The Arab world's online population has increased to 157 million people in the last few years despite heavy censorship, according to an Arab human rights group.
A report issued by the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) showed that the number of internet users in the Arab world increased more than threefold over seven years from 58 million users in 2009 to around 157 million in 2015.
The Cairo-based ANHRI releases reports every 30 months on the state of internet freedom and freedom of expression in the Arab world.
Facebook users increased more than six fold from 12 million to 78 million users between 2009 and 2015, ANHRI said.
In its fifth report, issued in May 2015, ANHRI looked at setbacks and progress in internet use in 11 Arab countries between mid-2012 and the beginning of 2015.
The countries were selected based on their positive or negative approach to a “noticeably growing role” of the internet.
The majority of prisoners of conscience and opinion in the Arab world, “apart from Egypt at this current stage”, were arrested for their writings or other activities on the internet and social networking sites—tweeting, writing or forming groups on Facebook, posting videos on YouTube, the report said.
In Egypt, the thousands of political prisoners rounded up in the crackdown that followed the ousting of President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013 consist largely of members of his Muslim Brotherhood but also include secular activists.
ANHRI gave each country a score on a 100-point scale called the Internet Freedom Index.
ANHRI praised Tunisia, “the closest Arab country to democracy”, which before the 2011 uprising was regularly classified among “enemies of the internet”, side by side with Saudi Arabia.
Now, the report said, Tunisia is the only Arab state that escaped the “morass of Arab repression”, with a score of 75, making it the freest in ANHRI’s index.
But this significant achievement is marred by setbacks: trials of a number of bloggers like Yassine Layari, Aziz Amami and Jabir Majri.
However, the report said, the internet remains a crucial tool for Tunisian activists to uncover corruption and undemocratic practices in their country.
An example of such digital activism is “the Nawaatleaks”, modelled after WikiLeaks.
Nawaat, “one of the most important websites” in the region, was launched in March 2013 by a group of Tunisian activists.
It publishes secret information and classified documents from anonymous sources.
The group promised that publication of the leaked documents would be supplemented with “value-added” investigative reports.
ANHRI noted “a big setback” in Kuwait, long considered a model for press freedom in the Arab world.
Since 2009, the small emirate has been slipping in freedom rankings to become the “biggest punisher” of Twitter users—280 criminal cases were filed against individuals using the social networking site in 2013 and 2014.
In the last three years, 160 cases were brought against individuals on charges of “insulting the emir” for tweets, articles or speeches deemed offensive to the ruler of the country.
In this respect, the report concluded, Kuwait broke the record set by former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi—45 legal cases on charges of insulting the ruler throughout his 42-year long rule.
In Bahrain, another Gulf country, protesting for political reforms or exercising the right to freedom of expression on Twitter or Facebook are acts punishable by imprisonment, as was the case with political activist Nabil Rajab.
In a further draconian measure, Bahrain stripped a number of activists of their citizenship as in the case of blogger Ali Abdallah Abdel Imam and 70 other Bahraini citizens.
Jordan with a population of 6.8 million earned praise in the report for its developed communication networks and a high internet penetration with 5.7 million users.
This high rate contrasts with a relatively lower online freedom ranking due to a body of laws that restrict internet access and expression.
As an example, the report cited a 2014 amendment to the law regulating the work of the state security court, increasing the focus of its jurisdiction to cases of terrorism, spying, treason, drugs and counterfeiting. Under this amendment, internet activists can be tried in the state security court.
In February 2015, the court sentenced activist Zaki Bani Arshid to 18 months in prison on charges of “upsetting relations with a sister country” after he published an article online criticising the United Arab Emirates for designating the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation.
Saudi Arabia ranked last in the internet freedom index.
The kingdom, the report said, “is caught in a deep contradiction between providing internet and communication services and upgrading internet infrastructure and the attempt to restrict internet expression”.
The counter-terrorism law passed in 2014 serves as a tool to suppress political dissent because of its “overly vague” definition of terrorism, the report said.
In 2014, a number of Saudi human rights activists and journalist-bloggers were prosecuted and sentenced to jail and lashes, including Raif Badawi, Walid Abul Khair and Mikhlaf al-Shumari.
Female activist Suad al-Shumari was detained for 90 days in October 2014 for posting comments on Twitter criticising a number of religious and tribal leaders—a criticism which Saudi authorities considered “offensive to Islam”.
Al-Shumari was released after she signed a pledge “to limit her activities”.
Morocco earned praise in the report for providing cheap internet services with the number of internet users rising to 20.5 million in 2014—60 percent of the population compared with 49 percent in 2011.
Despite the drive to upgrade the communication and internet networks and to deregulate the industry, the drive to restrict internet expression has been unabated. But it has also generated strong opposition.
An online campaign forced the government to indefinitely put on hold a draft law revealed at the end of 2014 to control internet expression.
The Canadian research network, Citizen Lab, classified Morocco among countries that use spyware to monitor the internet, the report said.
The Citizen Lab is an interdisciplinary laboratory based at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto, Canada focusing on advanced research and development at the intersection of information and communication technologies, human rights, and global security.
Among the problems ANHRI encountered in compiling the report were the dearth of serious studies, reliable data on the size of internet users, inaccurate figures and inflated achievements provided by government officials. The data used includes the number of phone lines, fairness of laws and communication network infrastructure.
The group also complained about activists providing “exaggerated versions” of violations and overlooking what could be “some serious efforts” to improve the communication sector in Arab countries.
There is “a general acquiescence” by a wide section of people in Arab countries to the principle of censorship and clampdown on dissenters and trials for opponents, the report said.
The report is based on independent and government sources, such as reports of media and human rights organisations, websites of information and communication ministries and other government bodies that have to do with the internet.
It also draws on cases that ANHRI has worked on in Arab countries as well as information obtained via Google and Yahoo, evidence provided by activists and journalists and the group’s own documentation and monitoring unit.
ANHRI’s criteria for assessing internet freedom were:
-Internet service prices
-Laws compatible with basic standards of freedom of expression
-Respect of freedom of expression and freedom of information
-Arrest of those expressing opinions on the internet
-Identifying the kind of courts trying internet crimes: civil or criminal
-Protection of privacy
-Encouraging Arabic content on the internet
-Positive commitment by governments to allowing full access to the internet