Dispatch: Criminalizing “Sympathy” – Free Expression Abuses Find New Catalyst in the GCC Crisis

Any end to the weeks-long Qatar-Gulf crisis was last month made contingent, in part, on the shuttering of Al Jazeera and its affiliate stations, as well as the closure of all news outlets that are—directly or indirectly, partially or wholly—funded by Qatar.

Justified by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Egypt as a legitimate means to stifle Qatar’s alleged “meddling” in their domestic affairs, these media-centric demands have been assailed by press freedom and human rights activists as “political censorship” and “an assault of free speech.”

The dichotomy raised by these opposing interpretations, as well as the outcomes they portend—internal security juxtaposed with deepened autocracy—is informative. The countries of the Saudi-led bloc have consistently situated these political realities as two sides of the same coin, framing the latter as an imperative means through which to maintain the former.

Amid the labyrinthine complexity of the Qatar-Gulf tensions, one development is clear: the Arab Gulf states have—in the years since the so-called Arab Spring—consolidated an already Orwellian hold on media and effectively criminalized free expression. The initial demand to shutter Al Jazeera and all Qatar-funded media is only the most recent and audacious indication that these states are intent to leverage the current diplomatic crisis to further advance ongoing censorship campaigns. In doing so, any objection to the positions adopted by those in power is maligned as a threat to national “interests, national unity and stability.”

“Objection” as a Punishable Criminal Offence

This is the line of strategy drawn around the ‘Qatar question’ by the Attorney General of the UAE, Hamad Saif al-Shamsi, who announced on 7 June that “Strict and firm action will be taken against anyone who…objects to the position of the United Arab Emirates.” In fact, those who so much as “show sympathy or any form of bias towards Qatar”—be it through “social media, or any type of written, visual or verbal form”—will face up to 15 years in prison and a minimum fine of AED 500,000 ($136,000) under the Federal Penal Code and the Federal law decree on Combating Information Technology Crimes.

Eager to conform to UAE policy, Bahrain waited less than 24 hours before its Ministry of Information Affairs issued a statement ordering national media to “comply with the Kingdom of Bahrain’s declared position” on the severance of diplomatic relations with Qatar, and “avoid the publication or circulation of anything that affects Bahrain’s highest interest.”

Shortly thereafter, the Bahraini Interior Ministry outlined the legal implications of failing to do so, stating in language nearly identical to that employed by Emirati Attorney General Shamsi that “Any expression of sympathy with the government of Qatar or opposition to the measures taken by the government of Bahrain, whether through social media, Twitter or any other form of communication, is a criminal offence punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine.”

It is clear from these parallel statements that Emirati and Bahraini authorities perceive the right to freely express opinions as not only inherently incompatible with, but inimical to their “interests.”

Relentless Judicial Harassment: Bahrain

The UAE and Bahrain’s “criminalization of sympathy” for Qatar marks the latest addition to an already expansive web of regulations designed to censor dissent in the Gulf. In the years since the peaceful pro-democracy uprisings of 2011, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states have increasingly supplemented violent repression with the ostensibly legitimate promulgation of counterterrorism and cybercrime legislation. Through an aggressive expansion of criminal law – or, in some cases, by grossly exploiting those provisions which already existed—governments across the Gulf have gradually closed nearly all space for activism and open political debate.

The case of leading Bahraini human rights defender Nabeel Rajab clearly illustrates such systematic manipulation of the law. Having posted tweets critical of the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen and condemning the use of torture in Bahrain’s Jau Prison, Rajab was charged with “deliberately announc[ing] in wartime false or malicious news, statements or rumors,” “insulting a neighboring country,” and releasing “abroad false or malicious news or statements or rumors about domestic conditions.”

In a second legal case, initiated by the Ministry of Interior’s Cyber Crime Directorate, Rajab was charged with “publishing and broadcasting false news that undermines the prestige of the state,” a reference to interviews he gave to various media outlets regarding the lack of access granted to international journalists seeking to report on issues inside Bahrain. On 10 July 2017, after a year in unlawful pre-trial detention, Rajab was convicted of these charges and sentenced to two years in prison.

Additional charges were brought against Rajab in September 2016, this time for a New York Times editorial, though these have not yet been formally prosecuted. If he is convicted of the remaining charges against him, Rajab could face more than 15 additional years in prison.

Given the integral role that social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter play in facilitating civil society mobilization in Bahrain and the wider Arab Gulf, it is unsurprising that these states have placed such a strong focus on the prosecution of alleged cybercrimes. Among those first targeted was Jassim Al-Nuaimi, a Bahraini blogger and activist arrested in July 2013 and charged with “inciting hatred against the regime” and “calling for illegal protests through social media.” Al-Nuaimi is currently serving a five-year sentence.

Nabeel Rajab and Jassim Al-Nuaimi are hardly the only human rights defenders and peaceful government critics to be targeted solely for exercising the right to free expression in Bahrain. Activists, political figures, and religious leaders such as Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, Abdul Jalil al-Singace, and Sheikh Ali Salman are among some 4,000 political prisoners currently detained in the kingdom’s overcrowded prisons—a direct consequence of its relentless judicial harassment of independent civil society and peaceful opposition.

