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Please take the time and read my post on Global Voices Advocacy on how far would go to defend the rights of your political enemies. Selected excepts:
What has this background to do with censorship though? When Rachad’s website was censored several blogs and websites carried the story including mine, with a petition to oppose all forms of censorship. Replies were extremely distrutful and vehement. Hchicha, a famous Algerian blogger who blogs in French, had a Youtube video that denounced censorship in all forms. He was attacked mercilessly and had multiple video replies. He says he was swamped with angry emails. I received emails to the tune that I am an islamist in disguise for starting the petition and had to alter the text to make it generic. “How dare you defend the rights of Islamists?” was their argument. These emails and Video replies were coming from people who, themselves, oppose the current regime to the core.
This brings me to the question: beyond the slogans and the principles, how far would you go in defending your political rival some fundamental human right, even if you know that the rival presents a substantial threat to your way of life? Upping the stakes once more, what if even the values that you’re defending for them may be substantially jeopardised in case they win power?
After the censorship case that was discovered last week, I went back to the text of the law 09-04 combating cybercrime. The law was made official on the 5th August 2009. The text of the law makes for some worrying reading and grants unprecedented powers to the state, unprecedented even in other countries. Multi national search engines providers such as Microsoft and Google may fall foul of the law if they operate in Algeria (MS does, Google owns the Google.dz domain but does not have a subsidiary there yet). Most worryingly, the law literally permits the state to spy and hack onto websites that it deems in breach of its vague cybercrime definitions without prior consent from a competent judge in some cases. However, the text of the law does not, to my knowledge, grant the state the power to censor any website that it wishes without permission from a judge.
Search engine providers and ISPs fall under the definition given in article 1 D: “Any entity that processes or stores computer data [that is in breach of the law]”. This applies to Microsoft, Google and other engines that store offending website caches and provide search engine results.
Articles 3, 4 and 7 give the state powers to eavesdrop and censor Internet content and detail cases when that is required, but the articles are explicit in that eavesdropping and censorship are only permissible with a renewable 6 month mandate by a competent judge. It is not clear how the Rachad website was censored. The Rachad movement is not very famous in Algeria, and some of its leaders are quite unpopular being former FIS members. Its mission is the “peaceful overthrow of this illegitimate government” but I have a hard time believing that Algerians will flock to them en masse. It is a pity how a group of activists in exile with a website and a YouTube channel can easily be regarded as a “threat to national security”. The state is effectively giving publicity and recognition to the movement by this act.
I could not find any judicial decision that declared the Rachad movement a threat. There was a case in April 2009 where a man was sentenced to 18 months in prison for writing “threatening content” on Rachad’s Internet Forums (The case was dealt with before the introduction of this law).
Article 5 is worrying. It grants the state the power to remotely hack and spy onto computer systems if required by a judge, but other websites and systems can be hacked into “quickly” if they are “connected” to the offending website. In effect, this grants the state the power to hack into any website in Algeria. The text of the law is explicit in that a judge should seek cooperation by other countries for websites that are hosted outside Algeria, but any website should remain vigilant just in case. I hope the irony of a law that forbids cybercrime for citizens and effectively legitimises it for the state is not lost here.
Articles 10 and 11 require “Internet providers” to store all communications and identifying information for a minimum of a year. The text of the law and the definitions given in article 2 give the impression that this applies to Internet café owners. Internet Cafés are the main venue for Internet users in Algeria, with some statistics putting the number of Internet cafés at 30000.
Article 13 and 14 introduce a new body for combating cybercrime, presumably this is the body that enforces censorship. The text of the law is not clear as to the nature of this body, what department it is under and what are its specific powers.
This whole law is in clear breach of several citizen rights as given in the constitution, including article 36 (explicit freedom of expression), article 39 (explicit right to privacy) and article 41 (freedom of assembly and speech). There is a state of emergency in force since 1992, so in practice the state can offend any of these rights willy-nilly with or without the new law.
Finally, please read and sign the Anti Censorship Petition if you are worried about these developments.
