Egypt and Thailand: When the military turns against free speech

Wael Abbas, a human rights activist focused on police brutality in Egypt
has been under arrest since May on charges of spreading fake news and
“misusing social media.” Andy Hall, a labor rights researcher, has been
fighting charges under Thailand’s computer crime laws because of a
report published online that identified abuses of migrant workers.

You wouldn’t normally mention Egypt and Thailand in the same breath. But
both countries underwent military coups within the last five years, and
even among the many oppressive regimes in the world, they are going to
extra lengths today to prosecute free speech.

Abbas and Hall are just two examples of hundreds of recent prosecutions.
In 2017 alone, Egyptian security forces arrested at least 240 people
based on online posts. Three years after the coup, Thai authorities had
charged more than 105 people just for posting comments deemed offensive
to the monarchy.

To be clear, neither country has ever been a bastion of free speech.
With one exception, Thailand has been ranked “not free” every year that
political-rights nonprofit Freedom House has published its Freedom on
the Net Report. Egypt’s score has steadily declined since the height of
the Arab Spring, going from “partly free” to “not free” in the last
three years.

Sanja Kelly has been with Freedom House for 14 years and has headed its
Internet Freedom division since 2010. She tells me that what’s
especially alarming is the extent to which authorities in both Egypt and
Thailand have gone to silence online dissent. Activists and dissidents
may well anticipate persecution around the world, but today housewives,
students and even tourists in Egypt and Thailand have become the target
of prosecutions for as little as posting a video or responding to a
private message on social media.

Over the last five years both Egypt and Thailand have experienced an
unprecedented crackdown on internet freedom. “In 2015, the Egyptian
government blocked only two websites. Today, they are blocking over
500,” Kelly explained. “The situation in Egypt and Thailand is now among
the most repressive in the world.”


Since El-Sisi seized power in 2013 in a coup, the Egyptian government
has taken drastic steps to clamp down online. In its latest move, the
government passed a law in September that makes any social media user
with more than 5,000 followers subject to regulation as a publisher. So
now in Egypt, if you have more than 5,000 Twitter followers, for
example, you’re subject to the same regulations that the New York Times
has on what it publishes.

It wasn’t always like this. Back in 2011, Facebook and Twitter were
hailed as drivers behind the Arab Spring. The protests that resulted led
to the toppling of Hosni Mubarak who had ruled the country for nearly
30 years. At their height, many journalists even started calling the
protests the “Twitter uprising” and the “Facebook revolution.”

Last year, we raised rainbow flags in Mashrou’ Leila concert &
posted this picture on our Facebook page. Just saying ⁦#we_exist⁩ led to
a massive crackdown on the ⁦#LGBT⁩ community in ⁦#Egypt⁩. ⁦#IDAHOT2018⁩
⁦#together_we_rise⁩ ⁧#حق_طبيعي⁩ ⁧#الملايين_منا #كلنا_واحد

— Rainbow Egypt (@rainbowegyptorg) May 17, 2018

Kelly tells me that freedom on the internet in Egypt has been getting
progressively worse since Sisi seized power. Even under Mubarak, the
authorities were not as concerned with policing speech on the internet.
But that has completely changed since 2013.

Kelly adds that the measures Egyptian authorities passed this year were
intended to tighten their grip on social media and internet use even
further. The result has been more and more Egyptians being arrested,
with the authorities using a combination of laws to bring charges.


Thailand has long been known for its strict application of its lèse
majesté laws under which any criticism of the Thai king or his family
can lead to years in jail. But since the 2014 military coup, the
enforcement of these laws has gone into overdrive. The ruling military
junta in Thailand has also beefed up computer crimes and defamation laws
to make it all but impossible to express dissent online.

According to Human Rights Watch, since the coup in 2014, the junta has
ramped up arrests under the 2007 Computer-Related Crime Act (CCA). Last
year, the military amplified the 2007 law by providing grounds for the
government to prosecute anything they designate as “false,” “partially
false,” or “distorted” information, a determination that the government
itself gets to make.

Even criticism of the changes to the law itself were outlawed, with the
Thai Army Cyber Center warning that posting or sharing online commentary
that criticizes the law could be considered false information and
result in prosecution.

Kelly tells me that, while the CCA and lèse majesté laws have long been
used to stifle online dissent, the amendments last year granted Thai
authorities even broader powers. They closed down loopholes in earlier
versions of the law, including allowing authorities to jail people for
critical messages they receive on their phone even if they don’t share
them. This means that if you get a Facebook message in Thailand today
criticizing the royal family, then you are under an obligation to delete
the message or face prosecution.

Andy Hall found himself in the middle of this progression towards
heavier handed enforcement. A labor rights activist, Hall conducted
research for a report for the group Finnwatch that found that the
Natural Fruit Company, Thailand’s largest producer of pineapples,
mistreated its workers. Hall then faced criminal prosecution under the
CCA and cyber defamation laws for the report’s publication online and
for an interview he later gave to Al-Jazeera about the report.

