In Egypt, Facebook Lands You in Prison

By Rana Mamdouh

By Rana Mamdouh

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Muhammad Said
A Victim of Live Broadcast
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Thirty-year-old Muhammad Said stood on his balcony that overlooks "Arbaeen Square" in the "Suez Governorate" and set his phone up to the live broadcast mode through his personal Facebook account. He pointed the camera towards the crowds of people and police present in the square. It was the evening of September 20, 2019, and the people were answering a call to demonstrate announced by the Egyptian contractor and actor Muhammad Ali who live in Spain, and is known to be opposed to President Al Sisi regime

Said’s attempt to record and Live-stream the demonstration was enough for the Egyptian security forces to come to his home within 48 hours (to arrest him). Said managed to record the moment of his arrest with the same camera.

On the date of writing this investigation on February 1, 2021, Saeed has been still in prison in “Port Said”, accused of joining a terrorist group, using a private internet account with the aim of committing the crime of broadcasting, and spreading fake news that would disturb public order and terrorise the public.

Said’s motives were to record and document the demonstration through his Facebook account, and he was not the only person arrested (in Egypt) without taking part in demonstrations.

Activists, politicians, journalists and university professors were subjected to the same treatment. Blogger and programmer Ala’a Abdel-Fattah was also arrested along with his lawyer, Muhammad Al-Baqer by the State Security prosecution during the investigation with Abdel-Fattah. The arrests included Cairo University political science professors Hassan Nafa’a and Hazem Hosni, the former President of the Constitution Party, Khalid Daoud, lawyer Mahinour Al-Masri and hundreds others who were arrested after their phones were searched and their activities on Facebook tracked.

This comes as part of a campaign launched by the Egyptian authorities towards the end of last September and which targeted close to 4,000 people, according to data (statistics) published by the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights. Most of those arrested were charged with using a private internet account, and joining a terrorist group or sharing its goals.

Facebook is the leading social media platform in Egypt; according to the Crowd Analyzer report for social networking sites in 2019, more than 40 million Egyptians use it.

In recent years, targeting Facebook users in Egypt for security-related matters has become widespread. These users include political activists and non political activists even ordinary citizens were classified as members of the opposition. Arresting people for posting an opinion, a photo, or a video on their Facebook account has become the norm. Facebook users also get arrested in Egypt nowadays even for expressing "Like" or "Share" on certain posts. This is followed by prosecutions on charges that could carry a 10-year prison sentence, as the government has been aided by new technology that has increased mass surveillance of users, the use of loosely phrased laws to apprehend the suspects.

In this investigation, we shed light on five stories of ordinary citizens that the authorities have classified as opposition figures because of their Facebook posts. The government used an arsenal of laws and mass surveillance techniques to suppress their constitutional right to express their opinion. And this has forced most of them to leave the virtual world and to suppress their views as they hope to be readmitted in society as ordinary citizens again.

A Victim of Live Broadcast: Muhammad Said

Sounds of gunfire shot by police officers in Arbaeen Square could be heard on the evening of September 20, 2019. Muhammad Said recorded some footage from his balcony overlooking the square.

Next, Muhammad Said appears on camera and says, “The police are at my house to arrest me. All I did was record a video. I bid you farewell, and Peace be upon you.”

Muhammad Said’s Lawyer, Huda Abdel-Wahab, says, “He is from Suez, and he lives in Arbaeen Square where the demonstration happened. Said did a live broadcast of the demonstration. Unfortunately for him, Al-Jazeera channel managed to live stream images of the demonstration from his Facebook page”.

This led to his arrest. The inquiries and investigations conducted by Abdel-Wahab on Said showed that he does not meddle in politics; he has a shop for selling electrical appliances in the same building in which he lives in Arbaeen Square in Suez. He sells items like fridges, washing machines and gas stoves. Said has been in prison since his arrest in September 2019, and his family is awaiting his release.

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Andrew Nasif
The First Christian Terrorist
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Sixty-five year old Amal Aziz Zaki knocked on the doors of many whom she describes as "people of influence", hoping they would intervene on her behalf with the President of the Republic to pardon her son who was sentenced to 5 years in prison. After a year of pleading, the President answered her plea.

