Global Digital Download - Middle East & North Africa News

The Global Digital Download is a weekly publication that aggregates resources on Internet freedom, highlighting trends in digital and social media that intersect with freedom of expression, policy, privacy, censorship and new technologies. The GDD includes information about relevant events, news, and research. To find past articles and research, search the archive database.

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  • (All Voices, Wednesday, April 16, 2014)

    Rami spends many hours every day trying to surf the Internet from his home in the suburbs of Harasta near the capital of Damascus. The 20-something youth, a law student at Damascus University, complains of the “constant interruptions of network service, its slowness and lack of effectiveness.” “The service cut for three consecutive months about a year ago,” Rami said. “When it resumed, we noticed that the signal was much weaker than before, which makes it impossible to access certain sites except at certain hours of the day.” The situation drove him to file a complaint with the local telecommunications office, but, “in vain, because all they did was tell me that the network was running properly, and that the bad signal during certain daylight hours was due only to the pressure of too many users at the same clogging up the network.”

  • (Global Voices, Monday, April 14, 2014)

    Tunisian award-winning collective blog Nawaat has launched its own whistle-blowing platform: Nawaat Leaks. The secure platform was launched in collaboration with GlobaLeaks, an open source and anonymous whistleblowing software.Those wishing to use Nawaat Leaks to leak classified information, will first need to download the online anonymity software Tor. Nawaat co-founder Sami Ben Gharbia explains [ar] the online safety measures taken into consideration to protect the platform's users.In 2011, Tunisia's interim authorities passed decree 41 guaranteeing access to administrative documents. In practice, however, the law is far from being implemented. In a statement published on March 27, Article 19 slammed the authorities’ ineffective implementation of decree 41. ARTICLE 19 “notes concern that existing measures designed to ensure government transparency are not being effectively implemented” the organization said.

  • (Reporters Without Borders, Friday, April 11, 2014)

    Reporters Without Borders is outraged by the 30-month jail sentence that a Bahraini court passed on the blogger Ali Maaraj on 8 April on charges of "insulting the king" and “improper handling of information technology". RWB condemns these absurd charges and demands his immediate release and the quashing of his sentence. The Bahraini authorities have yet again demonstrated their contempt for freedom of information and their mistrust of publication tools. The police arrested Maaraj at his home on 7 January, seizing his computer. His brother was simultaneously arrested at his workplace. He was released six weeks later.

  • (The Washington Post, Friday, April 11, 2014)

    Iran became a “nation of bloggers” between early 2000 and 2009, as a vibrant, diverse set of online blogs became the platform for expression for thousands of Iranians, ranging from political activists, poets and sports fans to the often-overlooked class of hardline religious conservatives. Those blogs emerged as a space for active, intense, ongoing discussions on everything from politics to poetry. Regardless of whether these blogs played a role in the “Green Movement” demonstrations that followed the fraudulent 2009 election of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, they helped to redefine Iran’s politics and the nature of public discourse.

  • (Global Voices, Thursday, April 10, 2014)

    In Lebanon, government officials approved a proposal to allow the nation’s security agencies full, unrestricted access to Lebanese people’s elecontric communications data after a reportedly brief and heated debate in a cabinet session last month. This piece of news gained little attention from Lebanese mainstream media, who largely portrayed the measure as just another result of political cleavages within the current government. There has been little discussion of what impact the law may have on users, or the notion that privacy is a human right, not to be waived. In its first clause, Lebanon’s Surveillance Law guarantees the right to privacy across all means of electronic communication — wired and wireless, local and international.

  • (Index on Censorship, Friday, April 4, 2014)
    Three years on from the revolution, Egypt seems tired of turmoil and apathy is mounting. The youth movement, April 6, made the decision to boycott the recent referendum and the idea spread. Although the country’s younger generation makes up a quarter of the population, only a tiny minority turned up to vote. Their absence meant the new constitution was approved by more than 98%. However political activist, Salma Said believes this low attendance was down to a different issue. “The youth didn’t participate because the youth are in jail”, she said via Twitter. Her comment highlights the alarming increase of politically motivated arrests. There is a clear targeting of bloggers, journalists and activists. In Egypt, the price for dissent is high.
  • (Index on Censorship, Wednesday, April 2, 2014)

    Saudi authorities have detained three activists for posting videos on YouTube denouncing the royal family's corruption and complaining about dismal living standards and low wages. 

