. Jouini (@thisisyosr), a software engineer from Tunisia, focuses on the intersection of technology and human rights. Egbunike (@feathersproject), Global Voices Community Manager for Sub-Saharan Africa, is a social media researcher and author of Hashtags: social media, politics and ethnicity in Nigeria.

The chat begins at 4 p.m. (UTC) on Wednesday, December 11, on Twitter, using the Global Voices sub-Saharan Africa handle: @gvssafrica.

#WritingTowardFreedom: Politics and digital rights in Africa

Press freedom and online freedom of expression have consistently been under threat in Africa. In 2018, Global Voices Special Coverage revealed that jailing journalists, shutting down the internet and taxing social media is the new “internet paradigm” on the continent.

Ethnic hate speech, mis- and disinformation, and government trolling also increasingly interfere with freedom of expression, access to information and political discourses online, as revealed in the series of articles written by GV contributors to the #WritingTowardFreedom project.

Read more: Writing toward freedom: Politics and digital rights in Africa

These interferences spike during political events like elections or protest movements. According to the project's initial findings, which covered seven African countries: Algeria, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Nigeria, Tunisia, Uganda, and Zimbabwe:

The #WritingTowardFreedom project is funded by the Africa Digital Rights Fund of The Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA). 

  • Online disinformation in Algeria, Tunisian and Zimbabwe spiked during elections and political protests.
  • Social media platforms in Nigeria and Ethiopia morphed into battlegrounds for ethnic hate speech, disinformation and political propaganda largely disseminated by key political actors and their supporters.
  • The just-concluded elections in Mozambique witnessed online and offline harassment of journalists.
  • In Uganda, as the 2021 election approaches, there are concerns that the government will once again resort to disrupting access to the internet.

The discussants for the Twitter conversation contributed to this project as writers and editors. They will shed more light on the findings that emerged from the stories and engage a larger conversation on the intersection between politics, freedom of expression and digital rights.

Iran protests: Flying bullets and internet shutdown

Wed, 11/20/2019 - 05:55

Protesters in demonstrations in Ariashahr, Tehran on November 15, 2019. Photo by GTVM92, own work CC BY-SA 4.0

Protests have erupted across oil-rich Iran since the government announced, at midnight on November 15, a sharp increase in petrol prices. The announcement came as the country finds itself in a dire economic situation due to crippling US sanctions, corruption and the mismanagement of financial institutions. The government said the price increase is aimed at raising revenue to fund cash handouts for Iran's poorest citizens.

The state has reacted to the protests with brutal and deadly force, and by shutting down the internet, but has so far failed to curb them.  Slogans have tended to be more political than economic, with protesters chanting against Islamic Republic leaders, foreign policy and in some cases expressing support of the Pahlavi dynasty.

Amnesty International has condemned the state crackdown.

We're horrified at reports that dozens of protesters have been killed in #Iran, hundreds injured & over 1000 arrested since Friday. We're alarmed that authorities have shut down the internet to create an information blackout of their brutal crackdown. We're investigating.

— Amnesty International (@amnesty) November 18, 2019

Iran’s government has begun rushing out promised direct payments to millions of Iranians, a sign that the regime is alarmed at the scale of protests, during which protesters have torched banks, religious schools, military bases, and government offices.

#IranProtests Day 4:
Tehran-Karaj highway,a major transportation route, shut down by protests. #InternetForIran

— Farnaz Fassihi (@farnazfassihi) November 19, 2019

Bullets and Flowers

Iran was the scene of widespread demonstrations about two years ago, and while those protests bear some similarity to the current uprising, there are also key differences.

Saeed Payvandi, a Paris-based academic and sociologist, told Global Voices that “today's movement is spontaneous and without leaders and unclear requests like previous one in 2017-18.” Payvandi notes that protesters’ chants very specifically target figures such as the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, and President Rouhani. Another main difference, Payvandi says, is that “protesters, contrary to two years ago, are trying to be visible by occupying streets and squares.”

Payvandi says that the sharp increase in petrol prices has “given the movement an economic legitimacy, although slogans quickly became radical. The main problem, as before, is trying to win public opinion and bring people into streets.”

