HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH The Internet In The Mideast And North Africa: Free Expression and Censorship
Arabic Version
Previous Page   Next Page






Encryption and Human Rights






Saudi Arabia



United Arab Emirates

This report surveys the evolving policies of governments in the Middle East and North Africa affecting the right of persons to receive and impart information through the Internet. (10) It aims to reinforce and expand online freedoms not only by identifying violations of free expression rights that have taken place, but also by proposing--at a time when Internet laws and policies are being developed--steps governments should take to protect and enhance the rights of all persons to exchange information and ideas freely through this medium.(11)

In a region where torture is commonplace and free elections the exception, the issue of Internet speech may seem low on the human rights agenda. It may also appear to be an elitist concern in countries where illiteracy is rampant and the cost of a personal computer and perhaps even a telephone is beyond the reach of most households.

But it is arguably in less-developed and in more repressive countries that the Internet can have the greatest impact. Wherever it is accessible, the Internet has provided dramatic new possibilities for people to obtain and exchange information locally and internationally. It has been hailed by many as a force for eroding authoritarian political control and aiding participatory democracy.

As the first truly "mass" medium, one that is inherently open and decentralized, the Internet can enable anyone to receive and to disseminate alternatives to state-controlled information at a low cost. While few individuals and groups have the means to publish books or newspapers, make a film, or air a radio or television program, any person with access to a personal computer and modem can communicate with a huge international audience. A connection to the Internet can increase access to information in less-developed countries by putting within easy reach one of the world's great repositories of information, much of it free and continuously updated, and by making that information more easily manageable and transferable.

Such benefits do not depend on a large number of persons having the means to purchase their own equipment and Internet accounts. A government policy of making computers available to the public at libraries, schools or community centers, or the presence of privately run "Internet cafés" or "cybercafés" (shops offering the public fee-for-use Internet access), can help to democratize use of the Internet even in relatively poor countries.

In light of the Internet's vast potential for empowering people to exercise the right to free expression, some have argued that governments have an affirmative obligation to facilitate Internet access for all segments of the population on terms of nondiscrimination. Some have also contended that the Internet can significantly assist governments in enabling citizens to exercise the right, under article 25(a) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, "to take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives." The exercise of this right is enhanced by providing citizens access to all draft and effective laws, transcripts of parliamentary debates, and other information relevant to civic affairs. As the Global Internet Liberty Campaign (GILC) notes, "In almost every country in the world, most government information is now created by word processing, meaning that the information is already digitized...[and] can be rapidly and inexpensively put on-line, even using simple Gopher technology."(12)

The Internet's potential contribution to democratic and participatory politics is gaining recognition. In his 1998 report to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression outlined the case against government regulation of Internet access and content as follows:

[T]he new technologies and, in particular, the Internet, are inherently democratic, provide the public and individuals with access to information and sources and enable all to participate actively in the communication process. The Special Rapporteur also believes that action by States to impose excessive regulations on the use of these technologies and, again, particularly the Internet, on the grounds that control, regulation and denial of access are necessary to preserve the moral fabric and cultural identity of societies is paternalistic. These regulations presume to protect people from themselves and, as such are inherently incompatible with the principles of the worth and dignity of each individual.(13)

Internet connectivity is of special significance to civil society. Computer networks fill a "media gap" between interpersonal communication facilitated by telephone, telegram, and letters, and mass communication facilitated by radio, television, and print media.(14) Computer networks can greatly facilitate small-group participation--within groups, between groups, and between groups and their constituencies--and thus help to strengthen the forces of civil society. Many human rights organizations have embraced the Internet as a means of exchanging information quickly and cheaply.(15) Groups in the Middle East and North Africa have proved no exception to this trend.(16)

In preparing this report, Human Rights Watch sent a uniform letter to the governments of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, and Yemen. In most instances, the letter was sent to more than one official address, and followed up with phone calls or faxes. The letter contained a series of questions about Internet policies. It is reprinted in Appendix B. Written responses were received from the governments of Jordan, Tunisia, Yemen, and Iraq. The governments of Morocco, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates furnished limited information about the Internet in their countries. Algeria, Bahrain, Libya, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Oman provided no answer whatsoever; the Palestinian Authority acknowledged receipt of Human Rights Watch's letter but did not respond to its content. The official responses to the Human Rights Watch letter have been excerpted below in the Country Profiles section and reprinted in Appendix C. 

The Country Profiles section of this report describes government policies affecting online freedom of expression in eight countries. As the first study of this subject by Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division, this report is by no means a comprehensive survey of online expression issues in any one country or in the region as a whole. We hope to expand our information base and to keep it up-to-date, and welcome queries and comments sent to:

Human Rights Watch
Middle East and North Africa Division
1630 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Fifth Floor
Washington, DC 20009 USA
fax (202)612-4333

10. The Internet is a worldwide network of computer networks that permits any two computers in the system to exchange data via such means as electronic mail ("e-mail"), the World Wide Web, newsgroups (electronic "bulletin boards"), file transfers, and real-time "chat rooms." When used in this fashion, "Internet" is capitalized; "Internet" in lower-case refers to a local network of computers that communicate with one another using a common communications protocol.

11. This report builds on the findings of Human Rights Watch, "Silencing the Net: The Threat to Freedom of Expression On-line," A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 8, no. 2, May 1996; and Human Rights Watch, "Electrifying Speech: New Communications Technologies and Traditional Civil Liberties," A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 4, no. 5, July 1992.

12. Regardless of Frontiers, pp. 7-8.

13. United Nations Economic and Social Council, "Report of the Special Rapporteur, Mr. Abid Hussain, submitted pursuant to Commission on Human Rights resolution 1997/26" (New York: United Nations, 1998), E/CN.4/1998/40.

14. See Andrea Kavanaugh, The Social Control of Technology in North Africa: Information in the Global Economy (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 1998), p. 5.

15. A useful resource is Stephen A. Hansen, Getting Online for Human Rights: Frequently Asked Questions and Answers about Using the Internet in Human Rights Work (Washington, D.C.: American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1998). The full text of the printed version can be found at <>.

16. See Nancy Gallagher, "Middle East and North Africa Human Rights Activism in Cyberspace, Middle East Studies Association Bulletin, vol. 31, no. 1, July 1997, <>.

Top Of Page

Previous Page   Next Page

© June 1999
Human Rights Watch