On an autumn day of September 2001 I arrived at Heathrow Airport, London from Algiers for the first time in my life. Only two weeks after the 9/11 events, the arrivals terminal looked very busy with passengers forming a long queue the spun like a snake around metallic posts, although in hindsight the long queue may be due to the strict controls being applied in the paranoid post 9/11 world of air travel. Barely a teenager, I was quite excited at the opportunities that lay ahead but very anxious at the prospect of being interviewed by border control, having heard plenty of horror stories. Legend has it that many people were interviewed rudely, held here for hours and days only to be rounded back home at the soonest available flight. I had applied and was granted a visa, but the visa application itself said that getting a visa is no guarantee for being accepted.
The atmosphere at the queue was unbearably tense. Security guards kept going back and forth moving people to interview rooms. The hall had numerous windows with one-way mirrors suggesting that all passengers are being watched. I waited patiently for my turn and made sure that I stare at no guard or mirror – yes, I was quite scared. Being of mixed Berber and Arab heritage, I look unmistakably middle eastern, brown of the North African variety, but not necessarily like the 9/11 hijackers. But you never know, we always all get lumped in the same bag, even Sikh and Indian people were racially abused and shot at after 9/11.
At the end of the queue stood a steward directing passengers to one of several border control desks as they become available. When it was my turn he looked at my posture, looked at my hand holding the green Algerian passport, and asked me to come to a small queue he held behind him. I discovered that I was joining several other passengers all of the same prototype: young, brown and male. An old Algerian in a suit in the “normal” queue got furious at the steward and asked him to clarify the treatment. I understood from the gestures of the steward and what few words I could pick up that it is “policy”. The old man still moved around angrily demanding answers and asked for the manager. I thought he was a noble and brave man but I was scared that he will get rounded up for defending us.
Meanwhile, our queue moved unbearably slow. Out of all the control desks one was dedicated to us. Once my turn came, the steward pointed me to the desk, at which sat a typical old British man with white hair. The old man lifted his forearm up, then with his back hand facing me he gestured with the index finger for me to come to the desk. The gesture was clearly made to intimidate me, but having the typical Algerian hot blood his manners made me more confident and gave me a rush of adrenaline to prepare for a shouting match that I thankfully restrained myself from getting into.
At the desk, language problems immediately manifested themselves. He looked at me in the eye from above his spectacles as he asked me something in English which I spoke very little of, so I just replied with my broken English: “I do not understand” in a je m’en fous way. I could hear him mutter a frustrated “Jesus Christ” as he held his head in his hand, flipping my passport with the other. Upon realising I was Algerian he asked me in French “Where is your Visa?”, I spoke French so I gave him the page number. Then came the flood of questions: how long are you staying? where are you going to study? for how long? where will you be staying? Who is waiting for you at the airport? do you have a French passport? and so on. Flipping through my passport, he phoned somewhere, from his gestures I assumed that he was establishing the authenticity of the passport. I stood there for over 15 minutes, then he stamped on my passport and asked me to join an adjacent room for a “medical” check.
Another queue at the room, again those being queued were of the same prototype. The “medical” check involved another examination of the passport and asking a few of the previously asked questions. The last question was whether I took vaccinations as a child, to which I replied in the affirmative. At baggage control, somehow I was again singled for a “random” check, which was quite thorough. I had a small bottle of high quality honey confiscated and was referred to have a “check” on my file in case the same “offence” was committed again, but somehow another staff asked me to just pack up and go, finally into the country. All in all, getting through border control took 3 hours of stress, and I am told I had it easy.
Throughout the next eight years I was more or less subjected to the same treatment (minus the special queues) every time I flew into Heathrow. Flying out always had me removing my belt, my shoes, nearly routinely getting singled out on the side for a thorough body check. Once I was pulled into a room where I had a border control officer “quiz” me about various subjects: What I thought about Islam and Bin Laden and other questions of that sort. I could barely hide a mixed face of frustration and laughter throughout the “interview”.
