Egypt’s TikTok crackdown, Iran’s Orwellian tactics, and Nabeel Rajab goes free

Egypt: Abductions, TikTok crackdown, and cybercrimes

An ongoing crackdown on freedom of expression continues in Egypt, with recent weeks seeing state reprisals and arrests of activists, journalists and social media users. 

Last month, Egyptian-American activist Mohamed Soltan filed a lawsuit against former Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi in a US District Court in the District of Columbia. Soltan, who was arrested in August 2013 following a brutal crackdown on protesters in Rabaa Square, was detained for 643 days and subjected to extensive torture and mistreatment. 

The complaint alleges Soltan was targeted for assassination by security forces during a raid of the protester camp at the behest of the former prime minister for his role in assisting international media reporting.

Several days after the filing, security forces conducted midnight raids on the homes of Soltan’s Egypt-based relatives, holding family members, including children, at gunpoint. Authorities forcibly disappeared five of Soltan’s cousins who were later questioned by state prosecutors over charges of “spreading false news”. Rights groups decried the apparent reprisals as attempts to pressure Soltan to drop the lawsuit and as yet another demonstration of authorities leveraging the relatives of exiled activists to silence them. 

“These reprisals appear aimed at obstructing justice and silencing Egyptian activists, even if they are no longer in Egypt,” said Neil Hicks, senior director for advocacy at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. 

Sanaa Seif abducted outside the Public Prosecutor’s office

Meanwhile, members of imprisoned activist Alaa Abdel Fattah’s family staged a sit-in outside Tora prison in an effort to demand information on his health condition. A group of women physically assaulted and beat Dr. Laila Soueif, the mother of the detained activist, and her daughters Mona and Sanaa. 

Upon attempting to submit a complaint at the public prosecutor’s office the next day, Sanaa was abducted by plainclothes security officials who forced her into an unmarked car. She is currently being held in pre-trial detention for “broadcast[ing] fake news and rumors about the country’s deteriorating health conditions and the spread of the coronavirus in prisons”. 

TikTok crackdown, news sites blocking, and cybercrimes

In the online realm, a concerted security campaign continues to target women on TikTok in recent weeks. This includes the arrest of TikToker, Aya, who posted a video on the social media platform alleging she was raped, filmed and blackmailed with the footage. Instead of investigating her claim, the Public Prosecution detained Aya for several days, accusing her with “incitement to immorality and debauchery.”

Meanwhile, the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) launched a campaign calling for an end to the blocking of news websites. In a study assessing the impact of website blocking over the past three years, AFTE documented the blocking of over 127 media sites from a total of at least 549 blocked websites. According to the report, the blocking of news sites has led to a significant increase in self-censorship among journalists and media organizations who either fear being blocked or the possibility of further state actions.

One of the many blocked websites is Al-Manassa, whose offices were raided by security forces last month. The media platform’s editor-in-chief, Nora Yonis, was detained and eventually released on bail, but now faces a myriad of charges, including operating an unlicensed website.

Rest in Power: LGBTQI+ activist Sarah Hegazy

The news of queer activist Sarah Hegazy’s death sent shockwaves throughout the LGBTQI+ community last month. Hegazy took her own life in Canada where she lived in exile after a three-month long detainment in Egypt for waving a rainbow flag during a Mashrou Leila concert in the country. Around 75 others were also detained following the concert in one of the most significant crackdowns on the country’s LGBTQI+ community. 

During her detainment, Hegazy was tortured, sexually assaulted and verbally abused. “Even after my release, fear of everyone, family, friends, and the street continued to haunt me,” wrote Hegazy one year after her release. Battling extensive PTSD, depression, and multiple suicide attempts while in Canada, Hegazy left behind a handwritten note saying: “To the world, you’ve been greatly cruel, but I forgive.”

While the aftermath of her death prompted a flurry of online responses ranging from support to homophobic hate speech, tributes for the fallen activist poured in from around the world. This included a heart-wrenching reading of her last Instagram post by Mashrou Leila singer Hamid Sinno. “The sky is sweeter than the earth! And I want the sky, not the earth,” wrote Hegazy. 

Iran: death sentences, online repentance, and targeting women

In the months following the November 2019 anti-government protests that resulted in hundreds of deaths, thousands of arrests and a total Internet shutdown, authorities have escalated their suppression of dissenting voices. Despite another wave of COVID-19 engulfing the nation, state reprisals have seen journalists, environmentalists, artists and social media users targeted for their online free expression. 

Pursuing what observers have described as an ‘Orwellian approach’ in eliminating alternative narratives, last month saw at least five journalists arrested for their reporting on the pandemic. Iran’s notorious Revolutionary Guards have also pressured journalists and artists to publish apologies for their past reporting in an effort Reporters Without Borders (RSF) described as enforced online expressions of “repentance”. 

