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Mid-East governments crack down on Internet freedom

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A spate of reports suggest now is not a particularly good time for Internet and press freedom in the Middle East and nearby areas.

The Palestinian Authority detained two journalists in recent weeks and arrested blogger Ismat Abdel Khaleq on March 28, remanding her into custody for 15 days, says The Jerusalem Post. Reuters says she called for the ouster of  Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, calling him a "traitor" and a "fascist" on Facebook.

One of the detained journalists was Zaman Press reporter Tareq Khamees, who was held April 1 after he discussed Abdel Khaleq's case on Facebook, says Reuters. "I was questioned on my work as a journalist, and they confiscated the files on my laptop," he told the newswire.

In Tunisia, two young men who posted cartoons of a naked prophet Mohammad on Facebook were sentenced March 28 to 7 years in prison, also reports Reuters. According to the newswire, one of the men is in jail while the other is being sought by police.

Tunisia was the first Arab country to undergo a wave of protests demanding increased political freedom in late 2010 and 2011 that later became known as the Arab Spring. Transitioning to democracy in the affected countries has not proven straightforward, however.

A Tunisian blogger, Nebil Zagdoud, told Reuters that the prison sentences are "aimed at silencing freedom of expression even on the Internet. Prosecutions for offending morals are a proxy for this government to gag everyone."

Meanwhile, Egypt, which also forced out an autocratic ruler through mass protests, had an administrative court issue an order in late March for the state to block pornographic websites, says the Los Angeles Times.

The decision, the Times noted, came after an ultraconservative member of parliament Younis Makhioun called for pornographic websites to be outlawed. "Instead of focusing on important issues affecting our country, Egyptian youth have become busy with lust...Just making it difficult for users to surf these websites will be a positive step," he reportedly said.

Egyptian Telecommunications Minister Mohamed Salem has reportedly formed a committee to find ways to implement the block.

The government of Iran is denying new reports that it plans to cut off access to the Internet in favor of a home-grown network in August. According to the AFP, Iranian Communications Minister Reza Taghipour published on April 1 a statement on the ministry's official website that a supposed interview with him talking about the August deadline was actually a hoax. The statement, says the AFP was not accessible outside of Iran.

Reports about an Iranian national Internet have circulated for more than a year now and may be "just a political gesture at this point," says ars technica, citing Reporters Without Borders.  

However, state-led Internet censorship has lately intensified, notes ars, adding that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the state supreme leader, recently established a Supreme Council of Cyberspace to regulate the Iranian Internet. 

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