This profiling is, to me, too real not to assume it is not systematic. Some random checks may pick up the odd non prototype conforming passenger, but I have a hard time believing that all old ladies, young girls and businessmen were subjects to the same treatment. Therefore forgive me for chuckling and sadly shaking my head whenever one of these racial profiling debates flare up. In a discussion with some of my English white friends, some think that it is not a big deal and that I am not being targeted. This makes almost pull the lethal “but you’ve never been black or brown so you don’t know” card.
The profiling is already done in practice, and is undoubtedly codified in some internal memos as recently discovered in the United States. The question should not merely be whether racial profiling should be done or not, but whether 8 years (or perhaps more) of it have prevented terrorist attacks and whether the moral costs justify the small or non existant security gain. It need not be said that for all the profiling that I and people like me were subjected to in the UK, it is British men that caused the 7/7 bombings in London. These people would normally whiz through the specially marked EU border control desks at Heathrow. Any suggestion of racial profiling for British people in the UK or for Americans in the US will be laughed out of court. For a would be terrorist, the problem of getting citizenship of the target country of attack is a side issue. History shows us that no amount of bureaucratic paperwork prevents ideologically motivated attacks. Security measures are just a smoke screen that serve to discourage the target countries from seriously thinking about their acts on the international stage and the hate they generate.
But here is the cracker though: suppose that racial profiling was “officially” approved, and that the next attacks (god forbid) are committed by a non racially profiled attacker. The embarrassment this potential scenario would cause to the authorities is unthinkable. It remind me of the embarrassment, frustration and total loss that the French experienced through the Algerian War 1954-1962.
At the start of that war, Algerians took to the mountains to fight against the French military. The French stepped up security measures and installed checkpoints everywhere. The Algerian fighters countered by wearing their wives’ clothes to get past the controls. Then in the Battle of Algiers, key to the Algerian attacks were Yassef’s girls, totally european’ised and blending well with the white Pierds Noirs, some of them even took a habit of flirting with security guards as they got though their checkpoints to plant bombs everywhere in Algiers. When the French lost the war they discovered that all along numerous white French and Pierds Noirs, men and women alike helped the Algerians all along and were instrumental in moving key Algerian fighters around the country and for organising money collections for them.
لا لحجب الإنترنت بالجزائر – Non à la censure de l’Internet en Algérie – No to Internet Censorship in Algeria
The Algerian authorities have started an Internet filter, and inaugurated the year 2010 by a first ban on an opposition website (More details in this post). Today it’s this opposition movement, tomorrow it can be your blog or website, and some day it may even be Youtube or Facebook.
Clearly it is time to actively fight against this blatant act of censorship. We call on all Algerian internet citizens around the globe to participate in the campaign for freedom of speech and against censorship in the country. Venues of action include:
Sign the Petition against Internet Censorship in Algeria. Email it around to your friends. The petition’s text is pasted below.
- Internet Activism:
Post about the petition on your Blog. If you have graphics capabilities, you can create banners and graphics so that various websites and Blogs can use them.
- Social Networks:
Raise awarness about the issue. Post on Facebook, MySpace and any other social network or Internet forum. The more Algerians know about this, the better.
Use Twitter‘s power to spread the petition. Use “#Algeria” or “#Algerie” tags.
- Other banned websites:
Keep a watch on other opposition websites in case they get censored. Report all censorship cases to HerdictWeb. The more reports, the better. There may be cases where only a select of ISP’s censor a website.
- Working around the filter:
If you are inside Lebled (Algeria), use this feedburner link to read some of the banned website website’s entries. Spread the link around. The authorities need to realise that banning a website is counter productive and will actually make it more famous.
(Texte en français ci-dessous – English text below)
خلال سنة 2009 ذكرت الصحف المحلية الجزائرية أن السلطات الجزائرية تستعد لوضع برنامج حجب مواقع إنترنت لمكافحة “الجريمة الحاسوبية” و المواقع “الإرهابية” و “الإباحية”. ويجري حاليا إعداد القوانين لجعل التحايل على الحجب جريمة جنائية.
