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By Mónica G. Prieto · (Beirut) / Translation: Blanca García
  • Social networks become a battlefield for pro-democrats and Bashar
  • Asad’s followers
  • The Syrian Electronic Army, firm advocates for the regime, has dozens of thousands of active members

Screenshot of a Syrian citizen’s video during the slaughter president Assad’s Army carried out in the city of Hama, in which according to the Syria Center for Human Rights at least 90 people were murdered and dozens wounded on Sunday.

The situation was the usual one in times of revolution and fear: a military checkpoint, several uniformed men stopping the cars to search for weapons or activists and a car with two young Syrians frightened by the prospect of an arrest.

-What do you have in the car?

– Nothing, nothing.

-Are you sure? You don’t have any Facebooks in the trunk?

The boys’ faces went from fear and distrust to utter stupefaction, tells Rami Nakhle as he twists with laughter. “They don’t even know what that Facebook thing is, but they’ve heard that it’s very bad and that they need to ask”, he explains as he bursts out laughing in his home in Beirut, a modest apartment with ashtrays full of cigarette butts and coffee mugs everywhere.

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By Mónica G. Prieto/ Translation: Blanca García
  • The regimes start the online persecution of cyber activists in Bahrain, Syria or Saudi Arabia
  • “There is a war going on in cyberspace”, explains the manager of the NGO Insan
  • The Damascus regime tortures social network users into giving up their passwords to get to other dissidents

Image captured by an activist of a mass arrest in the town of Al Baida, close to Banias. (Syrian Uprising 2011 Information Center. Facebook)

The war that pits the Arab dictatorships against its population has been going on in the internet for some time. Each search for the words Syria, Bahrain, Libya or Yemen in social networks runs into an avalanche of abuse reports done by activists but also by their antitheses, messages from followers of the regime willing to discredit, humiliate and refute their opponents. From denying the very existence of the demonstrations to insulting the organizers and protesters.

“Of course the protesters are fired. I would fire anyone who skipped work”, writes Bahraini user @mohamedhasan89 on Twitter, justifying the dismissal of 1,600 Shiite workers from their jobs, accused of having supported the demonstrations, as part of the regime’s strategy to silence the protests. “The protesters complain that they are insulted when they get arrested. The next thing they’ll say is that they gave them tea in plastic cups”, satirizes @sheeshaBH. At least four people have died in the tortures that take place during the interrogations, and almost a thousand have been arrested since the protests started.

But the interrogators have a new question in their survey: the passwords for the arrestee’s social network accounts.  Because there is something new happening on the net: as the revolutions come to a standstill drowned by the bullets of the men in uniform, repression spreads through the internet. The dictatorships have recruited volunteers to thwart the cyber activists, especially dangerous because of their ability to summon people and especially because of their coverage of the events, to the unrest of regimes who thought that shutting off the press from their countries was enough so that nothing would come out. The videos, photos and comments uploaded on social networks are enough to show the regimes up and expose their crimes.

Mohamed al Maskati, head of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, found one morning pictures of his private residence going around the internet, as well as his address, phone number, picture and calls to “murder and do away with him”. “It is the second time it happens”, he explains to Periodismo Humano from a chat room in Manama. “The Government’s supporters upload my information on Facebook, Twitter and forums, accuse me of treason and insult me”. Mohamed plays down its importance because he is not the only one to undergo such harassment, but he denounces that the campaign of repression has reached the networks and crystallizes on Facebook walls bombarded with insults and threats, defamatory Twitter messages and offensive posts in the Blogs of the main activists.

In Bahrain, seven well-known cyber activists have already been arrested, three are missing and three more have been threatened, among them Maskati himself. Also in that list is Nabil Rajaab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and active tweeter. Last Saturday, his home was attacked with smoke bombs: one broke through his brother’s bedroom window. “We went through frightening moments rescuing my brother, his wife and daughter since they came close to asphyxiating. It is an attempt to murder members of my family to pressure me into quitting my humanitarian activity”, he said to CNN. “Thank god the smoke bombs fell on the tiles and not on the rugs, they could have killed my whole family while we slept”.

On Facebook, Maskati and other activists like Frontline Defenders regional director Abdulhadj al Khawaja, accused of “terrorism” by the regime, are showered with insults, although there is also a group created to support them. These are not isolated incidents. Suddenly multiple groups that support the repressing regimes have come up. Some reports are starting to come up on arrests in which passwords to private profiles are obtained amid beatings to trail other dissidents, as well as on interrogations about comments written on Twitter. And Bahrain is not the exception but the rule in the Arab revolts.

