Egypt and Thailand: When the military turns against free speech

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Ziad Reslan

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Wael Abbas, a human rights activist focused on police brutality in Egypt, has been under arrest since May on charges of spreading fake news and “misusing social media.” Andy Hall, a labor rights researcher, has been fighting charges under Thailand’s computer crime laws because of a report published online that identified abuses of migrant workers.

You wouldn’t normally mention Egypt and Thailand in the same breath. But both countries underwent military coups within the last five years, and even among the many oppressive regimes in the world, they are going to extra lengths today to prosecute free speech. 

Abbas and Hall are just two examples of hundreds of recent prosecutions. In 2017 alone, Egyptian security forces arrested at least 240 people based on online posts. Three years after the coup, Thai authorities had charged more than 105 people just for posting comments deemed offensive to the monarchy. 

To be clear, neither country has ever been a bastion of free speech. Thailand has been ranked “not free” seven out of the eight years that political-rights nonprofit Freedom House has published its Freedom on the Net Report. Egypt’s score has steadily declined since the height of the Arab Spring, going from “partly free” to “not free” in the last three years.      

Sanja Kelly has been with Freedom House for 14 years and has headed its Internet Freedom division since 2010. She tells me that what’s especially alarming is the extent to which authorities in both Egypt and Thailand have gone to silence online dissent. Activists and dissidents may well anticipate persecution around the world, but today housewives, students and even tourists in Egypt and Thailand have become the target of prosecutions for as little as posting a video or responding to a private message on social media.

Over the last five years both Egypt and Thailand have experienced an unprecedented crackdown on internet freedom. “In 2015, the Egyptian government blocked only two websites. Today, they are blocking over 500,” Kelly explained. “The situation in Egypt and Thailand is now among the most repressive in the world.” 

Egypt

Since El-Sisi seized power in 2013 in a coup, the Egyptian government has taken drastic steps to clamp down online. In its latest move, the government enacted a law in September that makes any social media user with more than 5,000 followers subject to regulation as a publisher. So now in Egypt, if you have more than 5,000 Twitter followers, for example, you’re subject to the same regulations that the New York Times has on what it publishes.

It wasn’t always like this. Back in 2011, Facebook and Twitter were hailed as drivers behind the Arab Spring. The protests that resulted led to the toppling of Hosni Mubarak who had ruled the country for nearly 30 years. At their height, many journalists even started calling the protests the “Twitter uprising” and the “Facebook revolution.”

Kelly tells me that freedom on the internet in Egypt has been getting progressively worse since Sisi seized power. Even under Mubarak, the authorities were not as concerned with policing speech on the internet. But that has completely changed since 2013.    

Kelly adds that the measures Egyptian authorities passed this year were intended to tighten their grip on social media and internet use even further. The result has been more and more Egyptians being arrested, with the authorities using a combination of laws to bring charges. 

Thailand

Thailand has long been known for its strict application of its lèse majesté laws under which any criticism of the Thai king or his family can lead to years in jail. But since the 2014 military coup, the enforcement of these laws has gone into overdrive. The ruling military junta in Thailand has also beefed up computer crimes and defamation laws to make it all but impossible to express dissent online.     

According to Human Rights Watch, since the coup in 2014, the junta has ramped up arrests under the 2007 Computer-Related Crime Act (CCA). Last year, the military amplified the 2007 law by providing grounds for the government to prosecute anything they designate as “false,” “partially false,” or “distorted” information, a determination that the government itself gets to make.

Even criticism of the changes to the law itself were outlawed, with the Thai Army Cyber Center warning that posting or sharing online commentary that criticizes the law could be considered false information and result in prosecution.

Kelly tells me that, while the CCA and lèse majesté laws have long been used to stifle online dissent, the amendments last year granted Thai authorities even broader powers. They closed down loopholes in earlier versions of the law, including allowing authorities to jail people for critical messages they receive on their phone even if they don’t share them. This means that if you get a Facebook message in Thailand today criticizing the royal family, then you are under an obligation to delete the message or face prosecution.

Andy Hall found himself in the middle of this progression towards heavier handed enforcement. A labor rights activist, Hall conducted research for a report for the group Finnwatch that found that the Natural Fruit Company, Thailand’s largest producer of pineapples, mistreated its workers. Hall then faced criminal prosecution under the CCA and cyber defamation laws for the report’s publication online and for an interview he later gave to Al-Jazeera about the report. 

Speaking to me from an undisclosed location, Hall tells me he has spent more than $100,000 defending the criminal charges against him — mainly fundraised from supporters — and the better part of the last five years dealing with the charges and his appeals. He admits things could have been much worse: “If I weren’t a British citizen and my case hadn’t gotten as much attention as it has, then I’m not sure I’d be around today to tell my story. Many Thai citizens have lost their lives doing similar work.”

