Covid-19 exacerbates freedom of expression pressures in Middle East and North Africa
By Saoussen Ben Cheikh (April 28, 2020)
Covid-19 is “fast becoming a human rights crisis” according to António Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations. Governments around the world are taking advantage of the situation to curb Human Rights and introduce disproportionate restrictions on Freedom of Expression. The MENA region is exacerbating this trend.
Autocrats grabbing more powers with no expiry date
The MENA is one of the most difficult and dangerous regions for journalists according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF). It has a long history of dictatorship and repression of human rights with many countries (Saudi Arabia, Syria, Soudan…) ranking at the bottom of most Human Rights indices. With the Covid-19 pandemic sweeping across the region, governments have taken early drastic and aggressive measures to curb the spread of the virus, even when cases of COVID 19 have not been yet reported. They have declared a state of emergency, that gives them exceptional powers, and imposed lockdown and curfew. Playing on fear instead of awareness, they have adopted an all-out war rhetoric. In Tunisia and Jordan, countries were described as being “at war” and as such required a general patriotic mobilisation behind the government. They have heavily utilised the army to support their response to the pandemic. The army were patrolling the streets, tanks were seen in the streets of Morocco, Tunisia and Jordan. Governments have heavily cracked down on anyone not following their orders. Thousands of people were arrested or fined for not obeying the lockdown or forced to be quarantined. Tunisian President Kais Saied said “Anyone who breaks the security rules will be treated as a criminal because failing to respect rules within the context of the pandemic is a crime”.
A “golden opportunity” to halt political movements and protests
When Covid-19 became a global pandemic in January 2020, anti-government protests and political movements had been raging for months in Algeria, Lebanon and Iraq. They were halted by governments enforcing lockdown and social distancing. Governments in Algeria arrested activists from the Hirak movement and Iraqi authorities used forces to clear the squares of Baghdad. “They could not have dreamed of it. This virus is a benediction for the authorities. It gave them the excuse to stop us gathering and protesting for change. In other circumstances, we would never have accepted it”, reported an Algerian activist.
Tackling disinformation and fake news is used to supress freedom of expression
The Covid-19 crisis has given a sense of urgency and a mandate to pass disproportionate restrictions on Freedom of Expression. It has legitimised and accelerated the adoption of broad cybercrime laws to criminalise disinformation and fake news. In Tunisia, in March 2020, a member of parliament proposed a draft law to combat disinformation during the Covid-19 crisis, on the pretext of fighting “fake news” and controlling the flow of information on social media platforms that could impact “national security and order”. But thanks to Tunisia’s strong civil society, the proposed bill was withdrawn. However, a similar law was passed in Algeria. While the parliament was nearly empty due to the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing measures, the Algerian government passed a law criminalising the broadcast of “fake news” that is deemed harmful to “public order and state security”.
If countering disinformation is a legitimate aim, it has been used in the region to criminalise anyone, journalists reporting or ordinary citizens sharing videos and posts on social medias, who expressed a different narrative to the official line. Morocco has detained and prosecuted at least a dozen people for “spreading rumours” or disseminating “fake news” on social media. One of those was for example a woman who had denied the existence of the coronavirus on her YouTube channel. Official versions are the only ones allowed in the public debate. In Saudi Arabia, the Ministry of Health called on the public to seek news and information only from official sources, urging the public to trust only their information. Critical reporting of the official line is considered as misinformation by governments and are punished by hefty jail terms and fines. In the UAE people who circulate rumours may be jailed for one year. “All individuals who spread rumours about coronavirus on social media will be temporarily imprisoned, the UAE Attorney-General Dr Hamad Al Shamsi said
Twitter video from Dubai ministry of justice:
Ban on the press “until further notice” as a “precautionary measure” to combat COVID-19
Governments have restricted access to information. In March 2020, authorities across the region in Jordan, Algeria, UAE, Oman, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Yemen issued decrees banning the printing and distribution of newspapers in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. All print newspapers were suspended overnight “until further notice” with no timeline or indication of when and if newspapers will be able, one day, to be in kiosks again. Print newspapers have been banned officially as a “precautionary measure” to stop the spread of the virus. While there is no evidence or correlation between the circulation of print newspapers and the spread of Covid-19.
Arrest of journalists, censorship and revocation of press licence
Governments have arrested journalists who challenge the Covid-19 official narrative, facts and figures. RSF accused them of “taking advantage of the coronavirus epidemic to settle scores with independent journalism“. In Jordan, the military arrested the director of a television station over a report that showed a crowd of workers complaining about their inability to earn money during the lockdown. In Tunisia, the authorities arrested two bloggers who criticized the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The charges for both include “insulting state officials” and “causing disturbances to the public”.
Governments have suspended or revoked press licences to journalists who have published information on Covid-19 that is different from the official line. In Iraq, Reuters published a report suggesting that the authorities were hiding the extent of the coronavirus outbreak. The Iraqi government called the report “deliberate misinformation”, suspended the news agency’s licence and imposed a fine. Though with pressure, Iraqi authorities, after barely two weeks, lifted Reuters’ initial three-month ban.
Egypt has pushed further the control of information and stepped up censorship. The Egyptian Supreme Council for Media Regulation announced that it was closing news websites for “spreading fake news” about the epidemic and that it planned to block webpages and the social media accounts of people “arousing public concern.”
Without free reporting, it is impossible to know the true extent of the infection in the region and to challenge governments measures.
If “we are all in it together “
The world’s attention is on covid-19 and people are scared. There is no doubt that governments are facing unprecedented challenges to stop the spread of the virus. This cannot however be an excuse to clamp down on the press and thus restrict people’s access to information when they need it the most. In a move to prevent the health crisis turning into a human rights crisis, Antonio Guterres declared that “we are all in it together” and that “human rights can and must guide Covid-19 response and recovery”. A call that needs to be echoed across a region muzzled by dictatorships who are exploiting the pandemic, doing what they have always done: grabbing power and cracking down on anyone who dares to criticise.
Saoussen Ben Cheikh has extensively worked on humanitarian and human rights programs across the MENA region. She currently works for Internews, a media development organisation, as project director. In this capacity, she oversees a wide range of projects supporting freedom of expression in the most challenging contexts of conflict, poverty and repression, working with local media and civil society focusing on development, peace building, gender and youth participation. Saoussen was prior a PhD researcher on State and Conflict in the MENA region in the University of Nice (France).
Please note this piece has been edited slightly for clarity since the publication of the original version.