“We are witnessing this phenomenon in Syria, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Morocco, but I am sure that it also happens in all the other places”, explains by e-mail Jillian York, Electronic Freedom Foundation’s director for International Freedom of Expression, especially interested in watching over the infiltration of governments on the network of networks. “We had already seen similar scenarios in Iran, of course, and I am positive that as long as the revolts continue, we will keep seeing them in more places”.

Image captured by an activist of a demonstration in Banias. (Syrian Uprising 2011 Information Center. Facebook)

“There is a war in itself going on in cyberspace”, asserts Wissam Tarif, director of the Human Rights NGO Insan. And like in every war, there are victims already. “Many cyber activists have ceased their activities because of the repression. And many Human Rights advocates have gone away out of fear of being arrested. Bahrain is not an appropriate place for them”, explains Maskati.

It is a broad phenomenon. In Saudi Arabia, where there are some timid protests to protest for the discrimination of the Shiite minority, recently a Facebook group called Teach me to drive so I can protect myself has been shut down. It tried to make the traditional Saudi society aware of the need of women being able to get behind the wheel and called a massive female driving day for June 17th. In the Wahabi kingdom, where the most rigid interpretation of Islam is its body of law, cars are reserved for men, which forces the families to hire drivers who can take the females to work, to school with their kids or to the hospital. Manal al Sherief, promoter of the Facebook group, was arrested last Saturday by the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the religious police. Her crime: uploading a video on YouTube in which she could be seen driving.

“How could Facebook have shut down the group? In theory, only the Facebook staff has the authority to close down a group if it does not follow the terms of use”, wonders a Saudi journalist living in Lebanon. “This looks as if the Saudi regime has the power to close it down with one simple call”, she suggests. Censorship did not stop there: the Wahabi dictatorship had no scruples about blocking, one day later, Omaima al Najjar’s blog, a woman who had shown her repulse about Manal’s arrest and demanded her liberation.

Imagen de previsualización de YouTube

In Syria the situation of those citizens who film and upload examples of the bloody repression on the network to broadcast the crimes of Bashar Asad’s dictatorship is dramatic. The activists report that the regime’s followers have created Twitter and Facebook accounts and YouTube channels to spread their version of what is happening, according to which, terrorists paid by outside countries hide behind the protests and murder members of the Security forces forcing the repression, to maintain security.

In an article published by the New York Times, several Syrian dissidents explained how they had been, during their arrests, forced to give up their passwords to enter their accounts on social networks. Once they were set free, they found their walls full of messages supporting Bashar Asad. Moreover, the country’s 3G network is starting to have blackouts to prevent videos from being uploaded on the internet from cell phones. Syria’s telephone network is run by the governing family.

It is a desperate attempt to finish with the continuous leak of news and pictures of the repression of peaceful protests. There are an estimated 580,000 users with a Facebook account right now in Syria, 105% more than three months ago, when the regime opened to social networks pretending to be immune to the Arab spring, according to Fadi Salem, director of Dubai School of Government’s Innovation and Government program. Not all of them used connectivity to denounce the regime’s crimes: the most curious case is the Syrian Electronic Army, a Facebook group in which they explained how to attack cyber dissidents using technology. Facebook closed it down for violating its terms of use.

“The same way that, years ago, it became common to talk about the Web 2.0, now we are seeing Repression 2.0”, explained Saniel B. Baer, assistant to the Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor in the US, in declarations to the Washington Post. The means are sophisticated judging from Hillary Clinton’s declarations last April. “In some countries, democratic and Human Rights activists and independent bloggers find their email addresses hacked or their computers infected with spyware. Digital activists are being tortured to get their passwords”.

It is a fact that Arab bloggers are being persecuted by the authorities. And that the generous, open Internet policy undertaken by countries like Syiria –opposed to the information blackout used by the dictatorship in Egypt to abort its revolt- has had positive consequences, but now starts to have negative effects. “Using [the Internet] for activism is a risky bet. It may work if the regime you work against is not rough or powerful enough. If you win fast, Facebook is the tool to use. If not, it becomes very dangerous”, explains Peter Eckersley, another member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

But, will this cyber repression campaign end the Arab spring? “It depends on how effective or important the Internet is in this uprising”, continues Jillian York. “In Tunisia or Egypt we have seen the incredible role technology has played, but in Syria, for example, we have not seen the same online activism, so cyber attacks have less impact. On the other hand, the way the Syrian regime uses the Internet to go after activists –literally getting their passwords and then arresting them- implies that some of the better-connected and better-informed activists disappeared, either because they are arrested or because they are hiding. Anyway, we are worried that the [cyber dissidence] movement will be, from now, less effective”.