On May 16, 2017, the police stormed Amal’s house in the village of Banayos in Sharqia Governorate in the Delta region, and arrested her son Andrew Nasif. The Zagazig Criminal Court issued a verdict on October 15 of the same year, sentencing him to 5 years of prison on charges of promoting terrorism through social media. Twice a week, Amal endured the trouble of traveling 89 km from Zagazig to Cairo and back, to appeal her case to the Presidential Pardon Committee, the Council of Ministers, the House of Representatives and the Ministry of the Interior in the hope that her plea reaches the President. It stated, “Andrew Nasif, a Christian who works in tourism so he could pay for his education, is accused of terrorism!” She figured that this phrase alone is sufficient to release her son. She also thought that Andrew’s charges of "incitement against the regime and insulting state institutions" all stemmed from the investigators ignorance of the fact that Andrew is Christian. Amal exclaims, "Has anyone heard of a Christian member of the Brotherhood or of a Christian terrorist before!"

Andrew is one of 28 young men from ten governorates who were arrested in May 2017 at his home in Zagazig as part of a security operation that targeted activists and members of (banned) political parties and movements. This coincided with the demarcation of the maritime boundaries between Egypt and Saudi Arabia known as the “Tiran and Sanafir Agreement.” Charges were brought against the young men based on their social media posts. Andrew was among the first of those sentenced to five years in prison.

Before his arrest, twenty-three year old Andrew Nasif wrote on his Facebook page, “When will we bring down prisons and military dictatorship again?” and “Seek freedom and talk about every oppressed person in the country whether you know them or not; otherwise, your turn will come one day.” The authorities considered this a fully-fledged terrorist crime subject to the anti-terrorism law issued by the government in August 2015. The operation also came days after the assassination of former Attorney General Hisham Barakat (and is seen) as a step by the authorities to punish members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other extremist Islamist groups.

Secret Investigations by a National Security Officer

The Zagazig Criminal Court based Andrew’s five year imprisonment sentence on investigations conducted by a National Security officer which the court described as “confidential.” The report states, “Andrew is accused of incitement against the authorities in Egypt, insulting state institutions, calling citizens to demonstrate and organizing protests. He is also accused of inciting future riots and violence to obstruct the state’s development and economic advancement plans”. The accusations also stated that Andrew “is promoting these ideas through social media with the aim to disseminate fake messages about the situation to convince some citizens, and mobilize public opinion against the existing regime.” This is in addition to “possessing and editing publications that encourage incitement against the existing regime to bring down state institutions, including the army, the police and the judiciary. Moreover, he is accused of possessing some material used to cause acts of violence at his home.”

Our investigator obtained a copy that detailed the reasoning used in the case against Andrew: When the case officer confirmed the seriousness of the findings, he laid them out in a report that he presented to the Public Prosecution office who in turn authorized him to arrest Andrew, and to search his residence on May 16, 2017 at three in the morning.

The court adds that while “searching his residence, the following publications were found: eight documents with the phrase ‘Wake up and return!’; four publications entitled ‘You’re starving us!’; six publications stating, ‘January 25 all over again!’; five publications with ‘The April 6 Youth Movement Freed Egypt’; and a poster stating ‘I am an April loyalist: The voice of truth.’”

Andrew’s mother confirmed that the police took her son, his phone and his ID, and she denies that the police found any publications. The court entered Andrew’s denial of possession of such publications. However, the court endorsed the investigations as conducted by the National Security officer, his confidential sources, and the decision not to include the seized items in the case file.

In its ruling, the court stated, “The argument objecting to the sole testimony of one officer and withholding the testimonies of the remaining members of the accompanying force can be countered as follow: The court has ruled that the officer’s behavior in not providing the names of the accompanying force members does not affect the integrity or the sufficiency of his statements as evidence in the case. The court is satisfied with the statements of an officer who saw the evidence, and it is comfortable with accepting it. Therefore, the defendant’s denial in this matter is not valid and deserve rejection.”

