Debate on Terrorism, State Security, and Online Freedom of Expression  

The first IGMENA hangout of 2015 brought together a group of experts and debaters from Tunisia, Jordan, Yemen and Algeria to discuss and share their views and opinions on the current issue of Terrorism, State Security and Online Freedom of Expression for Cyber Activists in the Middle East and North African Region. The online debate was moderated by Mr. Hamza Ben Mehrez, Policy Analyst Lead of the IGMENA program at Hivos. Debaters responded to a series of questions related to the status of online freedom of expression, legislation, civil society, and online intermediaries in their respective countries.

Ahmed Saeed, a public policy analyst and software engineer, kicked off the debate by describing the state of freedom of expression online in Yemen, a country that is currently ruled by militias and not by a democratically elected central government. The ability of users to safely access social media platforms depends on whether they are affiliated with the Houthi regime. If you don't advocate for the regime, you might be subject to human rights violations. For a number of years, the government filtered websites for the purpose of blocking sexually explicit content.

After the revolution, Yemen witnessed a great deal of online freedoms through the use of the Internet, including the launch of several magazines, online journals, and civil society websites. The Internet was largely used as a platform for political oppositions groups and citizens to voice opinions and concerns. When they came to power, the Houthi brought back the practices of the previous regime. As a consequence, independent journalists, bloggers, and online activists have begun to be labeled as terrorists.  

In the Yemeni constitution, there are clauses that mention that freedom of expression on the Internet should be protected. However, there have unlawful cases of abuse and crackdowns on separatists located in the south of Yemen. Online freedom of expression laws do not address cybersecurity. There has to be security and stability in the country to succeed in the process of the drafting of a new constitution. Online activists should seek the help of national and international NGOs to pressure the government to legislate privacy and security in new regulations and laws.

Before thinking about the policies that support safe Internet use in Yemen, we should first spread awareness about how the Internet should be used in our everyday lives through capacity building and awareness raising. We still need to find avenues for advocacy through blogging and new Internet platforms to advocate for the online rights of end-users in Yemen. The most common online intermediaries in Yemen are Facebook and Twitter, which are used by many people in major cities. These social media platforms are still not fully accessible in all regions. There are politicians who use Yemeni press and other new online agencies to spread information, but Facebook is the only operating social media platform that citizens can use to share the news. 

Ahalem Abou Jadalah, .joccTLD manager from Jordan, talked about the rise of non-state actors and terrorist networks in the MENA region, particularly ISIS in Syria and Iraq. In response to these factors, there has been a rise in state security in Jordan. Nevertheless, the country still enjoys an inclusive climate for freedom of expression on the Internet. Many citizens are enjoying online freedoms over social media, but regional conflict forces the government monitor the way end-users behave and express themselves on issues related to terrorism that impact citizens' online safety.

Before the Arab Spring, there was a lot of freedom for Internet users in Jordan. There were no offline or online content restrictions or limits on online freedoms. According to the Jordanian Media Commission, which is responsible for providing website domain names, the government can close some websites that criticize the government, like the public website « HEBR ». Access to this website was later restored. According to chapter 2 article 15 of the Jordanian constitution of the Hashemite kingdom, every Jordanian citizen should be free to express his or her opinion through speech, writings, photographic representation or another form of expression, but he or she should not violate the law, otherwise end-users can be targeted by the government. According to Freedom House, Jordan is considered to be partially free country. Although the internet is relatively free, the media and the press are not free, so you cannot express yourself freely while using online media platforms.

Civil society and NGO websites are seeking to advocate and express themselves to secure domain names, hosting, and DNS outside of Jordan to avoid being tracked and shut down by the government. Civil society activists are trying to establish the Jordanian Internet Freedom Alliance to raise awareness and encourage more civil society actions. The alliance organizes workshops to inform end-users about their Internet rights and how they can defend themselves against government violations.

In Jordan, the government wants to have an online space where bloggers and cyber activists express their opinions, debate, and advocate with the government. The communication regular commission in Jordan publishes manuals for end-users to teach users in Jordan about laws and regulations and how they can use the Internet according to these laws and regulations. More should be done to  promote the role of the Internet in guaranteeing online freedoms for Jordanian citizens in the future. ( Ahlam Abu-Jadalah ) 

Rim Hayat Chaif, freelance journalist, editor, and reporter from Algeria, shared her experience in Internet governance and policy at the national, regional, and international level. She talked about how the Internet connection in Algeria is still underdeveloped because the state Internet monopoly leaves no room for developing improved standards of service. Algeria’s state monopoly does not guarantee a good standard of online freedom of expression. In addition, terrorist attacks in the MENA region affect the broadband connectivity and online rights of Algerian Internet users. In light of recent ISIS attacks in the region, we need to emphasize the importance of having a balance between state security and Internet freedoms. 

Rim is trying to open an Internet Society (ISOC) chapter in Algeria, which will involve civil society and government stakeholders. The ISOC Algeria site will host online freedom of expression blogs that talk about Internet governance to spread awareness. Rim hopes that this project will promote change in Algeria, a country that has the slowest broadband connection and online download speed in the MENA region.

In the Arab uprisings, social media contributed to changing the public mindset and introduced the concept of citizen journalism that allowed people to participate in the public debate and engage with government institutions to advocate for  democracy. Civil society in Algeria should support the independence of media, courts that support freedom of expression, respect for diversity of opinions, and a new culture of journalism, and community engagement in Internet governance and policy. This is why Rim tried to get the support of the civil society community and government officials to open the ISOC chapter in Algeria.

As a journalist living in Algeria who is interested in issues related to human rights on the Internet, Rim feels that there is still not an active civil society in Algeria that defends online freedom of expression. That is why we need to build national coalitions and advocate for a better inclusive online freedom of expression for a transparent, inclusive and resilient Internet ecosystem.

She thinks the government should make more decisions during IGF sessions at the local, regional, and international level. They should work to reform the laws pertaining to cybersecurity, privacy, and online security and not simply attend the meetings. Online intermediaries and the use social media are poorly developed and used in Algeria and are not really operating in an effective way. The Internet connection is still very poor and does not live up to the expectations of end-users in Algeria who want effective, secure, accountable and cost-effective Internet access. 

Debaters’ points of view on online freedom of expression in the MENA region have been subject to much criticism at a time when the region is experiencing ongoing instabilty and insecurity. The participants tried to showcase the realities of online freedoms and cybersecurity issues at the grassroots level in Algeria, Jordan and Yemen. They have been engaged in finding the answers to implementing better policy and strategy concerning online freedoms, taking into consideration of the priorities specific to each country.
Hamza Ben Mehrez is the Policy Analyst Lead for IGMENA.