Egypt: Silencing Voices, Religious and Secular

Posted December 4th, 2013 at 7:16 pm (UTC+0)
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Alaa Abdel Fattah (R), one of the activists who was summoned by the public prosecutor on whether he had a role in the recent violent anti-Islamists protests, arrives with his wife and child to the public prosecutor's office in Cairo, March 26, 2013. Fattah was arrested November 28 on charges he violated Egypt's new anti-protest laws. REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih

Alaa Abdel Fattah (R), one of the activists who was summoned by the public prosecutor on whether he had a role in the recent violent anti-Islamists protests, arrives with his wife and child to the public prosecutor’s office in Cairo, March 26, 2013. Fattah was arrested November 28 on charges he violated Egypt’s new anti-protest laws. REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih

 

Egypt’s new military-backed government has heightened its crackdown on dissent over the past week with a string of arrests.

Most recently, Tuesday morning, December 3, secular activist Ahmed Douma tweeted that he had been arrested at his Cairo home and taken to a police station.  He said he did not know the reason for his arrest.

Douma was detained once before in April 2013 for calling former president Mohamed Morsi a “killer” and a “criminal.”

Monday, according to Egypt’s Al Ahram online, Alexandria police picked up Ahmed El-Hamrawy, the lawyer heading the defense team for the 21 women and girls sentenced to 11 years in prison last week for participating in a peaceful protest in Alexandria October 31 against the ouster of Mohamed Morsi.  Seven of the women are minors–one is as young as 15–and they have been placed in juvenile detention until they are old enough to be imprisoned as adults. El-Hamrawy was later released.

Another prominent activist, Alaa Abdel Fattah, is being held in jail.  Police  raided his home at 10 pm last Thursday, November 28  on charges he called for a demonstration two days earlier  in violation of a tough new law that effectively prohibits all political protest in the country.  Abdel Fattah had organized a protest against an article in the new constitution which permits military trials for civilians.

Also arrested with him were 6 April movement founder Ahmed Maher and 24 others; Maher was released two days later, but Abdel Fattah will remain in jail for at least another two weeks.

In the current political climate, Egypt’s protesters are downloading a cell phone app that sends text messages to their families and lawyers in the event they are picked up by police. Beyt2ebed 3alia–the name of the app translates as, “I am being arrested”–works  on both Android and Blackberry phones and does not require an internet connection.

Finally, there is sad news that another great voice has been silenced–but not by the government.  It was widely reported that Poet Ahmed Fouad Negm  died early Tuesday.  He was 84.

Known as the ‘Poet of the People,” His poems dealt with themes of poverty and political resistance and could frequently be heard at protests including Tahrir Square in January 2011.

Among them:  “I am the People,” English translation (below)  courtesy of Jadaliyya:

 

Egyptian poet Ahmed Fouad Negm waves upon his arrival to participate with the Palestinian folk Al Hanouneh troupe in Amman

 

I am the People

I am the people, marching, and I know my way
My struggle is my weapon, my determination my friend
I fight the nights and with my hopes’ eyes
I determine where true morning lies
I am the people, marching, and I know my way

I am the people. My hand lights life
Makes deserts green, devastates tyrants
Raising truths, banners on guns
My history becomes my lighthouse and comrade
I am the people, marching, and I know my way

No matter how many prisons they build
Mo matter how much their dogs try to betray
My day will break and my fire will destroy
Seas of dogs and prisons out of my way

I am the people and the sun is a rose in my sleeve
The day’s fire horses galloping in my blood
My children will defeat every oppressor
Who can stand in my way?

I am the people, marching, and I know my way

Cecily Hilleary
Cecily began her reporting career in the 1990s, covering US Middle East policy for an English-language network in the UAE. She has lived and/or worked in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf, consulting and producing for several regional radio and television networks and production houses, including MBC, Al-Arabiya, the former Emirates Media Incorporated and Al-Ikhbaria. She brings to VOA a keen understanding of global social, cultural and political issues.