وقد تلقى مستخدمو الإنترنت الجزائريين مثل هذه الأخبار بقلق، خوفا من أن يستخدم الحجب لأغراض سياسية. وجاء الدليل الأول في الفاتح من يناير/جانفي 2010، إذ تم حجب مواقع لمنظمات معارضة سلمية لا تندرج تحت الفئات المذكورة أعلاه.
تحدد السلطات قائمة المواقع المحجوبة دون استشارة متصفحي الإنترنت. وتخضع لرقابة هيئة لم يفصح عنها بعد، وعملية الرقابة غير شفافة، إذ لا تُقدّم مبررات لحجب موقع، أو وسائل للاحتجاج عليها ومعارضتها.
مما يعني أن الحكومة ستستعمل الحجب لأغراض سياسية لمنع المواقع المعارضة لها، والتي تنشر أفكار مخالفة لها.
إننا ندين بشدة هذه الممارسة التعسفية التي تعتبر خرقا واضحا لمبادئ حرية التعبير وحرية المعلومات كما تحددها المادة 19 من ” اﻟﻌﻬﺪ الدولي الخاص بالحقوق المدنية والسياسية” ، الذي وقّعت عليه الجزائر يوم 10 ديسمبر 1968 وصدّقت عليه في 12 سبتمبر 1989.
إن الدولة الجزائرية و الشعب الجزائري يطمحان إلى المثل العليا “كالحرية” و ” الديمقراطية “، القيم التي ضحى من أجلها آباؤنا وأجدادنا منذ عقود، والرقابة على الإنترنت هو انتهاك صارخ لهذه القيم و يجب أن يتوقف.
Au cours de l’année 2009, la presse locale algérienne a rapporté que les autorités algériennes préparaient un filtre Internet afin de combatre le “cybercrime”, et les sites “terroristes” et “pornographiques”. Des lois sont actuellement à l’état de projets afin de classer comme crime le contournement du filtre.
Les internautes algériens ont reçu cette nouvelle avec inquiétude, craignant que le filtre ne soit utilisé à des fins politiques. La preuve est faite le 1er janvier 2010. En ce premier jour de l’année, on a découvert que des sites Internet d’une organisation d’opposition pacifique ont été bloqué en Algérie. Ces sites n’entrent dans aucune des catégories mentionnées ci-dessus.
Par sa nature, la liste du filtre des sites Internet bannnis sera établie par l’Etat sans consultation préalable des internautes. Les sites sont ainsi censurés par un corps de censeurs, non encore révélé. Le processus de censure n’est pas transparent. Il n’y a pas de justification donnée pour bannir les sites et il n’y a aucun moyen de contester la mise au ban.
Donc, il est évident que les sites bannis seront déterminés par le gouvernement pour des raisons politiques. Le gouvernement utilisera le filtre pour bannir les idées dissidentes et d’oppositions.
Nous condamnons fermement cette pratique car il est clair que cela est un manquement aux principes de libertés d’expression et d’information comme prescrit par l’article 19 du Pacte International relatif au Droits Civils et Politiques signé par l’Algérie le 10 décembre 1968 et ratifié le 12 septembre 1989.
L’Etat Algérien et le peuple Algérien aspirent aux hautes valeurs que sont la liberté et la démocratie, valeurs qui ont été défendues par nos pères et nos grands-pères pendant des décennies. La censure d’Internet est un manquement clair à ces valeurs, qui doit cesser.
During the year 2009 the Algerian local press reported that the Algerian authorities are preparing an Internet filter to combat “Cybercrime” , “Terrorist” and “pornographic” websites. Laws are being prepared to make circumventing the filter a criminal offence.
Algerians Internet users have received such news with anxiety, fearing that the filter will be used for political purposes. The evidence came on the 1st January 1st 2010. On the first day of the year, it was discovered that websites of a peaceful opposition movement have been blocked in Algeria. These websites do not fall under the categories mentioned above.
By its nature, the filter’s list of banned websites will be determined by the state without consulting Internet users. Websites are censored by a yet unannounced censorship body. The censorship process is not transparent. There is no reason given for banning websites, and there is no way to contest a ban.