A good portion of the public agrees with the protesters, Payvandi says, but are hesitant to join them. “The authorities know the hesitation of the middle class and non-state-dependent elites, and that's why they create chaos and insecurity. In the short term, the winner is the Iranian state, because the middle class will be scared to join protesters.”

People are dying in silence#iranprotest #IranProtests #Internet4Iran

— amir (@amirali69s) November 19, 2019

Shahed Alavi, a journalist who monitors protest movements, told Global Voices that one of the main differences is the range of social classes participating. “Two years ago,” Alavi says, “it was mainly poor people in mostly small cities. But this time the middle classes have joined them, and the protest is more widespread, having emerged in both big cities such as Tehran, Shiraz, Isfahan, and small ones.”

Another key difference, says Alavi, is the extreme violence being used by security forces. According to a source in the Ministry of Interior, the death toll is near 200, while thousands have been injured and at least 1,000 arrested. Iran's Revolutionary Guard has also reported that three of its members have died in confrontations with protesters.

While violence and repression are omnipresent in the country, some protesters are promoting peace and messages of non-violence:

Protestors giving flowers to the police saying “We are not the enemy”, in Shiraz. #iranprotest

— Carsten-Pieter Zimmermann (@c_p_zimmermann) November 18, 2019

Where is my internet?

Yet another difference from the previous protests is the scale of the current internet shutdown.

Iran has a long history of censorship, filtering, and repression of netizens, but with the near-total shuttering of the internet on Saturday, November 16, the government entered new territory. Alp Toker, executive director of NetBlocks, a digital rights NGO, told CNN that the current Internet shutdown was the “most severe disconnection tracked by NetBlocks in any country in terms of its technical complexity and breadth.”

Amin Sabeti, a London-based internet researcher, notes that the shutdown is occurring just as President Rouhani and the Minister of information and Communications Technology have been promoting the idea of internet freedom. “We've seen a complete blackout in Iran,” Sabeti says. “The main way of communication is the old-fashioned one, which is a phone call.”

The United States Ambassador to Germany has claimed that the US has the technical ability to restore internet connectivity in Iran, but Sabeti believes this is implausible.

International attention

Iranians outside the country have been trying to raise awareness by organizing demonstrations, but putting pressure on Iran's government is difficult, as the country is under sanctions and already quite isolated.

According to Azadeh Pourzand, human rights activist and director of Pourzand Foundation, Iran's government cares deeply about its international image.

“There is certainly leverage left for the international community to put pressure on Iran in light of the recent unrest and the use of violence to crackdown on protesters,” Pourzand says. “If nothing else, beating and killing of protestors can become an inconvenient act for the Islamic Republic and cause for losing any remaining international legitimacy.”

Pourzand believes, however, that the recent protests are not getting the attention they deserve. “This partially may have to do with political considerations of some newspapers and publications,” she says. “But, there is also one other factor to consider this time around: we see a global trend in terms of citizen discontent, uprisings and protests. For instance, right now Hong Kong’s protesters are on the news, but they have been on the street for long weeks and haven’t always made it to the headlines. So much happened in Chile recently and I am not sure if Iranians followed it as closely as they (we) expected the world to follow us.”

This is the reason Pourzand believe the role of the Iranian diaspora is key. “Let’s put it this way,” she says. “If there is not enough international coverage, it is also partially our fault for not having enough resources to effectively communicate and advocate with international publications in a timely manner and in languages such as English, French, German, Arabic, Spanish, etc. Moreover, let’s not forget how difficult it is to get news from Iran and verify data. International newspapers need constant updates and eyewitnesses, of which we sadly do not have enough at our disposal. Still, Iranians are risking their lives to hold their government accountable. At the very least they deserve to be recognized and not abandoned.”

Netizen Report: How are protests in Lebanon affecting digital rights?

Mon, 10/28/2019 - 16:14

Technology and human rights news from around the world.

Demonstrators in Beirut. Photo shared on Twitter by @michatobia

The Advox Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in technology and human rights around the world. This report covers news and events from October 13 – 25, 2019.

Mass public demonstrations have dominated Beirut, Tripoli and other large Lebanese cities since October 18, after people came to the streets to protest government corruption, failing public services and exorbitant taxation. One significant trigger of the protests was a proposed daily tax on the use of internet-based voice calling technologies offered on services like WhatsApp and Facetime.

