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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:

  • Petition:

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.

Petition text:
(Texte en français ci-dessous – English text below)
العربية

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.

Français

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.

English

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.

Petition:

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

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.

The minaret ban in Switzerland continues to draw much ink and cynic reactions in the Arab world. The ban provided another opportunity for authorities  to regain the tempo domestically on the issue of democracy and human rights.  Echorouk, Algeria’s populist most popular Arab newspaper carried two scathing opinion pieces. The reactions lambasted the West for its “hypocrisy” towards human rights and its perceived high horse attitude towards the Arab world. They cite multiple issues and come to the conflusion that the West is not different from the Arab world after all – only more intelligent, in its anti human rights campaigns. Pieces like this suggest that the western human rights demands are just post colonial meddling in internal affairs.

AqassemThe first piece is written by Fayssal Alqassem, one of the most popular journalists in the Arab world. His syndicated column is printed in almost every Arab country. He is one of the BBC trained journalists who helped shape Aljazeera’s image with taboo destroying programmes. In his piece, titled “The Myth of Indiviual Liberty in the West” he is as usual, abrasive and confrontational. He amusingly subtitles his column “Careful, a camera is watching you”.  He contrasts Arab countries’ anti-Human Rights record, describing it as rather dumb and too obvious –  with the West’s, which is according to him cleverer, by using technology such as DNA databases and cameras in public places. The latest minaret ban is just the west accidently getting into the dumb anti human rights ways. Some selected quotes (paraphrasing):

I don’t want to suggest that the Arab countries’ have a crisp human rights record – far from it. But the Arab intelligence and security institutes are still behind in terms of technology and logistics of spying, monitoring and citizen surveillance , at least the Arab can try and evade his country’s incompetence. But in the “west”, who is often riding the moral high horse on human rights, citizens are under surveillance 24 hours a day. The big brother that George Orwell warned us from is watching everywhere. Rarely can you walk through a street in Europe without noticing dozens of cameras watching even the ants. In London alone there are more than 4 million cameras…

And then some attacks on the United States:

Uncle Sam does not only want to monitor his citizens alone, he wants to monitor the whole world. We need not cite the spying network and its surveillance operations around the world […] I also want to congratulate Europe on their new European law that makes it possible to allow the CIA to get access to , lawfully, the banking details of  its citizens.

I don’t know what law he is referring to, that is scary if true. Fayssal’s punch line is rich:

Oh George Orwell, if you still lived you’d wish the old soviet style surveillance tactics are still in force instead!

The second piece is written by Fawzi Oussedek, a local Algerian journalist. He titled it “Human rights in Switzerland, melting like chocolate in Minarets [sic]”. He contrasts the perceived reaction of the West, governments, institutes and individuals alike towards the Minaret ban with their reactions to any similar measure in the Arab and Muslim Worlds. There are a lot more Muslims in the West than say, Christians in Muslim countries so the difference in reactions seems even more absurd to him. On Western reactions he says:

Since the Minaret ban I have been waiting the views of human rights organisations […] that made a habit of criticising some places for their human rights record […] since the ban I have been listening to commentators in the west trying to justify the unjustifiable […] Governmental reactions amounted to only expressing mere dismay, a tactic that they used to diplomatically evade their moral stance on human rights.

Then he contrasts this reaction to reactions towards the Muslim world:

I wonder, what if such a vote was made in a Muslim country to ban some other religious symbol, what would be the reaction? simply, we will hear many descriptions about the whole muslim world, from backwardness to being hateful, the reaction can amount to using economic pressure sometimes, and to scare the countries in question by threatening to include them in the “black list”!! […] but in Switzerland some considered democratic referendums as saintly, it’s just sometimes possible to use them unwisely – evading the moral stance towards the ban.

The author then suggests that the muslim community try and fight this ban all the way in Swiss and European courts.

The ban and other similar measures around Europe, such as the previous veil ban in France , France and Netherlands’ flirtations with banning certain types of clothing and Britain’s “English Defence League”  will provide more fuel for criticism, and will sadly have ramifications on democratic reform in the whole Arab world.

Short Description

Commentary and views of an Algerian about the Middle East and Algeria, Democracy and Human Rights, Islam and Reform, as well as whatever pair of topics the author wishes to write about.

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