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.”
Jordan, the UAE, Oman, Morocco, Yemen and Iran. It is the sort of list that Index might compile for any number of attacks on freedom of expression. In this instance they are all countries that have chosen to ban the printing of newspapers and other media during the current Covid-19 crisis, ostensibly to contain the spread of the virus.
This trend of governments using this pandemic to close down newsprint is one of a series of trends that we have identified in compiling Index’s mapping project . The map, created in conjunction with Justice for Journalists Foundation, tracks media violations during the coronavirus crisis.
On 17 March, the Jordanian Council of Ministers ordered newspapers to stop producing print editions for two weeks in a bid to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Minister of state for media affairs Amjad Adaileh said at a press conference that the decision was “because they help the transmission of the pandemic”. On 21 March, the UAE’s National Media Council announced a temporary ban on printing all newspapers and magazines except for regular subscribers of the publications and large outlets in shopping centres.
The council said the decision was “in line with the precautionary measures taken to contain the spread of the virus. Several people touching the same printed material has the potential to disseminate the virus.”
Yet there is mounting evidence that there is little or no risk of catching the virus from newspapers, which has led Index to suspect that Covid-19 is being used as an excuse.
The World Health Organisation is reported to have said that the risk of contracting the virus from newsprint is “infinitely small”.
Professor George Lomonossoff, a virologist at the John Innes Centre said in a TV interview: “Newspapers are pretty sterile because of the way they are printed and the process they’ve been through. Traditionally, people have eaten fish and chips out of them for that very reason. So all of the ink and the print makes them actually quite sterile. The chances of that are infinitesimal.”
Former director general of the Indian Council of Medical Research N K Ganguly told the Deccan Herald: “It is more of a perception than reality that COVID-19 virus spreads through newspapers.
The risk of catching the virus from newsprint seems remote but some say the fear of it spreading that way is causing people not to buy print newspapers.
Vincent Peyrègne, CEO of the World Association of News Publishers, (WAN-IFRA) said:
“Today, modern newspaper production is fully automated from end to end. There is hardly human intervention until the last mile distribution point. The ink and solvent used in newspaper printing act as a disinfectant to a large extent and there is no evidence to show that newspapers are carriers of the virus. The rumours that the virus can spread through newspapers is also having a disastrous effect, and newspaper as a source of transmission of the virus is very remote.”
It is perhaps telling that the countries which appear high on various rankings of press freedom have not joined in with banning newsprint.
Peyrègne said these countries “banned print newspapers with the fallacious, or misleading argument that they needed to protect the health of citizens”.
“Any banning of media or placing of restrictions on journalists or media organisations is not only an attack on the freedom to inform and to be informed, but it also carries serious consequences in terms of responsibility for contributing to one of the most serious humanitarian and economic crises we have experienced in the last one hundred years. Nevertheless, many authoritarian countries feel that the crisis is the perfect excuse to crack down on free speech, silence their critics and accelerate repressive measures,” said Peyrègne.
The ban on print editions of newspapers and magazines has contributed to a devastating effect on circulations.
Peyrègne said: “The month of April hit the circulation of the daily press hard, due to confinement, the closure of sales outlets and the shutdown of transport. Generally speaking, readership and subscription surged dramatically during the lockdown. Some segments were obviously more affected than others.”
In the UK, the auditing body ABC has told publishers they no longer have to reveal their print circulations, a move which media trade journal Press Gazette says may mean we “never get the full picture of the impact of coronavirus on newspaper sales”. It says that News UK is the only major publisher to say it will not provide the figures so far.
The crisis has also seen a dramatic acceleration in the move of local newspapers away from print. Many local newspapers rely on advertising from their communities and most of these businesses have been forced to close during the crisis, sucking revenues from the publishers.
News Corp Australia announced at the end of May that 76 of its local and regional newspapers would become digital only while 36 others would cease publication permanently.
It is good to see that some countries, including Morocco, Tunisia and Jordan have reversed their bans but such incidents represent just a small part of wider crackdowns on media freedom that we are witnessing at this time of crisis and which we are reporting on our interactive map.
Newspapers play a vital role in informing communities, particularly at times of crisis, and the combination of misguided bans and the poor financial viability of some titles will be a loss that will be keenly felt.