The WhatsApp tax has been taken off the table, but the protests have grown in power and intensity each day. Social networks have been flooded with images and videos of tens of thousands of people from various walks of life demonstrating together and calling not only for policy reforms, but for early elections that would usher in a new government.

To keep up on protests in Lebanon, we're following:

There have also been violent confrontations, resulting mainly from military forces and police seeking to block protesters. According to local activists, these have led to as many as 300 arrests. Photos of arrest scenes shared on Twitter suggested that detained protesters, lined up side by side on the road, had their mobile phones taken from them.

These efforts have coincided with digital campaigns discouraging people from joining protests, shared via WhatsApp and other social media services.

Local journalists and independent media houses have been actively covering the demonstrations, while state-supported media have remained largely mum. On October 22, the head of the National News Agency was fired with little explanation. Lebanon Daily Star reporter Benjamin Redd wondered on Twitter: “Did the NNA boss, Laure Sleiman, get fired for doing her job?”

Top leaders gave speeches on October 21, acknowledging the protesters’ grievances and pledging to improve on public services and policy, but the predominant response from demonstrations has been that this is not enough. As SMEX Executive Director and Global Voices author Mohamad Najem put it:

Protestors today:
+ We don’t care about Harriri’s new reforms suggestions, before the deadline even.
+ Down with all this political system. We want a temporary government that lead new elections in the next year.
These our political demands#LebanonProtests #لبنان_ينتفض

— Mohamad محمد (@monajem) October 21, 2019

Phones are back, but the internet is still down in Kashmir

On October 14, after a 72-day communications blackout, Indian authorities in Kashmir restored SMS and call services for postpaid mobile subscriptions. But internet services and prepaid mobile connections are still suspended.

Srinagar, the main city in Jammu and Kashmir, went under complete lockdown on August 5, 2019 when the government of India revoked Article 370 of the Indian constitution that provided special autonomous status to the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir. Access to mobile, landline, and internet networks were suspended, while roadblocks were put on the streets and restrictions on almost all movement were enforced. Although some of these measures have since been lifted, the region continues to be heavily controlled by Indian authorities.

Why are Arabic-speaking activists (and regular users) getting censored on Twitter?

Hundreds of Twitter users — most of whom write primarily in Arabic, and are located in Egypt — either have had their tweets censored or their Twitter accounts suspended in recent weeks. Twitter has apologized for the erroneous suspensions, but didn’t explain what prompted them. Experts following the removals have observed that many appeared to be triggered by swear words, which are not forbidden on Twitter.

What at first appeared to be a series of mistakes now looks like something larger, and online activists are taking note, highlighting account suspensions with the hashtags #WeWillSpeak and #هنتكلم.

Iranian officials move to ban the Google play store

On October 9, Iranian telecommunications service providers were ordered to block Google Play, Google's official app store, “as soon as possible”. The order is said to have been issued by deputy prosecutor general in charge of cyberspace, Javad Javidnia.

If implemented successfully, this will push Iranians toward using local services that are far more vulnerable to government surveillance, censorship and the mishandling of personal data than many global online services. Even Amin Amirsharifi, the CEO of Cafe Bazaar, Iran’s largest local app store and a primary competitor of Google Play, tweeted that he did not support the move.

Zuckerberg fails to sell Facebook as a free speech beacon

In an October 18 speech at Georgetown University, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg exalted the US first amendment and portrayed Facebook as a platform that had helped make the global internet better by espousing free speech values around the world.

The speech left many internet policy and civil rights experts skeptical. “While boasting of the enlightening effects of the spread of knowledge and information, he ignores the toxic attributes of his own company,” wrote University of Virginia professor Siva Vaidhyanathan.

In a Washington Post opinion piece, NAACP Legal Defense Fund President Sherrilyn Ifill took the Facebook CEO to task for invoking the names of US civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., whose achievements Zuckerberg attempted to link with the company’s free speech values.

What Zuckerberg failed to note is that King was the subject of violent assaults (and finally assassination) that were the result of the same kind of hate-fueled disinformation campaigns that infect the Internet and are now aimed at a different generation of civil rights leaders.