Andrew’s lawyer Abdel-Aziz Yousef explains that the court did not question the fact that the National Security officer collected information about Andrew, arrested him and testified against him. The verdict listed the publications at Andrew’s home as evidence without ascertaining its non-existence in the first place. The court also ignored the refusal of the police officers who participated in the arrest to testify that Andrew possessed these (publications).

Presidential Pardon

President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi issued a pardon in the name of the republic on May 16, 2018 for 332 young prisoners and those with health conditions. The pardon included Andrew and his colleague Islam Mar’i who was arrested hours before Andrew and was the secretary of the Egyptian Democratic Party in Zagazig and has been sentenced to three years of prison.

Andrew was released from prison after serving a full year, and he closed his Facebook account for 16 months. He reopened it in September 2018 only to post personal photos. We tried to contact him via Facebook. At the beginning, Andrew welcomed the idea and set up more than one date for the interview, the last of which was in March 2020. However, he declined to be interviewed and expressed his preference not to re-live his prison experience.

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Muhammad Ramadan
The First Person to be Banned from Using the Internet
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On December 1, 2016, lawyer Muhammad Ramadan posted several publications on his personal Facebook page, including “Tiran and Sanafir (Islands) are Egyptian” and “Awwad sold his land.” On the 5th day of the same month, security forces arrested him while he was following up on some cases in “Al Montazah” police station in Alexandria. The arrest came after another lawyer filed a complaint accusing him of writing Facebook posts that encroached upon the President of the Republic and inciting against the regime .

At the time, the prosecution interrogated Ramadan then released him on bail that was set for 10000 Egyptian pounds or $637 after detaining him for 48 hours.

On April 12, 2017, the Alexandria Criminal Court issued a verdict in absentia to imprison him for ten years and banned him from using the Internet for five years. He was also to be confined to house arrest for another five years.

The court determined that his posts contained an insult to the President of the Republic and incitement to terrorism. This ruling was the first of its kind based on Article (37) of the Anti-Terrorism Law that allows the court to commit the accused in any terrorist crime to carry out one an additional punishment or more, for a maximum of 5 years on top of the prison sentence.

Because the verdict was in absentia, Ramadan submitted a request for a retrial to be exempted from carrying out the punishment. Another circuit of the Alexandria Criminal Court responded and decided on June 10, 2017 to suspend the trial until the constitutionality of a number of articles of the Terrorism Law, on which the first circuit court based its ruling were determined.

The suspension of the trial by the Supreme Constitutional Court enabled our investigator to meet Ramadan on October 28, 2017 before he was re-arrested for another case.

Ramadan says, “The nature of my work as a lawyer interested in political issues, especially issues of freedoms, brought me in direct confrontation with the security services, especially with the National Security Service.” He explained that he usually submitted complaints against officers who tortured detainees.

Days before his arrest, Ramadan claimed that a number of officers asked people in his neighbourhood about his connection to a group called “revolutionary socialists.” Ramadan informed the Director of the National Security Sector in Alexandria where he “works as a lawyer and is assigned as defense lawyer in many political cases.” He also explained that he had “noticed that when the State Security Investigators arrested a number of people, the officers inquired about the position Ramadan occupies in the ‘Revolutionary Socialists’ movement.” He insisted that he “does not have information about that Movement, and he is not aware if there is a movement with such name. Any records, cases or investigations drawn up with the knowledge of leaders and officers of the National Security in Alexandria against him are therefore fabricated and malicious reports.”

Ramadan adds that a few days after he reported the accusations against him, a security unit stormed his house in Alexandria. At the time he was in Cairo, and instead the force detained his mother and sister until he turned himself in. They were both released after people and lawyers intervened.

Days later, security forces arrested Ramadan while he was defending one of his clients at the police station of Al Montazah . The pretext given was that another lawyer reported him because of what he posts on Facebook.