It is evident that banned websites will be determined by the government for political reasons. The government will use the filter to ban opposition and dissident views.
We strongly condemn this practice as it is a clear breach of the principles of freedom of speech and freedom of information as determined by article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, signed by Algeria on 10 December 1968 and ratified on 12 September 1989.
The Algerian state and the Algerian people have strong aspirations for the values of freedom and democracy, values that have been fought for by our fathers and grand fathers for decades. Internet censorship is a clear breach of these values and should be stopped.
نحن الموقعون أدناه ، أفرادا ومنظمات نعارض محاولة الحكومة الجزائرية الرقابة على الإنترنت. ونطالب بأن لا يُمنع أي موقع لأسباب تعسفية أو سياسية.
ونحث السلطات الجزائرية على التركيز على تعزيز البنية التحتية الضعيفة للاتصالات و نشجع المواطنين على المشاركة بنشاط في النقاش العام باستخدام الإنترنت.
إنّ الشعب الجزائري يستحق إنترنت فعالة، حرة، وغير محجوبة.
Nous, les soussignés, tant à titre personnel, qu’en tant qu’organisations, nous nous opposons à la tentative de censure d’Internet par le gouvernement algérien. Nous demandons qu’aucun site ne soit interdit pour raisons arbitraires ou politiques.
Nous demandons instamment aux autorités de se concentrer sur le renforcement de la faible infrastructure de communication et nous encourageons les citoyens à participer au débat public en utilisant Internet.
Le peuple algérien mérite un réseau Internet fiable, libre et non-censuré.
We, the undersigned, individuals and organisations, oppose the Algerian government’s attempt at Internet censorship. We ask that no website should be banned for arbitrary or political reasons.
We urge the Algerian authorities to concentrate on strengthening the weak communications infrastructure and we encourage Algerians to actively participate in the civil discource using the Internet.
The Algerian people deserve a competent, free and uncensored Internet
With the start of the year 2010, there are reports that the first political Internet website to be censored in Algeria is rachad.org. Le Quotidien D’Algerie discovered this today. It was verified by this blog and others. The website appears in Google search results, but upon clicking it the web browser displays an innocent looking error. It is not clear when the website was censored, or if this is the only censored website so far or. It is also not clear how the filter is implemented.
The website in question is that of the Rachad Movement, a loose opposition organisation in exile formed by a mix of former diplomats, ex-civil servants, journalists and members of the now banned Islamist party FIS. The movement campaigns for a peaceful overthrow of the current regime. The movement’s figurehead is Mohamed Larbi Zitout, a former diplomat who fled after claiming that the Army has a hand in the massacres of the civil war. Zitout is a regular commentator in Arab and Western news stations and a staunch critic of the government. Last month he broke the rumour that Algeria has accepted temporary American military stations, a rumour vehemently denied by the Algerian state and AFRICOM – this is probably what annoyed the authorities enough.
This blog covered the legal framework that the authorities have been preparing to create an internet filter and to make circumventing it a crime in itself in a previous post. The filter has been presented as an effort to combat “cybercrime”, extremist and pornographic websites. But in keeping with their tradition, predictably the authorities started using its powers to crack down on political websites. In the same way, the authorities uses its control of the media sphere to forbid private stations and the state owned printing companies to intimidate private newspapers.
No political blogger or internet activist has been directly imprisoned or sued by the state so far. There was one civil case against Abdessalam Baroudi, the author of bilad 13, for a (brilliant) satirical post comparing the local religious affairs director with al-Sistani. The case was dismissed on grounds of freedom of expression.
Last week, in its latest report on Internet censorship the Cairo based Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) has rated Algeria as one of the “best countries dealing with the internet”, together with Lebanon. Apparently the praise has unsettled some backwards thinking bureaucrats. As suspected, the absence of censorship up to now is not evidence of love for freedom of expression, it is the sad product of incompetence mixed with the embarrassingly low Internet penetration in Algeria by the region’s standards.