On October 21, a coalition of more than 40 US-based civil rights organizations signed a joint letter citing the company’s “reckless disregard for civil rights” demanding that Facebook eliminate discriminatory advertising, white supremacist speech and voter suppression on its platform.

Nigerian journalist may face charges for recording conversations in prison

Nigerian journalist ‘Fisayo Soyombo may soon face criminal charges for his undercover work investigating Nigeria’s prison system. In November 2018, Soyombo deliberately defaulted on a car payment in order to get arrested and observe the criminal justice system firsthand. The award-winning journalist spent five days in police custody and eight as an inmate of Ikoyi Prison, in Lagos, where he observed, documented and later reported on multiple incidents of bribery, abuse of prisoners by guards, and other forms of corruption.

Soyombo has “has gone underground” after fleeing his residence on October 21. If found and arrested, he will be charged under Section 29 of the Nigeria Correctional Service Act [Subsection 1 (d)] for possessing and using “communication devices” within the prison to record “conversation through a mobile phone or other devices” without authorization. If convicted, he risks a fine not exceeding 2 million naira [about US$5,500], two years imprisonment or both.

Will Sudan’s transitional government protect free speech?

The transitional government put in place in Sudan in August 2019, after the ousting of Omar al-Bashir, is showing some signs of wanting to uphold freedom of expression in the country. At the UN General Assembly meeting in late September 2019, Sudanese Prime Minister Abdulla Hmadok signed the Global Pledge to Defend Media Freedom and stated that “never again in the new Sudan will a journalist be repressed or jailed.”

Earlier that month, the Sovereignty Council of Sudan, which is intended to guide Sudan’s three-year transition toward civilian rule, issued a decree placing the Telecommunications and Post Regulatory Authority under the authority of the Council, and away from the Ministry of Defense. But the rules and policies under which the regulator functions are still unchanged, and the authority has been a key player in deciding and implementing the former regime’s censorship policies with its filtering and blocking system.

“Lingering laws place vague restrictions on these fundamental rights and allow authorities to block and filter content without a judicial order,” writes Mohamed Suliman in an analysis for Global Voices.

New research

Digital Authoritarianism in Egypt: Digital Expression Arrests 2011-2019 – Open Technology Fund

India uses opaque legal process to suppress Kashmiri journalism, commentary on Twitter - Committee to Protect Journalists

Are we any better at judging right from wrong? Automation in content moderationNamita,


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Ellery Roberts Biddle, Nwachukwu Egbunike, Mohamed ElGohary, Rezwan Islam, Leila Nachawati, Mohamed Suliman and Taisa Sganzerla contributed to this report.

Iran’s drive to block international services continues with Google Play ban

Fri, 10/25/2019 - 17:53

Domestic apps’ ties to the government is a serious privacy concern

Image by Small Media.

On 9 October, the Iranian judiciary sent a formal letter to telecommunications service providers ordering them to block the Google Play, Google's official app store, “as soon as possible”.

The letter was signed by Javad Javidnia, who serves as both Iran’s Deputy Prosecutor General responsible for Cyberspace, and the Secretary for the Committee for Determining Instances of Criminal Content (CDICC). This move is consistent with the authorities’ strategy to push Iranian internet users to use home-grown Iranian apps and services while limiting the availability of international services. 

Since the appointment two years ago of Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi as ICT Minister, the drive to complete the country's National Information Network (SHOMA) has been a key government priority. Although part of this project entails the much-needed expansion and improvement of Iran’s internet infrastructure, another key pillar is the rapid localisation —and in essence, nationalisation – of digital content and services.

Practically, Jahromi’s policies seek to drive Iranian internet users to migrate to domestically produced (and domestically hosted) versions of apps and online services. The danger in this is that through a lack of alternatives, Iranian users are being channelled toward local services that are far more vulnerable to government surveillance, censorship and the mishandling of personal data than many globally utilised online services. The decision to block access to Google Play bears the hallmarks of this agenda.

Iran’s domestic messaging apps 

Soroush, a local messaging and social media app, is owned by the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB). Iranians can only register their Soroush accounts to their Iranian SIM cards, This represents a threat to users’ privacy since in Iran all SIM cards in Iran must be registered to a national ID and residential address. 

