The UAE government has taken advantage of the region’s tense political climate to tighten its control over information and communications in the country. Netizen members of the “UAE 5” group, incarcerated for several months, learned the hard way that the authorities’ priority is to maintain the regime’s stability, and, if necessary, is fully prepared to set a few harsh examples.
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The Emirates were spared the demonstrations which rocked the political life of some of its neighboring countries in 2011. The regime did not hesitate to increase salaries in order to divert any threat of social unrest. Determined to take whatever action necessary to monitor the population’s mood, it publicly took charge of the Internet surveillance system.
Colonel Abdul Rahim bin Shafi, director of the Interior Ministry’s organised crime department, told Reuters in August 2011 that the police are keeping a close watch on social networks such as Twitter and Facebook: “All media are being monitored, including social media. People can express their opinion without violating (social) norms,” he said. He further added: “Twitter and Facebook were invented to make the world easier but if they were used adversely, the perpetrators will be punished by law.” The authorities’ target is clear: “whoever spreads false or malicious news or statements or spreading propaganda which could upset public security could spend between one month to three years in jail.” The senior official admitted that the large community of foreign workers who have already gone on strike to demand better working conditions is under particularly close scrutiny.
Arbitrary arrests to indimidate potential dissidents
To discourage potential dissidents from relaying calls for political reform, the regime arrested five netizens nicknamed the “UAE 5” in April 2011. They include the well-known blogger Ahmed Mansour, administrator of the pro-democracy discussion forum Al-Hewar (“the Dialogue”), blogger Farhad Salem Al-Shehh, co-administrator of this forum, Nasser bin Ghaith, a writer and professor at Abu Dhabi’s Université Paris-Sorbonne, and human rights activists Hassan Ali Al-Khamis and Ahmed Abdul Khaleq. All of them expressed their opinions freely online and had also signed a petition bearing a hundred or so signatures which urged the authorities to enact some reforms. Ahmed Mansour was arrested after he granted an interview to the Al Hurra TV channel.
Bloggers and their families have been the focus of particularly violent death threats and smear campaigns orchestrated by the authorities in the media and on the Internet. Those who tried to defend them incurred, in turn, the regime’s wrath. Twitter user Rowda Hamed was threatened and summoned for supporting their views.
These netizens’ trial was such a travesty of justice that they refused to appear in court. They went on a hunger strike to protest against the bad treatment and poor conditions of their detention. On 27 November 2011, they were finally given a two-year prison sentence for “insulting Emirate leaders” and “calling for anti-government demonstrations,” except for Ahmed Mansour, who received a three-year prison sentence. They were pardoned the very next day by the Head of State, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, and later released. A coalition of NGOs continues to demand that their convictions be expunged from their records and that their equipment and passports be returned to them.
At the same time, the BlackBerry saga took a new turn. New restrictions were imposed in May 2011 on smartphones manufactured by Research in Motion (RIM). The authorities decided to limit access to the highly secure BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) to only a few companies which can account for over 20 users – a decision likely to irritate some CEOs because it discriminates against small companies. The entrepreneurs’ view of the country’s prospects has been tainted by the regime’s intensified control over society in reaction to Arab Spring.