(Beirut) – Gulf governments have attempted to silence peaceful critics in response to a wave of online activism in recent years, Human Rights Watch said in an interactive website that began operating today. The governments have responded to online criticism with surveillance, arrests, and other arbitrary punishments.

In a nod to Twitter’s 140-character limit, this interactive website presents the profiles of 140 prominent Bahraini, Kuwaiti, Omani, Qatari, Saudi, and Emirati social and political rights activists and dissidents and describes their struggles to resist government efforts to silence them. All 140 have faced government retaliation for exercising their right to freedom of expression, and many have been arrested, tried, and sentenced to fines or prison. Profiled activists include Nabeel Rajab and Zainab al-Khawaja from Bahrain, Waleed Abu al-Khair and Mohammed Fahad al-Qahtani from Saudi Arabia, and Ahmed Mansoor and Mohammed al-Roken from the United Arab Emirates.

#140GulfCharacters: Tweet @ Arab Gulf Officials

 

“The Gulf states have engaged in a systematic and well-funded assault on free speech to subvert the potentially transformative impact of social media and internet technology,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director. “Instead of hauling off their peaceful online critics to jail, Gulf governments should expand debate among members of society and carry out the much-needed reforms that many of these activists have demanded for years.”

In recent years, the popularity and use of social networking sites and group messaging apps such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and YouTube have expanded rapidly in the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). According to the Arab Social Media Report of the Mohammed bin Rashid School of Government, GCC countries opened accounts for 17.2 million Facebook users and 3.5 million Twitter users through the first quarter of 2014. By late 2015, Saudi Arabia alone maintained 2.4 million active Twitter users, more than 40 percent of all Twitter users in the Middle East. Increased human rights advocacy and opposition political activity and government efforts to counter them have been closely tied to this expansion.

Launch Interactive Special Feature: "140 Characters"

 

Hundreds of dissidents, including political activists, human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, and bloggers, have been imprisoned across the region, many after unfair trials and allegations of torture in pretrial detention. GCC rulers’ sweeping campaigns against activists and political dissidents have included threats, intimidation, investigations, prosecution, detention, torture, and withdrawal of citizenship.

Most of the activists profiled used social media and online forums to initiate campaigns, build networks, and increase awareness of their ideas, and all either explicitly or implicitly criticized their governments. Tens of thousands of Saudi citizens, for example, have participated in online campaigns, such as a call to free Samar Badawi, a woman jailed for “parental disobedience” in 2010, and online advocacy campaigns encouraging Saudi women to drive in defiance of a government ban.

Gulf states are intimidating, surveilling, imprisoning, and silencing activists as part of their all-out assault on peaceful criticism, but they are seriously mistaken if they think they can indefinitely block gulf citizens from using social and other media to push for positive reforms.

Social media networks were a major factor in planning and organizing street protests in some GCC countries during the Arab uprisings of 2011. In Bahrain, social media networks were used to organize nearly four weeks of massive pro-democracy demonstrations, which ended in March 2011, when state security forces with the assistance of troops from Saudi Arabia and the UAE used disproportionate and in some cases lethal force to crack down on the protest movement. In February 2011, thousands of Omanis took to the streets in cities throughout the country in protests seeking reform that continued into 2012.

In addition to direct repression, GCC governments have acquired and deployed surveillance technology to track and monitor citizens’ online activity. Leaked corporate documents and reports from independent security researchers reveal that Western and Israeli companies have sold intrusion software to GCC governments that can be used to violate citizens’ privacy rights. Research conducted by the Toronto-based research group Citizen Lab has found evidence that the governments of Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the UAE used intrusion software, while Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE may have purchased other such software.

This software can enable a government to access emails, text messages, call histories, contact lists, files, and potentially passwords, and can allow authorities to turn on a phone or laptop’s camera and microphone to take pictures or record video and conversations without the owner’s knowledge.

In May 2016, Citizen Lab reported that it had discovered a campaign of spyware attacks by a sophisticated operator against Emirati journalists, activists, and dissidents. Though the attacker was unknown, circumstantial evidence suggested a link with the UAE government. In August, Citizen Lab reported that Mansoor, the Emirati activist featured in the report, had received suspicious text messages on his iPhone promising information about detainees tortured in UAE jails if he clicked on an included link. Citizen Lab later said they discovered that clicking on the link would have installed sophisticated spyware on his iPhone that allows an outside operator to control his iPhone’s telephone and camera, monitor his chat applications, and track his movements.

Since the beginning of the Arab uprisings in 2011, all GCC states have also expanded existing legislation and promulgated abusive new laws with a view to further curtailing free expression and punishing speech they deem “criminal,” particularly online and via social media networks.

In addition to new penal code provisions, GCC governments have enacted repressive new laws and practices on counterterrorism, cybercrimes, peaceful assembly, and citizenship that aim to limit and deter peaceful expression and punish political dissidents and activists who criticize not only their own leaders but those of other GCC states and their policies. The various laws promulgated since 2011 have had a chilling effect on freedom of expression, in some cases branding government critics “terrorists,” or granting authorities the right to strip peaceful protesters and dissidents of their nationality.

GCC countries’ repression of political dissidents and activists based solely on their peaceful exercise of freedom of expression violates international human rights obligations. Article 32 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights, which all GCC countries other than Oman have ratified, guarantees “the right to information and to freedom of opinion and expression, as well as the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any medium, regardless of geographical boundaries.”

“Gulf states are intimidating, surveilling, imprisoning, and silencing activists as part of their all-out assault on peaceful criticism, but they are seriously mistaken if they think they can indefinitely block gulf citizens from using social and other media to push for positive reforms,” Whitson said.