Gulf rulers take sharper aim at Web speech, sentence people for 'cyber-dissent'
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Something unusual happened on Kuwait's normally boisterous online universe after back-to-back convictions this week for insulting the emir on Twitter: There was hardly a mention in apparent fear of being next.
If the Arab Spring uprisings represented the coming of age for social media activism in the Middle East, then the Gulf Arab rulers who have ridden out the upheavals appear to be mounting their own counterrevolution.
Dozens of bloggers, online activists — and even a poet in Qatar — have been detained or prosecuted across the Western-allied Gulf in recent months as part of widening crackdowns on perceived cyber-dissent. The escalating pressures have brought widespread denunciations from free-speech groups and others, and could become an increasing point of friction with the U.S. and other Western backers in the Gulf.
At a November meeting in Dubai, the U.S. led Western opposition to new U.N. telecommunications regulations that critics fear could open the way for greater state oversight of the Net. The White House, meanwhile, has made Internet openness a centerpiece of its foreign policy goals and has sharply criticized Iran for Web clampdowns far wider — but still similar — to those waged in the Gulf.
Gulf authorities are hardly alone in efforts to chase suspected opposition across cyberspace. Syria's President Bashar Assad virtually switched off the Internet briefly last month in apparent attempt to foil rebels, and officials in places such as Jordan closely monitor political content on the Web.
But the Gulf cyber-squeeze highlights the recognition by leaders that even the region's extreme wealth is no buffer to the changes across the Middle East.
Gulf officials argue that opposition groups have used the Web to organize, and claim that Arab Spring-inspired Islamist factions and others could threaten the ruling fraternities from Kuwait to Oman. The six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, anchored by Saudi Arabia, has pushed for increasing coordination on policies including intelligence and media rules.
"At some level, the Gulf rulers are all facing similar kinds of issues and insecurities, and are on the same page about what to do about it," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "With the Web, that means censorship."
On Wednesday, a court in Bahrain extended the detention of a prominent human rights campaigner charged with posting false reports on Twitter about anti-government protests — part of a nearly two-year uprising by Shiites seeking a greater political voice in the strategic, Sunni-ruled kingdom, which is home to U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.
Yousef al-Muhafedha, a senior figure with the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, was arrested last month on allegations he fabricated details about demonstrations in the capital, Manama. The next hearing is set for Jan. 17.
"Nothing says desperation like keeping peaceful human rights activists in jail," said Brian Dooley, director of the human rights defenders program at U.S.-based Human Rights First. "Bahrain needs to engage with leading figures like (al-Muhafedha), not lock them away."
But Gulf leaders have made it clear there are limits to what they will tolerate on the Net, including criticism of the rulers.
In November, the United Arab Emirates set stricter Internet monitoring and enforcement codes. They include giving authorities wider leeway to arrest Web activists for offenses such as mocking the country's leadership or calling for demonstrations.
Bahrain's Interior Ministry also warned in September that full "legal measures" would be taken against any Internet posts that "defame and insult national icons and public figures." Oman has arrested dozens of people in the past year, including journalists and popular bloggers, on charges that included insulting the ruling sultan.
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