Meanwhile, in a shocking move, journalist and activist Ruhollah Zam was sentenced to death for his online reporting that helped fuel anti-government protests in 2017 and 2018. Zam, who ran the popular news channel AmadNews on the messaging app Telegram that published embarrassing videos of Iranian officials and covered the anti-government demonstrations, was living in exile before being lured to Iraq last October where he was kidnapped by Revolutionary Guards and forcibly returned to Iran to stand trial

Women have also been particularly targeted in the ongoing clampdown. While thousands of political prisoners have reportedly been released since the pandemic began, many imprisoned women human rights defenders have seen new charges levied against them, rendering them ineligible for furlough. This includes human rights defender Narges Mohammadi, who has been serving a combined 16-year sentence since 2015 for her anti-death penalty advocacy. She now faces a string of new charges that could result in up to five more years in prison and 74 lashes. 

The machinery of state repression has also expanded its role online recently with hundreds of social media users arrested for their online content. Women have been charged with flaunting modesty laws by not wearing their head scarves. “It is ridiculous that at the time of spreading coronavirus in the country, their priority is our hijab on Instagram,” said social media influencer Reihane Taravati in a recent interview.

Bahrain: Nabeel Rajab free at last

In more welcome news, prominent human rights defender Nabeel Rajab was freed last month after serving four years in prison for his online activity. Rajab, a co-founder of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) and president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), was released thanks to new legislation introduced in 2018 that allows Bahraini courts to convert prison sentences into non-custodial sentences. 

With Rajab now serving the remainder of his sentence at home, IFEX members GCHR and BCHR have called attention to other political prisoners, demanding their urgent release amidst the spread of COVID-19 in Bahrain’s unsanitary jails. These include GCHR’s other founder, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, who is currently serving a life-sentence, human rights defenders Dr. Abduljalil Al-Singace and Naji Fateel, as well as Zakia Al-Barbouri, the only woman political detainee in Bahrain’s prisons.

“Bahrain’s prisons remain crowded with peaceful human rights defenders and opposition leaders, whose lives are threatened by the government’s inadequate response to COVID-19,” said Husain Abdulla, Executive Director at Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB), who called for Rajab’s release to be extended to all activists and opposition leaders unjustly incarcerated.

In Brief

In Lebanon:

Amid an unprecedented economic crisis worsened by the global pandemic, reignited anti-government protests have been met with a surge in freedom of expression violations in recent weeks. Broad anti-defamation laws have already been used to silence critics in recent years with at least 100 activists being detained under such laws since protests first broke out last October. 

However, recent moves to criminalize dissent and criticism of government officials resulted in dozens of arrests last month under the guise of quashing vandalism and acts of violence. Activist Michel Chamoun was arrested for criticizing the president, while political activist Kinda el-Khatib was arrested on charges of “dealing with the spies of the Israeli enemy and those dealing with its interests.” Meanwhile, journalists were attacked while covering the Rafiq Hariri airport reopening. 

“The past four months were featured by prohibition of insults and criticism of state institutions including [the] presidency, judiciary, security forces practices, and religious figures,” said Maharat Foundation executive director, Roula Mikhael in a report assessing freedom of expression in Lebanon over the past four months. The report noted a significant rise in violent attacks against journalists and activists, with perpetrators retaining immunity, as well as attempted to amend media laws and introduce new electronic media laws without proper, transparent review.

In Morocco: 

Journalist Omar Radi continues to be summoned and interrogated for “receiving funds linked to foreign intelligence services.” A recent Amnesty International investigation also revealed that authorities had hacked Radi’s phone and monitored his activities using the Pegasus spyware app developed by the Israeli technology company NSO Group. Three days after the report’s publication, Radi was questioned yet again by security officials. “Instead of shedding light on the illegal surveillance of Omar Radi, the Moroccan authorities have preferred to target this journalist and initiate proceedings against him on the sole basis of unverified information circulating on social networks,” said Souhaieb Khayati, the head of RSF’s North Africa desk.

In Palestine:

In a rare win for the global BDS movement, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that convictions of campaigners in France who advocated for a boycott of Israeli products violated their right to freedom of expression. The 11 campaigners were charged with ‘incitement to discrimination’ for handing out BDS leaflets during a protest in 2009. Rights groups called the landmark ruling a significant precedent in stopping the utilization of anti-discrimination laws in France to target activists campaigning against human rights violations against Palestinians.

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Source: MEDIA FEED

HRNJ-UG Admin

Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ-Uganda) is a network of human rights journalists in Uganda working towards enhancing the promotion, protection and respect of human rights through defending and building the capacities of journalists, to effectively exercise their constitutional rights and fundamental freedoms for collective campaigning through the media.

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