For the summer/fall issue on journalism and activism in an age of transnational repression, MERIP’s managing editor, Marya Hannun, spoke to Mohamad Najem—executive director of the Beirut-based digital rights organization SMEX. Their conversation, which took place on July 31, 2023, touches on the landscape of digital rights in the Middle East, the role of Big Tech in the region and the major challenges facing organizers today. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Marya Hannun: So, I guess we should start at the beginning. Could you talk about what you mean by digital rights and what these rights include?
Mohamad Najem: Basically, the term digital rights used to mean copyrights, but in the last decade, gradually, digital rights is a term that we are using for everything that intersects between human rights and online space. It’s human rights, digitally. It’s the freedom of expression online. It is privacy issues, surveillance, the role of tech companies, content moderation. Everything that we do online has consequences. It depends on the laws and regulations where we are. It depends on the tech companies’ practices. And all of this falls under digital rights.
Marya: How did you first enter this space of organizing around digital rights in the Middle East?
Mohamad: Back in 2006, during the Israeli war against Lebanon, I decided to leave my job. I was a techie and interacting with new tools in the online space. I left my job in hotel management and started working in the south of Lebanon, where I come from, volunteering with NGOs and working with an NGO that was focused on distributing water. After the Israeli bombing, there was a lack of water in so many regions in the south, and the NGO helped repair water towers in different villages and distributed water tanks. I met my partner, who was a journalist/photographer, and we started focusing on using technology to train journalists and later different civil society groups, and this is how SMEX started in 2008. A few years along the line, our focus shifted to be more in line with what we now call “digital rights,” since there were more threats on the backbone of the internet and support for online activists.
Marya: You’re currently based in Beirut. Can you talk about the legal environment around digital rights in Lebanon as it might intersect with the current political situation?
Mohamad: In Lebanon, until now, we don’t have a lot of digital rights laws. We don’t have a lot of laws that affect internet users, which is not a bad thing, to be honest—because in our region any kind of regulation that happens often brings more closure of the civic space and threats on users. For example, look at what is happening now in Jordan. There is a new cybercrime law that is copy/pasted from the UAE. There are several articles within this law that are vaguely defined. There is a reference to fake news, anything that promotes fake news or incites immorality. Consider all of these vague descriptions like inciting immorality, online assassination of personality, provoking strife, undermining national unity. All these vague terminologies that have been put into the law, they have very harsh punishments, like 20,000 dinar ($65), or 50,000 dinar ($170)—which is a lot of money for many Jordanians.
Marya: Basically, what you’re saying is, many of the things that make the situation in Lebanon difficult, political inertia or the lack of a unified central government, is actually working in your favor because regulations can be more oppressive than helpful—as you’ve seen in other parts of the Middle East.
Mohamad: Yes, something we started working on in 2012 is called cyrilla.org—a collaborative digital rights project. It is now a huge database that aggregates all the laws affecting internet users, including aggregating case laws around this issue. Laws, unfortunately, particularly in our region, have been designed, especially after the Arab Spring, with a thirst to attack and regulate everything around the internet. All these regulations target free speech and control over the narrative and over free press—abusing the free press so they can control the narrative, breaching privacy, doing more surveillance, etc. We live in a place where the civic space online is shrinking more and more because of all these oppressive regulations and practices.
Marya: What do you see as the solution to shrinking civic space on the internet? That’s a big question, but how do you expand civic space, digitally, given the many constraints that you’ve already alluded to?
Mohamad: It’s a very good question. This is exactly what we’re trying to discover. It’s what we’re trying to do on a daily basis. It’s trial and error. We need to look at new tactics, new partners, and we need to always talk to the tech companies because they have a big role. We need to try to shake everything that we have around us to push things forward. We also need to build the community around us—the network—and build the movement to be more critical about the usage of the internet in our communities.
Marya: Can technology play a role to create safer civic spaces for people on the internet?
Mohamad: Definitely, this is happening, but also there are all these big investments that are happening from authoritarian regimes in our region to control these technologies, to control tech companies and to invest in these companies. I mean, in what was called the Arab Spring, back in 2010/2011, Big Tech had a big role in providing the technology and the services people used. But since 2014, these companies have moved more into the region and normalized their presence with these regimes to make more profits. They have locations in the Gulf, and they have been in partnership with authoritarian regimes.
Saudi Arabia currently holds $1.9 billion in Twitter shares and $2.3 billion in Uber. They have had a person on the board at Uber. An article I read a few days ago about Snapchat, discusses how they are tweaking policies inside Snapchat to push only good images of Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Of course, there are always ways that people can be creative, but these regimes have a lot of money, a lot of power. They can regulate laws. They can put people in jail. As I’m talking to you, there are two Saudis who work at Wikipedia who are in jail—who were sentenced to 32 and eight years each in jail, respectively. This is an issue—that people are expressing their minds, expressing their critical thinking, and they are in jail.
Marya: It’s interesting because censorship and imprisonment of dissidents is not a new phenomenon. But there are also ways of using technologies, at least when we think of print media as circulating technologies, that bypass censorship. In some ways, that’s harder with the internet. It’s harder to erase your digital footprint, and it requires a particular kind of skill and knowledge. It’s not so simple, which brings me to another question. Do you see part of your strategy as organizing and working offline to educate people, to get people to think about ways of communicating that wouldn’t fall into the online sphere?
Mohamad: Yeah, of course. We focus on the online space, but we do a lot of things in the physical space because both worlds connect together. One of the things that we do every year is Bread & Net. We’re doing it this November for the sixth time in as many years. The goal of Bread & Net is to bring people together from the region and globally to discuss, share experiences and critique each other’s work or look at each other’s work with a critical eye, and try to build networks, to expand the community that exists and try to support each other if we can. We are having around 80 sessions this year over three days. Many people come to this event.