Bisphone is another service with ties to the Iranian government.  Research has shown Bisphone data is stored with the Telecommunication Company of Iran, which is known to be partly owned by Iran's Revolutionary Guards.

Despite Jahromi’s promises to introduce clear and comprehensive data protection regulations to mitigate existing privacy shortcomings, the proposed Data Protection and Privacy Bill that was announced in July 2018 is yet to materialise. Jahromi’s rhetoric on digital rights may differ from those of other political elites, which has occasionally led to public disagreements — his ministry, for instance, previously made public statements against filtering and data localisation policies — but the push for the use of domestic apps in Iran continues.

Given the increasing improvement in the relationship between Jahromi and the Iranian Parliament, and the body’s broad acquiescence to many of the rights-infringing policies emanating from the ICT Ministry, it seems possible that a consensus has also emerged in the legislature in support of the localisation agenda. This is a worrying development, as given the lack of any transparent and accountable processes for filtering decisions, elected official have limited opportunity to scrutinise or intervene in major filtering decisions. MPs who claim to support citizens’ rights must start to speak out when incidents such as this occur, and demand accountability.

In sum, the recent order to ban Google Play must be viewed in the context of Iranian authorities’ aggressive push to corral Iranian users into using domestic services and technologies whose data protection protocols are essentially non-existent. The policies designed by the ICT Ministry and the Supreme Council of Cyberspace, and implemented by the Judiciary, critically undermine the safety and privacy of Iranian users by stripping them of the ability to use secure and tested global services.

Iranian users must have the right to choose online tools that can keep their data secure. As long as users are forced to use domestic alternatives, their right to privacy remains in peril.

Ahead of Tunisia elections, social media was flooded with mis- and disinformation

Mon, 10/21/2019 - 19:56

The elections authority warned of rumors ‘aimed at disrupting the electoral process’

Press conference by Tunisia's Independent High Authority for the Elections to announce the results of the legislative poll of October 6. Photo by the election body [Public Domain].

This story is the first in a two-part series on mid- and disinformation online during Tunisia's 2019 presidential and legislative elections. 

Between mid-September and mid-October, Tunisians headed to the polls three times. On September 15, they voted in the first round of the presidential election, before voting again on October 6 in the legislative election. On October 13 they voted in the second round of the presidential election, in which retired constitutional law lecturer Kais Saied, an independent, was elected president.

This election season was the fourth since the 2011 uprising that toppled the 23-year-rule of autocratic president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.

Facebook as a source of political news

In the months leading up to the elections, mis- and disinformation spread widely across social media platforms, Facebook in particular. Its impact on the electoral process, voter turnout, and public opinion became a major concern expressed by various parties, including civil society organizations and the country's independent electoral authority.

To woo voters, political parties and candidates have used various communication channels including social media, which remains by far the most effective way to reach a large audience and more specifically young voters. A poll conducted by research and news organization Barr al Aman found that during the 2018 municipal election campaign, 41 percent of respondents said they relied on Facebook as their primary source of news, followed by television, cited by 19 percent.

The Oxford Internet Institute's new report, “2019 Global Inventory of Organised Social Media Manipulation“, examined disinformation operations in 70 countries (including Tunisia) carried out by “cyber troops’’—”government or political party actors tasked with manipulating public opinion online.’’ The report found Facebook to be the only platform used significantly by ”cyber troop” activities in Tunisia.

Observers of the political scene in Tunisia have noted the rise of political party- and candidate-affiliated Facebook groups and pages with substantial numbers of followers. Pages without declared ties or affiliations were also actively involved in spreading political disinformation and sponsored content praising certain parties.

Prominent Facebook groups active during the 2019 presidential and legislative elections: 
  • قيس سعيد رئيس تونس 2019 (‘Kais Saied a president for Tunisia 2019’). The group which has more than 120 thousand members was among several other pages that supported the independent candidate and constitutional professor Kais Saied for the presidency. Saied was elected president on October 13, after he obtained more than 70 percent of the votes.
  • المبادرة الوطنية للدكتور عبد الكريم الزبيدي (‘The national initiative for doctor Abdelkarim Zbidi’). The group of more than 30 thousand members supported the candidacy of Zbidi, the current minister of defence, who came fourth in the first round of the presidential election after obtaining 10 percent of the votes.
  • Tous unis pour que Nebil karoui soit le president 2019 (‘All united so that Nabil Karoui becomes Tunisia’s president’). The page of more than 25 thousand followers was among several other pages that supported the candidacy of business magnate Nabil Karoui, who only obtained 27 percent of the votes in his runoff against Said.