  • (IFEX, Friday, March 28, 2014)

    Although Lebanon has long been considered to have one of the most open and diverse media environments in a region dominated by dictatorships, it is no stranger to restrictions on free expression. What makes the Lebanese case so unique is that, unlike other Arab countries where government interference is the biggest hurdle standing between a journalist and his freedom to report, the restrictions in Lebanon have their origins in the country's sectarian and political structures. 

  • (Reporters Without Borders, Monday, March 24, 2014)

    Reporters Without Borders calls for the immediate and unconditional release of Osama Najjar, a netizen and activist held since 17 March, and voices concern about his state of health, as he was arrested the day after an operation and does not have his medicine with him. No official reason has been given for his arrest and it is still not known where he is being detained.

  • (Al Jazeera, Sunday, March 16, 2014)

    Yousef sat on the navy couch with his arms wrapped tightly around his legs, and rocked back and forth. It's a position he has become all too familiar with over the past year. He turned on his laptop and waited fitfully for Skype to load. "Without Skype I wouldn't be able to be in touch with my family in Aleppo," he said in his living room in Beirut. "Sometimes it doesn't work - you don't want to know what goes through my head. I have lost many friends in this war." Yousef, who requested that only his first name be used because his family is still in Syria, fled Aleppo more than a year ago, leaving behind his family. The city has been the target of a sharp increase in the use of barrel bombs by the Syrian government in recent weeks. These attacks have claimed hundreds of lives and have resulted in a mass exodus of civilians to the Turkish border.

  • (Center for International Media Assistance , Thursday, March 13, 2014)
    During his run for the presidency of Iran, Hassan Rouhani made a bold promise. If he won, he would push for greater Internet freedom in a country where citizens risk imprisonment and torture for what they post online. After Rouhani's victory in June 2013 a wave of optimism swept the Iranian blogosphere. In a post-election speech, he declared, "The age of monologue media is over; media should be interactive . . . in a country whose legitimacy is rooted in its people, then there is no fear from free media." He described social networking as a "welcome phenomenon," a far cry from Tehran's official line. For netizens, his words signaled relief from cyber spies and persecution. Months later, hope for a freer Internet has faded. Attacks against online users are escalating. According to one cyber security expert: "Censorship of the Internet has only gotten worse, but it's more and more clear that Rouhani does not have complete control over this process." 
  • (Index on Censorship, Thursday, March 13, 2014)

    On 3 March 2011 a group of Emirati intellectuals sent a petition to the country’s rulers that politely requested democratic reform and political participation. Authorities have responded by spending the past three years jailing and torturing those who supported the petition. Now citizens are using social media platforms to criticise security services for growing levels of repression with authorities responding in kind by arresting and torturing them. Since punitive legislation governing use of the internet was passed in November 2012 at least six people have been sent to prison for comments made on Twitter. The latest to be convicted are Khalifa Rabeiah and Othman al-Shehhi who were both sentenced to five years in prison and ordered to pay fines of £81,875 on 10 March for criticising security services on Twitter.

  • (Reuters, Monday, March 10, 2014)

    A Saudi court sentenced a man to 10 years in jail and a 100,000 riyal ($26,700) fine for joining protests against the kingdom's rulers and using Twitter to urge people to do the same, state news agency SPA said on Monday. SPA quoted Justice Ministry spokesman Fahd al-Bakran as saying the unidentified defendant had also retweeted messages against the monarchy, Muslim scholars and security services.

  • (Global Voices, Wednesday, March 5, 2014)

    Detained for the last two years for expressing himself, Jabeur Mejri has been released. The first prisoner of conscience in Tunisia since the events of January 2011 [ouster of former dictator Zeine en Abidin Ben Ali], has been released tonight. Mejri has been in jail since March 2012. He was convicted to seven and half years in prison for publishing content “liable to cause harm to public order and morality”, “insulting others through public communication networks” and “assaulting public morals”.

