When we wrote of award-winning journalist Wael Abbas being silenced by social media platforms in February, we never suspected that those suspensions would reach beyond the internet to help silence him in real life. But, following Abbas's detention on Wednesday by police in Cairo, we now fear that decisions—and lack of transparency—made by Silicon Valley companies will help Egyptian authorities in their crackdown on journalists and human rights activists.
Abbas was taken at dawn on May 23 by police to an undisclosed location, according to news reports which quote his lawyer, Gamal Eid. The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) reported that Abbas was not shown a warrant or given a reason for his arrest. He appeared in front of state security yesterday and was questioned and ordered by prosecutors to be held for fifteen days. According to the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), Abbas was charged with “involvement in a terrorist group”, “spreading false news” and “misuse of social networks.”
As we detailed previously, Abbas is known for his work exposing police brutality and other abuses by Egyptian authorities, and as such, he's faced backlash from the state before. He was convicted in 2010 on charges of "providing telecommunications service to the public without permission from authorities" after publishing a series of blog posts in which he accused the Egyptian government of human rights abuses.
Twitter does not comment publicly on individual accounts, but in December, Abbas claimed in a Facebook post that Twitter had not provided him with a reason for his suspension. Now, at least one local media outlet is reporting that Abbas's Twitter account—which was suspended in December 2017—was taken down due to incitement to violence.
It seems clear that the messaging around Abbas' detention is that his arrest was connected to his posts on Facebook and Twitter, and that the prosecution and media are using his suspension by these services as part of the evidence for his guilt.
In the medium term, this is yet another reason why we need more transparency and clarity in social media takedowns. Without transparency, these acts of private censorship are already effectively a hidden court, with little due process. These decisions are being used as evidence by media campaigns against activists, by real-world courts (some, like the "media committees" that judged Abbas, with little due process of their own) — and with real consequences.
In the short term, however, the far more importanct step is for the Egyptian state to immediately release Wael Abbas, an independent journalist, from these ridiculous charges, and restore his freedom and the freedom of the online Egyptian press. We call on Egypt to Free Wael Abbas.