Ramadan says, “I closed my Facebook account after a criminal court ruling sentenced me to ten years in prison.” He adds, “If I knew that I would be imprisoned because of it, I would have written an educational piece that would benefit people and help them understand the issue instead of just offering an opinion.” Ramadan’s decision to stay away from Facebook did not last longer than six months; he created a new account in June 2018 only to be arrested again because of it on December 11, 2018. He had posted a photo of himself wearing a yellow vest, and this coincided with the Yellow Vests demonstrations in France. The authorities viewed this as a call to demonstrate, and this is the charge for which Ramadan was imprisoned for two years in "preventive detention". Then, the Alexandria Criminal Court decided on December 2, 2020, to release him on a bail of five thousand Egyptian pounds.

The court’s decision was not implemented, as the State Security Prosecution decided on December 8, 2020 to imprison Ramadan again in a new case, No. (467) of 2020. According to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, he was accused of “sending communication from inside prison with the aim of destabilizing peace.” This is the charge for which Ramadan is still being held in preventive detention to date. The Supreme Constitutional Court meanwhile, is still in the process of examining to what extent the Anti-Terrorism Law is aligned with the Constitution.

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Amr Nohan
A Victim of the Mickey Mouse cartoon
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Days before the end of his compulsory military service, Amr Nohan posted a photo on his Facebook account showing Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi as the cartoon figure of Mickey Mouse. This led to his expulsion from his military service in August 2015. He also stood at a military court and was imprisoned for three years. This period ended in September 2018. He left prison and went on to practicing law.

While he was defending one of his clients in the Karmouz Police Station on June 10, 2019, security forces arrested him again on the charges that he has joined a terrorist group, and has used social media to spread fake news. Currently, he is being held in preventive detention.

On September 28, 2017 and before he completed his military court sentence, we met the Nohan’s family a few meters from the Corniche in the Bahari district of Alexandria.
“Amr’s crime is that he expressed his opinion,” Nohan’s brother Walid told us. He added that his brother wrote a post on his Facebook account expressing his opinion days before the end of his conscription period, so he was referred to the military court, which sentenced him to three years in prison.

The ruling issued by the Military court in Matrouh Governorate specified the charges Nohan committed as follows:
First: He shared a picture on his Facebook account mocking the President of the Republic.
Second: He published a post on his page containing the phrase “Down with El-Sisi, Morsi and Mubarak.”
Third: He posted a satirical publication on the President of the Republic.
Fourth: He posted a publication that included an insult to the President of the Republic.
Fifth: He posted a publication that gloats about the bombings that occurred near the headquarters of the National Security Agency.

The Military Security Department is one of the agencies of the Military Intelligence and Reconnaissance Department of the Ministry of Defense.

In its ruling, the court stated that it received information from the War Security section which is part of the Egyptian military intelligence at the Ministry of Defence that Nohan had written phrases and posted pictures on his social networking site, Facebook against the armed forces and the regime in contradiction with tenets of exemplary behavior which members of the armed forces must uphold. Nohan also posted his photos in military uniform on Facebook, with disregard to orders and military instructions. The case was presented to the military prosecution and ended by referring him to trial.

Disregard of military orders, and behavior deemed harmful to the rule of law and to the demands of the military system are classified as “crimes” punishable by imprisonment according to the Military Justice Law No. (25) of 1966.

Nohan’s mother works as a teacher in the United Arab Emirates and only comes to Egypt for summer vacations. She said, “Expressing an opinion while performing military service may be a crime punishable by law, but did those in charge of the country think of how to punish the youth without alienating them from the country or making them hate it?”

We tried to communicate with Nohan after he was released from prison in 2018, but he confirmed in a text message that he was not ready “mentally,” “health-wise” or “financially” to go back to prison again. He stressed, “My opponent in the case was the President of the Republic, and I still don’t know if he is still mad at me.” He concluded, “I will tame my tongue and move forward cautiously. If I should be locked up again, I would die in there.”

Walid did not close his brother’s Facebook account after his first arrest. He believed that “Facebook is an arena for exchanging opinions and ideas, not just for posting pictures and songs.” His brother paid for expressing his opinion. Amr kept his Facebook account after he was released from prison, but he closed the account after the second arrest.

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Muhammad Yahya
Overthrowing the Regime with a Mobile Phone Camera
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Six theater actors posted clips of their satirical performances on Facebook, and this was enough to land them in prison for several months. They were accused of wreaking havoc in the country and of inciting against the regime.