Speaking to me from an undisclosed location, Hall tells me he has spent
more than $100,000 defending the criminal charges against him — mainly
fundraised from supporters — and the better part of the last five years
dealing with the charges and his appeals. He admits things could have
been much worse: “If I weren’t a British citizen and my case hadn’t
gotten as much attention as it has, then I’m not sure I’d be around
today to tell my story. Many Thai citizens have lost their lives doing
similar work.”

Hall didn’t set out to be a freedom of speech crusader, he had dropped
out of his PhD program in 2005 to move to Southeast Asia to become a
labor rights investigator, only to find himself in the crosshairs of the
country’s defamation laws in 2013. When he was first charged, the
government asked him to make a public apology denouncing his research.
When he refused, the prosecution continued with his passport being
confiscated at one point to prevent him from leaving the country.

Now having taken refuge in a third country, Hall tells me that the
actions of the government — especially its increased enforcement of
cyber defamation laws over the last year — has bred fear among activists
and has had a chilling effect on the work of human rights advocates in

It’s Not Just Activists

According to Kelly, one especially worrying trend about Thailand and
Egypt’s increased prosecutions is that authorities have been
increasingly willing to go after anyone they deem critical online, not
just seasoned activists. Housewives, students and even tourists.

Just in September, a Lebanese tourist was arrested on her way out of
Egypt for posting a ten-minute video on Facebook that had gone viral. In
the video, she’d complained of sexual harassment she’d experienced
while in the country. She was found guilty of deliberately spreading
fake news and public indecency for just speaking out about what had been
done to her. She now faces an eight year-sentence.

Over in Thailand, a housewife faced up to 15 years in prison for
violating lèse-majesté laws because she had responded to a Facebook
message critical of the government with one word, “ja” (roughly “yeah”
in Thai). While a law student was sentenced to 2.5 years last year under
the same laws for sharing a BBC article profiling the new Thai king.

Role of Facebook and Twitter

What role have social media platforms played in all of this? To their
credit, companies like Facebook and Twitter have not been silent
bystanders who’ve simply applied these draconian laws blindly. To begin
with, they enforce global standards for what can and can’t be posted on
their platforms, and they don’t modify these standards based on any one
country’s repressive defamation laws.

Both Facebook and Twitter also publish periodic transparency reports
that aggregate the number of requests they get from governments to take
down posts or obtain information on users. This week, Twitter announced
that it would let users know when a tweet has been deleted on the basis
of a government request.

A review of the transparency reports for each of Egypt and Thailand
though shows that the number of requests are remarkably low given their
respective populations and the wide use of Facebook in each of these
countries. Facebook says that in 2017 it only received seven requests
from Thai authorities and just one from the Egyptians. In response,
Facebook provided 17% of data requested by Thais and did not provide any
data to the Egyptian government (compared to 32,000 requests by the US
government with an 85% production rate by Facebook over the same

So how can the number of prosecutions based on social media posts be
reconciled with the low number of requests? Kelly tells me it’s likely
because Thai and Egyptian authorities have found ways to circumvent
platforms altogether knowing that their requests will not be complied

What Freedom House has documented instead is arms of the government
dedicated to monitoring what’s posted on social media. In the case of
Twitter, Thai and Egyptian governments filter for certain words and then
use the publicly available tweets as a basis for prosecution. With
private Facebook posts, governments go one step further. They create
fake profiles with pictures of attractive men and women, send a friend
request to their target and get access to a profile when their friend
request is accepted. They then use whatever private posts they find to

In one case in Egypt, Kelly tells me the government scanned pictures on
Facebook from a concert at which the rainbow flag was displayed.
Egyptian authorities then went after the people it could identify from
these pictures on the basis of violating morality laws. Using online
platforms to entrap members of the LGBTQ community has become a favorite
tool of repression by Egyptian authorities. According to the Electronic
Frontier Foundation, at least 77 members of the LGBTQ community have
been arrested since the coup for their online expression.

Are Egypt and Thailand the Worst Offenders?

Even though Egypt and Thailand have rung alarm bells this year with the
sheer number of prosecutions of online speech, they are still not the
worst offenders against speech online. Kelly names Saudi Arabia, China,
the UAE, North Korea, and Iran as just some examples of worse offenders.
The difference, Kelly explains, is that the regimes in those countries
have become extremely adept at fighting online dissent.

The fact that there may have been more prosecutions in Egypt and
Thailand this year doesn’t tell the whole story. People in the other
countries that Kelly names have just given up on the ability to express
dissent online. China’s clampdown doesn’t even need to get to the user
level – instead they have companies like Baidu and WeChat control and
filter messages at the provider level before they’re even published.
Egypt and Thailand are operating at a lower level of sophistication and
have a strong and active civil society – which means people there still
see a bigger opening and haven’t become completely self-censoring.

The question then becomes, how long will it be before Thailand and Egypt
turn into the next China or Saudi Arabia? Will dictatorships be
converging in their practices to stifle online speech? Social media may
have turned the world into a global village, but it seems that village
is also enabling dictators on opposite ends of the globe to better learn
from each other’s repressive measures.

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