Social Media and Social Change in the Gulf
A Bahraini court has sentenced six people to a year in prison for the crime of insulting the king, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, on Twitter. This ruling is part of an ongoing crackdown in internet freedom, which is taking place across the Gulf.
The Arab Spring uprisings were largely driven by a tech-empowered citizenry, which used social media to organize and communicate. Well aware of this, Gulf governments are stifling free expression online. There is a growing list of youth activists targeted for “electronic crimes.”
Saudi Arabia is one of the worst offenders. The U.S. State Department’s latest report on human rights in Saudi Arabia stated that “[t]he government charged a number of individuals with crimes related to their exercise of free speech during the year. Specifically, the government charged those using the Internet to express dissent with subversion, blasphemy, and apostasy.” According to Reporters Without Borders, authorities claimed to have blocked approximately 400,000 Websites and lists Saudi Arabia as an “Enemy of the Internet.” The Saudi Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC) claimed Facebook removed materials the CITC deemed offensive, but Twitter ignored all CITC requests.
Meanwhile in Kuwait, criticizing the Amir is illegal, a state security charge carrying up to five years in prison. “The court passed the maximum jail term against Mohammad Eid al-Ajmi for insulting the amir on Twitter,” the director of the Kuwait Society for Human Rights, Mohammad al-Humaidi, said. Ajmi is the third opposition youth activist to be convicted for “insulting the amir” on Twitter. In January 2013, the same court sentenced two Tweeters to two years each in jail on the same charge. They are being persecuted simply for voicing a desire for freedom, justice and human rights.
A move by Bahrain’s government to jail anyone found guilty of insulting the Gulf nation’s King for up to five years is another attempt to crush dissent there. According to state media, Bahrain’s cabinet – chaired by the Prime Minister and the newly appointed deputy Prime Minister, the Crown Prince – recently endorsed an amendment to Article 214 of the Penal Code, increasing the penalty for offending King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifah or the country’s flag and other national symbols.
Freedom of speech was a hallmark demand of popular uprisings throughout the Arab world. Now, government attempts to clamp down on free expression online are only acting to further fuel discontent.