Egypt’s YouTube Ban Undermines Transition to Democracy
Washington, D.C. – Human Rights First today said that a Cairo court ruling this weekend to block YouTube for 30 days in punishment for the webpage’s showing of an offensive anti-Muslim video that sparked riots in Egypt and elsewhere last year – an order that is unlikely to be enforced – shows the futility of trying to use the law to punish and prevent speech deemed to be offensive to religion.
“Court actions like this one do not reduce the spread of anti-Muslim sentiment,” said Human Rights First’s Neil Hicks. “Such orders do, however, contribute to the chilling of freedom of expression in Egypt through over broad restrictions on social media and other sources of communication important to Egypt’s economy and society. Offensive speech cannot be eliminated through legislation or court order. It will be available for those who seek it out online. It can be countered through education and more expression rather than less. Instead of shutting down web pages and pointing fingers, political and religious leaders should use their positions to advocate calm, as well as to prevent and punish violence that may result from the manipulation of offensive
Human Rights First notes that the Internet is full of material that some may be considered offensive by one group or another, but it is also an invaluable means of communication that no modern society can practically do without. When Egypt shut down Internet access during the 18 day popular uprising that brought down President Mubarak in 2011, its economy lost billions of dollars. The organization notes that no country that hopes to provide for its people can tolerate this kind of self-inflicted damage.
According to Human Rights First, extremists are often empowered – not silenced – through laws that seek to limit freedom of expressing and speech. Those who produced offensive material often can only draw attention to it by releasing it in a way that is most likely to tee up a government reaction to ban their freedom of expression. In addition to fueling extremists, bans on freedom of expression often exacerbate sectarian tensions between different religious groups and are particularly hazardous to
minority religious communities and to dissidents within majority religious groups who may be targeted for their supposedly heretical views.
“At times of political uncertainty, freedom of speech and Internet freedom in particular come under pressure,” Hicks said. “Internet and communications technology companies that operate in countries like Egypt should be prepared for this unpredictable, but ever present, threat. They have a strong interest in building a constituency of stakeholders, including users and businesses that depend on their services, in order to be able to push back against selective over enforcement and abusive new legislation such as the expansion of laws against blasphemy or offending religion or religious symbols.”
Hicks concludes, “Egypt’s transition from authoritarianism faces many challenges and, in order to provide the best opportunity for Egypt to make progress towards democracy, it is essential that legal and structural safeguards for basic freedoms, like freedom of expression, should be strengthened, not undermined by random court rulings that disregard basic rights.”