Subscribe and receive Middle East and North Africa Cyber Watch in your inbox.

Table of Contents



IRAN: Journalists in jail – As of July 2012, 30 print and 24 online journalists are currently under arrest [Farsi] in Iran. The Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) 2011 census reported that Iran had the highest number of jailed journalists in the world, with 42 journalists in prison as of December 2011. According to CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney, Iran imprisoned journalists to quash critical news coverage as reformist publications are often banned and their staff sent to prison.

OMAN: Court sentences six netizens to jail for lèse majesté crimes – An Omani court has given jail terms to netizens Mohammed Al-Badi, Mohammed Al-Habsi, Abdullah Al-Siyani, Talib Al-Abry, Abdullah Al-Araimi and Mona Hardan for publishing defamatory comments against ruling Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said. As previously reported, the Cyber Crime Law has been used to justify the arrests of poets and writers accused of defaming the Sultan on social media.  Reporters Without Borders has described the “persecution of netizens and local journalists” in Oman as having reached “alarming proportions.”

SAUDI ARABIA: Human Rights Watch condemns arrest of website editor – On July 17, Human Rights Watch issued a press release demanding the release of Ra’if Badawi, editor of the Free Saudi Liberals [Arabic] website. Badawi was arrested in June and has been charged under the Anti-Cybercrime Law [pdf] for infringing on religious values by providing an online platform for people to debate religious issues. Badawi has long been a target of Saudi authorities. In 2008, he was accused of “setting up an electronic site that insults Islam”.

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES (UAE): Government cracks down on netizens – Last month, Ahmed Abdul Khaleq, one of the human rights activists arrested and tried last year, was given a choice of where to be deported — Bangladesh, India, Iran, Pakistan or Thailand. He chose Thailand, though he had no relations there. Khaleq, a member of the stateless bidoon people, had long run a popular blog advocating for bidoon rights in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and has been associated with the Reform and Social Guidance Association (al-Islah), a collective described by Amnesty International (AI) as a “non-violent political group which has been engaged in peaceful political debate and discussion in the UAE for many years.” This deportation coincided with a three-day sweep of online journalists, bloggers, and other Emirati activists.

Back to top



MIDDLE EAST and NORTH AFRICA: Social media use growing rapidly in the Arab world – The Arab Social Media Report, produced by the Dubai School of Government’s Governance and Innovation Program, revealed that as of June 2012, Facebook had reached 45.2 million active users, Twitter had over two million, and LinkedIn had four million. Yet the growth in social media use has not corresponded with an easing of censorship of online content by many governments in the region.

IRAN: Citizens use Facebook to say ‘No’ to compulsory hijab – Thousands of Iranians living in and outside of the country have joined a Facebook group, “Unveil Women’s Rights to Unveil,” calling for an end to mandatory hijab. The group was launched on July 11 and received more than 10,000 likes in a few days. Many women and even some men have posted pictures on the page with the movement’s slogan, declaring that women should have the right to choose.

IRAN: Social media not illegal, but users can still be punished – General Kamal Hadianfar, Chief of the Cyber and Information Exchange Police (FATA), announced [Farsi] that signing up for social networks is not legally prohibited in Iran. He warned, however, that police will be diligent in tracking and arresting those who “commit cyber crimes”. Hadianfar went on to say that “Iran’s enemies” are attempting to use cyberspace and social media websites [Farsi] “to change the religious beliefs of youth in the country”.

IRAN: Conflicting reports on Internet penetration – Recent reports from Statistics Iran and Donya-e-Eqtesad newspaper have shown that only 15 percent of the population have access to the Internet and they mostly use dial-up services to connect from their homes. Also, the report stated that 27 percent of families living in major urban centres are able to connect to the Internet, versus only five percent of families in rural areas. A conflicting report from the National Internet Development Agency of Islamic Republic of Iran, however, claimed that Internet penetration rates in the country recently reached 43 percent. These differing statistics are likely due to disagreements over how to define an Internet user.

Back to top



IRAN: Public requests for Internet filtering – Mehdi Sarami, CEO of the Association of Information Technology and Digital Media, stated that approximately 90 percent of censored websites have been filtered due to requests from the public. According to Sarami, there was a time that the Association received 2,000-3,000 complaints from people about improper and criminal website content.

JORDAN: Citizens demand pornography filtering – In February 2012, a group of Jordanian citizens launched [Arabic] the “Campaign to Block Pornography Websites from the Internet in Jordan”, which has lobbied the government to issue an official decree that pornography websites be permanently and effectively filtered. Atef al-Tal, the Minister of Information and Communications Technology, revealed on July 19 that the Ministry was in the process of amending the country’s telecoms law by adding provisions that guarantee “clean” internet services and working with an Australian company to develop an Internet filtering solution, while the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission has requested that key ISPs block pornography websites.

