Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

The “cat and mouse” game between bloggers and government

This is a liveblog of a breakout panel at the Google Liberty at 2010 conference in Budapest, September 22, 2010.

Cynthia Wong of the Center for Democracy and Technology introduces the next breakout panel, entitled “Online free expression and the cat and mouse game between bloggers and governments.”

She introduces the session by mentioning the issues of bloggers, governments, and company responsibility, then calls on respondent Esraa Rashid from Egypt to introduce the relevance of this issue in her region.  Rashid believes that we can achieve democracy by using the Internet as a tool, but notes that governments, such as the Egyptian Mubarak government wants to remain in power and continue to suppress the rights of its opposition.  “The government is so scared of those who can oppose them online, such as the activists on Facebook.”

Esraa Rashid notes the example of Khaled Said, a young Egyptian activist who had taken a video of police officers dealing drugs.  He was at a cyber cafe attempting to upload his videos and photos when police kidnapped and beat him, killing him in the process.  Witnesses took photos of Said’s body, spreading it online.  In the end, the police were held culpable, a major achievement in Egyptian activism.

Rashid believes that the Egyptian government would like to get rid of all of Egypt’s bloggers, but thinks that the US net freedom initiative can be helpful in bringing attention to these issues.

She also notes the reception for potential presidential candidate Mohamed El Baradei, noting that his prominence has also risen due to Internet discussions and campaigning.

Cynthia Wong turns the discussion to Ivan Sigal, Executive Director of Global Voices.  He notes the relationship and differences between online and “traditional” activism.  He says that it’s difficult to generalize about these campaigns but that, contrary to traditional activism, online and blogging efforts are often coming from a non-institutional basis, from individuals without links to NGOs or labor movements.

Sigal notes the example of a house in China where the family was asked to move, whilst an excavation occurred.  The family refused, so the company dug around them, leaving the house intact; this incident brought land rights into the mainstream as a bigger issue.

He asks: “How does an idea like this turn into a movement, or should it?”  He notes the relationship of bloggers and citizens to a “vocal anti-professionalism” and a conception of being citizens, rather than members of an organization, thus making it very grassroots, and opposed to tradition.  Sigal views this grassroots activism as a challenge to traditional concepts.

A third point Sigal makes is the idea of ideas and themes going “viral” online, a concept sometimes called “slacktivism.”  Sigal thinks there’s another way of viewing this; that an idea may have more importance than simply a single voice. Just because an idea isn’t driven forward by a traditional campaign mentality doesn’t mean it’s not a good one.  Sigal notes that ideas are sometimes implemented beyond their original spheres, and that this may have broader implications.

Wong opens up the discussion as an open one for the group, and asks, based on our own experiences, what do we see as the main challenges and obstacles for online activists and bloggers.

Wael, a Jordanian blogger, notes that he took a workshop from an experienced lawyer with specific experience in Jordan, and states that understanding government and legal loopholes is important.  He says that, as governments and regions use their own rules against bloggers, it becomes more and more important for bloggers to understand and utilize the laws as well.

Rita Chemaly, a Lebanese researcher and blogger, jumps in to say that, when causes exist online, many people often join on to them, but are not participatory.  Her question is, “how, in the public sphere, can we change good arguments into political action?”  She also notes that, since Lebanon’s recent president came to power, her Facebook page and blog are reported if she talks about them, and there’s a risk that she can be arrested [note: Lebanon does not block websites].

An audience member from Vietnam asks if bloggers should get paid for working.  She elaborates to say that perhaps bloggers should be funded, that they need a better environment.  She says that bloggers need better expertise and professionalism, and that perhaps civic volunteers are the best to help train them.  She also notes that slacktivism is a negative phenomenon, but that in a closed society, people don’t really have the chance to speak up publicly, so clicking “like” is controversial.  She sees this as a positive development.

In response, Sigal notes that traditional activists often have a stronger sense of the risks they’re taking, whereas people new to activism may find that the risks they’re taking are not reasonable or rational.  He notes that it’s important to articulate goals, and assess risks and concerns.

Regarding slacktivism, Sigal notes that a lot of online organizing is not about structural change, but cultural change, and that some people seek a structural indication of success, but that he sees that as a narrow assessment (using the Armenian protests of last year as an example).

