“I have left my home, my family, and my job, and I am raising my voice. To do otherwise would betray those who languish in prison. I can speak when so many cannot.”
– Jamal Khashoggi
Since the Arab Spring, the internet in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has morphed into a heavily policed and repressed space. Alerted by its instrumental role in political organizing and exercising fundamental rights during the protests of 2011, Arab governments have taken a heavy-handed approach to internet regulation and governance. As they attempt to exert their territorial sovereignty and domestic control over a global digital sphere, new technologies have enabled them to extend their repression beyond their national borders in more convenient and cheaper ways.
State crackdown on exiled and diaspora activists is generally defined as transnational repression. It is not a new phenomenon, but it has become more entrenched and widespread globally over the last decade.Authoritarian regimes utilize their embassies and consulates as “satellite stations” from which they can intimidate and attack exiled activists, conduct surveillance of diaspora communities, limit and control their mobility by withholding consular services including renewing or issuing passports and official documents. Other repressive tactics include assassinations, rendition, forced disappearance, unlawful deportation, as well as the harassment, harm, and detention of relatives back in home country as a proxy punishment of exiled activists.
In the digital age, transnational repression has grown in scale and form. New technologies, such as surveillance technology and spyware, have ushered in unprecedented capabilities for repressive regimes to deter dissent abroad in more convenient and insidious ways. Governments are no longer restricted by diplomatic relations, intelligence sharing agreements, and networks of regime loyalists and informants to spy on the private communications, activities, and movement of their exiled targets. Nor, as Ahmed Shaheed and Benjamin Greenacre show in this collection, are they constrained by any binding global norms or international law governing the use of digital technologies.
The rise of diaspora activism after the Arab uprisings led the transnational repression of Arab regimes, both online and offline, to become more egregious and violent. Most notably in the cases of Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, human rights activists and political dissidents have fled their home countries in fear of imminent or potential reprisal. Many seek to survive the annihilation of civil society, and to be able to politically organize in situations where political activity is strictly prohibited in the home country. In September 2020, for instance, exiled Saudi activists launched the country’s first opposition party, the National Assembly Party (NAAS), to push for democratic change in the Kingdom and to fight against the regime’s relentless violence and repression. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at least 815 Saudi nationals applied for asylum in 2017, compared with 195 in 2012. The number is expected to reach 50,000 by 2030, according to the Saudi government’s own estimates.
This paper examines the recent escalation in transnational digital repression in the MENA region, and outlines three common tactics to crack down on dissent abroad: 1) the use of ambiguous and over-broad legislation for cross-border censorship; 2) the use of digital surveillance tools and private cyber mercenaries; and 3) the weaponization of social media platforms to censor, delegitimize, and intimidate activists, journalists, and regime critics.
1. Cross-border censorship and prosecution
Jordan and the UAE
More than half of Arab countries have enacted repressive cybercrime laws that undermine freedom of expression and authorize mass surveillance of internet users, while the others rely on existing legislation including counterterrorism laws to combat cybercrime, safeguard national security, and preserve public order and societal values. Under such elastic and ambiguous terms, internet users in the region are routinely arrested, prosecuted, and imprisoned for innocuous Facebook posts and tweets. In the context of transnational repression, some of these laws have been applied to quell criticisms of foreign countries and censor information that are at odds with geopolitical alliances and state narratives in the region.
In Jordan, internet users can be prosecuted under the Anti-Terrorism Law No. 55 of 2006, amended in 2014, for “disturbing relations with a foreign state.” This provision has been used to penalize Jordanian citizens who are critical of Gulf states and their monarchies on social media. In 2015, a senior Muslim Brotherhood official, Zaki Bani Rsheid, was tried before the State Security Court over a Facebook post in which he criticized the UAE and accused it of sponsoring terrorism, and consequently was sentenced to 18 months in prison.Similarly, freelance journalist Jamal Ayoub was imprisoned in 2015 for writing an article criticizing Saudi Arabia’s military operation in Yemen. Most recently, on August 26, 2020, the Jordanian authorities arrested a well-known Jordanian cartoonist, Emad Hajjaj, for publishing a satirical cartoon mocking the normalization agreement between Israel and the UAE.
