Human Rights Watch in recent weeks issued statements condemning Bahrain and Saudi Arabia for prosecuting individuals based on comments made on social media websites. Last week, the organization called on Riyadh to free a citizen held since April for posting statements seen as critical of the Prophet Mohammad.
Frank La Rue, U.N. special envoy on freedom expression, said restrictions on free expression should be enforced only in extreme circumstances.
"States must invest more in the promotion of human rights education and must continuously promote open public debate as the best antidote to combat discriminatory patterns," he said in a statement. "Laws to combat hate speech must be carefully construed and applied by the judiciary so as to avoid excessively curtailing legitimate types of expression."
Similar concerns were expressed in September following the online broadcast of a film clip produced in the United States seen as insulting to Islam. The film sparked widespread violence across much of the Middle East, prompting security alerts from the U.S. government.