UPDATE: Bahrain Activist Nabeel Rajab to Remain in Prison

Posted December 3rd, 2013 at 5:53 pm (UTC+0)
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An anti-government protester holds a picture of Nabeel Rajab, founder of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, during a sit-in organized by Bahrain's main opposition party Al Wefaq, at the village of Muqsha, west of Manama, September 20, 2013. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

An anti-government protester holds a picture of Nabeel Rajab, founder of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, during a sit-in organized by Bahrain’s main opposition party Al Wefaq, at the village of Muqsha, west of Manama, September 20, 2013. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

Associated Press reports that a Bahrain court this week rejected request for the early release of jailed human rights activist human Nabeel Rajab, subject of my 28 November posting.  His lawyer Jalila al-Sayed says a judge rejected her request Sunday to approve a conditional early release.  Bahrain’s state news agency says Rajab was arrested on May 5, 2012 for inciting  illegal rallies and marches. Bahraini law provides for early prison release on grounds of good behavior after three-quarters of a sentence served—Nabeel became eligible for release on November 29.

“We continue to encourage Bahrain to take the necessary steps to promote reconciliation among Bahrainis, including permitting all sectors of society to voice their political views in a peaceful manner,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki told reporters Monday.

“We have seen reports that the head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights Nabeel Rajab … was denied early release today in Bahrain. We understand that he has served 18 months of his two-year prison sentence and is scheduled to be released in May of next year. We remain deeply concerned about the three-year prison sentence for leading illegal gatherings. We urge the Government of Bahrain to protect the universal rights of freedom of expression and assembly, just as we urge all elements of Bahraini society to engage in peaceful expressions of political opinion,” Psaki said.

Rajab is one of several prominent prisoners from crackdowns during an  uprising that began in February 2011.

This week, Amnesty International Bahrain tells us that  Hussein Jawad, 25, was arrested November 24 for remarks he made during a speech marking Ashura, when Shi’a Muslims commemorate the death of Hussein ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.  He is charged with inciting hatred toward the regime.

 

Cecily Hilleary
Cecily began her reporting career in the 1990s, covering US Middle East policy for an English-language network in the UAE. She has lived and/or worked in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf, consulting and producing for several regional radio and television networks and production houses, including MBC, Al-Arabiya, the former Emirates Media Incorporated and Al-Ikhbaria. She brings to VOA a keen understanding of global social, cultural and political issues.

US Citizen Held in UAE Prison for Spoof YouTube Video

Posted December 2nd, 2013 at 7:03 pm (UTC+0)
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Screen grab from Shezanne Cassim’s spoof documentary video about fictional “Satwa Combat School.” (via YouTube)

 

 

An American citizen is the first foreign national imprisoned in the UAE in violation of a new cybercrimes law.

It began in October 2013, when twenty-nine year old Shezanne Cassim uploaded a satirical video he and a group of friends had made.  Six months later, he and his four friends received phone calls from Dubai police instructing them to report to police headquarters with their passport.  Cassim and the others were placed in detention.

Cassim  was arrested April 7 and is being held in a maximum-security prison.  If convicted, he faces jail and as much as $250,000 in fines.

His crime?  Cassim is accused of using the internet to publish “caricatures” that are “liable to endanger state security and its higher interests or infringe on public order.”

The video begins with a disclaimer that all material presented in the video is fictional and no offense was intended to the UAE or to the people of Satwa.

The video, says Cassim family spokesperson, presents a humorous and ironic portrayal of Satwa youth, specifically focusing on the ‘Satwa G’ stereotype.

The term “Satwa Gs” was coined by Dubai teenagers in Dubai during the 1990s.  “Satwa Gs” were described ironically as “gangstas” because of their affinity for rap music and adoption of hip-hop fashion. The ‘Satwa Gs’ stereotype portrays youth who spent time in Satwa as good-for-nothings who liked to loiter and start fights that were never followed through on. They were never taken seriously and were also often ridiculed for their lack of actual fighting prowess (hence why there was no real follow-through when they started fights – their barks were bigger than their bites).

Therein lies the irony of the parody: “Satwa Gs” who attend a fictional street-fighting school to learn how to fight defend themselves.  Their weapons are useless:

  1. The naal is a sandal worn by nearly every male in the UAE;
  2. The agal is the black cord that hold’s a man’s white gutrah (headcovering)  in place;  and
  3. The mobile phone is shown as the school’s most effective weapon, a means of calling  for backup.