According to a report on social media monitoring published by the Tunisian Association for the Integrity and Democracy of Elections (ATIDE) and Democracy Reporting International, from 15 May to 15 July 2019, unofficial Facebook pages with no declared political affiliation or purpose produced 38.5 percent of the political messages in their study sample. These pages, which categorized themselves as entertainment or satirical, became more active as the elections approached. The report also posits possible coordination among the administrators of these pages and uses the term “page network” to describe groups of pages sharing similar content within a certain time period.

Earlier this year, Facebook announced the removal of 265 Facebook and Instagram accounts, Facebook Pages, Groups and events involved in coordinated “inauthentic behavior”. According to the company, the activity originated in Israel and targeted multiple African countries, including Tunisia.

“The people behind this network used fake accounts to run Pages, disseminate their content and artificially increase engagement,” announced Facebook in a press release on May 16, 2019. “They also represented themselves as locals, including local news organizations, and published allegedly leaked information about politicians. The Page administrators and account owners frequently posted about political news, including topics like elections in various countries, candidate views and criticism of political opponents.”

Inkyfada, an independent investigative media website, used data collected by the Digital Forensic Research Lab to analyze the content posted by the Tunisia-related pages that were removed by Facebook. Their analysis concluded that the number of these pages, which were created between January 17 and March 12, 2019, was 11. Together, these pages nearly had 500,000 followers.

The analyzed content on these pages includes 359 publications that generated more than 1 million interactions (likes, comments, and shares) and 36 videos with nearly 8 million views

Inkyfada also reported that posts on these pages criticized many politicians, but never attacked the media magnate and presidential candidate Nabil Karoui. Five pages shared content from Karoui's television channel Nessma TV, or his charity Khalil Tounes, that either directly or indirectly favored the candidate.

‘Fake’ polls and ‘erasable ink’

Karoui spent most of his electoral campaign in prison. He was arrested in late August—at the height of campaign season—on tax evasion and money-laundering charges and was only released from prison a few days before the runoff against Saied. In the first round of the presidential election, he obtained 15 percent of the votes, while Saied came first with 18 percent of the votes. In the second round, Saied won the presidency in with more than 70 percent of the votes.

Karoui's imprisonment led to widespread rumours about his release from jail or the withdrawal of his candidacy.

A young voter casting his vote in Tunisia's presidential runoff held on October 13. Photo by Tunisia's electoral authority [Public domain].

Another common form of disinformation that recurred throughout the election season were reports about presidential candidates withdrawing from the race to support other candidates, as well as false reports about political figures or celebrities supporting certain candidates.

For example, prior to the first round of the presidential election, fabricated reports spread on social media about candidates Abdelkarim Zbidi, Mehdi Jemaa and Abir Moussi withdrawing from the race to support Karoui. Another false report claimed that Othman Battikh, the Grand Mufti of Tunisia, supported Saied.

Composition of Tunisia's newly elected parliament. The Islamist Ennahdha party came first with 52 seats, followed by Karoui's newly founded Qalb Tounes party with 38 seats, and the social democratic party Attayar with 22 seats. Photo by Tunisia's electoral authority.

Multiple rumours targeting parties and candidates competing in the legislative election also proliferated on election day, including the rumor that one candidate, Olfa Terras, was arrested while trying to influence citizens. Another fabricated story claimed that candidate Seif Eddine Makhlouf, whose party won 21 seats in the parliament, assaulted a polling center official. There were also attempts to mimic and amplify incidents. After media reported on a group of people distributing money to influence voters, news spread about similar incidents that, after verification, were revealed to be inaccurate.