  • (CircleID, Monday, March 3, 2014)

    On Feb. 7, 2014 Dr. Stephen Crocker, the Chair of the ICANN Board of Directors, wrote to Asia Green IT System (AGIT), a Turkish company which applied for .Islam and .Halal, conveying ICANN's latest position on these two applications. The letter is deeply flawed, and shows how ICANN's handling of the .Islam and .Halal applications is at once an egregious assault on the new gTLD program rules, and a betrayal of whatever trust Muslims around the world might have had in ICANN. ICANN will be well-advised to back track on the ill-considered letter, and get the .Islam and .Halal strings back on the road to delegation.

  • (Access, Monday, March 3, 2014)

    Today, Access kicked off the third installation of our RightsCon conference series in San Francisco, with more than 600 people from 375 organizations and comapnies in attendance, representing 50 countries. One person who was not here is Alaa Abd El Fattah, of Egypt. Alaa joined us at the first RightsCon, in 2011, as a keynote speaker on the relationship - often complex - among technology, activism, and true social justice. When he left RightsCon, he flew straight back to Egypt, to serve an unjust, politically motivated prison sentence.

  • (Small Media, Wednesday, February 26, 2014)

    With a new Iranian fiscal year comes a brand new budget, and with a new budget comes the opportunity to gain an array of fresh insights into Iranian information policy for the year ahead. President Hassan Rouhani submitted the new year’s budgetary plan to the Iranian Parliament on 8 December 2013, allowing Small Media to engage in some closer analysis of the new numbers. In this month’s Infrastructure Report, Small Media presents the findings of its in-depth review into Iran's budgetary plan, sharing a number of new insights into the Rouhani Administration’s ICT policy, and its controversial plans to develop the ‘National Internet’ - the National Information Network (SHOMA).

  • (MIT Technology Review, Tuesday, February 25, 2014)

    Back in October 2011, a group of hackers and net activists called Telecomix leaked the logs showing exactly how Syrian authorities were monitoring and filtering internet traffic within the country. The logs comprised of 600 GB of data representing 750 million requests on the web and showing exactly which requests were allowed and which were denied. Today, Abdelberi Chaabane at Inria in France and a few pals, publish the first detailed analysis of this data, revealing exactly how the traffic was filtered, which IP addresses and websites were blocked and which keywords were targeted for filtering. What their work reveals is unique. These logs provide a snapshot of a real-world censorship ecosystem, the first time this kind of detail has become available from an authoritarian regime.

  • (Reporters Without Borders, Thursday, February 20, 2014)

    Reporters Without Borders reiterates its call for an end to government blocking of the Lakome news website, in effect since 17 October, and the withdrawal of all charges against Ali Anouzla, the editor of the site’s Arabic-language version. “The authorities are clearly stalling, both by not responding to Anouzla’s request for the censorship to be lifted and by repeatedly postponing his appearance before an investigating judge,” said Reporters Without Borders head of research Lucie Morillon. “No one will be fooled by this policy. Morocco manifestly deserves its poor position – 136th out of 180 countries – in the 2014 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.” Lakome was blocked on 17 October, shortly after Anouzla, who had been held since 17 September, issued a statement saying that he was unable to take responsibility for what was posted on the site while he was in detention and therefore requested its “temporary suspension.” The authorities went far beyond what Anouzla requested because access to both the Arabic and French-language versions of Lakome has been blocked ever since. Anouzla has repeatedly sought the lifting of the blocking since his release on 25 October after five weeks in “preventive detention.”