As a result, Jordanian citizens are wary of airing their opinion about Gulf states. According to an anonymous editor at state-run media outlet, the government actively discourages negative reporting or criticism of Gulf rulers. This demonstrates the ability of the Gulf monarchies to co-opt neighboring countries and shape their domestic online media spaces through financial assistance and humanitarian aid. The UAE is one of Jordan’s biggest financial supporters. Together with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, the three countries pledged an aid package of $2.5 billion to Jordan with over $1 billion deposited directly in Jordan’s central bank.
By the same token, the UAE has leveraged its cybercrime law, Decree Law No. 5 of 2012, to prosecute and imprison Jordanian nationals for criticizing their home government. In October 2020, a Jordanian resident of the UAE, Ahmed Etoum, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for criticizing the Jordanian government and the royal family in a Facebook post. Etoum was convicted of “deliberately [carrying out] an act against a foreign country that could damage political relations between the UAE and Jordan, by publishing on Facebook news and information that contain insults and ridicule toward Jordan, its king, and its government.” According to Human Rights Watch, one of the pieces of evidence used to incriminate and convict Etoum by the State Security Circuit at the Abu Dhabi Court of Appeals was “joining Facebook groups consisting of opponents of the Jordanian government abroad and posting comments ridiculing certain government decisions, reposting on his page government-issued news alongside comments claiming government corruption, and re-sharing online appeals by Jordanian citizens requesting social aid from the government.”
Etoum is not the only Jordanian national who has been imprisoned in the UAE. In 2015, journalist Tayseer Najjar was arrested and held in secret detention for two years, and in 2017, sentenced to three years in prison and a fine of a fine of 500,000 Dirhams ($136,000 USD) under the cybercrime law for posting content critical of the UAE’s regional policies before he moved to the country. Two Jordanian brothers were also detained in 2015, severely tortured, and sentenced to 10 years in prison and a fine of one million Emirati Dirhams for charges related to terrorism.
2. Surveillance tech and cyber mercenaries
Saudi Arabia and the UAE
The murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and the surveillance operation conducted prior to it, demonstrates the extent to which repressive regimes are willing to go to silence their dissidents abroad. An investigation by Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto revealed that Saudi Arabia had used Pegasus, a malicious mobile phone spyware produced by the Israeli company the NSO Group, to spy on Khashoggi’s colleagues and associates including the phone of Saudi activist Omar Abdulaziz. Abdulaziz, an ardent critic of the Saudi regime who is based in Montreal, was planning with Khashoggi a social media project called the ‘Bee Army’ to help combat pro-regime troll armies on social media. Other surveillance targets included a staffer at Amnesty International, Saudi political satirist Ghanem Almasarir, and a New York Times journalist, Ben Hubbard, who is known for his reporting on Saudi Arabia and the Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS). Abdulaziz remains under threat. The Saudi authorities arrested two of his brothers and a number of his friends to pressure him into silence. In June 2020, the Canadian police warned him of being a “potential target” of the Saudi regime with “credible information about a possible plan to harm him.”
The Saudi surveillance operation also included the recruitment of two Twitter employees in the company’s headquarters in order to access private information of Saudi dissidents including their email addresses, phone numbers, and IP addresses. This operation led to the arrest of Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, a 37 year old aid worker, who was forcefully disappeared in 2018. In 2021, Al-Sadhan appeared before the Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh and was sentenced to twenty years in prison, followed by a twenty-year travel ban, for his anonymous criticism of the Saudi authorities on Twitter.
Despite the international outcry following Khashoggi’s murder, and the call for an immediate moratorium on the sales, transfer, and use of surveillance technologies by UN human rights experts, none of the perpetrators were held to account, and the global surveillance industry continues to flourish at an estimated value of $12 billion. The Gulf monarchies also continue to expand their surveillance capabilities. In June 2021, Israeli newspaper Haaretz revealed that MBS had acquired in 2019 a new zero-click hacking spyware, from another secretive Israeli company called Quadream. These types of spyware are extremely malicious as they can automatically infect a target’s device without any interaction from the target, such as opening an email or clicking on a link.