UAE Federal Legal Decree No. 5/ 2012 on  cybercrimes  was issued on November 12, 2012.

The Emirates Centre for Human Rights says the law has up until now only been used to Emirati activists.

Human Rights Watch Middle East director Joe Stork says the decree “reflects an attempt to ban even the most tempered criticism” and is “incompatible with the image UAE rulers are trying to promote of a progressive, tolerant nation.”

Cassim’s parents,  residents of Woodbury, Minnesota, are currently in Dubai seeking release of their son.  Cassim’s brother Shervon Cassim, speaking for the whole family, says, “We are emotionally and physically drained. Our son and brother is locked up in a desert prison seven thousand miles away, and we have been trying to secure his release for eight months. We are tired, we are frustrated, and we are terrified because we don’t know how much longer this will go on.”

What do you think about the case?  Feel free to comment after watching the video, below:

 

Cecily Hilleary
Cecily began her reporting career in the 1990s, covering US Middle East policy for an English-language network in the UAE. She has lived and/or worked in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf, consulting and producing for several regional radio and television networks and production houses, including MBC, Al-Arabiya, the former Emirates Media Incorporated and Al-Ikhbaria. She brings to VOA a keen understanding of global social, cultural and political issues.

Footprint-Free Social Messaging Hits China; Russia, Iran, Arab Versions Next

Posted November 30th, 2013 at 5:33 pm (UTC+0)
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KWICKIEKwikdesk is only one week old, but a local version of the social messaging tool has already hit China, with the translation help of  Wu’er Kaixi, the Chinese dissident known for his role in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

Kwikdesk allows users to anonymously send messages of up to 300 words with hashtags.  They can also select one of three possible dates for their messages to “self-destruct” and disappear forever, without a trace.  Users also can search existing messages by hashtags.

Kwikdesk is the brainchild of Irish visual artist and photographer Kevin Abosch, who tells VOA he  is working on a Russian version of the messaging tool, which is almost ready to launch, and that Arab and Farsi sites are “on the drawing board.”

Abosch, who has photographed some of the most prominent dissidents around the world, says he chose to work with Wu’er because of the latter’s activism.  Some, however, have expressed concern that if kwikdesk’s Chinese version  is associated too closely with Wu’er, it could attract unwanted attention from the Chinese government.

“Kwikdesk is a piece of conceptual art created in response to other forms of social media I’ve come across,” Abosch says.  “There is a beauty in that interplay between the audience and the artwork.  Kwikdesk is that interplay.”

The English-language web platform was only  launched November 25, but it has already received very positive reviews.

Wu'er Kaixi. Courtesy photo: Kevin Abosch.

Wu’er Kaixi. Courtesy photo: Kevin Abosch.

“The feedback I’m getting from some people is that there are multitude of experiences one can have through kwikdesk,” Kevin says.

“Yes, there is the possibility of using kwikdesk for ‘discreet communication,’ but it’s also used for a rather free-form,  anonymous group discussion, and even gaming.  We are in fact, developing a game at the moment — one in which every user plays a unique game tailored cleverly just for them.”

The benefits are clear for persons living under governments that monitor and censor internet messaging.  But does Kevin every worry that platforms like kwikdesk could be used by, say, criminals or terrorists who want to communicate under the radar?

“Those nefarious forces which exist, regardless of nomenclature (terrorists, pedophiles, etc…) will always find ways to communicate and engage in unsavory behavior,” Abosch says.

“Sometimes it happens ‘underground’ and other times it’s in plain sight, but just not visible to those not involved.  I’m an advocate for free speech.  I’m opposed to hate.  I’m opposed to those who wish to hurt others.”

Interested in testing kwikdesk out?  Go to http://www.kwikdesk.com  and search in the search box, top left, for #rePRESSed.

 

Cecily Hilleary
Cecily began her reporting career in the 1990s, covering US Middle East policy for an English-language network in the UAE. She has lived and/or worked in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf, consulting and producing for several regional radio and television networks and production houses, including MBC, Al-Arabiya, the former Emirates Media Incorporated and Al-Ikhbaria. She brings to VOA a keen understanding of global social, cultural and political issues.

