General: CIVICUS Monitor finds civic space severely restricted in the MENA region


“People Power under Attack 2018”, a report released by CIVICUS on 27 November 2018, shows that civic space in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region remains severely restricted. The findings are based on data released by the CIVICUS Monitor, which rates and tracks respect for fundamental freedoms in 196 countries. Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) covers ten countries for the Monitor.

“This report shows beyond a doubt how civic space in the Gulf and Neighbouring Countries is severely restricted,” said, Executive Director of GCHR. “Authorities in the region curtail the rights to freedom Khalid Ibrahim of expression, association and assembly and put human rights defenders, journalists and all those acting in defence of human at grave risk.”

The CIVICUS Monitor, which GCHR contributes to as a research partner, shows that the detention of human rights defenders is the most common civic space violation in the region. Any attempt to challenge those in power is met with high-handedness and repression, dissenting voices and independent opinions are muzzled, and protesters are arrested, detained and assaulted, while civil society organisations face threats to their existence.

GCHR’s Founding Director Nabeel Rajab was sentenced to seven years in prison in Bahrain for his human rights reporting, through media interviews and tweets. In Iran, Nasrin Sotoudeh was sentenced in 2018 to five years in prison for criticising the judiciary and for acting as the lawyer for two women who were charged with removing their hijabs in public.

In the United Arab Emirates, high profile human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor is among those who received the harshest penalties in the region. Mansoor, who was arrested on 20 March 2017, was sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment by the State Security Court in Abu Dhabi on 29 May 2018 for “insulting the status and prestige of the UAE and its symbols”, including its leaders, as well as of “seeking to damage the relationship of the UAE with its neighbours by publishing false reports and information on social media. Mansoor, the 2015 Laureate of the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, is a member of GCHR’s Advisory Board. 

The report also shows that attacks on activists defending women’s rights are a very visible aspect of the wider crackdown, something starkly illustrated by the frequent detention of women human rights defenders in the region, most notably in Iran and Saudi Arabia, where the highest number of cases of detention of rights defenders was recorded. Women’s rights activists have been detained for protesting the mandatory wearing of the hijab, for speaking out on sexual harassment and advocating for women’s right to drive. In some instances, their family members have also been intimidated in a bid to silence the activists.

“Women have especially borne the brunt of closing civic space in the MENA region. Those defending women’s rights have become frequent targets of unjustified detention. Even in countries such as Saudi Arabia where supposed reforms including the women’s right to drive have made global headlines, women activists pushing for human rights and equality for women have been punished through systematic targeting and detention,” said Sylvia Mbataru, Civic Space Research Officer at CIVICUS.

As conflicts continue in Yemen and Syria, incidents of attacks and killings of journalists have been particularly common. Censorship has also been used to restrict civic space, and sometimes involves banning media outlets in Yemen, blocking websites in the UAE, or the complete closure of media stations in some countries.

Other violations frequently reported in the region include harassment of human rights defenders and protestors, detention of journalists, the use of excessive force by authorities usually during protests, intimidation of people expressing dissenting voices, the use of torture and ill treatment, as well as the disruption of protests.

Kuwait’s civic space rating has been downgraded from obstructed to repressed on the CIVICUS Monitor due to the continued targeting, threatening, arrest and prosecution of human rights defenders, journalists and bloggers for their online human rights work. A proposed new law which regulates the publishing of content on all social media outlets has also raised concern, as the government tightens the reins on free expression. CSOs have also been targeted by the authorities, an example being the dissolution of the board of directors of the Kuwait Al-Huriah society, a move which is believed to have been related to a tweet by one of its members.

Over twenty organisations collaborate on the CIVICUS Monitor to provide an evidence base for action to improve civic space on all continents. The Monitor has published more than 1,400 civic space updates in the last two years, data which is analysed in “People Power Under Attack 2018”. Civic space in 196 countries is categorised as either closed, repressed, obstructed, narrowed or open, based on a methodology which combines several sources of data on the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.