What is notably alarming is the aspiration of both Saudi Arabia and the UAE to become powerful regional tech hubs, which would allow them to harness further influence and domination in the region. The UAE has branched into developing its own home-grown surveillance technology by recruiting private digital mercenaries. In 2017, the Emirati cyber company, DarkMatter, was reported to have offered lucrative contracts to Israeli ex-intelligence officers working for the NSO Group with annual salaries as high as $1 million.Prior to that, DarkMatter hired over a dozen former ex-NSA hackers for its clandestine surveillance operation ‘Project Raven’ to spy on foreign governments, militant groups, and human rights activists critical of the monarchy.
The new UAE-Israel normalization deal, signed on September 15, 2020, is expected to further advance the UAE’s capabilities on cybersecurity and surveillance fronts, evident by the meeting of the countries’ cyber security chiefs in Tel Aviv directly after signing the agreement. In 2020, the UAE hosted the Israeli cyber conference, Cybertech Global, in Dubai. They also launched a new cyber initiative named the “UAE-IL tech zone,” which aims at bridging “technological, entrepreneurial, business, venture capital, and government collaborations between the UAE and Israel,” and hopes to foster “in-depth personal and professional relationships and to continue building a stronger region through tech.”
3. Weaponization of social media platforms
Israel and Palestine
One well-documented tactic of transnational digital repression is the use of state-sanctioned troll armies to manipulate and steer conversations, turning social media into a battleground of narratives. Whereas citizens and activists are using social media to criticize their governments, disseminate information, and document human rights abuses, governments are weaponizing those spaces to legitimize their own policies and to intimidate activists into silence through smear campaigns and online harassment.
In some jurisdictions, governments have set up Internet Referral Units (IRUs) whose mission is to monitor and detect ‘harmful’ or illegal content on social media. One prominent example of such units is the Israeli Cyber Unit established in 2015. Housed within the General Attorney’s office, the Cyber Unit works closely with the Israeli police, defense and security agencies, as well as the Prime Minister’s National Cyber Bureau to coordinate and tackle “crime and terrorism in cyberspace.” To do so, the Cyber Unit has set up an “alternative enforcement” mechanism to submit requests to social media companies for removal of individual content that violates the platform’s terms of services. The Cyber Unit’s requests do not follow a legal due process to determine the illegality of such content and safeguard the users’ right to freedom of expression, who are not even aware that the Cyber Unit is requesting to censor their content.
As such, none of these ‘voluntary’ government requests are covered by tech companies’ transparency reporting. However, according to figures reported by the Israeli government, 95 percent of the Cyber Unit’s requests are related to national security. 87 percent of the requests were made to Facebook, and 90 percent of them were actioned. During the first 10 days of May, amidst the rising violence in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the Israeli government had asked social media companies to delete more than 1,010 pieces of content. More than half of the requests were made to Facebook, and according to the Israeli government, Facebook took down 48 percent of them.
In addition to the Cyber Unit, the government of Israel has sponsored and promoted a number of ‘grassroots’ initiatives to mass report content on social media. The Prime Minister’s office recruited university students to engage in Hasbara activity on social media in exchange for full scholarships and financial payments.Former Israeli intelligence officers also developed an application called Act-IL to carry out and coordinate campaigns where volunteers are directed to mass report certain content or boost others by liking and sharing them. According to internal Facebook leaks, Israel was the top country in the world to report content under the company’s rules for terrorism, with nearly 155,000 complaints in the week proceeding Israel’s bombardment of Gaza on 11 May. It also came third in flagging content under Facebook’s policies for incitement to violence and hate speech, “outstripping more populous countries like the US, India, and Brazil, with about 550,000 total user reports in that same time period.”
The role of social media companies in these struggles is a major new aspect of digital politics, as Joshua Tucker argues in his essay for this collection. While online platforms may not censor online speech as much as authoritarian governments would like them to, systematic cases of over-moderation, arbitrary takedowns and discrimination raise questions over the platforms’ content moderation policies and their algorithms: who designs them and how?
In May 2021, Palestinian activists took to social media to protest against the forced eviction of families in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem. Thousands of content were deleted on Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, and YouTube. Facebook apologized for content takedowns citing a technical error. Nevertheless, further takedowns and restrictions ensued hindering users from uploading content, live streaming, sharing, liking, and commenting on posts. On Twitter, tens of accounts were also suspended, and many others restricted. Twitter’s Legal, Policy and Trust & Safety Lead, Vijaya Gadde, explained during Access Now’s human rights conference, RightsCon 2021, that these arbitrary suspensions were a result of their automated tools responsible for detecting spam. The algorithms are trained to detect behavior rather than content, so it falsely flagged and suspended abnormally active users in this period.
