Syria passes draconian cybercrime laws

Syria has become the latest country to implement new far-reaching cybercrime legislation that goes beyond what is necessary to keep the internet safe.

On 18 April, Syrian president Bashir al-Assad announced new laws that could result in harsh penalties criticising or otherwise embarrassing the Syrian government.

Anyone breaking the law can be jailed for up to 15 years and face penalties up to S£15 million (£23,000).

The highest fines and sentences are reserved for “crimes against the Constitution” and for undermining the prestige of the State including websites or content “aiming or calling for changing the constitution by illegal means, or excluding part of the Syrian land from the sovereignty of the state, or provoking armed rebellion against the existing authorities under the constitution or preventing them from exercising their functions derived from the constitution, or overthrowing or changing the system of government in the state”.

Publishing what the new law describes as “fake news…that undermines the prestige of the state or prejudices national unity” can lead to five-year jail sentences and S£10 million (£15,300) fines which seems to target bloggers and digital activists who publish criticism of the government online.

In a statement the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) said the law could be used to violate many of the basic digital rights of citizens, especially freedom of expression and freedom of digital privacy.

It said, “GCHR believes that the law should be reviewed and its definitions defined more clearly to ensure the existence of a strong and practical law that does not violate the basic rights of citizens, but rather contributes to creating a free and accessible internet in which diverse opinions are respected and human rights are protected and promoted.”

The new law also obliges internet service providers to save internet data for all users for a period of time to be determined by the competent authorities.

The GCHR calls this “a flagrant violation of the digital privacy of citizens and provides ease of access by security services to all information related to peaceful online activists”.

The Syrian cybercrime law is just the latest in a growing body of legislation around the world ostensibly used to target cybercrime but clearly intended to stifle legitimate criticism and restrict freedom of expression.

According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, 81% of countries have now implemented cybercrime legislation with a further 7% with draft legislation.

Many argue that cybercrime legislation makes the internet a safer place but many countries with human rights are under attack, including Brazil, Myanmar and the UAE, are using such legislation to silence critics.

In January, the United Arab Emirates adopted new legislation that promised fines of up to AED100,000 and jail terms of up to a year for “anyone who uses the internet to publish, circulate or spread false news, rumours or misleading information, contrary to the news published by official sources”. These penalties are doubled when publication happens “during times of pandemic, crises or disasters”

Attempts to introduce such draconian legislation are being resisted by human rights and journalism associations.

In February this year, the Pakistani government passed an ordinance amending the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act, 2016. Of particular concern was an expansion of the “offences against dignity” section of the legislation to cover the publication of “false” information about organisations, companies and institutions, including the government and military.

However, in April, the Islamabad High Court, following challenges by the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists and the Pakistan Broadcasters Association, threw out the ordinance. The court noted: “Freedom of expression is a fundamental right and it reinforces all other rights guaranteed under the Constitution … [and] free speech protected under Article 19 and the right to receive information under Article 19-A of the Constitution are essential for development, progress and prosperity of a society and suppression thereof is unconstitutional and contrary to the democratic values.”

African convention on cybercrimes could silence free speech online

Amid concerns that the proposed African Union Convention on Cybersecurity (AUCC) will limit free speech online the drafters of the AUC have agreed to receive input from outside organisations.

The Web We Want, a campaign aimed at promoting an internet where everyone can participate in the free flow of knowledge, ideas, collaboration and creativity, put forward a proposal after criticism that the convention should not be passed until changes have been made to it.

The convention, which will be signed in January 2014, proposes the prevention of cybercrime in 15 African states “through the organisation of electronic transactions, protection of personal data, promotion of cyber security, e-governance and combating cybercrime”. According to the Norton Cybercrime Report 2012, South Africa ranks 3rd globally for the number of cybercrime victims, behind Russia and China.

However it has been suggested that the convention should not be passed in its current form as it “dangerously imposes broad limitations on freedom of expression by permitting the interception of content data and traffic data on unfounded grounds, such as ‘where the imperatives of the information so dictate’”.

According to the Kenyan-based Strathmore University’s Centre for Intellectual Property and Information Technology (CIPIT) the convention could abuse Africans’ right to privacy, harm freedom of expression and place too much power in the hands of judges who, in the “public interest”, will have the authority to intercept individuals’ electronic communications without their permission.

Taking this into account this week will see an online discussion on the proposed changes to the AUCC by Kenyan and Ugandan stakeholders. Sponsored by KICTAnet, the Kenya ICT Action Network, and in partnership with Web We Want the five day digital event will call for a discussion of articles from the convention in need of further clarification and recommendations. The Web We Want has called upon international NGOs to put forward their concerns regarding the AUCC and internet freedom to be deliberated over the coming week.