Marya: When it comes to your organizing work and where you put your energy, do you think it can be helpful to raise awareness about the kinds of bedfellows that Big Tech is making in terms of investments from and in authoritarian states?
Mohamad: This is always a struggle. How can we reach out more to Big Tech? How can we involve them in the work that we’re doing? It’s not working because these companies care more about making money. Also, geopolitics doesn’t help. There is some pressure from the US government on these tech companies to invest in the Gulf because they don’t want the Gulf to go to Chinese companies. So, you have this geopolitical angle that exists, which at times seems to give a blank check to these tech companies to be like, “Okay, whatever we’re going to do in the Gulf, on some level, we’re protected by the governments here.”
Marya: Going back to the legal issues, I saw a short interview in which you talked about the copy-pasting of legal frameworks from the United States, from Europe, into the region, and how that’s not the most effective approach. Could you expand on that?
Marya: I recall something I read about NSO Group’s Pegasus technology that, if authoritarian regimes are using this technology, there’s some power in its use. If so-called democratic regimes don’t want to be left out of this technological advancement, even if it is a damaging one like all weapons are, there’s a desire to keep up with these technologies that are weapons against citizens. If someone’s using it, then everybody wants to at least have some access to it.
Mohamad: Yeah, absolutely. You mentioned Pegasus, there are the Cybercrime laws, then there is surveillance. When we talk about surveillance, there’s really no fighting surveillance for anyone. Nobody’s safe. There are no regulations. There is nothing in place that actually can protect anyone. It’s actually the opposite. What has happened in the last two years, even with all these leaks that we’ve seen—like the Pegasus Project—we are sure that this is going to lead us to more surveillance. This is going to take us to more authoritarian regimes using more and more surveillance because they can get away with it. No one is going to question what they’re doing, and they can do whatever they want.
Marya: Your organization’s mission statement talks about the free and open internet without restrictions set by governments or private corporations. But in the United States there is currently a lot of discussion about the internet being too free of a space. The short question is, how does this sit with questions of content moderation and the spreading of disinformation?
Mohamad: We can talk a little bit about the United States because this is also an issue. In the US, it’s the opposite to here. There’s really a lack of regulation, and there should be more regulations in the US. What’s happening in the US is a result of the power of tech companies’ lobby groups. We need to know what these tech companies are. Are they publishers, are they tech companies, are they media entities? We need to understand their role because they are controlling speech, not only in the US but also globally. But since they are based in the US, there should be some regulation of these tech companies and there should be some protection for the users, which does not exist. There’s no single federal online privacy law in the US. There should be one. We need something like the GDPR (the EU general data protection regulation). There should be a data protection law inside the US that does not only apply to the US but also applies globally. In that way, we can protect users from all the abuse of their data breaches when it comes to these tech companies’ work.
Marya: SMEX plays an important role, but could you describe more broadly digital rights activism that you see in the Arab world? You mentioned a shrinking civic space, but I imagine the activism around digital rights is growing?
Another thing our team is trying to do is we are trying to publish a lot of content about digital rights in the region. We try to cover new countries, themes, issues, groups. On the website, we try to publish 15 times a month. We translate pieces into Arabic or English. And we try to invite all these communities to Bread & Net. So, we are trying to build this space and bring all the communities together.
Marya: You have people even from the United Kingdom or Australia contacting you through the digital help desk. Is it to help navigate their own legal climates? Are they Arabic-speaking? Is that how they found you or are they just looking for help in general?
Mohamad: I think it’s a word of mouth, or it’s Arabic-speaking folks who are living in these countries.
Marya: One of the reports SMEX published recently was on artificial intelligence, and it’s definitely a growing source of concern in the United States. Policymakers are really racing to catch up with the technology. Are you seeing similar conversations in the Middle East and North Africa? I’m wondering how states and policymakers are thinking of this technology. What are your major concerns given the work that you do?
Mohamad: This is something that we are still discovering. We want to try to make sure that what we cover is different than the Western narrative. So many people are pushing it forward because it’s an agenda coming from the West: AI, ChatGPT, etc. We are trying to see how this is relevant for us and how this is different in our region. There will be some threats in our region when it comes to AI, but we’re still trying to look at it deeply. This is one of the topics that we will also discuss at Bread & Net this year: Where are we on AI? What are the things that governments around us are using? What will they adopt?
Marya: Finally, this MERIP issue is obviously focused on journalism and activism in an age of transnational repression. You’ve mentioned this a little bit, particularly around the Middle East and North Africa, but I’m wondering how the transnational fits into the work you are doing, even beyond the Arab world. Are you working with a more global or Global South set of people and organizations? If so, what does that work look like? Are you optimistic about the future of organizing?
Mohamad: Yes, actually, we just started talking about it. We focus on the Arab region, but we are actually expanding more to discuss all these issues with individuals and groups in Turkey, Pakistan, Iran. All the countries around us. We see the transnational repression, so there should be transnational coalitions or networks that actually challenge these threats. This is happening now. There is so much work to be done. Authoritarian regimes have a lot of resources, and we have very minimal resources. Unfortunately, they control the media. We control nothing. They can buy politicians. Even the US government is very weak when it comes to the Gulf or authoritarian regimes around us. There are a lot of issues to think about how to deal with. Despite all this, I am optimistic because I think what we have and they don’t have is this: We have logic. We have critical thinking, and we have the right to protect users and their rights in controlling their narrative. So, we want to keep doing it.
 “Saudi Arabia warns Snapchat users that ‘insulting’ regime is a criminal offense,” The Guardian, June 5, 2023.