The undersigned organisations are writing to you to request your support for the release of the award-winning Emirati human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor, sentenced this week to ten years in prison for his human rights activism. We believe that this will be facilitated by raising awareness of his case by naming a street after him in Manchester.
Ahmed Mansoor is a pro-democracy and human rights campaigner who has publicly expressed criticism of serious human rights violations in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Mansoor was sentenced to ten years in prison by the State Security Court in Abu Dhabi on 29 May 2018 for “insulting the status and prestige of the UAE and its symbols”, including its leaders, as well as of “seeking to damage the relationship of the UAE with its neighbours by publishing false reports and information on social media.”
Mansoor is the 2015 Laureate of the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, and a member of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) Advisory Board and Human Rights Watch’s Middle East Advisory Committee. Amnesty International considers him to be a prisoner of conscience, imprisoned solely for exercising his right to freedom of expression, who should be immediately and unconditionally released. There are concerns that Mansoor has been tortured in pre-trial detention that lasted more than one year.
On 20 March 2017, about a dozen Emirati security officers arrested him at his home in
Ajman in the early hours of the morning. The UAE’s official news agency, WAM, claimed that Mansoor had been arrested on the orders of the Public Prosecution for Cybercrimes,
detained pending further investigation, and that he was accused of using social media websites to: “publish false information and rumours;” “promote [a] sectarian and hate-incited agenda;” and “publish false and misleading information that harms national unity and social harmony and damages the country’s reputation.”
Before his arrest, Mansoor was the last remaining human rights defender in the UAE who had been in a position to criticise the authorities’ human rights record publicly.
As you are aware, Manchester City Council has developed close commercial links with senior figures in the UAE government, via its stake in the Manchester Life Development Company (MLDC), a joint venture ultimately controlled by the Abu Dhabi United Group for Investment and Development (ADUG). ADUG is owned and controlled by the Abu Dhabi Executive Affairs Authority, whose chair is Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, the de facto ruler of the UAE. In addition, Manchester City FC is owned by the deputy Prime Minister of the UAE, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
While Abu Dhabi’s investments may have brought financial benefits to Manchester, this should not preclude criticism of human rights violations in UAE – violations which are starkly at odds with the values and principles that Greater Manchester celebrates as part of its heritage. In recent years, Senior members of Manchester City Council have celebrated Manchester’s long history of standing up for a range of rights-related causes, including the anti-slavery movement, votes for women, and pro-democracy demonstrations in Manchester in 1819. But they have apparently shied away from criticising human rights violations by the UAE and Abu Dhabi authorities with whom their commercial partners are linked.
We support the local residents who are part of the “Ahmed Mansoor Street” campaign, who argued it would be “a fitting honour to bestow upon an individual who embodies so many of the qualities that the city and the wider region celebrates as a key part of its history.”
As the first directly-elected Mayor of Greater Manchester you are in a unique position to show leadership on this issue. In your manifesto for the Mayoralty you referred to Greater Manchester as “the home of radical forward thinking” and expressed your desire to make it “a beacon of social justice for the country.” Your public support for a street named after Ahmed Mansoor, and calling for his immediate and unconditional release, would demonstrate your commitment to this heritage and these ideals.
Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB)
Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI)
Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE)
Asociación Mundial de Radios Comunitarias América Latina y el Caribe (AMARC ALC)
Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD)
Bytes For All
Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS)
Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI)
European Centre for Democracy and Human Rights (ECDHR)
FIDH, within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
Freedom Forum, Nepal
Free Media Movement, Sri Lanka
Front Line Defenders
Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR)
Human Rights Watch
Index on Censorship
International Press Centre, Nigeria
International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)
Martin Ennals Foundation
National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ)
Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA)
Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
South East Europe Media Organization
Syrian Centre For Media And Freedom Of Expression
Vigilance for Democracy and the Civic State, Tunisia
World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
Note to supporters and media: The street-naming campaign event will take place on 01 June 2018 at 2pm on Thomas Street in the Northern Quarter.