So this is the first banned website so far, I suspect that Algérie-politique and the other popular opposition websites will soon follow. Rachad has not reached critical mass in Algeria yet, but the state might be shooting itself in the foot here and spreading the word. So pass this news on, more Algerians should be aware of what they are not allowed to read!
The British Government’s recent reaction in the Tzipi Livni case is only just the latest episodes in a series of shameful European surrenderings against the mighty power of Israel and its lobbies. Belgium succumbed to Israel in 2003 in nearly the same conditions when a case was lodged against Ariel Sharon in its courts. Sharon has under his belt the masterminding of Sabra and Shatila amongst the mildest of his atrocities. Later described by Bush II as a “man of peace”, the man is now in a coma on his way to death, denying thousands of people their right to justice with the full complicity of Europe. Spain followed suit earlier this year and amended its laws to make it impossible to put Israeli subjects to trial on war crimes. This week, Britain’s Miliband apologises: “The Government is looking urgently at ways in which the UK system might be changed in order to avoid this sort of situation arising again “.
Evident is the fact that Israel and its lobbies in European countries have for long known that a proper court is no venue for propaganda. The standard arsenal of deceit and bold lies cannot navigate the rough landscape of evidence, reason and the law. One would think that a reasonable legal system would hold every defendant to the same law and the same treatment. One would believe that accused defendants clear themselves in court. Not in Europe.
Netanyahu charges: “We will not accept a situation in which [former Israeli Prime Minister] Ehud Olmert, [Defence Minister] Ehud Barak and Tzipi Livni will be summoned to the defendants’ chair”, publicly declaring that any Israeli politician is beyond the law, beyond questioning for any war crimes or crimes against humanity. Such a nefarious statement comes from the same man who continues, just as arrogantly and shamelessly, to license building settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem, to order routine raids on the Palestinian territories and to effectively give the peace process the death sentence at a time when an American administration just might be looking for a real end to the conflict.
Europe and America cannot expect Israel to work for peace while pretending that she is beyond the law. Europe and Obama are being humiliated by Netanyahu who refuses to react positively to their calls for a solution, appearing powerless without anything to bargain for. But now British politicians would rather castrate any power that could hold sway over Israel, even the law itself. Israel will again give them the same treatment that can be expected from a nation that doesn’t stand to lose anything by doing as she wishes, from building more settlements to murdering thousands of civilians and anything in between.
Israel sympathisers speak of Palestinians and people working for their cause “hijacking the courts” for their own gains. What they really mean is that the Palestinians do not deserve justice and that the courts should by default not uphold them as equal humans. The self-evident fact that the law is the text and the text is nonnegotiable for anyone is suddenly forgotten. Benedict Brogan in the Indepedant does one step better and singles out all muslims who sought justice in British courts as unworthy of it. “Britain’s judicial system is being used to help the bad guys” he thinks. To him, any muslim victim is a bad guy by nature. Nothing will appease these guys apart from codifying into law the exclusion of Muslims from any right to justice. Anyone seeking justice for these “bad guys” is a terrorist sympathiser or an anti-Semite, words that for all intents have long been emptied of any meaning.
With the principle of Universal Jurisdiction now dead, buried and forgotten next to the tomb of the separation of powers the war criminals of Israel and the world, with blood still fresh on their hands, can rejoice and party with the forgotten rights of those they oppress and the glory of the friendship and approval of western powers.
For some time the Algerian authorities have been thinking about putting an Internet filtering service in place. Algeria is one of the few middle eastern countries that escaped the wrath of such a system so far.
The government cooked together a law throughout the last year to combat cybercrime, terrorism websites and internet pornography. cybercrime has been an evident problem of late. The lack of successful role models and a market where IT specialists could fuel their energy encouraged the youth to view hacking as a desirable, heroic, patriotic or even religious activity. The recent Algeria Egypt football match saw some literally fierce website hacking battles, facilitated by the laughable security in government IT systems in both countries. On the other hand, indecency laws have been used rigorously to put people who distribute obscene pictures to trial. Some cases were featured at large as the subjects (mostly women) were threatened and sentences ended up being harsh, enrolling charges of extortion.
