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Tunisia: Internet Repression Casts Pall on Web Summit

Regional Survey Spotlights a Digital Divide Built on Censorship, Jailing of Critics

As the World Summit on the Information Society opens today in Tunis, Tunisia continues to jail individuals for expressing their opinions on the Internet and suppress Web sites critical of the government, Human Rights Watch said in a comprehensive new report on the repression of Internet users in the Middle East and North Africa.

The 144-page report, “False Freedom: Online Censorship in the Middle East and North Africa,” documents online censorship and cases in which Internet users have been detained for their online activities in countries across the region, including Tunisia, Iran, Syria and Egypt. These attempts to control the flow of information online contradict governments' national and international legal commitments to freedom of opinion and expression and the summit's own Declaration of Principles.

The report is based on an examination of thousands of Web sites from Middle Eastern countries and interviews with dozens of writers, bloggers, computer experts and human rights activists.

“Middle Eastern governments should prove they're committed to building an information society by ending political censorship of Web sites and releasing writers jailed for expressing their political opinions online,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

In countries where the government rigidly controls the press, the Internet has opened a window for greater freedom of expression and communication. The speed with which the Internet has spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa testifies to the region's appetite for an alternative means of receiving and transmitting information.

“Web sites in Arabic or Farsi can reach an audience of millions, free of charge, within minutes,” said Whitson. “However, faced with dissent on the Internet, many Middle Eastern governments are trying to stuff the genie back into the bottle.”

Human Rights Watch found that governments in the Middle East and North Africa have pursued contradictory Internet policies. With varying degrees of enthusiasm, they have sought to facilitate the spread of information and communications technologies with economic benefits in mind. At the same time, they have sought to maintain their old monopolies over the flow of information.

In Tunisia, the government has detained critical online writers and has blocked Web sites that publish reports of human rights abuses in the country. “When I first heard that the summit was to be held here, I viewed it as a humiliation that the dictatorship should have this chance to present a modern mask to hide its face,” Mokhtar Yahyaoui, of the Tunis Center for the Independence of the Judiciary, told Human Rights Watch.

Tunisian police in plainclothes arrested online Tunisian journalist Muhammad Abou on March 1. The night before, Abou had published an article on a banned Web site comparing President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Abou is now serving a three-year prison term in Le Kef, roughly 200 km (105 miles) southwest of Tunis.

In Iran, as a consequence of the government's shuttering of reformist papers, the Web has become Iran's main outlet for the free exchange of political information and ideas. Today there are some 7 million Internet users in Iran, and cyberspace is fueling the development of civil society. In response, the government has detained dozens of online writers, bloggers, and Web site administrators.

As a result of his public defense of human rights, Omid Memarian was arrested with more than 20 other bloggers in October 2004. He was detained in solitary confinement, tortured repeatedly and forced to make false confessions. Following international protest, including from Human Rights Watch, Memarian was released in December 2004.

In Egypt, the Internet has likewise proven a boon to the development of civil society and freedom of information, but it has occasionally provoked government backlash as well. Egyptian activists and bloggers now use the Internet, e-mail and text messages to publicize human rights abuses, organize protests, and even coordinate slogans to chant at protests. The Egyptian Blog Ring, a Web site set up to highlight and catalogue local blogs, listed some 390 Egyptian blogs as of September 2005.

At 3 a.m. on October 26, plainclothes security agents in Alexandria detained Egyptian blogger `Abd al-Karim Nabil Suleiman and confiscated printouts of his online writings. Suleiman was a student of Islamic jurisprudence at Al-Azhar University in Muharram Bek, a district of Alexandria that days earlier had been the site of deadly sectarian riots. On October 22, he had posted comments on the Internet criticizing the Muslim rioters and Islam.

In Syria, authorities censor information and correspondence with a free hand under the terms of emergency legislation promulgated more than forty years ago. The government tampers with the very fabric of the Internet, restricting the use of the basic electronic protocols that allow people to send e-mails and construct Web sites. Security forces have held online writers incommunicado and tortured them simply for reporting stories the government did not wish to see told.

Despite these restrictions, Syrians continue to find new ways to circumvent online censorship and surveillance and have rapidly taken to the Internet as a means of getting news in and out of the country. As one prominent Syrian human rights activist told Human Rights Watch, “The Internet is the only way for intellectuals to meet and share ideas in Syria today.”

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