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Egypt’s internet freedom ‘under surveillance,’ says media watchdog

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By Mai Shams El-Din

CAIRO: Reporters without Borders said Monday that Egypt remains on the list of countries “under surveillance” in the area of freedom of internet activity and online content filtering.

The North African country steered clear of the newly updated “internet enemies” list, which along with the report was impacted by the so called Arab Spring.

“Numerous journalists and bloggers seeking to expose the abuses committed during the pro-democratic uprising by certain elements of the army or the military police have been prosecuted before military courts, and sometimes jailed for several months. The military council has affirmed that it will show no tolerance for insults,” the global media watchdog said Monday in a detailed report about Egypt’s position regarding cyber activity freedom.

The report cited attacks against cyber dissidents, activists, and journalists seeking to expose alleged violations by military officers against peaceful protest movement trying to organize its second wave against the military rule.

The report described veteran blogger Maikel Nabil, who was sentenced to two years in prison by a military court and was pardoned after nine months of imprisonment, as the revolution’s first “prisoner of conscience in the post-Mubarak era.”

Nabil wrote a blog post in March 2011 titled, “The army and the people are not one hand,” recounting what he called the army’s conspiracy against the revolution, listing human rights violations by members of the Egyptian army against peaceful protesters during and after the 18 days that ousted the country’s strongman Hosni Mubarak early in 2011.

The Reporters Without Borders report also mentioned the arrest of Australian journalist Austin Mackell who was briefly detained for covering a nationwide call for a civil disobedience in the northern industrial city of Mahalla, in addition to activist Asmaa Mafhouz who received a one-year prison sentence in absentia for assaulting a citizen she says was unknown to her.

“Egyptian society remains divided between those who believe that the revolution is over, those who want to continue to fight for democracy, and the largest group: the undecided,” the report said.

“In a country undergoing a difficult transition, most bloggers have no intention of giving up their keyboards. They say they are determined to pursue their “mission to inform” despite the challenges facing Egypt, particularly in view of the presidential elections scheduled to be held there near the end of June 2012.”

Reporters without Borders published the annual report classifying “enemies of the internet” as the countries that severely curtail freedom of expression on and access to the Web. It also draws up a list of states “under surveillance.”

The group added Bahrain to its enemies list, citing a news blackout and harassment of bloggers in an attempt to quell a yearlong Shia-led rebellion against the Sunni monarchy.

The country had previously been “under surveillance.”

“Bahrain offers a perfect example of successful crackdowns, with an information blackout achieved through an impressive arsenal of repressive measures: exclusion of the foreign media, harassment of human rights defenders, arrests of bloggers and netizens (one of whom died behind bars), prosecutions and defamation campaigns against free expression activists, disruption of communications,” the Paris-based group’s report said.

But the Arab Spring — the name given to a cascade of revolts across the Arab world — has also led to the opening up of some regimes.

Libya, where the repressive rule of Moammar Qaddafi was thrown off in a violent revolt, was removed from the list of countries under surveillance.

“In Libya, many challenges remain but the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime has ended an era of censorship,” the report said.

The group said that the Arab Spring had also highlighted the importance of the internet — and therefore the importance of protecting access to and expression on it.

“The internet and social networks have been conclusively established as tools for protest, campaigning and circulating information, and as vehicles for freedom,” the group said. “More than ever before, online freedom of expression is now a major foreign and domestic policy issue.”

The enemies list contains countries that are well known for blocking internet content, like China, Myanmar and North Korea.

But the list of those under surveillance contains some surprises like Australia and France.

Reporters Without Borders criticized Australia for persuading internet service providers to create a national content-filtering system, which blocks access to child pornography sites and others deemed inappropriate. The group is concerned that the government is still also pursuing a system of mandatory content-filtering whose criteria are “very broad.”

France landed on the surveillance list last year for a series of criminal indictments of journalists for stories they wrote. It remains on the list this year because of a law that could punish people who repeatedly illegally download content by cutting off their internet access. –Additional reporting by AP.



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