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Saudi teenager granted asylum in Canada, Palestinian journalists 'collateral victims' and 26 Bahrainis stripped of citizenship

In Egypt, Mohamed al-Gheiti was sentenced to one year in prison for interviewing a gay man; 26 Bahrainis were stripped of their citizenship; In Saudi Arabia, Israa Al-Ghomgham's trial was postponed and the threat of a death penalty lifted, and Rahaf Mohammed was granted asylum in Canada after massive social media attention; Iraqi photojournalist Samer Ali Hussain killed; and journalists 'collateral victims' in Hamas-Fatah rivalry.

Saudi asylum seeker Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun smiles as she is introduced to the media at Toronto Pearson International Airport, 12 January 2019
Saudi asylum seeker Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun smiles as she is introduced to the media at Toronto Pearson International Airport, 12 January 2019

Cole Burston/Getty Images

The issue of freedom of the press in Egypt was once again highlighted with the sentencing of TV presenter Mohamed al-Gheiti on 24 January 2019 to one year in prison for interviewing a gay man. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), al-Gheiti was sentenced by a Giza Misdemeanor Court for "promoting homosexuality and inciting debauchery". This marks a new development in Egypt's already notorious crackdown on its LGBTQI+ population, as Human Rights Watch (HRW) pointed out, as it is being extended to journalists who even discuss their situation.

This crackdown is combined with what Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called the 'Sisification' of Egypt's media, which is being increasingly controlled by a handful of individuals connected to the state and the secret services as well as those with close ties to the former president Hosni Mubarak, ousted during the 2011 revolution. This is detailed in RSF's newly released Media Ownership Monitor Egypt. To highlight this issue, and in anticipation of French president Macron's three-day visit to Egypt on 27 January, RSF published the portraits of ten Egyptian journalists currently imprisoned, although the total is at least 32. Early in January, al-Sisi claimed in an interview that his government held no political prisoners, a statement condemned as a lie by HRW, which estimates the number to be at over 60,000.

Furthermore, on 25 January, various human rights groups, including IFEX members Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) and Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), signed a statement calling on al-Sisi to declare that he will respect the constitution and leave office upon the end of his term in June 2022.

Bahrain has itself over 4,000 political prisoners, according to Americans for Human Rights and Democracy in Bahrain (ADHRB). Among the many methods used to crack down on dissent in the kingdom is the stripping away of citizens' nationality, with the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) documenting 26 such cases shortly before 4 January. These apply to people sentenced over various charges, including those forced to make 'confessions' under torture. Meanwhile, human rights activist Dr. Abduljalil al-Singace spent yet another birthday in prison on 15 January and leading opposition figure, Sheikh Ali Salman, had his life sentence upheld by the kingdom's Court of Cassation on 28 January. As ADHRB noted, Dr. al-Singace and Sheikh Ali Salman are serving life sentences for their peaceful participation in the 2011 revolution.

In Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) reported that woman human rights defender Israa Al-Ghomgham's trial did not take place as was planned on 13 January, and then announced on 1 February that she is no longer facing the death penalty. She was arrested along with her husband Mousa Al-Hashim on 6 December 2015, and they are both still in jail. Al-Ghomgham's case made international headlines due to the fact that the Public Prosecutor called for her execution by beheading, which would make her the first woman to be executed for her activism in Saudi Arabia.

Besides that, the month started with some good news as the Saudi teenager Rahaf Mohammed safely reached Canada on 12 January after being granted asylum following a worldwide online campaign. She had been detained a week earlier by Thai authorities at the request of the Saudi government. Rahaf said that she had renounced Islam, a crime punishable by death in Saudi Arabia, and said that she was fleeing an abusive family. HRW noted that under Saudi Arabia's male guardianship system, she had no legal right to make basic decisions "without the agreement of her male guardian".

In Iraq, photojournalist Samer Ali Hussain was killed in unknown circumstances on the night of 9 January, according to the GCHR. His body was found with gunshot wounds east of Baghdad, prompting GCHR to call for an independent investigation into his death. His death came shortly after the Iraqi parliament completed its first reading of the infamous draft Cybercrime Law on 12 January, although the two events don't seem to be connected. The Cybercrime Law, if passed without necessary amendments, would criminalise, among other things, those who are accused of "prejudice" against the "independence, unity, integrity or economic, political, military or security interests of the country". The vague language of this article and others would, as GCHR noted, make it easy for authorities to make use of the law to target human rights defenders or other dissidents. Furthermore, Kurdish forces attacked seven journalists and media staff while they were covering protests against a Turkish military base in Shaladze in northern Iraqi Kurdistan, according to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). Authorities also shut down the office of the local television they reported for, NRT, in Duhok city.

