Syria: Newly enacted Anti-Cybercrime Law threatens online freedom of opinion and expression
Syria has enacted an Anti-Cybercrime Law that threatens the already fragile space for online expression even more, according to analysis by the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR).
Syria became the second country in the Middle East to establish public prosecution for cybercrimes after the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Other countries in the region also have cybercrime laws and cybercrimes units among the police, but only Syria and the UAE have implemented training and procedures within the judiciary. This is a particularly alarming sign for the future status of human rights and conditions in which human rights activities will be implemented in the region.
The Syrian government has been skilled in circumventing online freedoms and digital rights for ages, yet it has invested in all its capacities to harass and target HRDs and activists during the peaceful revolution in 2011-2012; even prior to the ongoing conflict. In 2007, the Syrian government blocked Facebook as it recognised the potential in this platform to aggregate voices of opposition. From 2008 and until present time, Arabic Wikipedia remains blocked by the authorities. While the ban on Facebook and YouTube was lifted in August 2011 (lifting the ban allowed the authorities to monitor traffic and trace it back to the respective users – which was impossible when netizens used Virtual Private Networks to surpass the proxy), various forms of Internet circumvention have been in place, culminating in formal prosecutions by specialised courts which is expected to be used to target online civil activism.
On 25 March 2018, the Syrian government approved by presidential decree the Anti-Cybercrime Law 9/2018, which is a refined version of its predecessor Cybercrime Law 17/2012. This amended law mandates the creation of specialised courts and delegates specialised jurists for the prosecution of cybercrimes in every governorate. The Law specifically delegates the tasked public prosecution and specialised courts to judges who received respective training on prosecution of cybercrimes.
In July 2017, a consortium of the Syrian Ministries of Interior, Communications and Technology, and Justice and the Arab Academy for E-Business hosted a training for personnel who would be in charge of the detection and prosecution of cybercrimes. Particular aspects of the training included filtering online content, especially on social media, and collecting data stored on computers, information systems or storage devices to vindicate cases.
This training was the government’s stepping stone before the creation of specialised courts, which trained 65 judges and 27 personnel of the Cybercrime Police Department from Damascus and its suburbs and Quenitra, with plans to scale this training to other governorates. The 58 judges appointed as specialised prosecutors for cybercrimes are the beneficiaries of this training, which was announced before decreeing Law 9/2018. Although the number of assigned judges announced after the decree is less than the number announced in the Ministry of Interior’s statement in July 2017, it is expected that the Syrian government will train more judges.
Cybercrime Law 17/2012 scrutinises Internet Service Providers (ISPs) for not complying with censorship imposed by the government on content deemed unlawful. Furthermore, Article 30 harshens the penalty for cybercrimes that allegedly affect the state or public stability. In light of this Article and the practices by the Syrian government, which prosecutes journalists and human rights defenders routinely, the Law thus unfairly criminalises online freedom of expression and opinion; and the creation of specialised courts further threatens the status of online freedoms in Syria. Nonetheless, the amended Anti-Cybercrime Law retains complementarity with the Media Regulation Law 108/2011 and the Counter-Terrorism Law 19/2012, which both criminalise freedom of expression, opinion and press under the pretexts of enticing violence and sectarianism or spreading fake news. Given the history of Syrian government’s targeting of journalists and bloggers, the fabric for prosecuting online content is loosely phrased and can be used to further threaten human rights defenders and journalists in Syria.
Prosecution of online freedom of press in areas not under the authority of the Syrian government was most evident in the case of the “Rising for Freedom” online magazine, in which journalists Laila Al-Safadi and Shawkat Garziddin were sentenced in absentia to two months in prison on 11 July 2017 in Douma, Eastern Ghouta. For more details, see: https://www.gc4hr.org/news/view/1666
GCHR calls on the Syrian authorities to:
- Amend Anti-Cybercrime Law 9/2018 so that it does not restrict freedom of expression of journalists and human rights defenders;
- Amend the Media Regulation Law 108/2011 so that it does not criminalise freedom of opinion and expression;
- Guarantee that journalists and human rights defenders can carry out their work free from restrictions including the threat of arrest and imprisonment; and
- Develop a legal framework that protects netizens’ digital rights.