  • (Index on Censorship, Thursday, February 6, 2014)

    The idea of blogging and social media in Iran was once likely to invoke images of the 2009 Green Movement, where these platforms played a part in regular people standing up to a repressive, conservative regime, calling for reforms and demanding civil liberties. These days, it may be more linked with the country’s political elites, who really seem to have taken to communicating through Twitter and Facebook — sites now blocked for most of the population. But while it was perhaps always expected that tech-savvy, reformist activists would find ways around the social media censorship, it may come as a surprise that some of Iran’s most conservative do the same. A new report by Small Media sheds light on the Arzeshi, a hardline, conservative faction of online activists, devoted to the principles of the 1979 revolution and the supreme leader. The report found that the Arzeshi work around online restrictions, appearing on banned sites. In particular, the report looks at blogs and Google+, and analyses the activity of 75 Arzeshi accounts on Twitter — a site that, bar a technical glitch last September, has been blocked in Iran since 2009.

  • (Global Voices, Tuesday, February 4, 2014)

    Algerian Abdelghani Aloui has been in jail since September 25, 2013. His crime? Sharing images on Facebook that are caricatures of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal. Since his arrest, the 24-year-old blogger has been detained in Serkadji prison of Algiers, the capital city of Algeria, a prison known for hosting terrorists and criminals. A trial has yet to take place for Abdelghani Aloui.

  • (IFEX, Friday, January 31, 2014)

    The imprisonment of Jabeur Mejri over the publication of prophet Muhammad cartoons on his Facebook page is set to come to an end soon, reports Tunisian local media. Mohamed Attia, vice-president of the Tunisian League for Human Rights (LTDH) told privately-owned radio station Shems FM that Mejri will soon be released, and that he will travel to Sweden where he has allegedly obtained political asylum. The announcement comes after civil society groups visited Mejri in prison on 21 January. The initiative was led by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and included representatives from the LTDH, the Tunisian Forum for Socio Economic Rights (FTDES) and Mejri's support committee. Mejri has been in prison for nearly two years for posting cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad on his Facebook page. He was sentenced to a seven-and-a-half year jail term for “publishing material liable to cause harm to public order or good morals”, “insulting others through public communication networks” and “assaulting public morals”.

  • (Global Voices, Friday, January 31, 2014)

    Facebook, among other sites, will come under new scrutiny in Egypt, when a draft “anti-terrorism” law comes into effect. The draft law, submitted by the Interior Ministry to the Justice Ministry, which in turn would go to the Cabinet for ratification, states that internet sites which instigate terrorism could be censored. This includes popular sites such as Facebook, which have increasingly become a channel among Egyptians to voice dissent.

  • (Reporters Without Borders, Thursday, January 30, 2014)

    Reporters Without Borders reiterates its condemnation of the arbitrary behaviour of the Bahraini judicial system, which has postponed the trials of several detained news and information providers in the past two weeks. The judicial authorities must abandon all the trumped-up charges they have brought against journalists just because they covered anti-government street protests, the media freedom organization said. Reporters Without Borders also calls on the authorities to systematically order independent investigations whenever torture and mistreatment in detention is alleged. Failure to investigate violates article 12 of the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. RWB and nine other human rights groups wrote to Frank La Rue, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, and Juan Méndez, the UN special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, on 15 December asking them to investigate the arrests, detention and torture of three Bahraini journalists.

  • (IFEX, Wednesday, January 22, 2014)

    Last week, Hamas' militant wing the Iz Al Din al Qassam Brigades announced via their website that their primary English-language Twitter account, @alqassamBrigade had been suspended. The group said : “The Qassam Brigades confirmed that they did not violate Twitter's terms of service ever … Twitter still not sending Al Qassam any justifications for the suspension.” When asked by Index why the account was suspended, a spokesperson from Twitter responded: “”We do not comment on individual accounts, for privacy and security reasons.” Twitter's decision to suspend the account becomes evermore confusing beyond this first glance. If the goal is to prevent Al Qassam from using Twitter, it's ineffective, as their secondary English-language account as well as a primary Arabic account are both still active- not to mention the ease with which a new account can be created. It's difficult to see what closing the account achieved other than giving a group that, by definition feeds off exclusion from the mainstream, fuel for pariah status.

