On the International Day of Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRD), ARTICLE 19 seizes the opportunity to highlight the key role the protection of women’s voices plays in achieving democratic freedom. We urge MENA states to protect the equal rights of WHRDs, and their freedom of opinion and expression.
Today, in the MENA region, women human rights defenders, journalists, and activists face multiple acts and threats of violence, both online and offline. They increasingly face harassment and arbitrary imprisonment simply for exercising their right to freedom of opinion and expression, and in defence of human rights, democratic principles, and equality.
WHRDs’ voices are muzzled by pervasive censorship in MENA states and by non-states actors. Those who raise their voices to denounce government abuses and corruption, or to criticise public figures or state institutions, are subjected to repressive and punitive measures under vague laws not in line with international standards on the right to freedom of expression.[mfn]The right to freedom of expression is protected in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).[/mfn]
ARTICLE 19 highlights the case of Moroccan activist Saida El Alami, detained since 23 March 2022, and sentenced on 21 September 2022 to three years in prison for ‘insulting a constituted body’, ‘insulting public officials in the exercise of their functions’, ‘contempt of justice’ and ‘spreading false allegations’. This arbitrary sentence followed her posts on social networks denouncing police harassment against her and criticising the repression of journalists and activists in Morocco.[mfn]Amnesty International, Morocco. We must stop prosecuting defenders human rights due to social media posts, available in FR: https://www.amnesty.org/fr/latest/news/2022/04/morocco-stop-investigation-human-rights-defenders/[/mfn]
ARTICLE 19 also notes the arbitrary indictment, on 5 January 2022, of Yemeni journalist Hala Badawi for ‘espionage and communication with foreign agencies’. Badawi campaigns, through her reports and posts on social networks, for the improvement of living conditions and denunciation of those responsible for corruption in government institutions.[mfn]ARTICLE 19, Yemen. Security authorities must immediately release journalist Hala Badawi, available in ANG, on the following link: https://www.article19.org/resources/yemen-security-authorities-must-immediately-release-journalist-hala-badawi/[/mfn]
ARTICLE 19 recalls that the right to freedom of expression may be restricted only under certain exceptional conditions. Under International human rights standards, any state of emergency must comply with strict limitations. It must have a clear legal basis, be for a legitimate aim and necessary and proportionate to that aim, it must not be arbitrarily or discriminatorily applied. States have an obligation to protect and respect the right to freedom of expression, including when women are targeted in the course of their activities. Any restrictions must be applied in line with International Human Rights Law.
Blasphemy laws used against women human rights defenders
Censorship of the voices of WHRDs in MENA countries is also motivated by blasphemy laws, one of the most popular charges used to prosecute human rights defenders and muzzle their right to freedom of expression.
Jordanian poet and activist Dr. Zulaikha Abu Risha[mfn]ARTICLE 19, Jordan. Authorities must guarantee poet’s right to freedom of expression Zulaikha Abu Risha[mfn]ARTICLE 19, Jordan. Authorities must guarantee poet’s right to freedom of expression Zulaikha Abu Risha: https://www.article19.org/resources/jordan-authorities-must-guarantee-poet-zulaikha-abu-rishas-right-to-freedom-of-expression/[/mfn] was prosecuted in September 2021 for expressing her opinion about Quran reciters and those responsible for the call to prayer on Facebook. The activist was also subjected to a widespread campaign of incitement to violence by extremist groups under the eye of the authorities, who chose to remain passive and failed to protect her rights.
These repressive actions by states are a flagrant violation of their commitments under international human rights treaties to ensure that all women fully enjoy the right to freedom of expression and the right to equality.[mfn]ARTICLE 19, Freedom of expression and women’s equality : Ensuring comprehensive rights protection, available in ANG: https://www.article19.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Gender-Paper-Brief-1.pdf[/mfn] ARTICLE 19 stresses that under Articles 2 and 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), States must guarantee human rights to all persons ‘without distinction of any kind (…)’. In addition, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) sets out the legal and practical actions States must take to end discrimination against women. States therefore have a duty to protect women from violence, including when such violence is the result of women’s activities, such as journalistic[mfn]ARTICLE 19, Safety of Women Journalists: Everything you need to know about States’ obligations and commitments to strengthen your advocacy; https://www.article19.org/resources/international-advocating-for-the-safety-of-women-journalists/[/mfn] or cultural activities.
For many journalists, part of their mission is the defense of human rights, and women journalists/human rights defenders are particularly targeted by gender-based violence. In addition to economic and psychological pressures they face in the course of their work, they also face physical and verbal violence and online harassment and abuse.
In Tunisia, between 1 November 2020 and 25 October 2021, 86 women journalists were among 220 journalists to be attacked by security forces and protesters. It should also be noted that women journalists have been hacked, resulting in the dissemination of their personal data and the use of it for extortion purposes.[mfn] For more information: 2021 Annual Report on the Safety of Journalists and Impunity in Tunisia[/mfn]
In addition to States’ obligation to ensure the protection of HRDs under The Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, states must allow HRDs to ‘have an effective remedy’ in order to investigate crimes committed against them independently, promptly and effectively, with an integrated gender approach to the investigation when a crime concerns a woman and may be linked to her public activities.[mfn]ARTICLE 19, Safety of Women Journalists: Everything you need to know about States’ obligations and commitments to strengthen your advocacy; https://www.article19.org/resources/international-advocating-for-the-safety-of-women-journalists/[/mfn]
ARTICLE 19 emphasises that freedom of expression and equality are fundamental human rights and are mutually reinforcing. Their realisation is crucial to the enjoyment of all human rights, democracy, sustainable human development, and international peace and security[mfn]ARTICLE 19 ‘Camden Principles on Freedom of expression and equality’: https://www.article19.org/resources/camden-principles-freedom-expression-equality/[/mfn] The organisation stresses that barriers to and issues regarding equality must be addressed in a way that protects and defends freedom of opinion and expression, with a view to creating an environment conducive to public debate online and offline, ensuring that all voices, including women’s, are heard.
ARTICLE 19 urges states in the MENA region to honour their international commitments on equality and the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and to end all legal and policy measures used to silence and censor the voices of WHRDs.