8 out of 10 people in the Middle East and North Africa live in countries that have the worst rating for civic freedoms

London, 4th December 2019

Findings based on data released today by the CIVICUS Monitor a global research collaboration which rates and tracks respect for fundamental freedoms in 196 countries.

The CIVICUS Monitor has today released People Power Under Attack 2019, a new report showing that there have been no improvements in fundamental civic and political rights in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). In fact, the situation is so dire, that this region still holds the worst record of civic freedoms globally.

The report, which is based on data from the CIVICUS Monitor, a global research collaboration, shows that basic freedoms are backsliding across the globe: 40 percent of the world’s population now live in repressed countries. However, the situation is much worse in the MENA region: data from the Monitor shows that eight countries are rated as ‘closed’, six countries as ‘repressed’ and five as ‘obstructed’. No countries in the region fall in the ‘open’ or ‘narrowed’ categories. In reality, this means that 8 out of 10 people in this region are living in countries where governments violate the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.

Freedom of expression is particularly under threat in this region – with journalists, writers and dissenters bearing the brunt of civic space restrictions - many have been killed just for doing their jobs. This is reflected in the violent attacks and killings of journalists in Palestine. Prominent Libyan journalist Mohammed Bin Khalifa was also killed this year, along with Iraqi writer Dr Alaa Mashthob Abboud and Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi.

Rising censorship is a major threat to civic and democratic freedoms in MENA. This year censorship was the most commonly reported violation in the CIVICUS Monitor – this is a change from last year, when detention of human rights offenders was the most frequent violation.

One of the most prominent forms of censorship in this region includes blocking websites. This tactic was used in Egypt in the run-up to April 2019 referendum vote, and during anti-corruption protests in September. In Saudi Arabia, the authorities removed a satirical comedy show on Netflix. Censorship has had chilling consequences for media outlets in the region. In Iraq, for example, authorities suspended the licence of Al-Hurra, a regional broadcaster, and for two months this year the internet and social media were completely cut off.

Cybercrime laws are also being used to punish and criminalise dissenting voices. In Kuwait, human rights defenders have been imprisoned for their activities on social media. In Bahrain, activist Nabeel Rajab is still in prison after his appeal was quashed - he is serving a five year sentence for posting online criticism of the government. Human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor was slapped with a ten year prison sentence in Abu Dhabi for his online human rights activities.

The CIVICUS Monitor is also alarmed by the detention and restrictions placed on journalists in the Middle East and North Africa. In fact, detention of journalists was the second most commonly reported violation in the region this year.

This was seen in Lebanon, where reports show a worrying trend of authorities harassing, interrogating and arbitrarily detaining journalists. In Iran, journalist Yashar Soltani was sentenced to five years in prison after exposing extensive corruption. One of the most worrying cases this year was the imprisonment of journalist Hajar Raissouni in Morocco, who was falsely sentenced to a year in prison for allegedly having an illegal abortion and premarital sex. Raissouni was later pardoned.

Across the region, the targeting of women and activists advocating for women’s rights remains a cause for concern. Women rights defenders in Iran have been sentenced from 10 to 30 years in prison for removing their hijab or encouraging other women to do so. In Saudi Arabia, over 20 women’s rights defenders remain in prison without being sentenced, and many are being subjected to torture including sexual assault.

Despite this onslaught against civic freedoms, in the past year there have been some small victories. Tunisia’s Court of Appeal ruled in favour of an LGBTQI group and prevented it from being shut down. While in Jordan, pressure from civil rights organisations encouraged the authorities to withdraw restrictive draft cybercrime laws.

Over twenty organisations collaborate on the CIVICUS Monitor to provide an evidence base for action to improve civic space on all continents. The Monitor has posted more than 536 civic space updates in the last year, which are analysed in People Power Under Attack 2019. Civic space in 196 countries is categorized as either closed, repressed, obstructed, narrowed or open, based on a methodology which combines several sources of data on the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.

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