  • (Index on Censorship, Tuesday, January 21, 2014)

    One hundred and forty characters are all it takes. Twitter users from Marrakech to Manama know—call for political reforms, joke about a sensitive topic, or expose government abuse and you could end up in jail. Following the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, authorities in Libya and Tunisia unblocked hundreds of websites and dismantled the state surveillance apparatus. But overall, internet freedom in the region has only declined in the three years since the Arab Spring as authoritarian leaders continue to crack down on any and all threats to their ever-tenuous legitimacy. As the online world has become a fundamental part of Arab and Iranian societies, leaders are waking up to the “dangers” of social media and placing new restrictions on what can be read or posted online. This shift has been most marked in Bahrain, one of the most digitally-connected countries in the world. After a grassroots opposition group took to the streets to demand democratic reforms, authorities detained dozens of users for Twitter and Facebook posts deemed sympathetic to the cause. Similarly, several prominent activists were jailed on charges of inciting protests, belonging to a terrorist organization, or plotting to overthrow the government through their online activities.

  • (Amnesty International, Saturday, January 11, 2014)

    Mohammad Reza Pourshajari, aged 53, was taken to the medical facility of Ghezal Hesar Prison on 4 January when he was suddenly unable to breathe. He was given an injection, but the medical staff would not tell him what it contained when he asked. The Prosecutor General of Alborz Province, in Karaj, north-west of Tehran, had asked the prison authorities on 6 November 2013 to have Mohammad Reza Pourshajari undergo a medical examination to assess his health requirements. As a result, Mohammad Reza Pourshajari was taken to Imam Khomeini Hospital in Tehran on 25 December for one hour: he was examined by a nurse who was unable to examine his heart, for which he requires specialized care after he suffered two heart attacks for blockage in his arteries. Mohammad Reza Pourshajari’s daughter, Mitra Pourshajari, has told Amnesty International that no diagnostic examination or medical tests were carried out during this check-up to assess her father’s heart condition. Mohammad Reza Pourshajari has been in poor health since at least September 2012 when he suffered the first of two heart attacks. After his second, in February 2013, he was taken to a hospital outside the prison for five days.

  • (Electronic Frontier Foundation, Friday, January 10, 2014)

    Shezanne Cassim, the US citizen charged under the UAE's Cybercrime Act and sentenced to a year in prison, has returned home. According to a statement from the US Department of State, Cassim was released and deported after getting credit against his sentence for time served and for "good behavior." Upon returning home to Minnesota, Cassim spoke out against the actions of the UAE's government: "Due to the political situation there, they're scared of democracy. They wanted to send a message to the UAE public, saying, 'Look what we'll do to people who do just a silly YouTube video, so imagine if you do something that's actually critical of the government.' It's a warning message, and we're scapegoats." We are thrilled to hear that Shezanne Cassim is back with his family and doing well and we honor his courage in speaking out.

  • (International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, Thursday, January 9, 2014)

    Iranian users are experiencing inconsistent filtering of various Internet and mobile application technologies as Iranian authorities determine their communications policies. On December 26, 2013, the Secretary of Iran’s Working Group to Determine Instances of Criminal Content on the Internet told Fars News Agency that blocking Tango, Viber, WhatsApp, and other mobile communications applications remain on the Working Group’s agenda. Three days later, Iranian users reported that Viber had been blocked in Iran; Instagram and WeChat had been blocked earlier, despite disagreement from Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. These developments have cast serious doubts among users about whether the Rouhani administration may be able to deliver on his promise of access to information.

  • (IFEX, Friday, January 3, 2014)

    The Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) denounces the verdict issued by an Emirati court to imprison two human rights advocates and online activists as a result of using the Internet to peacefully express their opinions and to expose violations committed by the Emirati authorities against detainees. During a hearing held on 25 December 2013, the Abu Dhabi Federal Court sentenced human rights advocate Mohamed Salem Al-Zumer to three years in prison and a fine of 500 Emirati Dirhams (US$160) over accusations of insulting the president and the crown prince of Abu Dhabi. The accusations are based on tweets that were posted on Al-Zumer's personal Twitter account, in which he mentioned that the state had paid a private company to set up an army of mercenaries in order to repress freedoms. The rights advocate is also accused of damaging the Emirati state security entity's reputation after saying that detainees are tortured in prisons. The court did, however, acquit him of a charge against him accusing him of being a member of the opposition group, the Reform and Social Guidance Association (al-Islah). Al-Zumer was arrested by security forces almost a year earlier on 5 December 2012. Officers confiscated his personal items; his cellular phone and his iPad. Information about him being tortured in his detention period has been circulated.