So the law resonates very well with a local population that is increasingly conservative and hostile to a pornographic industry seen as a product of broken Western morals, while at the same time very frustrated at the sporadic yet continuous terrorist attacks. The government was largely successful in introducing the laws without much resistance or proper discussion from the local press, non governmental organisations or Internet café owners (Internet cafés are main venues for connectivity).
Now the government is turning towards implementing a publicly funded national filtering system to filter and monitor web usage. I could stomach that a large portion of the population might find such a system desirable. I could also accept that it gets enabled it by default for new customers. What I just can’t pass up are the plans to make circumvention of such filters illegal and punishable. Such a system would be too easy to abuse to crack down on dissident voices and cause the abortion of the infantile Algerian blogosphere.
Given the Algerian authorities’ track record against the printed press, I am not at all delighted with this move. The authorities have repeatedly used its monopoly of the printing and advertising businesses in the country to reign in on independent newspapers. The same treatment will surely be unveiled on undesirable websites with the click of a button.
Aggravating the threat is the judicial system’s extreme technophobia, as in literal hostility towards technology. The judges often give the impression that they do not understand technology and lay down sentences on the whim of suspicion, sometimes in an effort to inflate the number of “caught” terrorists and terrorist “sympathisers” or to exaggerate the severity of web terrorist activity inside the country. This blogger knows several people who have been locked up because their computer equipment contained pictures of terrorist attacks that were saved from local press websites, and were publicly available in printed form in the hundreds of thousands.
Circumventing the filtering system in and of itself should not be banned and there should be no legal repercussions whatsoever for doing so. It is up to the prosecutor to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the crime as dictated by the law has been comitted with no remorse to the filtering system. In this age of the 21st century and its technologies, it is trivial for a moderately savvy user to circumvent almost any filtering mechanism.
The country should instead concentrate on improving internet facilities for its citizens and should implement policies that encourage the use of the Web to diffuse information and empower civil discourse. The fact that the country has no filtering system yet is, sadly, not a reflection of liberal tendencies or love for freedom of speech. It is a reflection of the fact of that Internet penetration is very low even by the region’s standards. A just released market research report forecasts it to grow to 3.2% by 2013 – a deplorable figure. The cause is not lack of resources or of IT brainpower, it is pure business mismanagement. The network is managed by the state owned bureaucratic Algérie Télécom, a monolithic archaic entity that, despite having more than 3 million lines, was valued by potential investors at the paltry sum of $200 million for the whole internet/fixed telephony business last year. An embarrassingly low figure for a usually investor safe lone communication market player. In contrast, the mobile market is estimated to be worth a figure in the double digits of billions of dollars. On the incompetence of Internet providers, I recount my experience: I lodged an application for a DSL line and paid 6 months of subscription upfront only to be figuratively tortured with endless promises and delays, not to speak of regular downtime and aweful peak time speeds once service started. Issam Hamoud, an Algerian blogger in the capital no less recalls a similar experience.
My only condolence were such a system implemented and abused is the possibility that it will backfire, knowing the netizens’ tendency to quickly reassemble and follow what they’ve been banned with vengeance. The low penetration numbers can suggest more malice than failure, as the authorities may not want to get bothered with a problem of internet political activity in the first place.
“[…] reaffirms its permanent attachment to the principles and values as laid down in the universal declaration of human rights”. In case you’re wondering, these are the words of the Algerian president in a speech to mark the anniversary, and the square brackets contain the name of the country, Algeria. Quotes like this indicate that the political class do realise the importance of human rights. To regain the trust on the elusive values has been a political goal for the authorities since the introduction of the reconciliation laws. But the history of the country and its complicated power structure make any advances on this issue quite slow and easily reversible.
Indeed, attaining the trust and initiative on human rights proves to be a difficult task for many countries with a dark human rights record. These countries can be divided into three main groups: group one could not care less about the issue; it includes regimes such as Mugabe’s Zimbabwe and the current Burmese government. Group two gives some lip service but do very little to champion the rights in practice. Russia and some of the Middle East countries are examples. Group three are countries that have made significant advances in securing the rights for their citizens, and this includes countries in Eastern Europe and the Asian tigers.