In Lebanon, Maharat Foundation and Social Media Exchange (SMEX), both members of the Advisory Committee, took part in the first Lebanon Internet Governance Forum (LIGF) in November 2018. They were part of the country's civil society calling for, among other things, freedom of expression and opposing the trial of civilians in military courts for expressing their opinions online. Maharat also tried to include the country's youth in the Internet Governance Forum with the "Take Your Seats" campaign. IFEX has published an English translation of Maharat's report on the conference, which includes several videos.

SMEX confirmed on 23 January 2019 that Grindr, a popular online dating application used by Lebanon's LGBTQI+ population, was blocked on the main 3G and 4G mobile data networks. In a statement co-signed by ARTICLE 19 among others, SMEX requested clarification by the Lebanese Ministry of Telecommunications. SMEX is also calling on people to help them map blocked websites in Lebanon in 2019.

In Palestine, the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA) released their report for December 2018 in which they documented 43 attacks on media freedoms, 32 of which were committed by Israeli occupation forces while the remaining 11 were committed by Palestinian forces. Meanwhile, the Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media (7amleh), in cooperation with Privacy International, released a report on 28 January entitled Connection Interrupted in which they detail Israel's control over Information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure in the West Bank and Gaza. 7amleh also organised the Palestinian Digital Activism Forum between 16 and 18 January in which over 30 representatives from human rights and media groups, as well as journalists, activists and other actors from throughout Israel/Palestine, spoke about digital media and digital rights.

This comes as Palestinian journalists Zaid Abu Ara, a reporter for the London-based Quds Press News Agency, and Motasem Saqf al-Hit, a photographer for the Hamas-affiliated Quds News Network, were arrested by Palestinian Preventive Security officers on 31 December 2018, according to CPJ. Just a few days later, on 5 January, the executive director of the Gaza branch of the Fatah-affiliated Palestinian Journalists' Syndicate, Louay al-Ghoul, was arrested by Hamas and detained for 2 days. This was then followed by Palestinian Preventive Security forces arresting and raiding the home of Yousef al-Faqeeh, a reporter for the London-based Quds Press News Agency, on 16 January. In response to these latest developments, RSF called on Hamas and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority "not to turn journalists into the collateral victims of their rivalry" on 28 January.

In Brief

In Iran, two labor rights activists were re-arrested on 20 January after alleging that authorities had tortured them in detention, according to HRW. Sepideh Gholian, who is also a journalist, and Ismael Bakhsi were re-arrested a day after Iranian state television broadcasted confessions that they claim they were forced to make while in detention. Furthermore, on 23 January journalist Yashar Soltani was sentenced to five years in jail after he reported on corruption in Tehran land deals, according to CPJ.

Libya's Government of National Accord (GNA) was handed a letter on 10 January by at least 140 journalists from 20 media outlets urging it to stop the attacks on media freedom and ensure a safe working environment for journalists, according to the IFJ. As if confirming the urgency of the letter, 35-year-old photographer Mohamed Ben Khalifa was killed while covering clashes between militia groups in the south of the country's capital, Tripoli, on 21 January.

In Jordan, two journalists from Jfranews, Shadi al-Zinati and Omar Sabra al-Mahrama, were arrested on 17 January after Omar Malhas, Jordan's Finance Minister, filed a complaint against an article accusing him of tax evasion was published on the website. According to reports cited by CPJ, the director of the Department of Income and Sales Tax claimed the Jfranews report was inaccurate.

In Morocco, HRW called on authorities on 18 January to "immediately abandon attempts to dissolve" Racines, a cultural group, over comments made by guests on one of their shows in which they criticised the King's speeches and policies.

In Oman, GCHR reported that the authorities are continuing to arrest bloggers and internet activists who support the Palestinian cause following Israeli prime minister Netanyahu's visit in October 2018.

In Syria, on 11 January RSF commemorated five years since citizen-journalist and activist Amir Hamed was abducted by gunmen from his home in Derbasiyah, in North-Eastern Syria.

In Yemen, a cameraman working for Abu Dhabi TV, Ziad al-Sharaabi, was killed in a bomb attack in the port city of Mokha, according to IFJ. Faisal al-Dhahbani, a reporter for the same network who was also present, was wounded.

CPJ expressed concerns over a 30 January report by Reuters which claimed that at least four journalists were surveilled under a UAE cybersurveillance and hacking operation named "Project Raven" with the complicity of former US National Security Agency employees.

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