Qatar blockade escalates Gulf crackdown on freedom of expression
“In-depth: Freedom of expression has dramatically deteriorated in Gulf States since a Saudi-led blockade on Qatar last month, exacerbating a long-standing pattern of repressive censorship.”
Freedom of expression has dramatically deteriorated in Gulf States since a Saudi-led blockade on Qatar last month, exacerbating a long-standing pattern of repressive censorship.
On 5 June, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt cut all ties with Doha, closing its only land border, banning planes from their airspace and barring Qatari nationals from passing through their airports.
Days later, the UAE’s general prosecutor announced that anyone who expressed sympathy with Qatar could face 15 years in jail, citing flawed existing legislation.
Those found guilty could also face fines of 500,000 dirhams ($136,000).
State-controlled Saudi Arabian media stated that expressions of sympathy could be considered a cybercrime offence.
Bahrain also declared that any show of “sympathy or favouritism” with Qatar on social media, or objection to Bahrain’s actions, could lead to five years in jail and a fine.
“Gulf states’ contempt for freedom of expression has bled into the current Qatar crisis and blockade”
“Gulf states are reaching a new level of Orwellian reality when they throw citizens in jail for both criticizing other gulf nations and voicing public support for them,” Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said this week in a report on online activism in the Gulf.
The rights group says that hundreds of political activists, lawyers, human rights defenders, journalists, and bloggers have been imprisoned in the Gulf for exercising their right to freedom of expression.
Many allege torture in pre-trial detention, and were sentenced after unfair trials.
While repression of online activism is a long-standing problem, “Gulf states’ contempt for freedom of expression has bled into the current Qatar crisis and blockade,” HRW says.
‘Blow to media freedom’
On July 10, human rights activist Nabeel Jabab was sentenced to two years in jail after a Bahraini court found him guilty of spreading “fake news” over tweets criticising the Saudi-led war in Yemen and Bahrain’s treatment of prisoners.
A day earlier, Emirati activist Ghanem Abdullah Mattar was detained after posting a video on social media criticising efforts to isolate Qatar.
He was reportedly arrested after UAE security forces raided his family home.
In June, Bahrain’s attorney general said a case was referred to the public prosecutor’s office in which “a person of interest had posted comments to social networks that constitute a violation” against sympathising with Qatar.
The unnamed suspect was being questioned in custody, the attorney general said at the time
“Gulf states are intimidating, surveilling, imprisoning, and silencing activists as part of their all-out assault on peaceful criticism,” HRW said.
“They are seriously mistaken if they think they can indefinitely block gulf citizens from using social and other media to push for positive reforms.”
The human rights group has published an interactive website online featuring hundreds of jailed activists.
All have been arrested or faced government retaliation for exercising their right to freedom of expression.
Together with direct repression, Gulf governments have also deployed surveillance technology to monitor online activity.
A list of demands issued by the Saudi-led coalition called for shutting down Al Jazeera and other media outlets, a move which HRW called a “direct blow to media freedom.”
The United Nations also called the demand “an unacceptable attack” on the right to freedom of expression and opinion.
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