From students to judges, no one’s Facebook is safe

Mansoura University engineering student Abdallah Azmy was studying for his midterm exam a few weeks ago, when one of his friends took his mobile and cursed their college on Azmy’s personal Facebook account. Azmy never imagined that such a prank would lead to his suspension for the rest of the semester.

He quickly deleted the Facebook post, but a screenshot was sent to the university administration, who forced Azmy to publically apologize after promising that the administration wouldn’t take further punitive measures.

“I was surprised afterward that I was referred to the disciplinary committee, and was suspended for something I didn’t do,” Azmy explains.

An engineering professor at the same university is also awaiting interrogation for criticizing the faculty’s administration on his Facebook account. The statement, which lamented the poor quality of education given to engineering students, was posted just a few days after the faculty was finally accredited by the Higher Education Ministry.

“The accreditation was obtained not because we upgraded our curriculum or encouraged research, but just because we presented several appeals to obtain it after three failed trials,” claims the professor, who asked to remain anonymous. “I wasn’t part of the chorus supporting the faculty’s administration. I actually criticized it, which angered the administration and the rest of the professors, who saw my criticism as an insult.”

Like Azmy, the professor later deleted the contentious post and was initially advised to apologize. However, the administration insisted on referring him to investigations by an internal disciplinary board.

“It is a violation of my personal space,” the professor argues. “I didn’t use insulting words, and never incited violence. The problem is that my post got thousands of likes and shares, and was viewed mostly by the student community, which angered the administration.”

Helwan University published a warning last week on its official Facebook page telling students to refrain from criticizing the university or insulting faculty members on social media. Amid a wave of anger from students and users, the post was removed.

These two cases at Mansoura University are not isolated incidents. Recently, people working in various state-owned and private institutions have been penalized for expressing their personal views on Facebook.

In December 2015, the Doctors Syndicate rebuked the Health Ministry for sending a doctor in Luxor, who is also a leader in the syndicate, to interrogations for his Facebook posts. Doctor Ahmed Abul Kassem had supported a doctors’ strike at a local hospital, provoking Luxor’s deputy health minister to refer him to a disciplinary committee for questioning.

Similarly, when journalist Hesham al-Mayany — who works for the state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper — criticized the newspaper’s CEO, Ahmed Sayed al-Naggar, on Facebook in December 2014, he also found himself brought up for questioning before a disciplinary board. Mayany had declared his support for six fellow workers who were suspended from their job due to criticizing management, only to find himself facing a similar fate. The board decided to withhold his bonuses, but after pressure from Mayany’s colleagues, the penalty was waived.

The Justice Ministry, on the other hand, has been taking Facebook monitoring to a whole new level.

In December 2015, five judges were referred to internal investigations for their Facebook posts about political issues or their opinions concerning the judiciary, according to the privately owned Al-Shorouk newspaper.

Former Justice Minister Ahmed al-Zend formed a ministerial committee in mid-2015 to monitor justices’ Facebook accounts, and submitted reports against dozens of them. The committee included three members from the minister’s technical office, including a ministry spokesperson.

The five judges who were referred to a disciplinary board in December were among of a total of 28 judges the committee reported on for expressing personal views on social media.

At the time, unnamed ministry officials told Al-Shorouk that three of the five judges were members of the board of the Judges Club, previously headed by Zend. The three judges supported Zend in his conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood, but recently turned against him after he introduced changes to the bylaws that govern the Judges Club. They lamented what they saw as Zend’s unilateral management of the club. Other judges had criticized the Supreme Judicial Council, allegedly insulted the Supreme Constitutional Court and criticized the distribution of judges overseeing elections.

A young judge working for a prestigious judicial entity, who asked to remain anonymous, explains that judges’ social media accounts have been always monitored, but with Zend’s committee, the monitoring has now been institutionalized to an unprecedented degree.

“It is also new that judges are referred to investigation for posting their views on Facebook,” the judge says. “This move is illegal and threatens judicial independence. Judges are only banned from officially engaging in politics, but they have the right to freely express their opinions as long as these opinions do not show bias toward the judicial cases they are looking into.”

The judge, who himself posts very critical, politicized opinions on Facebook, says he does not fear facing a disciplinary board.

“I have the right to freely express my opinions,” he argues, adding that he is already facing an internal interrogation for another problem related to a personal feud with one of his bosses.

A source close to judicial figures tells Mada Masr that screenshots of Facebook posts have been systematically used as evidence against judges who were said to be affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and forced into early retirement.

“Verdicts by judicial disciplinary committees against those judges were strongly based on the Facebook accounts belonging to many of them,” says the source, who asked not to be named. “Although many voices slammed the monitoring of judges’ Facebook accounts, we have strong judicial precedents supporting such a move.”

Azmy, who is still in shock at his faculty’s decision to suspend him, says he has no political affiliations that would have motivated the move. “But I’m a member of the engineering student union, so this could possibly be a reason for such unjustifiable targeting,” he claims. “This was a trivial prank outside the university in my personal space — nothing serious that deserves all this injustice.”

Lawyer at the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression Fatma Serag says that cases like Azmy’s have been on the rise over the last two years. “I cannot remember a single case of students referred to internal disciplinary investigations that did not include evidence from Facebook,” she adds.

Egyptian laws usually do not offer any legal protections to citizens in such cases, says Serag. When she has defended clients in such cases, Serag has pointed to the Constitution, which protects people’s right to freely express their opinions and their right to privacy.

But “the Constitution is usually not translated to laws, unfortunately,” she says.

For state institutions, this is no trivial matter, explains Amr Gharbeia, a privacy and internet freedom advocate.

“The internet has become the most democratic medium of self-expression since 2011. It’s even more democratic than newspapers and satellite channels, and the state has been increasingly aware of this,” he contends.

Facebook monitoring does not just lead to the interrogation of public servants, but can land citizens in jail. According to an independent census prepared by Gharbeia, 95 people have been arrested since 2014 based on charges stemming from the views they expressed on social media, or for running Facebook pages that officials considered to oppose the government. The legal basis of convicting citizens for their online activity has two major foundations: a cybercrime law that was approved by the Parliament this year, and the right to information bill that criminalizes the spread of rumors on social networking websites.

In September 2014, the government reportedly contracted a cyber-security firm to monitor data on social media by profiling users. A report published on the Buzzfeed website quoted an Interior Ministry official as saying that the ministry would monitor conversations it finds “worrying,” such as conversations between Islamists, or those involving “debauchery” or “homosexual acts.” The Interior Ministry later denied the report.

Gharbeia says that civil society organizations filed an appeal against the cyber-security contract before the Administrative Court, which never looked into the case. He argues that “the government is aware of the danger posed by this new free space online.”

Mai Shams El-Din 

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