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Internet freedoms ‘under attack’ in Middle East and North Africa, says Freedom House

All Middle Eastern and North African countries featured in a new online freedoms report have been ranked as “partly free” or “not free”, with many experiencing a decline in digital freedoms over the past year.

In a ‘Freedom of the Net 2021’ report, written by US-watchdog Freedom House, the MENA region was the only region in the world to have no countries listed as “free” when it comes to online expression.

Instead, government crackdowns, arbitrary arrests and restrictive laws on data and online access have resulted in an environment that mutes and stifles freedom of speech online across the region.

“Internet freedom in the Middle East and North Africa is under attack,” said Cathryn Grothe from Freedom House to The New Arab.

“The region is home to some of the worst abusers of internet freedom and digital rights in the world.

“Seven countries in the region witnessed internet freedom declines this year, which unfortunately is not surprising due to many governments’ march towards digital authoritarianism,” said Grothe.

“Report authors @adrianshahbaz & @alfunk say that the failure of Washington to set rules for Silicon Valley has left the path open to ‘authoritarian manipulation, data exploitation, and widespread malfeasance [online].'”
–@justinhendrix for @just_security https://t.co/CI86htBm8K
— Freedom House (@freedomhouse) September 22, 2021

Tunisia was ranked highest in the region at 63 out of 100 for digital freedoms, a -1 drop from the previous year. In comparison, the United Kingdom ranks 78 and the US 76.

While Egypt and Saudi Arabia stayed the same, Lebanon, Libya, Jordan and the UAE all experienced a decline in digital freedoms from 2020.

Iran ranked lowest in MENA at 16 out of 100, a +1 rise from the previous year. This makes it one of three countries in the region to go up by 1 (alongside Morocco and Bahrain) despite building a new “intranet” of government-approved content to distance Iranians from the global internet.

No data is available for Syria or Iraq this year.

“Internet users are arrested in all 12 surveyed countries in the region,” said Grothe.

“In a truly horrific case, Iran, which is one of the world’s worst abusers of internet freedom, carried out a death sentence of a Telegram channel administrator,” she said.

Five MENA countries were listed among a handful of nations that censor online conversations by blocking access to social media apps and communication platforms.

Iran and Jordan were included in the list, following their crackdown on popular audio-only app Clubhouse. Jordan has also placed arbitrary bans on WhatsApp calls, while Facebook and Twitter have been blocked by Iranian authorities.

In Egypt, fledgling app TikTok has been targeted by the government, with two TikTok stars Haneen Hossam and Mawada al-Adham receiving 6 to 10 years in prison for allegations of human trafficking on the app.

Authorities in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, two countries listed among the five, have suspended content on social media over fears of dissent and together arrested users on every social platform apart from YouTube and Telegram.

“Authorities have recognised the power the internet holds, and in some cases have responded by shutting down networks, blocking access to social media, and censoring online content in an attempt to stifle dissent,” said Grothe to The New Arab.

Overall, Freedom House’s report offered a bleak picture for internet freedoms globally, stating that digital freedoms have declined for the 11th year in a row and are now “in danger”.

“Free expression is under unprecedented strain around the world,” read the new report.

“Policies that ensure competition and limit concentrations of power among tech companies are crucial for ensuring a healthy democracy, but authoritarian states will continue to use such policies as a tool to reinforce their own unchecked authority,” it said.

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