Index Index – International free speech round up 06/02/13

On 5 February, three former opposition MPs were sentenced to three years in jail by a Kuwaiti court for insulting the Emir. Falah Al Sawwagh, Bader Al Dahoum and Khaled Al Tahous were imprisoned under charges of causing offence to Kuwait’s leader and will appeal the court’s decision.  Opposition leaders, who denounced the decision as “political”, urged protestors to gather outside Al Sawwagh’s home on the evening of the verdict. The politicians are alleged to have made comments about Emir Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah at a social event in October. They had warned that changes to Kuwait’s electoral system could lead to protests throughout the country. Opposition members boycotted Kuwait’s elections last month, claiming that the Emir unjustly favoured pro-government candidates. Mussallam Al Barrak, another former MP is facing similar charges.

Brittany Somerset - Demotix

Opposing Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah’s views can land you in jail — as three former MPs found out this week

An activist in Algeria has been jailed for participating in a protest against unemployment. Tahar Belabes, coordinator for the National Committee for the Rights of the Unemployed, was sentenced to one month in prison and fined 50,000 Algerian dinars on 3 February. Two other demonstrators — Khaled Daoui and Ali Khebchi — were each handed a two-month suspended jail sentence, as well as a 50,000 dinar fine. Two other participants were acquitted. Belabes was arrested with four others on 2 January in Ouargla during a demonstration for unemployed people protesting their right to work. Prosecutors had originally ordered a one year jail sentence for the men, which was later reduced. Belabes said he will appeal the verdict.

A female rock band in Kashmir has broken up after a Muslim cleric denounced their efforts as “un-Islamic”. Pragaash announced their early retirement on 5 February following complaints and intimidating comments on their Facebook page, which police are investigating. Teenagers Aneeqa Khalid, Noma Nazir and Farah Deeba made their first appearance at Srinagar’s national “Battle of the Bands” music festival in December and have faced threats ever since. They were the only female group at the concert. In an interview on Tuesday, one of Pragaash’s members said she couldn’t understand why they had been deemed un-Islamic when male groups were allowed to perform. Grand Mufti Bashiruddin Ahmad said on 3 February that their behaviour was indecent and could lead to the country’s destruction. Other groups in Kashmir have also disbanded in support of the girls.

Saga (Social Amenities for the Golden Age) will close its social networking site dedicated to over 50s because of racist, homophobic and anti-semitic comments. Reports today (6 February) said that spokesperson Paul Green blamed the closure on some “particularly vicious exchanges” between users over the Middle East, as well as trolling posts. Saga Zone, as the site is known, will be removed on 26 February, making the comments read-only and preventing users from contributing further posts. A statement on the Saga Zone page said the decision was taken to protect company interests, and avoid having negativity attached to the brand. Saga provides services for people over 50 in the UK.

The Sun newspaper has been banned from the University of Sheffield student’s union. The University’s Students’ Union Council decided to stop the sale of the paper at its union, it was reported on 5 February. Women’s Councillor Lucy Pedrick proposed the rule as part of the take page three out of The Sun campaign — a movement attempting to persuade editors to remove topless models from its papers. Council members voted on whether to take the motion to referendum, which fell after Pedrick said a “referendum would not be a fair debate.” London School of Economics Students’ Union banned The Sun in November last year following a vote.

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

I was a teenage troll

The internet can be a scary place. In my early days of using the web, I passed my angry pubescent days innocently trolling chat rooms powered by America Online, mostly to harass fans of shopping mall punk Avril Lavigne.

I spent my free time accosting what I assumed were fellow misguided teenagers, even though my own music library was filled with the questionable sounds of Linkin Park, Kittie, and Papa Roach. Whilst undoubtedly irritating, my joy in prank calling restaurants and angering people online was mostly a benign past time. Had I been a teenager in Arizona today, my antics could have landed me with a criminal record before I even reached high school. Arizona recently passed H.B 2549 countering cyber-bullying and stalking, which would make trolling a misdemeanour in the state. According to the bill:

“It is unlawful for any person, with intent to terrify, intimidate, threaten, harass, annoy or offend, to use a ANY ELECTRONIC OR DIGITAL DEVICE and use any obscene, lewd or profane language or suggest any lewd or lascivious act, or threaten to inflict physical harm to the person or property of any person.”

Well there go my teenage years, Arizona. The broad language used in the legislation has raised a few eyebrows, particularly because offensive behaviour is not limited to one-on-one conversations, but also “irritating” communications via public forums, including “websites, blogs, listserves, and other internet communications”. The new legislation, which now must be signed by Governor Janice K Brewer before officially going into effect, leaves the regulation of what can be considered to be irritating or offensive in the hands of the state.

Trolling can take many different forms, and it becomes difficult to determine when irritating behaviour should merely be ignored, or if it poses a threat in real life. The 2010 suicide of Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi after his roommate secretly filmed him and tweeted about his sexuality, sparked a heated debate about cyber bullying, and whether or not his roommate’s behaviour led to Clementi’s suicide. Elsewhere in the world, trolling is used as a way to harass activists and silence them. Other trolls hide behind the internet and create forums calling for the killing of public figures, and in some instances, internet harassment has been been linked to teen suicides. However, there is a pretty big divide between the kind of bullying that leads to someone’s death, and the irritating antics of a teenager in a chat room. As it is, Arizona’s new law does not really draw the line between the two.

Sara Yasin is an editorial assistant at Index

Interview with a troll

Sean Duffy has been jailed for 18 weeks for “trolling” tribute pages to suicide victims.  But was he a “true troll” or was this harassment? And is there a philosophy behind trolling? 

In this extract from an interview in Index on Censorship magazine, Whitney Phillips speaks to troll “Paulie Socash” about tribute sites, free expression and where trolls draw the line