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Censorship and Social Activism in the Middle East and North Africa

This report was published in conjunction with SecDev

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This report examines how key countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) used censorship and surveillance to repress social activism before and during the recent political upheavals of the Arab Spring. Its purpose is to provide the BBC with perspective on how internet services were affected by these events. Key takeaways include:

  • BBC news is regarded as an important information authority for most MENA audiences: Ensuring access is vital. The BBC is one of the preeminent broadcasters in the MENA region, alongside Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. Its news website is highly valued by Arab bloggers and the wider population, as indicated by site visits: it is the fourth most popular website for Arab bloggers to link to (after YouTube, English- language Wikipedia and AlJazeera). User patterns during the recent protests – including large spikes in user numbers and page views – underline the importance of BBC as a news provider and fact-checker. Views of BBC Arabic peaked towards the end of January, when the uprising in Egypt was in full swing, with nearly two million unique visitors. When Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan in early May 2011, visitors blocked to the website.
  • Local, user-generated content is vital to au- thentic reporting in today’s cyber-enabled world. Local bloggers, front-line videos of ongoing events, and local comments on broadcaster websites offer important perspectives on what is going on during times of political turmoil, especially in states where the traditional media are state- controlled or influenced. The Arabic ‘blogosphere’ is large and diverse, providing political commentary alongside discussion of human rights, religion and domestic issues. And YouTube, in particular has proven to be an important vehicle for informing both local and international audiences.
  • Local voices can be silenced: Develop a multi-faceted strategy for ensuring access. User-generated content – which relies heavily on access to an open internet and services such as Google’s Blogger or YouTube – is vulnerable to state-imposed blocking and censorship, especially during times of political turmoil. If the BBC wants to retain access to user-generated content during times of trouble, it is important to ensure that the ways of getting content to the BBC are clearly displayed on all sites. This could include instructions for direct emailing, using circumvention technologies etc. The package of alternative communication pathways should be part of a de ned “local access” strategy.
  • Take care around social media. Much in- formation in the international media comes from social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, and from impromptu websites – such as when Iranian activists superimposed YouTube videos on a Google Map of Tehran to show where demonstrations were taking place. But information posted to social media sites should be approached with caution. While information may be accurate for a local area, it may not be representative of what is happening in a country overall. In addition, authorities can compromise open online communication, by waging information campaigns and targeting activists. Finally, undue international attention can create misleading assumptions about the role of social media in causing protests. In reality, offline communication – text messaging and phone calls – are just as, if not more, important in organizing action, even though they remain inaccessible to external observers.
  • You can be blocked: Develop a multi-faceted strategy for information dissemination. Broadcasters need to be creative and nimble when their services are blocked. For instance, Al Jazeera uses bloggers to feed information back into countries when their own signals are blocked. Devising a multi-faceted counter-blocking strategy is vital.
  • Circumvention tools provide one obvious pillar. Others include the creation of alter- native channels for information dissemina- tion and in-country networks to maintain a presence and in uence and (see next two points).
  • Don’t rely solely on the internet, and make sure your audiences know your alternative dissemination methods. While online dissemination is a must, it should not replace alternative and traditional channels. When the internet is blocked, audiences should know what their of ineoptions for access are. The campaign needs to start now: audiences need to know the options before it becomes necessary to use them. In the case of the BBC, this includes partner-delivered content, dial-in audio, text mes- saging, and other services. Beyond this, it is important to remember that not everyone can access the internet or mobile phones, with women and the poor being particularly vulnerable to exclusion in many countries. Overall, satellite television, and to a lesser extent radio, remain just as important as the internet.
  • Create and leverage in-country networks. In several countries in the MENA region, international reporters are routinely subject to restrictions and must take extra care to ensure they avoid conflict with the authorities. Covering protests is particularly dangerous, as can be seen from the detention of reporters and the reported assaults that took place in Cairo during the revolution. While this should not discourage people from doing their jobs, having a strong network of local stringers and reporters who have better local knowledge and contacts is vital to ensuring safety for all concerned.
  • Country strategies, based on in-depth research, are necessary. Censorship prac- tices, as well as the demographics of online populations, differ from country to country. To be successful, access and dissemination strategies need to be tailored to each country.

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