HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH The Internet In The Mideast And North Africa: Free Expression and Censorship
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Encryption and Human Rights






Saudi Arabia



United Arab Emirates

The Internet dramatically empowers persons in the exercise of their right to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas regardless of frontiers. Online communication must therefore be fully protected by international guarantees of the right to freedom of expression.

In the Middle East and North Africa, Internet use is growing rapidly after a slow start. Today, all countries except Libya, Iraq, and Syria allow the public to access the Internet through a local service provider. But in a region where nearly all governments abridge the right to freedom of expression in significant ways, many have taken a cautious approach toward a medium that permits persons easily, inexpensively, and rapidly to exchange information in ways that elude state control.

Governments have adopted various means to restrict the flow of information online. Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and the United Arab Emirates impose censorship via proxy servers, devices that are interposed between the end-user and the Internet in order to filter and block specified content. In many countries, including Jordan, taxation and telecommunications policies keep Internet accounts quite costly and thus beyond the means of many--whether or not this is the objective of these policies. Tunisia has enacted the region's most detailed Internet-specific legislation, which is in large part designed to ensure that online speech does not escape the government's tough controls on critical speech in other media. In the majority of countries where Internet-specific laws have not been enacted, legal or de facto constraints on freedom of speech and of the press have a chilling effect on what is expressed online, especially in public forums like open bulletin boards and "chat-rooms" (online discussions where participants communicate in real time).

And in a region where many governments routinely tap the phones of dissidents, Internet users in many countries, including Bahrain and Tunisia, suspect that the right to privacy of correspondence is being violated by government surveillance of e-mail. One Bahraini spent more than a year in jail on suspicion of e-mailing "political" information to dissidents abroad.

Fortunately, some governments in the region have taken a more hands-off attitude toward the Internet--even as they enforce laws that curb other means of expression. This has created paradoxical situations in Egypt and Jordan, where newspapers or articles that the authorities censored became quickly available online without repercussions for those who read, posted, or forwarded them. Algeria, Morocco, and the Palestinian Authority have made little if any effort so far to control online content, allowing Internet users access to a wealth of political and human rights information that the local print and broadcast media cannot publish.

This report surveys in a noncomprehensive fashion the Internet policies of governments in the region as they affect the right to freedom of expression. Human Rights Watch identifies policies, laws, and practices that violate or endanger this right. By offering this critique while proposing a set of principles to guide policies and legislation, Human Rights Watch seeks to encourage governments to strengthen protections for freedom of expression at this early stage of the Internet's development.

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© June 1999
Human Rights Watch