In December 2015, six theater actors between the ages of 21 and 38 formed a ‘Troupe’ called “The Street Children”. They toured various governorates in Egypt performing as part of what is known as “street theater”. They gradually started recording short video of their shows by mobile phones camera and posting them on the Facebook page of the group. The shows discussed social traditions and contradictions in a sarcastic way.

A whole year had passed since the troupe members were released from prison. We agreed on a date to record an interview, but none of them showed up on the specified date. Eventually, we interviewed one member of the group, Muhammad Yahya, on November 13, 2017.

The case file against them indicates that three days before their arrest on May 9, 2016, “information from confidential and reliable sources were made available to an officer in the National Security Sector. This source reported that insurrectionists calling themselves “the street children Troupe” were performing in the governorates of Cairo and Giza, have been causing chaos in the country. They opposed the regime and thought to destabilize peace. Further, the troupe planned to mobilize citizens against the state and its institutions by pushing people to hold marches and demonstrations against it”.

The investigations prepared by the same officer stated that in order to implement their plan, the troupe members held meetings in which they agreed to campaign via Internet, social media and YouTube. They posted videos of their shows that contained songs that distorted lyrics of patriotic songs to include profanity and words that are offensive to the state and its institutions.

The troupe members are Muhammad Adel, Muhammad Jabir, Mustafa Zein, Muhammad Yahya, Izz Al-Din Khalid and Muhammad Desouqi. The report stated that they have agreed to increase the impact of their shows and make use of the Internet to spread their videos in order to mobilize people against the regime’s decision to give up some territorial concessions for Saudi Arabia in exchange for economic aid through the maritime border demarcation agreement announced then.

The evidence file presented at the Supreme State Security Prosecution was limited to a CD containing four videos for the group entitled “Slaves to the Army”, “Abu Dabbourah”, “Al-Nahda Dam” and “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: 7 Thousand Years of Civilization”.

The six actors remained in prison until the North Cairo Criminal Court ruled to accept their appeal against the decision to renew their detention. On September 7, 2016, the court decided to release them with precautionary measures. These consist of staying at the police station in their residential area for three hours, twice a week, for a period of four months. However, the case is still pending deliberation before the court and has not been closed to date.

After they were released from prison, the troupe members decided to close their Facebook page, and they stopped working together. “I lost my job because of two words on Facebook,” says Yahya. Besides acting, he was also an employee at the Ministry of Culture. He added that The Street Children troupe does not exist anymore. “It was a beautiful memory. The experience of prison was painful, and we have not recovered from it.”

Technical and then Legal Pursuit

It may be easy for the government to track political activists or opponents. The question is how it can extend its control over ordinary people whose numbers may reach more than 40 million users. Hasan Al-Azhari, a lawyer at ‘Massar: Technology and Law Community’, explains that this is done through “mass surveillance.”

Al-Azhari explains that since 2016 the government has been able to conduct mass surveillance against Facebook users through random targeting . This means that the security services monitor anyone’s use of certain semantics or hashtags and profile their political orientations. This data is then used by the Ministry of Interior to initiate legal action against Facebook users.

On June 1, 2014, the Ministry of Interior revealed its intention to monitor social media sites on a wide scale; Al-Watan newspaper listed on behalf of the Ministry of Interior the conditions for a tender to supply the software for a system it called “Security Risks Project of Social Media: A System for Measuring Public Opinion.”

The Ministry revealed also the purpose of the tender, saying that it intends to purchase the latest security risk monitoring programs for social network sites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, LinkedIn, Viber and WhatsApp. This is in addition to (acquiring programs) that help authorities identify people who pose a threat to society and analyze different opinions while keeping its security system continuously updated.

In the tender invitation, the Ministry of Interior specified the mechanism of the programs work. It aimed to acquire a tool for analyzing opinions and trends among users of social networking sites.

While human rights organizations expressed their fear that such programs will be used to monitor digital expression spaces and social networking sites, the Assistant to the Minister of Interior for Media Affairs, Major General Abdel-Fattah Othman, confirmed the government bid to acquire such programs, while he denied in a phone call TV appearance, that those programs will be used to curb freedom of expression.