Join us! Email your message or Tweet using the hashtag #FreeAhmed to the following:
Vice-President and Prime Minister
His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum
Prime Minister’s Office
PO Box: 212000
Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Fax: +971 4 330 4044
27th June 2017
RE: Urgent Appeal
On the 100th day since the detention of Mr. Ahmed Mansoor, we, the undersigned, would like to express our deepest concern for his current detainment and appeal to the United Arab Emirates government for Mr. Mansoor’s immediate and unconditional release.
According to our information, Ahmed Mansoor was arrested in his home in Dubai in the early hours of 20 March 2017, as ordered by the Public Prosecution for Cybercrimes. He is being investigated on charges of “promoting false and shaded information through the Internet and serving agendas aimed at spreading hatred and sectarianism”. Mr Mansoor is an internationally respected human rights campaigner, the winner of the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders in 2015 and a member of both the advisory committee of Human Rights Watch and the Gulf Centre for Human Rights. These charges relate solely to his peaceful exercise of his right to freedom of expression and therefore we consider him a prisoner of conscience.
The official statement by the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation (MOFAIC) of 29th March 2017 states that “he has the freedom to hire a lawyer and that his family has full access to the place of confinement and is allowed to visit him”. However, we have received news that Mr. Mansoor currently has no lawyer representing him and that his family have only been allowed one visit, on 3 April 2017. We are also concerned to hear allegations that he is being held in solitary confinement. These practices are not only in violation of international human rights law but also contravene the UAE Penal Code, including Federal Law No. 43 of 1992 on Regulating Penal Institutions.
In a joint statement published on 28 March 2017 by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, various bodies condemned the arbitrary arrest and detention of Mr. Mansoor. Signatories included the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, on Enforced Disappearances, and the Special Rapporteurs on the situation of human rights defenders, Mr. Michel Forst; on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Mr. David Kaye; and on freedom of peaceful assembly and association, Mr. Maina Kiai. Furthermore, they called on the government “to respect the right of everyone to freedom of opinion and expression, including on social media and the internet.” The EU Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights followed with a statement by its chair, Pier Antonio Panzeri, who affirmed that “all charges against [Ahmed Mansoor] should be dropped, as they appear to be motivated only by his legitimate and peaceful human rights work. Equally, his and his family’s total security and integrity should be guaranteed by the authorities and all his confiscated possessions be returned.”
We therefore call on the UAE government, as a member of the UN Human Rights Council, to adhere to its obligations to uphold human rights at home, including respecting the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and to freedom of association and peaceful assembly.
We urge the UAE authorities to:
Immediately and unconditionally release Mr. Ahmed Mansoor;
Pending his release, ensure that he is granted access to a lawyer and family visits and that he is protected from torture and other ill-treatment;
End all other forms of arbitrary punishment towards Ahmed Mansoor such as the travel ban against him, which violates his right to liberty of movement;
Sign and ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR);
Comply with the international human rights instruments and protect the right to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly.
The continuing detention of such a high-profile and internationally respected human rights campaigner is extremely damaging to the UAE government’s reputation abroad. Therefore, we urge you to address this issue without delay.
Arab Organization for Human Rights (AOHR)
Detained in Dubai
Index on Censorship
International Campaign for Freedom in the UAE (ICFUAE)
International Center for Justice and Human Rights (ICJHR)
Martin Ennals Awards Foundation
Tom Brake, MP for Carshalton and Wallington
Andrew Byles, Garden Court North Chambers
Rt Hon Alistair Carmichael, MP for Orkney and Shetland
Noam Chomsky, Professor
Ron Deibert, Director of the Citizen Lab, Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto
Jonathan Emmett, Author
Andy Fitzpatrick, Barrister, Garden Court North Chambers, Manchester
Councillor David Haigh, Solicitor, UAE torture survivor, Former MD of Leeds United Football Club
Chris Haughton, Author and illustrator
Miles Kenyon, Communications Officer, Citizen Lab, Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto
Caroline Lucas, MP for Brighton Pavilion
Michael Mansfield, QC
Bill Marczak, Senior Researcher, Citizen Lab, Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto
Fadi Al Qadi, Human Rights, Civil Society, Advocacy and Media Expert
Chris Riddell, Author, Illustrator and Political Cartoonist at the Observer
Andy Slaughter, MP for Hammersmith
Dr. David Wearing, School of Oriental and African Studies
Pete Weatherby, QC Garden Court North Chambers, Manchester