SAUDI ARABIA: Censorship continues as Twitter use soars – The government has proposed a new law that could impose harsh penalties on social media users who insult Islam, including the Prophet Mohammed, early Muslim figures, and clerics. This is a concern given that Saudi Arabia is Twitter’s fastest growing market month-on-month.

Back to top



YEMEN: Anonymous exposes government-run censorship – The hacker group Anonymous recently released details of the government-run Internet filtering system. Content targeted for blocking includes websites and pages critical of the government, pornographic material, and VoIP services. OpenNet Initiative research in Yemen has found that although censorship is pervasive, many users are able to easily circumvent the controls.

SYRIA: Anonymous takes down website of the Syrian Electronic Army – Anonymous claimed to have taken down the website of the pro-government Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) with a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack on July 17. The SEA had apparently taunted Anonymous a day earlier, accusing them of spreading lies and issuing empty threats. For the past year, Anonymous has displayed strong opposition to the Syrian regime and recently took credit for providing WikiLeaks with over two million confidential e-mails from “Syrian political figures, ministries, and associated companies.”

Back to top



IRAN: Internet cafe owners must check identity of users – Sattar Khosravi, Chief of Isfahan Province branch of FATA, has said [Farsi] that Internet cafes must check the national identity cards of users and have their information retained for use by authorities before providing them with access to computers. Khosravi warned that using VPNs and proxies are illegal and that cafe owners could face punishment if users are found violating regulations.

IRAN: Experts warn about the security of national Internet – As previously reported, the government has pushed Iranians to use “.ir” e-mail addresses and has obligated state organizations, universities, and research centres to use locally hosted domains for all websites and portals. In response, a number of IT experts and scholars published a statement outlining the security challenges of a national Internet. Noting several security holes in the proposed national email service, experts warned that forcing people to use insecure email and Internet services not only increases the risk of users’ private data being stolen, but also reduces user’s trust in other kinds of national technologies and products.

SYRIA: Internet cut off for 40 minutes – On July 19, Internet security firm Renesys reported that all networks routed through the Syrian Telecommunications Establishment (61 of the 66 networks) were withdrawn from the global routing table, effectively cutting off Internet connectivity throughout the country for 40 minutes. Five networks operated by Tata, an Indian multinational telecommunications firm, were unaffected. Until that point, Internet outages had been relatively uncommon during the period of civil strife in Syria. The last major disruptions occurred in June and October 2011, each affecting around 40 networks. The July 2012 outages came only one day after Syrian rebels bombed the National Security building in Damascus.

SYRIA: Satellite channels to be hijacked by Western powers – Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), a state media outlet, reported on July 22 that Western intelligence agencies and “some Arab parties” were planning to hijack the frequencies of Syrian satellite television channels to broadcast misinformation, possibly about a coup d’etat, defections, the fall of cities, or other subjects that might be damaging to the regime. Syrian citizens were therefore encouraged to regard all suspect information as completely baseless fabrications. The Ministry of Information issued similar warnings through other national media channels such as Syria TV, al-Dunia TV, and Sham FM.

Back to top



IRAN: The “Mahdi” malware – Internet security experts have found that a malware named “Mahdi” is being used to attack computers in Middle Eastern countries. A report by Iran’s Computer Emergency Response Team Coordination Center [Farsi] revealed that Russia’s Kaspersky Lab first discovered the malware approximately eight months ago. More than 800 computers, the majority of which are located in Israel and Iran, have since been infected, although it did not gain significant media attention until only recently. Mahdi Behrouzi, Vice Chancellor of the Academic Protection and Awareness Professional Center, stated in an interview [Farsi] that the increased publicity is likely an attempt to make a connection between Iran and the malware developers, and that “Iran’s enemies”, such as Israel, are accusing the country of deliberately using this malware to steal data from Internet users.

IRAN: Government plans to resist cyber attacks – As Iran continues to stress the importance of setting up a defensive position vis-a-vis cyber attacks, the state-sponsored Mehr News Agency has reported that the Amirkabir University of Technology will soon initiate a new mega-project for this purpose. The project, called the Program of Supreme Council of Science, Information and Technology, is designed to be a cyber defence network and aims to protect Iran from the increasing number of cyber attacks.

IRAN: US has not revealed the IP addresses of hackers – Last month, a cyber attack was reported against Iran that allegedly led to the disconnection of the servers of the Ministry of Oil and four of its subsidiary companies. At the time, General Kamal Hadianfar, Chief of Cyber and Information Exchange Police (FATA), claimed that the attack had spread through an IP address located in the US. Hadianfar said that Iran has submitted an official legal request to the US to reveal the IP addresses of the suspected hackers, but US officials have not yet responded.

Back to top

Read previous editions of the Middle East and North Africa Cyber Watch.

Read previous editions of the Iran Cyber Watch (discontinued as of June 15, 2012).

Subscribe and receive the Middle East and North Africa CyberWatch in your inbox.