The egregious censorship of Palestinian content across different media platforms has heightened the need for transparency over how social media companies develop and implement their policies, as well as the lack of equality in enforcement of such policies. Facebook, in particular, has been over-moderating Palestinian content under a specialized set of platform policies since 2016, the year Israeli officials began mounting public and private pressure on social media companies to censor Palestinian content.
One of Facebook’s problematic policies is their policy on the term “Zionism,” according to which it would remove attacks against Zionists when the term is used as a proxy for Jews or Israelis. The policy undermines freedom of expression in a number of ways. For one, it applies a narrow and singular worldview in which Jews and Israelis are made synonymous with Zionists, which would ultimately stifle legitimate political speech on Israel and Zionism. Secondly, it provides special protection to a political ideology, which Facebook typically does not classify as a protected group as compared to ethnic, religious, and gender groups. Thirdly, as there is no universal definition of hate speech, Facebook would need to provide considerable understanding of nuance and context to moderate this politically and historically complex word. But in order to moderate content at scale, Facebook entrusts its algorithms with this extremely sensitive task resulting in frequent and erroneous censorship.
A second problematic policy is how Facebook moderates the use of the Arabic word shaheed (martyr in English). Under Facebook’s Dangerous Individuals and Organizations policy, which blacklists certain individuals and groups and actively removes content that supports or praises them, the use of the word shaheed can signal support, praise, and glorification of terrorism. The word shaheed, which comes from Islamic texts, is a widely-used expression among Arab and Muslim communities to describe individuals who were killed in conflicts (among other uses). So, how has Facebook arrived at this politicized interpretation?
In the Palestinian context, Facebook seems to have taken cues from the Israeli government despite its consistent denial of such influence. Israel considers Palestinian expressions such as ‘Shaheed ’ (martyr), ‘ Intifada ’ (uprising), ‘ Sumud ’ (stead-fastness) or ‘ Muqawamah ’ (resistance) as terrorist or inciting terminologies. Take for instance the prosecution of the Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour. Tatour was arrested in October 2015 for publishing a poem on Facebook titled ‘Resist, My People; Resist Them’. Her interrogation and prosecution were based on a Hebrew translation of the poem which referenced expressions that Tatour did not write. For instance, the word ‘martyr’ was translated to ‘terrorist.’ Two Palestinian children who were murdered by Israeli settlers and referenced in the poem, Ali Dawabsheh and Mohammed Abu Khdeir, were also described as ‘terrorists.’ As a result, Tatour was forcibly transferred to a settlement near Tel Aviv where she was placed under house arrest and banned from accessing the internet and receiving visitors. Eight months later, she was allowed to move back to her family but remained under house arrest. In July 2018, Tatour was sentenced to five months in prison, released two months later.
As evident by the Palestinian case, and similar cases in the MENA region, social media policies are often developed and shaped at the request or influence of governments, with the cooperation of social media companies, allowing them to tighten the noose around narratives of dissent and resistance online.
Since the Arab Spring, MENA governments have been adamant about closely monitoring and restricting what is said and shared online. And while activists have fled their countries to be able to speak and organize freely, authoritarian regimes have been able to extend their repression, aided by surveillance technologies and digital mercenaries, to crackdown on activists who are out of their physical reach. Social media platforms have also turned into ‘war zones’ in their own right, where governments actively try to censor online speech and intimidate activists through troll armies, internet referral units, and influence over platform’s content moderation policies.
One important conclusion driven from the cases of transnational repression shared in this paper is that the encroaching digital authoritarianism in the MENA region should be studied and analyzed beyond the limitation of geographical borders and legal jurisdictions, especially in the context of counter-revolutions which have characterized the geopolitics of the region over the last decade. Transnational digital repression, together with the race to build and advance state cyber powers, serves a purpose beyond the immediate silencing of exiled activists. It aims to influence flows of data and information across the MENA region, shape, and control regional and global conversations, and ensure that any effort for democratization and regime change is actively thwarted and prematurely suppressed.
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