Short of a complete political overhaul, such as possibly a bloody revolution, countries in group one seldom change their stance. Countries in group three will continue their progress: advancing human rights causes a positive feedback loop (except some, ahem, notable exceptions). Very few countries make it from group two to group three successfully and irreversibly.
Algeria has been painfully wobbling in group two for a few years. Sometimes coming close to making the leap, other times doing enough damage to go back to the frontiers of group one. What’s undoubted is that the Algerian authorities do give the impression that they passionately believe in the values and try some baby steps. Bouteflika, in the previous speech, also boldly envisioned the country as playing a “major role in championing human rights in the African and Arab dimensions”. The government sponsors a “National Human Rights Commission”. State newspapers, such as Elmoudjahid, from which these quotes are taken, routinely praise the government’s human rights “advances”. Government participating parties such as the Islamic MSP hold rallies on the issue. The country’s head of police says that the police are barred from even lifting their hands or shouting at a citizen. There has been a number of judicial reforms aimed at improving sentence waiting times.
That was talk, and probably a limping walk, but the real walk is yet to come. Independent newspapers are scared into submission using some phony anti libel laws and the state’s near complete control of the printing and advertising companies. The resources that the Army has provide easy money for generals to launch vindictive lawsuits against authors and journalists. Demonstrations are banned in the capital and practically in most of the country since the events of Black Spring. Many photographers and authors have been rounded up – a recent tourist photographer recounted his encounter with an Algerian policeman. In criminal cases, prison waiting times can be absurdly high, sometimes running into the years, especially in cases that deal with terrorism charges.
If you read the above paragraph without the surrounding context, you would realise that the scenes that it describes can be found in any country of group two. The problems seem to be shared – it’s the same tape everywhere. So what is the problem, and how can the state make the leap?
Algeria inherited a nasty double legacy of two periods that did much damage to the country’s human rights stance. The totalitarian socialist state of the 60s-80s introduced a one party rule, state land tenure, dubious assassinations and a powerful intelligence gathering force, althought it had many economic and diplomatic successes. The period of the civil war of the 90s did the most damage. Assassinations against policemen, judges, politicians and other civil servants pitted the government against the whole population in its eyes. Torture ran ripe to get as much intelligence as possible from first hand, second and even long distance contacts of suspected terrorists. Many believe that certain factions of the army orchestrated a number of massacres to paint the opposition fighters in a worse light. The government in the 90s was effectively under an international embargo and was extremely paranoid of outside pressure. It painfully made it through the late 90s and into the reconciliation plan of the current President. For some time, it seemed that the country is making some breakthroughs.
Yet the country seems to be reversing its progress. The parliament speed passed a law that allowed the president to run for life. We thought we were lucky that the president has no children. Yet now it is widely believed that the president’s brother is being groomed for the job. Demonstrations continue to be outlawed. The right to assembly is severely limited. Newspapers continue to be sued and scared. In short, the country’s independent human rights organisation paint a very bleak picture today.
In the absence of a full understanding of human rights and its benefits to the country’s economic and political well being, countries like Algeria will continue to wobble. The country needs to understand that free speech makes better citizens, more vibrant economies, world-class universities – all goals declared by the state. All citizens must be equal behind the law, nobody should be beyond reproach. How is a president or a minister harmed if a journalist paints a caricature of them or an author criticises them? their legal venue should be the venue of public opinion, not that of the courts or the prison cells. Free assembly makes better informed and motivated citizens. Let them march on the capital and demand what they want. In the end, the equilibrium that will be formed will ensure long lasting growth and development, instead of the limping wreck of an economy that exists today.
Lose your grip on the people, and let them fix the country themselves, for a government’s goal is to enable its citizens to develop and move the country forward, not to draw up ever failing bureaucratic plans from the ivory towers of ElMouradia and the various ministries in the capital.