Amnesty International documents that Gulf’s Arab monarchies have used the pandemic as a pretext to increase repressive measures.
A new human rights report by Amnesty International (AI), shows that Covid-19 restrictions have created a perfect opportunity for Arab autocratic states, like the UAE and Saudi Arabia, to increase the suppression of their populations.
In defence of their behaviour, the states claim their measures are taken in the name of protecting their populations from health dangers, according to the AI.
“The GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) states have failed to justify how these measures are necessary and proportionate for the protection of public health. Individuals are being subjected to harassment and intimidation simply for discussing the pandemic online, in a clear breach of their right to freedom of expression,” said Lynn Maalouf, AI's deputy regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, reflecting on the findings of the report.
The comprehensive report says that it has found no merit for the respective Gulf governments to interrogate, detain and arrest citizens over Covid-19 measures.
“In none of the cases analyzed by Amnesty International has the organization found the responsible states to have made any effort to demonstrate that the restrictions and penalties imposed on comments posted online were truly necessary to protect public health, let alone proportionate as the least restrictive means available to fulfill a well-defined public health need,” the report says.
According to it, states like Bahrain have even created specific units to deal with individuals, who allegedly spread “fake news” on the pandemic.
Bahrain’s Cyber Crime Directorate, which functions under the interior ministry, tasked 16 employees to “monitor and track offending [social media] accounts.” The directorate found it necessary for the unit to work “around the clock” to go after people, implicating that their task takes priority over many other state functions, the report says.
Since the pandemic hit the world, the directorate has launched 60 investigations and suggested that over 40 social media users should be prosecuted for “disturbing public security”.
Saudi Arabia, which has been pursuing modernising reforms under the Crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, is also aggressively going after its population’s social media activities, and using Covid-19 as a pretext.
The report outlines several examples of arrests by the kingdom over flimsy charges like “mocking the COVID-19 crisis” with online messages, and taking photographs of empty shelves across the country’s stores.
While the AI says that it’s important to protect people from misinformation, that cannot be done by prohibiting any possible government criticism, labelling it as rumours or fake news, the report notes.
“The best way to pre-empt negative consequences of 'misinformation', spread maliciously or not, is for the authorities to build up a reliable and prompt system of accurate information that leads to increased trust by the general public,” says the report.
But “a reliable and prompt system of accurate information” is something which has been missed for a long time across much of the Arab Gulf under autocratic monarchies.
Long before the Covid-19 crisis, countries like the UAE put restrictions on people’s communications, leaving their huge expat populations, who are mostly migrant workers and represent more than 80 percent of the overall population in some countries, disconnected from their families and loved ones.
“The UAE, which maintains some of the most extensive restrictions on communication technologies in the Gulf, has been particularly non-transparent about its policies on international calls, disregarding queries from the press on the subject,” the report says.
Such policies are a definite violation of the right to freedom of expression, which is defined in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), according to the AI.
Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE are not signatories to the Covenant, continuing to stay among the few UN member states which have not recognised it.