  • (Mashable, Sunday, December 29, 2013)

    For approximately 12 hours, Instagram became the latest apparent victim of Iran's Internet censorship system commonly known as the "Filternet." The blocking of Instagram was initially reported by Iranian netizens early Sunday, and later confirmed by independent researchers. Instagram appeared to be the latest casualty of Iran's most recent online clampdown — despite promises of more Internet freedom by the new government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Then just a few hours later, the photo-sharing network was unblocked, and Iranian officials denied any wrongdoing.

  • (Electronic Frontier Foundation, Sunday, December 29, 2013)

    The uprisings of 2011 gave hope to many for a new era of Internet governance. While Tunisia made concrete steps toward a freer Internet, many governments throughout the region have grappled with finding a balance between instituting the harsh restrictions that helped create Tunisia's uprising and implementing enough control to prevent their own. In 2013, many governments tended toward the former, implementing censorship for the first time or arresting bloggers, creating a deterrent for those who might dare speak their minds. Here are a few of the threats we've tracked this year and the ways in which activists have fought back.

  • (Electronic Frontier Foundation; Citizen Lab, Monday, December 23, 2013)

    More than two years into the Syrian conflict, the violence continues both on the ground and in the digital realm. Just as human rights investigators and weapons inspectors search for evidence of chemical weapons, EFF, and the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab have been collecting, dissecting, and documenting malicious software deployed against the Syrian opposition. Citizen Lab security researchers Morgan Marquis-Boire and John Scott-Railton and EFF Global Policy Analyst Eva Galperin today published their latest technical paper, “Quantum of Surveillance: Familiar Actors and Possible False Flags in Syrian Malware Campaigns.” The report outlines how pro-government attackers have targeted the opposition, as well as NGO workers and journalists, with social engineering and “Remote Access Tools” (RAT).

  • (Global Voices, Monday, December 23, 2013)

    Internet service providers in the Islamic Republic have blocked access to WeChat say reports on several news sites and blogs. WeChat is an application that enables smartphone users to connect to online social networks. While the Iranian president himself, and at least a couple of his ministers use different social media platforms themselves to communicate with followers, Iranian citizens are banned from access to sites like Facebook.

  • (Reporters Without Borders, Friday, December 20, 2013)

    Ali Anouzla, the editor of the Arabic-language version of the news website Lakome, is scheduled to appear on 23 December before an investigating judge in Salé (near Rabat) who is responsible for handling terrorism cases. Reporters Without Borders and the Anouzla Support Committee in France call on the authorities to abandon this investigation, to drop all the charges against Anouzla and to stop blocking access to both the Arabic and French-language versions of Lakome. “Prosecuting Anouzla under the anti-terrorism law or even the Press Code would show that the authorities are bent on persecuting a journalist known for being outspoken,” the two organizations said. Anouzla was arrested in Rabat on 17 September for posting a link to an article in the Spanish daily El País, which in turn had a link to a video attributed to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). He was freed on 25 October after more than five weeks in “preventive detention” but continues to face a possible sentence of 10 to 30 years in prison on various charges including providing “material assistance” to a terrorist organization and “defending terrorist crimes.”

  • (IFEX, Thursday, December 19, 2013)

    In a region where censorship is the norm, Morocco has always stood out for its nominally free press, and mostly free Internet. But in the past year, that freedom has been repeatedly challenged, most recently when editor Ali Anouzla was imprisoned under terrorism charges for linking to a news article that linked to a YouTube video. Now, the latest threat to face Moroccans is the Code Numérique, a draft bill that would impose additional restrictions on the country's Internet. I interviewed activist Zineb Belmkaddem and the lawyer pseudonymously known as @IbnKafka to get their take on the threats Moroccan Internet users now face.