Social networking site Facebook is facing heavy criticism after removing major atheist pages.
Facebook removed more than six Arabic-speaking atheist pages due to “violations” of Community Standards in the middle of April, reports The News Hub
However, this was not the first time that the social networking site censored atheists and freethinkers in the Middle East and North African (MENA) region.
Following the matter, the Atheist Alliance – Middle-East and North Africa (AA-MENA) demanded that Facebook changes its way of addressing violation reports in order to preserve its members’ freedom of speech.
Ten Arabic-speaking atheist groups were deactivated in February 2016 for the same reason: Heavy reporting campaigns that are organised by “cyber jihadist” fundamentalist Islamic groups, especially for the removal of any anti-Islamic group or page.
The groups had a total of about 100,000 members.
According to The News Hub's report, in these types of coordinated campaigns, very large numbers of people, and possibly automated scripts, simultaneously file reports falsely claiming that a page, group or personal account has violated Community Standards.
The representatives of AA-MENA have petitioned Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg demanding that the social networking site reactivate the removed groups.
The petition has been shared on several atheist groups in the Arab world, the US and the UK, and it has been supported by many prominent social media activist organisations like Atheist Alliance International and the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain.
AA-MENA had adopted #FacebookVSFreeSpeech as the hashtag of its Facebook event, “Atheism: Campaigning,” to regain the right to free speech within Facebook Pages.
The campaign’s goal is to rally atheists and freethinkers of the MENA region and to attract the attention of relevant nongovernmental organisations and irreligious social media activists to their cause.
However, this attack on free speech spilled out of Facebook and resulted into a cold-blooded murder. Yemeni activist Omar Bataweel was abducted in front of his home in the city of Aden On April 22. Police said Omar was shot and left to die on the street. Locals discovered his body the next morning.
He had received death threats before his execution for posting criticism of Islamic clergy and heritage on Facebook. He was also accused of apostasy and atheism. His case remains open and no suspects have been apprehended until now.
Immediately, AA-MENA took action and concurrently launched a second campaign, “Killed Yet Still Loud,” under the hashtag #Omar_Human_Case to draw attention to this horrific precedent and to commemorate the life of this young man who was killed simply because he spoke his mind.
The Alliance has three goals for the free speech campaign:
1. Reactivate the pages that were removed due to intensive, unfounded reporting activities
2. Convince Facebook to respect the rights of irreligious individuals and groups in the MENA region as well as respect the freedom of thought and expression
3. Convince Facebook to reform its standard procedures in collecting and addressing reports in a way that ensures a just evaluation of any alleged violation of Community Standards
Participants in the campaign have been publishing and sharing posts that heavily criticise Facebook’s policy on dealing with reports of standards violations.
The posts in the Facebook event are generally direct and spontaneous, focused on Facebook’s approach to freedom of speech.
Maryam Namazie, spokesperson for the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, tweeted on April 21 that she was blocked for seven days by Facebook for criticising its censorship of ex-Muslim and Arab atheist pages.
Namazie’s Facebook post featured a picture that she shared from an Arabic-speaking atheist’s (ex-Muslim) Facebook Page that depicted Mark Zuckerberg as an ally to ISIS.
For irreligious people of the MENA region, social media outlets, especially Facebook, have become the only platform that they can safely use to express their thoughts and opinions, share their stories and come together without feeling threatened.
In most Arab countries, the demographic majority is Muslim; many regimes are actual theocracies while the others are very deeply influenced by Islamic religious authorities at all levels of public life.
The oppression practised by Arab authorities against those who speak out about religious and/or cultural taboos and dogmas has often made the headlines.
The story of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was largely covered by the world media in last year after he was sentenced to a thousand lashes, 10 years in prison and a fine of $266,000.
On the other hand, Mohamed Mkhaïtir, a Mauritanian blogger, was sentenced to death for apostasy in Mauritania in December.
On April 20 this year, Amnesty International issued a statement demanding the Mauritanian authorities to quash the death sentence and set the blogger free, ahead of the appeal court hearing for the case.
Many stories can be recounted under the title Islamic authorities’ oppression of freedom of expression.
Freethinkers, atheists and freedom activists in the MENA region live under oppressive regimes and communities. Most of them cannot express their religious, political, cultural or social views and thoughts freely.
This ever-growing segment of people living in the Arab world is still operating with a “low profile” and with minuscule traditional media coverage.
This is the main reason for their enormous investments in social media platforms, such as Facebook, which are viewed by them as the last resort for freedom of thought and expression.
The article by Ayman El Kaissi originally appeared in the-newshub.com