In the Arab World, Tweet at Your Own Risk

Post-revolution Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Emirates, Bahrain … The list of Arab countries clamping down on their citizens based on Twitter statements is getting longer.

On May 21, four people were detained in the UAE on the charge of "tribal instigation and libel" through the use of Twitter. Previous cases of arrests were registered on charges such as “criticizing the security forces,” “harming national unity,” or insulting the leadership.” Such vague charges are very common across the Arab world.  

In April, a Sunni man in Kuwait was sentenced to seven years in jail and ordered to pay a $18,000 fine for a series of tweets considered offensive for Shiites. In March, a Shiite man was arrested for blasphemy.

In a case that made the headlines around the world, Saudi journalist Hamza Kashgari sparked outrage after publishing three tweets about an imagined conversation with Prophet Mohammad, in which he addresses him as an equal and says he will not bow to him. He goes on to say that he has loved certain aspects of the Prophet but hated others as well. Kashgari received thousands of death threats, despite his formal apology. He fled the country but was arrested in Malaysia on his way to New Zealand and deported back to Saudi Arabia where he faces a trial for “disrespecting God” and “insulting the Prophet,” charges that carry the death penalty.

The list of people in the Arab world who have been arrested, detained, kidnapped, sentenced, tortured, or even killed for expressing their views is long. Once considered a platform where people could express themselves freely and discuss topics that are usually banned in traditional media, social networks are increasingly being scanned by governments using new technologies that make filtering and monitoring information much easier.

This should not come as a surprise. The bleak state of Internet freedoms only reflects the state of freedom of expression in general in the Arab world. The same methods that were and are still being used to censor and control free speech are being applied to the virtual world. These include ambiguous legislation that leaves much room for interpretation; the use of force and intimidation which undeniably lead to self-censorship; lengthy trials; invoking national security which allows governments to disregard virtually any of their human rights commitments; and controlling media outlets by acquiring stakes. In this regard, Saudi Prince Alwalid bin Talal bought a $300 million dollar stake in Twitter in December 2011. The Prince was probably more interested in Twitter’s outreach capacity and the lucrative return on investment than anything else, nevertheless, acquiring stakes in media outlets is becoming a trend for wealthy officials in the region.

What is surprising, though, is that it’s not just the governments. In some cases, condemnation is so widespread that governments have to keep up with popular anger. These usually involve cases of blasphemy or religiously controversial statements.

Internet penetration in the Arab world is still low compared to other regions. But the events of 2011-2012 have demonstrated that social media is pushing the limits of free speech and can act as a catalyst of change. Twitter’s popularity in the region has prompted many Arab leaders, whether in power or in the opposition, to join the network and get in touch with their citizens. But far from giving up old habits, governments know that sharing the same platform allows them to better monitor online activity. It is therefore logically required of governments to relax the rules regulating online and offline media, and free speech in general. Surprisingly, what is still lacking is for society to be more open and eager for public freedoms.