On human rights, the United States must be a beacon. America is strongest when our policies and actions match our values.More
Home / 2013 / 07 / 05 / Muzzling Social Media in the Gulf
July 05, 2013

Muzzling Social Media in the Gulf

Bahrain announced this week that it was planning to study whether to restrict Internet-based communications, including Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) portals such as Whatsapp, Viber and Skype. Bahrain's Minister of State for Communications said that  no final decision is imminent, but  they are considering the restrictions due to concerns over pornography, subversion of state security and fraud.

This looks more like part of the ongoing Internet freedom crackdown sweeping across the Gulf. A seventeen-year-old student was sentenced to one year in prison earlier this week for allegedly insulting Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifah on Twitter. In April 2013, Bahrain also amended its Penal Code to increase the penalty for offending the King and makes such offences punishable by up to five years in prison. That change brings Bahrain’s law in line with the law in Kuwait. T

he Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) has documented the escalation in targeting of activists for freedom of expression on social media. In May 2013, five other social media activists were sentenced to one year in prison for criticizing the King.

Saudi Arabia seems to be setting an unfortunate example and is a leading Gulf offender with regard to restricting internet freedom. On June 24, 2013, it sentenced seven activists for allegedly inciting protests and harming public order via Facebook. Earlier this year, the Saudi government warned Skype and Whatsapp that it is considering further internet restrictions. It banned VoIP provider Viber last month.

Many Arab opposition activists prefer to use VoIP and other Internet technologies to communicate because they are much harder to trace and monitor than a regular phone line. In addition, VoIP is often free. The power of instant messaging and social media helped activists launch the 2011 Arab Spring in Bahrain, Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. It's an area autocratic leaders have found difficult to control and suppress. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop them from trying.