China Boasts Internet Clean-Up a Resounding Success

Posted November 29th, 2013 at 5:46 pm (UTC+0)
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A computer user sits near displays with a message from the Chinese police on the proper use of the internet at an internet cafe in Beijing, China, Monday, Aug. 19, 2013.

A computer user sits near displays with a message from the Chinese police on the proper use of the internet at an internet cafe in Beijing, China, Monday, Aug. 19, 2013.

China  says its campaign against what it calls “online rumors” has really cleaned up the internet.

Ren Xianliang, deputy director of China’s State Internet Information Office, told reporters in Beijing Thursday, “The rumors have declined significantly, but this hasn’t affected the normal flow of information.”

Last September, China expanded existing censorship laws by announcing tough new penalties for anyone spreading  “rumors” over the internet–that is, criticizing the government or its policies.   In fact, it isn’t enough to simply tweet “rumors.”  In China, you can now go to jail if you post what the government deems as “defamatory” tweets and they are viewed by 5,000 Internet users and/or  retweeted more than 500 times

Worse, writes Harvard business professor Christopher Marquis, you can go to jail if you have more than 50,000 followers.

This is a pretty low threshold, says Human Rights Watch, when you consider that popular topics on weibo microblogs can be reposted thousands of times.

“Although China’s cyberspace has always been tightly controlled and censored, the new criminal penalties for online expression are a direct assault on the relatively freer space generated by social media,” said Sophie Richardson, HRW China director.

“The government claims these new penalties focus only on malicious and libelous content, but critics of the government and whistleblowers are the real target,” Richardson said.

China has blocked a variety of foreign websites, including Twitter, YouTube and Facebook.  Chinese social media services such as Weibo.com are flourishing, but users–understandably–regularly self-censor.  According to Global Voices Advocacy, over the past three months alone, more than 103,673 Sina Weibo users been punished for violating the Weibo “community code of practice.”

Weibo’s 56 million active daily users post about 100 million posts a day.   Weibo is responsible for deleting all content deemed offensive.  If you wonder how in the world it can possibly track that much content, you might want to read this September report from Reuters.

As it turns out, Sina Corp, the internet firm that runs the micro-blogging site, pays 150 young university graduates to read about 3,000 posts per hour, 12 hours a day, around the clock, for which they’re paid less than $500 a month.

Cecily Hilleary
Cecily began her reporting career in the 1990s, covering US Middle East policy for an English-language network in the UAE. She has lived and/or worked in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf, consulting and producing for several regional radio and television networks and production houses, including MBC, Al-Arabiya, the former Emirates Media Incorporated and Al-Ikhbaria. She brings to VOA a keen understanding of global social, cultural and political issues.

Will Bahrain Free Jailed Activist Nabeel Rajab on Good Behavior?

Posted November 28th, 2013 at 3:17 pm (UTC+0)
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Supporters of jailed Baharini human rights activist Nabeel Rajab hold up a banner demanding his freedom Sunday, May 6, 2012, in the northwestern village of Bani Jamra, Bahrain. AP

Supporters of jailed Baharini human rights activist Nabeel Rajab hold up a banner demanding his freedom Sunday, May 6, 2012, in the northwestern village of Bani Jamra, Bahrain. AP

Read the rest of this entry »

Cecily Hilleary
Cecily began her reporting career in the 1990s, covering US Middle East policy for an English-language network in the UAE. She has lived and/or worked in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf, consulting and producing for several regional radio and television networks and production houses, including MBC, Al-Arabiya, the former Emirates Media Incorporated and Al-Ikhbaria. She brings to VOA a keen understanding of global social, cultural and political issues.

Reverend Billy and the Golden Toads: A Test of Free Speech in the U.S.?

Posted November 25th, 2013 at 2:43 pm (UTC+0)
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Bill Talen, also known as "Reverend Billy," sings with the Stop Shopping Gospel Choir  in Union Square in New York, Monday, July 2, 2007, to protest his arrest there Friday night while reciting the First Amendment. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Bill Talen, also known as “Reverend Billy,” sings with the Stop Shopping Gospel Choir in Union Square in New York, Monday, July 2, 2007, to protest his arrest there Friday night while reciting the First Amendment. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

He calls himself Reverend Billy, the pastor of the Church of Earthalujah–otherwise known as the Church of Stop Shopping Now.  And when he and his “choir master” Nehemiah Luckett, appear in a New York City court on December 9th, they could end up spending a year in jail.

