Summary: the absolute control of media space in most Arab states effectively smothers freedom of expression and silences critics and opponents.
The Arab world has long been a black hole for freedom of speech and a survey of recent headlines from the Committee to the Protection of Journalists website about press freedom in Arab countries makes for gloomy reading. Egypt is described as “one of the world’s biggest jailers of journalists”. Saudi Arabia has seen waves of arrests, as well as the notorious murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018. In Iraq, journalists who dare to report the demands of the protesters are liable to be abducted or even killed by unidentified militias. And so it goes on.
Media strategy inside repressive Arab regimes, like so much else in absolute dictatorships, hinges on absolute secrecy. Secrecy has been the watchword of these regimes for so long, it has become part of national culture, second nature, so there is no need for orders or reminders.
The regime controls all data, statistics and information. Public access is highly restricted and no civil servant or administrator will release any information without express permission. In the rare event that secrecy is jeopardized, for example if a state document is intentionally or unintentionally made public, arrests and prosecutions always follow. Not only government information is secret – citizens are prosecuted for disclosing private information too. As a result, information about the inner workings of Arab regimes normally only emerges in one of two ways: through obligatory legal disclosures in western court cases or via unauthorised leaks.
While some Arab countries operate a censorship bureau, others like Saudi Arabia trust each editor-in-chief to do the censoring him or herself. All media personnel know their careers and lives depend entirely on whether they meet the regime’s expectations, every editor-in-chief is expertly attuned to the regimes’ wishes and knows the red lines well. Regimes insist their Western allies also respect their demand for secrecy, which is why CIA files on Saudi Arabia for example are often not declassified for 50 years and even then are redacted.
The regime’s unwritten aim and de facto media strategy is to praise and propagate myths about itself, while simultaneously demonising its opponents. The propaganda messages repeated ad nauseam are tediously familiar to all citizens –
- The regime is faithfully Islamic, legitimate and sanctioned by Islam
- Our kind of Islam is the best, our ulama the wisest with rulings most binding
- Citizens here are treated better than any other citizens in the world
- The economic and political situation is the best found anywhere in the world
- The regime is the fate and identity of the nation and criticism is the door to fitna and religious strife
- Any opponent of the regime is a criminal or foreign agent
- The state almost never errs but mistakes cannot be blamed on the leader
Arab interior ministries maintain branches of secret police who are responsible for psychological operations and manufacturing rumours through the media. Their job is to plant false information about the regime’s opponents, presenting rumours as coming from a well-placed, high-level source. To give but one example, Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman destroyed some of his opponents’ reputations during his purges by planting salacious scandals about them in Egyptian media.
Any positive reference about the regime published in the western media, or any positive comment made by any US or UK government official, is seized upon as an important statement of fact and every possible propaganda opportunity is wrung out of it. Political opposition groups like the Muslim Brotherhood are routinely branded as subhuman; there are frequent calls for attacks on opponents that could fairly be described as crimes against humanity, war crimes or genocide. According to the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, Egypt is currently rated the sixth most likely country to have another mass killing this year.
When social media first appeared it seemed to be a dream come true for freedom of speech in the Arab world, but it soon became clear it was actually a double-edged sword which regimes could wield even more effectively to target their opponents and control dissent.
Today the Internet is the favourite means of entrapment for authoritarian Arab regimes. Anyone criticizing the regime is tracked down through their IP address and arrested. Internet cafes all have cameras and photo ID is a universal requirement. The security services pay close attention to all websites, email exchanges, chat room communications, virtual lecture rooms, bulletin boards, upload/download services and opposition publications. They flood chatrooms and social networking sites posing as disgruntled youth to try to lure people into a false sense of security, or pose as opposition to try and trick people into making anti-regime comments.
When Saudi human rights advocates Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Yousef, Eman al-Nafjan and others were arrested in May 2018 State Security issued a statement accusing them of “suspicious contact with foreign parties” and undermining the “security and stability” of the state. The positive social media response to their cause represented a threat the authorities could not tolerate.
Successive waves of arrests over the last 3 years in Saudi Arabia targeting academics, clerics, human rights activists and people in the media have all had one thing in common: the people arrested were extremely influential on social media, with tens of millions of followers between them. Arresting them meant the regime decapitated the online debate and deprived the opposition of leadership, before it went ahead and flooded the arena with bots. (Twitter today has been effectively compromised as no one can tell any longer who’s a human, who’s a bot and who’s a spy.)
Hacking and surveillance have become the new normal, driving people across the Arab world fearfully to store their phones in another room or a disused microwave when they want to speak openly. If MBS can hack Amazon boss Jeff Bezos, they say, he can do it to me.
Though not admitting it, social media companies help the regimes censor and surveil the Internet enabling the arrest of critics, yet at the same time common criminals are allowed to operate with impunity. Paedophile, prostitution and slave websites operate openly in many Arab countries, despite repeated calls to moderators to shut them down, while activists who post messages in support of a free Palestine for example are closed down within 24 hours.
Internet access is controlled through a multilayered system which, besides physical restrictions, surveillance, monitoring, harassments and arrests, involves technical filtering and rafts of laws and regulations, including press and publication laws, penal codes, emergency laws, anti-terrorism laws, Internet-specific laws, ISPs Terms & Conditions, and telecommunications decrees. All public computers connect through a principal national gateway, in Saudi Arabia for example it is in King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology.
Interior ministries also maintain a large technical department devoted to the hunting down and destruction of opposition websites and a proxy system is used to block masses of western and pan-Arab media websites that criticize the regime or contravene censorship. This can be counterproductive, however, as the list of blacklisted websites sometimes turns out to be the best source of news available on any given Arab country, conveniently curated by a possibly sympathetic bureaucrat within the regime itself.