Exit polling data were also subject to falsification. A few days before the first presidential round, a fake poll in the form of a screenshot incorporating the logo of SIGMA, a polling and consulting company, was widely spread on Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp. SIGMA's director, Hassen Zargouni, denounced the poll as fake in a Facebook post, telling Agence France Press, that “the names and figures [in the fake poll] do not match the reality and try to influence voters to favor tactical voting.”

The French embassy in Tunisia issued a press release denying any connection to the fake poll. The day after the first round of the presidential election, the embassy circulated another statement in response to false declarations attributed to the French ambassador, that criticized current presidential candidate (now president-elect) Kais Saied.

The credibility of the electoral process was also targeted in disinformation campaigns. The vice president of the Independent High Authority for Elections took to the radio airwaves to deny rumors that the pens provided at polling stations were filled with erasable ink, adding that voters could use their own pens when voting.

On the day of the second presidential round, Hasna Ben Slimane, another member of electoral authority, denounced social media rumours aimed at ‘'disrupting the electoral process.”

#Tunisia: @ISIETN member Hasna Ben Slimane has warned of rumors circulating on social media aimed at disrupting the electoral process and dissuading voters from heading to the polls, highlighting ISIE's efforts to ensure smooth running of election. #TAP_En

— TAP news agency (@TapNewsAgency) October 13, 2019

In addition to the electoral authority, political figures, journalists, activists and voters expressed concerns regarding the spread of mis- and disinformation campaigns during the recent elections. There have also been calls by civil society groups to regulate political ads on social media.

In the second part of this story, we will highlight measures taken by affected parties, national institutions, media professionals and tech companies to counter mis- and disinformation.

This article is part of a series of posts examining interference with digital rights through methods such as network shutdowns and disinformation during key political events in seven African countries: Algeria, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Nigeria, Tunisia, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. The project is funded by the Africa Digital Rights Fund of The Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA).

Netizen Report: Iraq and Ecuador face network shutdowns amid public protests

Fri, 10/11/2019 - 20:22

Technology and human rights news from around the world.

27th installment from Banksy's “Better Out Than In,” October 2013, New York City. Photo by Scott Lynch. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Advox Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in technology and human rights around the world. This report covers news and events from October 5 – 11, 2019.

In Iraq and Ecuador, public protests have led to shutdowns of internet and social media services in recent days, all at the apparent behest of government officials.

After demonstrations against corruption, unemployment and poor public services cropped up across Iraq starting on October 2, multiple sources and technical experts reported widespread outages of major internet and social media services. On October 10, technical evidence gathered by NetBlocks and confirmed by local sources indicated that the internet is being shut down curfew-style, leaving residents unable to connect during nighttime hours.

Alongside street protests, Iraqis are also speaking out against the internet shutdowns. Activists at SMEX and the Iraqi Network for Social Media have launched a petition urging the government to “respect citizens’ and internet users’ rights by restoring the internet in Iraq and refraining from shutting the internet down in Kurdistan,” and noting that shutting down the internet “inhibits free expression and allows government forces to commit human rights violations without evidence or recordings against them.” A local lawyer is filing a case against the Ministry of Telecommunications, arguing that the internet shutdown violates Iraq’s constitution.

Meanwhile in Ecuador, street demonstrations against austerity measures have escalated to open, violent confrontations between protesters and police, prompting authorities to impose a “state of exception.” Since October 3, journalists and activists have reported various incidents of internet censorship and disruption that appear to be associated with the protests.

Services including WhatsApp and Tweetdeck have experienced dramatic slow downs, and technical researchers have shown evidence that backend image and content (CDN) servers for Facebook and WhatsApp were temporarily disrupted on Ecuador’s state-owned telecommunication network, Corporación Nacional de Telecomunicaciones, on October 7. Activists at Usuarios Digitales, a local advocacy group, also tweeted reports that an activist attempting to livestream protests on Facebook had their account suspended.

President Lenin Moreno, who was once aligned with former leftist president Rafael Correa but has rolled back many of Correa’s social policies since taking office, has accused demonstrators of attempting to orchestrate a coup at Correa’s behest.

Social media outages reported as conflict escalates in southern Turkey

Turkish military attacks on Kurdish forces near the Turkey-Syria border have caused tens of thousands to flee the area, following US president Trump’s controversial decision to withdraw US troops from northern Syria, where they long have been allied with Kurdish forces.