Legislating Silence: UAE

Authorities in the UAE have embraced similarly draconian legislation. It is not insignificant that Emirati Attorney General Shamsi invoked the Federal law decree on Combating Information Technology Crimes in his prohibition of sympathy for Qatar. Otherwise known as the cybercrimes decree, this edict was issued by President Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan in November 2012 and criminalizes the use of “information technology” to “publish or disseminate any information, news, caricatures, or other images liable to endanger state security and its higher interests.” An Emirati court sentenced social media activist Khalifa al-Rabia to five years in prison under this offense in March 2014, citing Twitter posts in which he criticized authorities’ ill treatment of political detainees and their families.

The Emirati cybercrimes decree explicitly criminalizes several public speech acts, such as using information technology “with the intent of deriding or harming the reputation, stature, or status of the state, any of its institutions, its president or vice president, the rulers of the emirates, their crown princes or their deputies, the state flag, national safety, its motto, its national anthem, or its symbols.” This particular charge has enabled the imprisonment of countless government critics, including Mohammed al-Zumer, Obaid Yousef al-Zaabi, and Osama al-Najjar, each jailed between 2012 and 2014 for condemning the torture of prisoners held by Emirati authorities on the basis of their peaceful political activity.

It was this provision that also afforded the legal cover under which university lecturer and pro-reform activist Dr. Nasser bin Ghaith was first detained in April 2011. Though pardoned by the president one day after an Emirati court sentenced him to two years in prison, Dr. bin Ghaith was forcibly disappeared by authorities in August 2015. Held incommunicado for eight months, Dr. bin Ghaith reappeared in April 2016 before the Federal Supreme Court’s State Security Chamber, where he was formally charged with five offenses enumerated in the UAE’s penal code provisions, cybercrimes decree, and 2014 counterterrorism law. Each of the charges represented a violation of free expression and association rights. On 29 March 2017, Dr. bin Ghaith was sentenced to 10 years in prison after being found guilty of, among other offenses, posting information “intended to damage the UAE” and publishing material online with “sarcastic intent” or to “damage the reputation” of the state or its leaders. The verdict, handed down by the Abu Dhabi Court of Appeals, is final.

The ruling came just nine days after the arrest and enforced disappearance of prominent Emirati human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor. First detained and tried in 2011 with Dr. bin Ghaith and three other activists who comprised the “UAE 5,” Mansoor has since been subjected to unremitting government-sponsored cybersecurity attacks and surveillance. In the pre-dawn hours of 20 March 2017, Mansoor was arrested on the orders of the Public Prosecution for Cybercrimes. According to the state-run news agency, WAM, he is accused of using social media websites to “publish false information and rumors” and to “publish false and misleading information that harm national unity and social harmony and damage the country’s reputation.”

The “crimes” of which Mansoor is accused refer to his peaceful exercise of free expression rights. In the weeks leading up to his arrest, for example, Mansoor urged the UAE government to release Osama al-Najjar and Dr. bin Ghaith, highlighting the arbitrary and unlawful nature of their imprisonment. Accompanied by other human rights defenders from across the Arab world, Mansoor also signed a letter calling on leaders at the 29 March Arab Summit to release political prisoners being held in their respective countries. Perhaps the most damaging of infractions, however—for his potential prison sentence but also for the UAE government—was Mansoor’s use of Twitter to draw attention to human rights abuses being perpetrated in his country and throughout the region, and particularly those committed by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. It is for these actions that Ahmed Mansoor has been held in pre-trial detention by Emirati authorities for more than four months, and for which he, if convicted, will spend many more years in prison.

Geopolitical Aims and the Targeting of Critical Expression

It is ironic that while GCC states systematically invoke legal provisions to target free expression under the guise of advancing rule of law, stability, and national unity, they are, in fact, gravely violating international human rights laws and norms, and are in turn undermining these same objectives. With the exception of Oman, each of the GCC countries has ratified the Arab Charter on Human Rights. Though a flawed document, Article 32.1 of the Charter still provides that these states must respect, protect, and fulfill 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.”

Though Saudi Arabia and its partners recently attempted to walk back the Al Jazeera demand, the rhetoric employed in this concession is nonetheless telling. On 18 July, Saudi ambassador to the United Nations Abdallah Al-Mouallimi told UN correspondents that “the important thing is the objective” of ending incitement to violence and hate speech. “If we can achieve that without closing down Al Jazeera,” he said, “that’s…fine.” Betraying the intense international pressure that the Saudi-led bloc experienced on this demand in particular, Al-Mouallimi’s statement also seems to conflate independent journalism and incendiary provocation—a distortion often used as a pretext for censorship.

As the Saudi-led bloc prolongs its dispute with Qatar, it is becoming increasingly apparent that these tensions are being exploited to extend across the region what Bahraini political opposition leader Ebrahim Sharif once called the “trial of thoughts and ideas.” The diplomatic impasse now gripping the Gulf appears to be functioning as yet another forum in which Saudi Arabia and its partners can work to erode what little space remains for independent media and free expression, both within their respective borders and throughout the Gulf more widely.

Kylee DiGregorio is an Advocacy Intern at ADHRB.

Photo: AFP