CAIRO: Blogger arrested for spreading malicious rumors , “Rights groups say government is limiting Internet freedom , and Activists argue deteriorating state of civil society in Arab nations .
Headlines like the above have become common features in both national and international mass-media.
2006 has arguably witnessed enhanced intimidation of civil society activists in Egypt as well as other Arab countries.
One of the increasingly targeted groups appears to be “online activists , who use Internet blogs to express their views on religion, society, and politics. “Bloggers are being intimidated and targeted by state authorities because they provide truthful accounts of events in contrast to state-owned media and press outlets, which often distort the real story, Egyptian blogger and journalist Hossam El-Hamalawy told The Daily Star Egypt.
On December 13, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information released a disturbing report entitled Implacable Adversaries: Arab Governments and the Internet , which discusses blocking of websites and arrests of online activists in 18 Arab countries.
While Tunisia is the leading Arab country in regards to Internet restrictions, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Egypt are not lagging far behind according to the report.
Radhia, a well-known Tunisian blogger and activist, claims to be constantly harassed by the Tunisian authorities for her online advocacy.
The authorities have tried to force me into exile numerous times, but I refuse to leave. They have confiscated my computer equipment and prevented me from visiting Internet cafes, she told The Daily Star Egypt during a Cairo seminar.
I often find police cars following me on the street when I am out with my friends. It s ridiculous, she continued.
Egypt s answer to Radhia may well be Hala Helmy Botros (also known as Hala El Masry) a Coptic blogger who was forced to discontinue her online writings about the alleged persecution of the Coptic Christian minority in Egypt on her blog Aqbat Bela Hodood (Copts Without Borders).
Since the shutdown of her blog, the authorities have reportedly kept a watchful eye on Botros activities.
In a November interview with The Daily Star Egypt, Botros claimed that state security had confiscated all the computer equipment at a cyber café she had frequented in her home area.
As a result, the owners of nearby Internet cafes denied Botros access to their facilities for fear of receiving an unannounced visit from state security and having their expensive computer equipment taken.
Botros has, since then, filed a lawsuit to have her name removed from the government’s “blacklist . Her Dec. 24 hearing was postponed till Jan. 30 2007.
Concurrently, Human Rights Watch is strongly denouncing repeated detention and alleged torture of numerous bloggers in Iran.
“The Iranian judiciary is trying to prosecute government critics using vague laws whose very terms restrict free expression, said Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Middle East division at Human Rights Watch. “Iran should be prosecuting the officials accused of torture, not the bloggers accused of holding opinions.
On Dec. 3, Tehran’s Judiciary commenced the trial against bloggers Roozbeh Mirebrahimi, Shahram Rafizadeh, Omid Memarian, and Javad Gholam Tamimi, on charges including “participation in formation of groups to disturb national security, “propaganda against the state, “dissemination of disinformation to disturb public opinion by writing articles for newspapers and illegal Internet sites, and “interviews with foreign radio broadcasts. Held behind closed doors, the trial is expected to resume in late December. The report, Implacable Adversaries: Arab Governments and the Internet which was to be presented at a workshop on Dec. 23 at Cairo’s Shepherd Hotel does not appear to be popular with state security.
According to a press release issued by HRinfo on Dec. 20, the hotel allegedly cancelled the agreement to host the seminar after State Security Intelligence (SSI) officers reportedly threatened to close down its facilities and arrest its officials if they held the workshop.
The pressure to prevent our workshop on the freedom to use the Internet from taking place is both ridiculous and outrageous. Have the Egyptian government s fears reached that level? These pressures significantly resemble the police-like practices of the government, and clarify the extent to which SSI acts as a ghoul against freedoms in Egypt, particularly freedom of speech, HRinfo Executive Director Gamal Eid stressed.
Due to the incident, HRinfo has now decided to hold its workshop at the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate instead.
Bloggers such as Botros, expressing their thoughts on sectarian issues on the web, seem to have become a thorn on the side of the authorities in past months.
On Nov. 7, Kareem Amer, a student blogger, was detained for his secular online writings in which he criticizes Islam.
A former student at Al-Azhar University, Amer was reportedly expelled from the school in March 2006 because of his secular thoughts.
Following interrogations between Amer and his professors at Al-Azhar, the school filed a communiqué against Amer to the office of the public prosecutor demanding he be tried for his online writings.
Freedom of expression is a basic human right. We believe that Kareem Amer has the absolute right to express his personal views. This case is a clear violation of universal human rights principles, Amer s lawyer Rawda Ahmed, told The Daily Star Egypt.
Since the initial arrest, Amer’s detention has been renewed four times. Accused of Spreading data and malicious rumors that disrupt public security , defaming the president of Egypt , incitement to overthrow the regime upon hatred and contempt , and incitement to hate Islam , the 22-year old is currently awaiting prosecution in Al-Hadra prison in Alexandria.
On Dec. 19, Amer detention was renewed 45 days pending investigation. According to his lawyer, Amer is held incommunicado and is forbidden from receiving any family visits.
Moreover, activists and bloggers became subject to arrest and systematic abuse when showing their support for the event known as the “Judges Sit-in in April 2006.
Demanding complete independence of the judiciary and an investigation into the alleged rigging of parliamentary elections, activists had organized a sit-in at the Judges Club.
On April 24, police reportedly assaulted a judge, a court president and arrested bloggers Malek Mostafa, Mohammed Sharkawy, Kareem El Sha er, and Mohammed Adel along with 50 other activists who joined the demonstration.
El-Sharkawi was reportedly tortured and severely abused by police officers at Qasr El Nil police station before his release.
His lips were cut, his eyes were swollen, his clothes were torn, his chest was full of shoe marks, his neck was bruised, and his underwear was missing, Eid wrote in a report published by HRinfo.
Approximately two weeks later, Alaa Abd El-Fatah, one of the first political activist bloggers in Egypt and winner of the “DW Best of Blogs award by Reporters Without Borders in 2005, was arrested by state security with ten fellow activists at another protest during the judges sit-in.
Wael Abbas, Egyptian photojournalist and blogger (misrdigital.blogspirit.com), claims to have shot one of the few videos of the event.
A lot of the videos that were shot of the clash were confiscated by police from the activists, but I managed to film the whole event from inside the judges club. Then I hid my camera. I was even able to document the assault of a judge by police on tape. I hid my camera from the police and ran to the nearest Internet café and uploaded the video to my blog immediately, Abbas told The Daily Star Egypt.
Most recently, blogger Rami Siyam and a number of activists were stopped and rounded up by state security on Nov. 19, after leaving a party at Mohamed El-Sharkawy s place in Downtown Cairo.
“They were leaving my house when they were randomly stopped by police in the street. There was no ob
vious reason for their arrest, Mohamed El-Sharkawy said in an interview with The Daily Star Egypt.
All the activists were released following questioning at the notorious Qasr El-Nil police station except for Siyam who was transferred to the Belbeis prosecutor’s office in the Sharqeya governorate due to instructions from “higher orders .
After more than five days in custody, Siyam was released. The exact reason for his arrest and detainment still seems to be unknown.
Nobody should step down. This is a game we are playing with the authorities. Sometimes we win and sometimes we lose. But we will never give in and we will continue to expose the truth on our blogs, Abbas stresses.
Eid adds: “Arab government s war on the Internet is merely part of their war on freedom of expression. Here we do not stand impartial. We advocate freedom of expression and we are strong defenders of the Internet.
Despite numerous attempts by The Daily Star Egypt to contact officials, the Ministry of Interior was unavailable for comment and did not return calls at press time.