The conflict has coincided with reports of social media and internet blocks in the region, that began circulating on Twitter on October 9. By October 11, technical tests by NetBlocks had confirmed that major social media services including Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Twitter were being blocked on Turk Telecom, the country’s leading service provider.

Tech companies are cutting off Venezuelans, thanks to Trump’s executive order

On October 7, Venezuelan users of Adobe products received an email alerting them that they will be barred from accessing Adobe services after October 28. The email and an associated notice on Adobe’s Spanish site explained that the cutoff is the result of an executive order issued by the Trump administration in August 2019. Since then, the web-based money transfer service Transferwise has followed suit, also citing the order.

Executive Order 13884 dictates that “all property and interests in property of the Government of Venezuela that are in the United States…[ must be] blocked and may not be transferred, paid, exported, withdrawn, or otherwise dealt in.” Given the focus on property and interests of the Venezuelan government, it is not clear whether or how this applies to technology companies offering their services to the general public.

As has occurred in the past for tech companies attempting to follow economic sanctions against countries such as Iran, companies may be over-complying with the order, in an effort to avoid legal challenges.

Bangladeshi student lynched after criticizing government on Facebook

A student at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology was beaten to death on October 7, after he wrote a widely shared Facebook post criticizing the recent signing of bilateral agreements between Bangladesh and India. Those responsible appear to be members of the student wing of the Awami League, Bangladesh’s ruling political party.

Abrar Fahad was reportedly called by university leaders to explain why he wrote a statement so critical of the government. On October 9, Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission ordered the blocking of an online forum at the university, where more than 175 grievances and expressions of remorse had been posted anonymously by current and former students.

Who’s getting censored for supporting Hong Kong?

Ongoing mass protests in Hong Kong have had untold ripple effects on technology and free speech around the world in recent months. Here’s who got censored this week, because of what they said about Hong Kong:

The NBA: Chinese companies and government voices decried a tweet by Daryl Morey, the manager of the Houston Rockets basketball team, in which he voiced support for Hong Kong protesters. Morey later removed the tweet and US National Basketball Association (NBA) spokespeople offered an official apology, but China Central Television and Internet giant Tencent nevertheless announced plans to suspend NBA broadcasts.

South Park: Soon after the NBA debacle, the creators of the irreverent US cartoon South Park released a satirical apology video mocking the NBA for bringing “the Chinese censors into our homes and into our hearts” and criticizing China's “forced confession” practices by having one character confess (under duress) to the murder of Winnie the Pooh, who has become a part of a popular online meme mocking Chinese President Xi Jinping. The video was promptly censored in China.

Hearthstone gamer Chung “Blitzchung” Ng Wai: A pro-level player of the popular video game Hearthstone was suspended and stripped of a winning tournament title after he declared his support for Hong Kong protesters in an interview. Blizzard, the maker of Hearthstone, told press that “engaging in any act that, in Blizzard’s sole discretion, brings you into public disrepute, offends a portion or group of the public, or otherwise damages Blizzard image will result in removal from Grandmasters and reduction of the player’s prize total to $0 USD.” Blizzard is partially owned by Tencent, one of China’s largest and most powerful technology companies. A mobile app expressly created to help Hong Kong protesters crowdsource information about street activity, including police presence, was removed from Apple's app store on October 9. The app was originally introduced in September and taken down at the time, but was re-instated after public disapproval. This time around, Apple’s Tim Cook defended the app's removal, saying it was intended to protect police from being targeted by protesters. Human Rights Watch China researcher Maya Wang called it “another shameful incident in which a multinational company bends to Chinese government pressure.” The app is still available in the Google Play store.

The Revolution of Our Times: The Google Play store removed a role-playing mobile game with a plot line based on the Hong Kong protests, citing a violation of its policy against apps that lack reasonable sensitivity towards “sensitive events.” The mobile game, entitled “The Revolution of Our Times,” was launched on October 5 and taken down three days later. The game provides details on the political context leading up to the protests with a map on key protest sites in Hong Kong.

New research


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Afef Abrougui, Ellery Roberts Biddle, Marianne Diaz, Rezwan Islam, Oiwan Lam, Taisa Sganzerla and Nevin Thompson contributed to this report.