On September 22, 2014, ten human rights organizations filed a lawsuit calling on the Minister of Interior to suspend the tender and cancel the decision to purchase the software for the monitoring programs. Al-Azhari clarifies that the Ministry’s interest to purchase applications that enable it to monitor social media and to spy on users, is in contravention of the freedom of expression constitutional right (of citizens). On February 28, 2017, the Administrative Court ruled not to accept the case: The judge qualified the case as a challenge to the tender and failed to address the legality of using such programs by the Ministry of Interior. The verdict touched on endorsing the bid and its entry into force in 2014 according to a contract between the Ministry of Interior and au unnamed company.

The Ministry of Interior did not publish any information about the tender or its results.

While preparing this investigation, we contacted Major General Abdel-Fattah Othman who was the Director of the Ministry’s Media Department at the time of the tender and have sent him our questions via text messages, but we did not receive any answers.

In September 2017, an American newspaper revealed that a company called “Egypt for Systems Engineering had won the tender. The company is a distributor for the American company Blue Coat, which specializes in internet monitoring.

In July 2018, the International Federation for Human Rights issued a report entitled “Egypt: A Repression Made in France.” According to this report, the company provided Egyptian authorities with a deep bundle inspection system or “in-depth content inspection”. This enables it to intercept content and personal data in phone conversations and allows it to monitor programs such as Whatsapp, Viber or Skype.

The report confirmed that the Ministry of Interior’s has started using these programs in August 2016. Technical experts confirmed that this enabled the government to generally and systematically monitor communications over the Internet through bypassing the encryption protocol.

Monitoring people who are categorized as “dangerous to society” by security services was the first step. The second step was to determine the necessary punishment according to the law. But Egypt lacked specific laws that determine what is allowed or prohibited in the digital sphere. The authorities therefore, have been borrowing from punitive articles of the law that were used to sanction regular publishing crimes in the penal code for the digital crimes. The government also depended on the laws that regulate communications, and the laws adopted in emergency situations as well as Anti-Terrorism Legislations.

Starting in August and September 2018, two more laws were added: the Law on Crimes related to Information Technology and the Press and Media Regulation Law. Ahmad Othman, a lawyer at the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression that specializes in providing legal support to defendants involved in cases related to Facebook, explains that these laws would be used to prosecute users.

Othman said that based on articles of the penal code, the police and judicial authorities charge Facebook users with acts such as spreading fake news, insulting the president of the republic or state institutions, or joining a group that was founded in violation of the law.

He gave an example of the arrest of more than 75 people in September 2017. Those people posted photos on Facebook showing their participation in a gay gathering and in raising the rainbow flag “known as a sign of diversity.” The prosecution charged them with joining a group founded in violation of the law.

The issue does not stop at writing a comment or posting a photo or video on Facebook but also extends to simple interactions with posts on other accounts. Othman gives examples: The security services arrested Karam Zakaria, a member of the April 6 Movement because he “liked” a post published by the “Green Wave” page, which “urges citizens to be positive.”

The latest and most serious charges are those connected to the Anti-Terrorism Law issued in August 2015. This is in addition to two other laws that make the task of prosecuting social media users easy. The first is the Press and Media Regulation Law issued on September 1, 2018: The articles of this law subject personal accounts or blogs on social media with more than five thousand followers to the authority of the Supreme Council for Media Regulation.

The second law, issued in August 2018, is related to combating information technology crimes. It forces Internet service providers in Egypt to save users’ data for three months and to make it available to the security agencies in matters related to the country’s national security.

Othman considers the April 2019 campaign launched by the authorities to arrest opponents of the constitutional amendments as the first application of the new law. This resulted in the arrest of nearly ten members of the Constitution and the Strong Egypt parties because they had posted material that opposed the constitutional amendments on their personal accounts on Facebook. The Supreme Administrative Court used the same law in December 2019 to dismiss an employee from his work after a Facebook post that the court considered an assault on Egyptian family values ​​and a violation of the private lives of people.