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Twitter sidesteps comment on jail terms for Gulf bloggers

Admonishing governments ‘not our role’, says senior executive

Twitter prefers not to comment on ‘different countries laws and rules’.
Twitter prefers not to comment on ‘different countries laws and rules’.

A senior Twitter executive has refused to comment on the cases of local residents who have been jailed or arrested for opinions expressed on the social media site.

"It would call upon Twitter stepping beyond its authority and its role to tell governments what they should and should not do," Shailesh Rao, Twitter's vice president for Asia Pacific, Latin America and Emerging Markets, told Arabian Business.

"We live in a very diverse world in which every society and every government that represents that society sets its own rules of how a society should operate and it's our job to provide a platform for users to express themselves within the context of those social and legal norms.

"What we try to do is engage with governments around the world and other stakeholders to make sure they're fully utilising the platform for constructive and positive purposes."

Dozens of people, particularly in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, have been arrested or sentenced to jail for tweets deemed offensive to the respective royal leaders or harmful to the security of the state.

In January, former Kuwaiti MP Saleh Al Mulla was arrested for using Twitter to urge the government to stop "donating" billions of dollars to Egypt.

"Your highness, we won't accept billions more handed out to other countries. We have donated enough. This is the money of the people of Kuwait," Al Mulla, who is on bail, wrote in Arabic in a tweet on 5 January.

At least five online activists also are on bail in Kuwait for posting comments deemed offensive to Saudi Arabia's late King Abdullah following his death in January, according to news wire service AFP.

Opposition activist Sara Al Darees was sentenced to 20 months in jail in 2013 for offending the Emir in a comment posted on Twitter.

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A Saudi sports journalist was last year sentenced to three months' jail and 50 lashes for defaming two soccer club presidents.

In March last year, two men were sentenced to 10 years' jail for messages they posted on Twitter that a Saudi court deemed undermined the country's leadership, the state news agency SPA said at the time.

The Middle East director of Human Rights Watch, Joe Stork, has criticised the ongoing jail sentences for Twitter users. In 2013 he said the Gulf state was unfairly punishing people who made political statements.

"The Kuwait authorities over the past year have prosecuted dozens of people for peaceful political statements," Stork said.

"The government should tolerate this kind of criticism, not persecute people who dare express it."

But Rao said it was "not appropriate" for Twitter to defend its users' freedom of expression.

"I don't think it's appropriate of Twitter, nor the role of Twitter, to comment on different countries laws and rules," he said.

"My belief and my optimistic ode is that Twitter is a platform that can be used to bring governments and people closer together and in better alignment. Ultimately that happens because of mutual understanding and discourse so that a government, who understands what its citizenry want and believe, can be a more effective government representative of their population, and people better understand what their government's point of view is."

Twitter announced last week it planned to open its first Middle East office in Dubai within months.

The region is one of the most active on Twitter, which also is considered to have been an influential tool used by protesters during the Arab Spring.

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