A blogger from the Philippines notes that the government at first viewed them like everyone else, but that they began to view them as threats sometime after.  Bloggers there did not have a unified voice, but as they tackled common issues, they were seen as “speaking one language.”  They tried not to be too confrontational or negative, with awareness that those tactics had not worked in the past.  He says that his blogging community meets once a year to discuss how to further engage the rest of the population, government, and media.

Susan from Internews asks the blogging community what the role of development and funders is.

Mohammed Abdullah, a blogger who works for HRW and has experience arrest (as have members of his family), says: “What is not said is that blocking is not the issue; the biggest threat is blogger arrests.  That is pushing bloggers to practice self-censorship or stop blogging entirely.”  He also notes that every country is different, and that in Syria, because of Emergency Law, you go to prison if you say something wrong, whereas in Lebanon, where rule of law exists, bloggers are rarely held.

Wong jumps in to ask if there’s any role for organizations in blogger campaigns.

[I responded to say that, noticing that most campaigns are bottom-up and grassroots, a) I don't think organizations shouldn't fund bloggers, but that it's important for consent and awareness to be a part of it and b) we need to focus beyond simply "Iran and China" and look to other countries as well.  Biased organizations, lobbies, and power can be an issue.]

Anas Qtiesh jumps in to add that in protecting bloggers, Tor does a great job, but there’s a need for faster, better programs that provide both circumvention and anonymity infrastructure.

Nasser Weddady notes that he’s worked on numerous campaigns, and that the campaign for Ali Abdulemam is successful because we have a large, diverse group with different skills.  We limited the group, and included people with specific abilities (e.g., media, writing, etc).  Weddady thinks that these campaigns have grown in success; Khaled Said is a great example of grassroots activism without traditional, political actors.  “This in itself is a massive breakthrough.”  On the negative side, Weddady notes that what is relevant is that some of the fundamental questions remain: Why do some countries get more attention than others?  He notes that it’s not simply political agendas, but also outside biases from analysts of the region.  Weddady sees outside organizations’ desires to get involved as an opportunity, and agrees with the idea of training for skills.  “Those that reach a certain level of growth, capability, and connections.”  He notes that connections were what have helped Ali Abdulemam most.  “When you have hubs, you get coverage beyond the Arab world.”  He notes that Western media is likely to cover before local or Arab media, thus hubs get results.  “How can we produce more hubs evenly across the Arab states?,” asks Weddady.

Wong asks if he has any suggestions for building hubs.  Weddady notes that it’s undeniable that the flourishing of civil society in the Arab world puts them in a place to receive attention (and possibly funding) from foreign NGOs.  The question then is what can we do moving forward?  He says that with a lack of internal culture to fund such initiatives, outside funding can be necessary.

Weddady also notes that Arabs are at the forefront of the fight and that Arabs have skills, they just need support: from the media, for capacity-building, but not for strategic planning.

Wong takes the mic again to raise the subject of corporations and what kinds of roles they can play.

Rashid notes the role of the Egyptian government in limiting the creation and reach of NGOs.  Mohammed Abdullah notes that in Lebanon, the government is begging for projects, while activists in Egypt and Morocco, for example, can’t get funds.  He also notes that, regarding whether or not bloggers should get funded, it’s a matter of influence: grassroots, volunteer bloggers have no rules, no restrictions, and no regulations.  He also agrees with me that organizations’ incessant focus on Iran and Syria, due to a political agenda, is harming the human rights sphere.

A blogger from Indonesia notes that the problem in his country is the government has started to pay bloggers (as in Russia and China) to write for the government.  In Philippines, it’s transparent, other places it isn’t.

Hisham Khribchi from Morocco notes that there is little contact between blogospheres in each regions.  He suggests a transnational structure to educate people about legislation, as well as ways in which they can help other bloggers in difficult situations.

Anas Qtiesh notes the idea of passively sharing tools with bloggers globally, but also explains that it needs to be done safely.

Angelina from Vietnam talks about speaking up about freedom of expression; for example, Google helped bring coverage to the situation in Vietnam.

Stewart from the Open Society Institute feels that we need to support legal defense funds for people outside of the traditional media network; these funds already exist, but how can we expand them to more communities?

Lhadon from Tibet notes that in the Tibetan context, strategic nonviolence resistance training would be helpful.  She states that we have the capacity but not the training.

Cynthia Wong thanks participants for attending and says we should continue the discussion online.

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