Mohammed Al-Maskati – Bahrain
You Saved Me…
The human rights defender Mohammed Al-Maskati would not have thought that he contributed to the release of a person from prison after he was already arrested and imprisoned. He recalls receiving a phone call from that person’s lawyer, asking him to close all his client’s social media accounts, which Muhammad immediately did. One year later, Mohammed received a call from the former detainee himself, to inform him that “The ruling was issued and I was acquitted. They were unable to access any of my accounts, and they could not get any digital information. You saved me.”
This story inspires Mohammed at a time when digital security is among the key concerns of HRDs and WHRDs, against the backdrop of the constant hacking attempts targeting their electronic accounts, with the aim of accessing sensitive information and data which HRDs keep in their computers and phone devices, and through which they face direct threats by governments, security agencies or outlaw groups.
|His charge was leading an “unregistered organization”
Mohammed gained legal awareness at the age of 15 when he began working with the Monitoring and Youth Committee. In 2005, he chaired the Information Committee. He was then put in charge of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights’ website, three years before it was closed. Together with a group of defenders, Mohammed founded “The Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights” (BYSHR), and held the position of its Head for 9 years until 2014. The Society included a group of members and popular committees, who employed different strategies to raise awareness in various regions of Bahrain.
Mohammed was then summoned to court in 2007 on charges of leading an “unregistered organization”, which carries a maximum punishment of six-months imprisonment. The organization was subjected to a crackdown which intensified in 2009 and 2010.
Mohamed believes that the biggest challenge facing HRD and WHRDs is the region’s laws which are not compatible with human rights standards. He believes that amending these laws will require a long and persistent struggle, against the backdrop of complex and vague change mechanisms, and that some of these changes are even out of reach. Despite the legal provisions pertaining to the protection of personal data and individual rights, such guarantees are non-existent in effect. In the absence of regional Arab mechanisms for the enforcement of human rights, such as the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights or the European Commission of Human Rights; defenders are forced to use regional mechanisms in other countries or reach out to international mechanisms that do not entail accountability measures that are in force in their respective countries. With these challenges, human rights defenders need tactics to navigate the digital world, in order to help them develop different strategies that are based on risk prevention and privacy protection.
|Digital Security: A Way of Life
The qualitative shift in Mohammed’s work came when people began to increasingly switch to technology in general and to social media platforms in particular. He observed the serious risks faced by HRDs and WHRDs as they attempt to document human rights violations as audio and video materials, and when they subsequently try to make their voices heard around the world. His efforts have become a way of life rather than being merely a few programmes that aim to protect privacy and provide digital security training for HRDs and vulnerable groups in the MENA region.
Today, one cannot mention digital security and protection without mentioning Mohammed Al-Maskati. Mohammed has been the Digital Protection Coordinator for the MENA region at Front Line Defenders, from December 31, 2014 to the present, and is now among the most prominent digital defenders.
|Arrest, surveillance and various forms of intimidation can result from gaps in the digital system. Governments and security agencies can take advantage of such gaps to press charges against journalists and activists, as well as harassing them. The solution to that is to enhance digital security to prevent access to personal information, protect the identity of sources and secure electronic devices from spyware.
Mohammed has become a prominent MENA region expert in the protection of the privacy of the work undertaken journalists and human rights defenders, and protecting them from the gaps that may pose a direct threat, including: hacking personal information and using it in smear campaigns, closing or controlling social media pages, impersonating someone with a view to tarnish his reputation among activists and public opinion, and even communicating with international bodies in that person’s name, in addition to installing spyware on the victim’s devices, such as computers or mobile phones.
Mohammed knows the importance of information and the dangers of gaps in information security. He also understands that the materials available to enhance digital security are simple, uncomplicated tools that are within everyone’s reach.
He prepared many educational materials in Arabic for the reference of HRDs and WHRDs, in simple and direct language without excessive detail or complexity. Since 2012 to the present, Mohammed has impacted the work of 6,000 associations in the MENA region as he provided them with digital safety advice, including setting privacy policies, activating secure email communications, protecting chatting software and securing phone calls, and mobile device safety. Mohammed helped organizations to store data in a secure manner, and detect security gaps and malware. He also helped many individuals recover their hacked accounts, and worked with HRDs on various issues including environmental matters, women’s issues, workers’ rights, as well as a number of syndicates and journalists.
|Digital safety is based on changing individual behavior.
Mohammed’s experience caused him to understand that risk assessment in journalism and human rights activism is not only linked to digital security, but also includes personal, physical and organizational security. Therefore, digital security has two key elements: planning ahead and regularly conducting needs assessment. As a manifestation of his dedication to enhancing and strengthening a holistic approach to security and protection, his motto was “We keep watch, so you don’t have to”, as he founded in 2018 Digital-protection.tech, a website which aims “to provide advice on the protection of individuals and institutions on the Internet and in the digital space”. He also created the Rapid Response Team, whose members are available 24/7, to help tackle digital attacks in real time.
Human rights activists in one of the world’s most oppressive regions do not need to research how to overcome digital threats or try to find protection mechanisms in order to avoid government surveillance and retaliation. They can consult a specialized website which offers training materials in Arabic, presented in a simple and practical manner.
|A human rights hero
Access Now, a human rights group, declared Al-Maskati in 2019 a human rights hero, and awarded him its Human Rights Heroes Award in recognition of his efforts defending human rights through providing digital security training. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet presented the award to Al-Maskati at RightsCon Tunis, which was held between June 11-14, 2019.
To date, Mohammed does not know who nominated him for this award. Nevertheless, everyone acknowledges Mohammad’s positive impact on the lives of people to whom he provided digital training, and even those who never met him, but make use of his work to advance their digital safety.
Mohammed believes that the optimal use of digital security tools in the region is lagging behind, and that it is still difficult for activists to keep abreast about the latest updates to digital security applications. Consequently, he aims to prepare a 120 personal security checklists, containing brochures and tips in Arabic, presented in a simplified manner with easy training details and definitions which anyone can benefit from.
Mohammed hopes that “never again will anyone get killed, arrested or face persecution as a result of confiscated or leaked digital information.”