Hall didn’t set out to be a freedom of speech crusader, he had dropped out of his PhD program in 2005 to move to Southeast Asia to become a labor rights investigator, only to find himself in the crosshairs of the country’s defamation laws in 2013. When he was first charged, the government asked him to make a public apology denouncing his research. When he refused, the prosecution continued with his passport being confiscated at one point to prevent him from leaving the country.

Now having taken refuge in a third country, Hall tells me that the actions of the government — especially its increased enforcement of cyber defamation laws over the last year — has bred fear among activists and has had a chilling effect on the work of human rights advocates in Thailand.  

It’s Not Just Activists

According to Kelly, one especially worrying trend about Thailand and Egypt’s increased prosecutions is that authorities have been increasingly willing to go after anyone they deem critical online, not just seasoned activists. Housewives, students and even tourists.

Just in September, a Lebanese tourist was arrested on her way out of Egypt for posting a ten-minute video on Facebook that had gone viral. In the video, she’d complained of sexual harassment she’d experienced while in the country. She was found guilty of deliberately spreading fake news and public indecency for just speaking out about what had been done to her. She now faces an eight year-sentence.

Over in Thailand, a housewife faced up to 15 years in prison for violating lèse-majesté laws because she had responded to a Facebook message critical of the government with one word, “ja” (roughly “yeah” in Thai). While a law student was sentenced to 2.5 years last year under the same laws for sharing a BBC article profiling the new Thai king.

Role of Facebook and Twitter

What role have social media platforms played in all of this? To their credit, companies like Facebook and Twitter have not been silent bystanders who’ve simply applied these draconian laws blindly. To begin with, they enforce community standards for what can and can’t be posted on their platforms, and they don’t modify the standards themselves based on any one country’s repressive defamation laws. Though they do take down content that does not violate these standards when forced to do so by governments under local law or at least block access to that content from within a country.

Both Facebook and Twitter also publish periodic transparency reports that aggregate the number of requests they get from governments to take down posts or obtain information on users.  

A review of the transparency reports for each of Egypt and Thailand though shows that the number of requests are remarkably low given their respective populations and the wide use of Facebook in each of these countries. Facebook says that in 2017 it only received seven requests from Thai authorities and just one from the Egyptians. In response, Facebook provided 17% of data requested by Thais and did not provide any data to the Egyptian government (compared to 32,000 requests by the US government with an 85% production rate by Facebook over the same period).

So how can the number of prosecutions based on social media posts be reconciled with the low number of requests? Kelly tells me it’s likely because Thai and Egyptian authorities have found ways to circumvent platforms altogether knowing that their requests will not be complied with.

What Freedom House has documented instead is arms of the government dedicated to monitoring what’s posted on social media. In the case of Twitter, Thai and Egyptian governments filter for certain words and then use the publicly available tweets as a basis for prosecution. With private Facebook posts, governments go one step further. They create fake profiles with pictures of attractive men and women, send a friend request to their target and get access to a profile when their friend request is accepted. They then use whatever private posts they find to prosecute.   

In one case in Egypt, Kelly tells me the government scanned pictures on Facebook from a concert at which the rainbow flag was displayed. Egyptian authorities then went after the people it could identify from these pictures on the basis of violating morality laws. Using online platforms to entrap members of the LGBTQ community has become a favorite tool of repression by Egyptian authorities. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, at least 77 members of the LGBTQ community have been arrested since the coup for their online expression.

Are Egypt and Thailand the worst offenders?

Even though Egypt and Thailand have rung alarm bells this year with the sheer number of prosecutions of online speech, they are still not the worst offenders against speech online. Kelly names Saudi Arabia, China, the UAE, North Korea, and Iran as just some examples of worse offenders. The difference, Kelly explains, is that the regimes in those countries have become extremely adept at fighting online dissent.

The fact that there may have been more prosecutions in Egypt and Thailand this year doesn’t tell the whole story. People in the other countries that Kelly names have just given up on the ability to express dissent online. China’s clampdown doesn’t even need to get to the user level – instead they have companies like Baidu and WeChat control and filter messages at the provider level before they’re even published. Egypt and Thailand are operating at a lower level of sophistication and have a strong and active civil society – which means people there still see a bigger opening and haven’t become completely self-censoring.

The question then becomes, how long will it be before Thailand and Egypt turn into the next China or Saudi Arabia? Will dictatorships be converging in their practices to stifle online speech? Social media may have turned the world into a global village, but it seems that village is also enabling dictators on opposite ends of the globe to better learn from each other’s repressive measures.

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