The comic activist, whose real name is Bill Talen, performs street theater to protest consumerism and climate change.  One Saturday afternoon last June, he and eight members of the choir dressed as golden toads, an animal that went extinct due to climate change 30 years ago, showed up at a Chase Bank branch in Manhattan to protest of the bank’s financing of industries Talen says are destroying the earth (see YouTube video of the performance below):

“Who caused Hurricane Sandy?” Talen shouted through a microphone in the bank lobby.  “Chase Bank did, if anybody did!”

Um, Okay…

JPMorgan Chase & Company was not amused and quickly contacted the police.  Talen and  Luckett were arrested minutes later while standing on a subway platform.  The duo was charged with riot in the second degree, menacing in the third degree, unlawful assembly and two counts of disorderly conduct.

Talen’s lawyer says their 15-minute performance at the bank constitutes “expressive political activity,” which is protected by the 1st Amendment of the US Constitution.

What do you think?  Take our poll now:

 

 

Cecily Hilleary
Cecily began her reporting career in the 1990s, covering US Middle East policy for an English-language network in the UAE. She has lived and/or worked in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf, consulting and producing for several regional radio and television networks and production houses, including MBC, Al-Arabiya, the former Emirates Media Incorporated and Al-Ikhbaria. She brings to VOA a keen understanding of global social, cultural and political issues.

Repressed: A Voice for the Voiceless

Posted November 22nd, 2013 at 7:08 pm (UTC+0)
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A man covers his mouth with a fifty dollar bill represent the lost of free speech at the Speakers Corner on Saturday, June 8, 2013 in Singapore to protest a new government policy requiring news websites to obtain licenses.

A man covers his mouth with a fifty dollar bill represent the lost of free speech at the Speakers Corner on Saturday, June 8, 2013 in Singapore to protest a new government policy requiring news websites to obtain licenses.

 

Years ago, I took a job as a radio newscaster in a country whose constitution guaranteed free speech “within the limits of the law.”

A central editorial team wrote our news for us.  Most news items seemed designed not to inform but to promote nationalism; they always opened with news of what the ruler did or said that day, emphasizing his vision and achievements.  If the government had a political dispute with another country, I wasn’t allowed to name that country.

If there was a political scandal, we never broadcast it.  In fact, we couldn’t broadcast anything that might reflect negatively on the government or the local population—and that included drugs, sex and HIV/AIDS.

In time, I won the right to write my own news.  I tested my limits sometimes, but there were lines I didn’t dare cross, and I censored myself regularly out of fear–of what, no one specifically stated: Losing my job? Arrest? Jail? Deportation?  I worked in a state of ongoing anxiety.

I got into trouble with authorities once when, out of habit, I used a geographical term commonly used in the US but politically incorrect in the country where I was working.

Across the globe, teachers, artists, clerics and ordinary citizens are denied freedoms guaranteed by the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights — to gather, to petition, to express opinions in books, paintings, cartoons, songs and social media–even the right to dress as they choose. They face the same anxiety as I did–and far worse: Loss of jobs, harassment, intimidation, jail, torture and even death.

RePRESSed will highlight the stories of those who have been silenced and explore ongoing debates about free speech, free expression and whether–and to what extent–they should be regulated.  And RePRESSed will encourage you, the reader, to comment and share your own thoughts, experiences and stories.

Cecily Hilleary
Cecily began her reporting career in the 1990s, covering US Middle East policy for an English-language network in the UAE. She has lived and/or worked in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf, consulting and producing for several regional radio and television networks and production houses, including MBC, Al-Arabiya, the former Emirates Media Incorporated and Al-Ikhbaria. She brings to VOA a keen understanding of global social, cultural and political issues.

About

About rePRESSEDed

VOA reporter Cecily Hilleary monitors the state of free expression and free speech around the world.

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