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The free speech agenda for John Kerry’s “listening trip”

By Sara Yasin / 27 February, 2013

The US Secretary of State is headed for the Middle East and the Gulf. Sara Yasin explains the censorship issues in the region he needs to hear about

US Secretary of State John Kerry’s first official trip in his role is in full swing. After visiting Paris, Berlin and London, he will be meeting  leaders in Rome, Cairo, Riyadh, Ankara, Abu Dhabi, and Doha. On Tuesday in Berlin, Kerry highlighted the importance of freedom of speech while addressing a group of students, and said it was “something worth fighting for”. Here are the free speech issues he should be paying attention to during his “listening trip” to the Middle East:


SYRIA

Kerry discussed the situation in Syria with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Berlin, and he will be meeting members of the Syrian National Council (SNC) at a US-organised conference in Rome. Initially, leaders of the opposition group threatened to boycott the meeting, but had a change of heart after Kerry made strong statements in London on Monday supporting the opposition group’s attempts to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Since the start of the country’s ongoing conflict, Syria has faced horrifying human rights violations — with a death toll of at least 60,000 — and journalists attempting to cover the country’s ongoing tragedy continue to be targeted. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has named Syria the “most dangerous country in the world for journalists”, with 32 journalists killed since the start of protests in March 2011. Only this week, French freelance photographer Olivier Voisin was killed in Syria’s Idlib province. Two journalists also died last month: French journalist Yves Debay and Syrian-born journalist Mohamed Al-Massalma.

EGYPT

Kerry’s next stop will be post-revolution Egypt, where freedom of expression faces many challenges under President Mohamed Morsi. The country’s new constitution passed in December raised some eyebrows with clauses related to blasphemy (amongst other things). Article 44 of the constitution forbids “defaming all religious messengers and prophets”. New Egypt has been no stranger to blasphemy charges: most recently, novelist Youssef Zeidan was this week accused of blasphemy by the Islamic Research Institute (which seeks for him to be charged under Article 77 of the Penal Code, which could mean a death sentence for the writer).

In further efforts to battle so-called blasphemy, Egypt has made a series of worrisome moves. Earlier this month, a Cairo court ordered a month-long ban on YouTube, since the video sharing site refused to remove the trailer for anti-Islam film the Innocence of Muslims. Since then, Egyptian authorities dropped the ban, since it would be far too costly to actually implement. The film sparked protests across the world last September last year, and following the controversy Egypt sentenced seven Coptic Christian filmmakers connected to the film to death in absentia. Alber Saber, a 27-year-old atheist, is currently appealing a three-year sentence handed to him for allegedly posting a link to the crude film’s trailer on his Facebook page.

In addition to insulting religion, individuals have also faced charges for allegedly insulting Morsi, and novelist Alaa el-Aswany told US-owned Voice of America that the country’s president has even restricted free speech more than his ousted predecessor. Egypt’s answer to the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart, Bassem Youssef, was charged in January with insulting President Morsi, but the investigation was eventually dropped by authorities. According to el-Aswany, ten writers have faced such accusations.

 SAUDI ARABIA

Freedom of expression isn’t a phrase that is likely to be associated with Saudi Arabia. The country came in at number eight on CPJ’s ranking of censored countries around the world. It crushed recent protests held by the country’s Shia population in the Eastern Province, and has  attempted to stop any coverage of it through blocking foreign coverage and arresting local journalists attempting to cover the unrest.  According to Human Rights Watch, hundreds of protesters have also been arrested, and 14 protesters have been killed by security forces. Dissent is not taken lightly in Saudi Arabia: human rights defender Muhammad Al-Bejadi was sentenced on 10 April last year to four years in prison as well as a five-year travel ban for multiple charges in connection to his work.

In the ultra-conservative kingdom, insulting religion also earns a harsh penalty. Saudi writer Turki Al-Hamad was arrested in January after making tweets critical of the politics of some Islamists last December. Al-Hamad’s novels have been banned in Saudi Arabia (and have earned him fatwas from the country’s clerics), as well as Kuwait and Bahrain. Columnist Hamza Kashgari was arrested last February for blasphemy — a charge that carries the death sentence — for controversial tweets he made in February about the Muslim prophet Muhammad. While Kashgari attempted to flee Saudi Arabia to Malaysia, he was extradited back to his native country, and is still in prison while waiting for a trial. It’s no surprise that Saudi Arabia has called for “global internet regulation” in the name of “public order” in the past.

TURKEY

In the past few months, Turkey has shown that it still has a long way to go when it comes to freedom of speech. Article 301 of Turkey’s constitution makes it illegal to insult “Turkey, the Turkish nation, or Turkish government institutions”.  Free speech organisation Turkish PEN is currently undergoing an investigation for “insulting the state” for issuing a statement against the arrest of pianist Fazil Say, who is currently facing charges for retweeting a statement deemed to be insulting towards religion.

The country also has a number of journalists and writers in prison. According to CPJ, Turkey has hit an all-time high of imprisoned journalists, with 49 in prison as of 1 December last year. Most of there are ethnic Kurds, charged under the country’s vague and problematic anti-terror laws.

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

Despite a flourishing international reputation, the United Arab Emirates has performed poorly when it comes to freedom of expression. Most recently, the illusion of its commitment to academic freedom was shattered after the London School of Economics (LSE) cancelled a conference scheduled to be held this week in the country. The LSE cited the barring of academic Dr Kristian Coates Ulrichsen from the country as well as concerns over “restrictions imposed on the intellectual content of the event that threatened academic freedom” as the reasons for the cancellation of the conference, which was organised in coordination with the American University of Sharjah. The UAE boasts a number of foreign university campuses, including Michigan State University, New York University, the Sorbonne, and Middlesex University. Such restrictions only cast a shadow on the integrity of such partnerships.

In addition to restrictions on academic freedom, the UAE has been engaged in a crackdown on activists both off and online. On 12 November, the country’s leader, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahaya issued a decree making it possible to imprison anyone poking fun at the country’s leadership or any of its institutions online. The country has quickly restricted rights in the name of national security — and according to the Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR), 66 activists were arrested in March 2012. According to the country’s authorities, those arrested are tied to Islamic group al-Islah, and whom authorities claim were planning to overthrow the government. Last year, five political activists eventually known as the “UAE 5″ were in prison for eight months after being arrested in April 2011, for posting messages critical of government leaders and policies in a now-defunct online forum called UAE Hewar. Even though the activists were eventually pardoned, Dr Mohammed Al Roken, a human rights lawyer who worked on their case (amongst many others), is currently being held in solitary confinement.

QATAR

The tiny country is mostly known for being the home of news station Al Jazeera, which has been criticised for its lack of coverage of stories within Qatar. Most recently, Qatari poet Mohammed al-Ajami had a life sentence reduced to fifteen years this week. He was first handed a life sentence in December for insulting the country’s Emir Sheikh Hamad al-Thani late last year, for a poem he uploaded in 2011 supporting the revolutions within the Arab world — where he called the leaders of the region ”indiscriminate thieves”.

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