This article was posted on 26 Nov 2013 at

Four arrested in Bahrain for “social media abuse”

The Bahrain Interior Ministry announced the arrest of four people for defaming public figures on social media today (17 October), with authorities still searching for a fifth.

The Acting General Director of Anti-Corruption, Electronic and Economic Security said that the suspects confessed to their crime, which could result in a jail sentence of up to five years. Bahrain’s cyber defamation laws — which include the publication of “fake news” — were revised in September, resulting in heavier monitoring of social media networks to tackle the “misuse” of such platforms.

Index award winner Nabeel Rajab of the Bahrain Human Rights Center is currently appealing a three year sentence for organising pro-democracy rallies via social networks.

Bahrain activists’ trouble with trolls

On 5 May the Bahraini regime arrested prominent human rights activist and 2012 Index award winner Nabeel Rajab for inciting violence on social networking sites. This is the second time Rajab has been arrested for so-called “cyber crimes”, and last year the regime accused him of publishing false information on Twitter.

These attacks on free speech illustrate how authoritarian regimes can use social media as a convenient “evidence-gathering” tool to prosecute those who dare speak out. Indeed, Rajab’s arrest is a warning shot to others: a reminder that engaging in online activism could result in a prison sentence.

While the fear of arrest is an important concern for many activists using social media, there are other factors at work that might deter people from criticising the Bahraini regime. One of these is trolling, an aggressive form of online behaviour directed at other web-users. It usually comes from anonymous accounts, and its severity can range from death threats and threats of rape, to spiteful comments and personal abuse. It is particularly common on Twitter. Here’s a little taster of what I’ve experienced:

@marcowenjones: ‘don’t you worry, we’ll cross paths one day. You’ll see, and I’ll remind of these days while my cock is inside u’ – Anonymous Troll

Human rights activists and journalists often find themselves being targeted by Bahrain’s internet trolls. Al Jazeera journalist Gregg Carlstrom tweeted: “Bahrain has by far the hardest-working Twitter trolls of any country I’ve reported on”. J. David Goodman of the New York Times writes about how internet trolls are attempting to ‘cajole, harass and intimidate commentators and journalists’ who are critical of the Bahrain government. Bahraini journalist Lamees Dhaif says that much of this trolling panders to Gulf Arab audiences, and that women are often accused of being promiscuous while men are accused of homosexuality.

For the thick-skinned, trolling might have no effect, but not everyone can brush it off so easily. Some users I have interviewed in the course of my PhD research have admitted that trolling has stopped them tweeting anything critical of the regime. Others have “protected” their Twitter accounts, which means that what they write can only be read by users approved by the author, thereby limiting their audiences. Trolling can therefore be seen as a type of bullying, one that uses intimidation to force people to engage in self-censorship. It is especially effective in times of political upheaval, when there is the constant threat of arbitrary detention or even torture. As Global Voices‘ MENA editor Amira Al Hussaini once said: “cyberbullying = censorship! Welcome to the new era of freedom in #Bahrain”.

Trolling in Bahrain has became so severe that a report commissioned to investigate human rights abuses in the country last year actually mentioned it. In particular, it focused on the actions of @7areghum, a Twitter account that “openly harassed, threatened and defamed certain individuals, and in some cases placed them in immediate danger”. The legal experts charged with compiling the report concluded that @7areghum broke Bahraini law and international law. Despite this, the Bahrain government do not appear to have asked the US government to subpoena Twitter to release information about the account.

Even harsh new laws designed to punish those guilty of online defamation seem little more than an attempt to intimidate those thinking of engaging in dissent. The insincerity of such laws is highlighted by the fact that the government are paying enormous amounts of money to PR companies to engage in clandestine activities to improve Bahrain’s image. Indeed, it appears that the managing director of one such company, which received 636,000 USD (approximately 385,000 GBP) to do PR work for the Bahraini government, runs a blog which routinely defames activists. The government seems happy to let this slide, further fuelling the belief that some internet trolls work for PR companies paid by the regime to spread propaganda and marginalise dissent.

Although it can be notoriously difficult to track down trolls and cyber-bullies, the government’s unwillingness to condemn the likes of @7areghum suggest tacit support of such methods. The recent announcement that the government would take action against all those who tarnish Bahrain’s image on social media also corroborates the notion that cyber laws only apply to those who oppose the regime. In the meantime, expect trolling to continue, for it is a useful form of devolved social control, one that allows the government to distance itself from accusations of censorship.

Marc Owen Jones is a blogger and PhD candidate at Durham University. He tweets at @marcowenjones