Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Tag: #iranelection

Where I’ve Been: M100, OVC, and Blogs & Bullets

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been traveling to various events, and the rest of autumn looks about the same; in two weeks, I’ll travel to Brussels and Tunis, then a few weeks after that to Istanbul and possibly Brazil. Then comes Canada, and perhaps a few small trips that I haven’t nailed down just yet.

Though some of my speaking is publicly streamed or otherwise covered, much of it isn’t, and so I figure that, from now on, I’ll attempt to do a better job of accounting for my away time. Whenever possible, I’ll continue to liveblog, though most of my recent travels have unfortunately included pathetic Internet connections, making that frustrating at best, impossible at worst.

M100 Sanssouci Colloquium, Potsdam

The M100 Sanssouci Colloquium is in its seventh year. Designed for cross-cultural dialogue and held in the beautiful UNESCO heritage site of Potsdam’s Sanssouci Gardens, the colloquium attracts top German and international journalists, as well as observers from the area.

This year’s subject was, unsurprisingly, lessons from the ‘Arab Spring,’ and included a variety of speakers from Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere in the region in addition to international speakers such as myself. I’m afraid that, two weeks out, my notes aren’t particularly good, but stuck in my memory are the words of Fathy Abou Hatab of Al Masry Al Youm (“Egypt Today”). In a speech on his paper’s move to digital, Hatab said, “I didn’t realize until recently that the plural of media was medium; what really matters in respect to media is the medium.” He then went on to share his experience in Tahrir Square, calling it “one big social network,” and noting the importance of connectivity amongst people for changing the media landscape.

Also notable was the awards ceremony in which Chinese journalist Michael Anti was honored (press release here). Anti gave a brief speech in which he talked about his own reasons for fighting for free expression, noting that companies entering China (or other authoritarian countries) should “always stick to [their] values.”

Open Video Conference

At my first-ever Open Video Conference, I was fortunate to be invited as the keynote speaker on the first day, to discuss the role of video in the ‘Arab Spring.’ I’m secretly hoping there’s no video of my talk, because I said “um” more than usual (I was horrifically jet-lagged, having spent only 36 hours in Germany and arrived in NYC the night before), but I’ve uploaded my slides (which include ample video, that seems to only work if you download the presentation) for sharing.

I started by showing a series of iconic videos, videos that I remember either from youth or from seeing them on retrospectives. From the Kennedy assassination to the Challenger explosion to the YouTube post seen ’round the world, the death of Neda Agha-Soltan, video is seared into our memory, becoming iconic.

This weekend marks the 29th anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon, an horrific event perpetrated against Palestinians by Lebanese Phalangists and overseen by the Israeli Defense Forces, in which a minimum of 328 people were murdered (various sources put the number as low as 328 and as high as 5,000).

Like the Hama massacre of that same year, it is an event of which I am grateful video does not exist, but it is also an event which seems to have largely slipped out of international public memory (an interesting piece on that). On the other hand, and particularly with the advent of YouTube and citizen video more generally, we are able to relive again and again the events that haunted our youth, as well as those that we never saw; we’re also now able to witness events that we never would have seen otherwise: the excitement of Tahrir Square, the desperation of protests in Bahrain, the brutal murders of Syrian opposition.

I argue that the sheer act of witnessing is wherein the power of video lies, an argument that organizations like WITNESS are well aware of (their report, Cameras Everywhere, which I’ll be blogging about this week, is a must-read).

Witnessing may not always have immediately apparent effects — in other words, lives may not be spared in the short term — but I predict that our loss of innocence, our ability to step outside of our sheltered American lives, will have lasting effects in the next generation.

Sifting Facts From Fiction: The Role of Social Media in Conflict

Last but not least, I spoke at the US Institute of Peace, in their beautiful new dove-adorned DC building, on the role of social media in conflict. The third meeting to accompany the Blogs & Bullets initiative and corresponding paper, this event contained several panels in which the paper’s authors, as well as folks like Andy Carvin and Sultan Al Qassemi, discussed the role of social media in the ‘Arab Spring.’ It was particularly interesting to see how our views have changed (or not) since the first meeting in August 2010, several months prior to the onset of the region’s uprisings.

I was on the last panel, and seated between GWU Professor Marc Lynch (aka Abu Aardvark) and Alec Ross, with Clay Shirky coming through the audio waves. Our segment mainly focused on those “newly empowered at the edge of the network” (as Ross so aptly put it), with thoughts on how those voices should be leveraged, listened to, and conversed with.

As you all probably know, I have complicated feelings about the role of government (any, but with an emphasis on my own) in all of this. And so, when first question (“how should we harness this?”) was posed to me, I couldn’t help but point out that I was the outsider on the panel, and that I continue to be surprised when I’m invited to events like these (Lynch and our moderator, USIP director Sheldon Himelfarb, responded by saying that’s exactly what I was invited). I then went on to say that there’s a real risk of marginalizing voices; that while the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia have shifted the balance of power, that balance is still incredibly lacking online. We hear the voices of Egyptian elites, but there are entire swaths of voices that we ignore, and that in doing so, we risk further exacerbating conflict, rather than reaching a point of real discussion. In other words, I talked about Palestine without talking about Palestine.

We also discussed the value of testimony, in parallel to my talk at OVC, with Lynch noting that “testimonies have value on their own,” and that hearing them isn’t always about changing the course of things, or intervening in foreign conflict. Shirky added that “local documentation matters,” a point that explains in a nutshell why organizations like Global Voices even exist, as well as why the work that Andy Carvin is doing is so important. Ross tackled the question of whether the State Department’s ask to Twitter (to temporarily hold off servicing their equipment) in 2009 was a good thing (“It was,” he said, “and it wasn’t a ‘decision’ so much as Jared Cohen just making a call without following processes”), and we all hit on points about whether propaganda still works (“traditional propaganda is toothless,” said Ross, while we all agreed that nonetheless, propaganda on social networks can have silencing effects).

Lastly, Shirky made some excellent points about the so-called global zeitgeist; “People are self-consciously referencing Tunisia and Egypt,” he said, calling this current moment a time of “psychological synchronization” and positing that “events will add up to a greater whole.” This brought forth the question of whether young people — my generation, really — sees itself as different, with Shirky asking, “To what degree do the people using these tools see themselves as part of a global generation?”

Interestingly, that’s an issue I’ve been hoping to tackle for a long time in my writing, but which I’d held off for lack of a strong framework. In light of Shirky’s comments, perhaps I’ll delve into it soon!

-marginalization (my own experience +)
-the role of research
-the proof in the framework (http://whimsley.typepad.com/whimsley/2011/03/blogs-and-bullets-breaking-down-social-media.html)

Iran but not Tunisia: Where’s the outrage?

I fear this post will raise more questions than it will provide answers.  I know that I will likely come across as naive, not able to grasp realpolitik.  I’m angry, on behalf of my friends in and exiled from Tunisia, as to why so little attention is being paid to the current situation (in case you’re amongst those non-observers, read this overview by NDI’s Katherine Maher).

I’ve been away from home for over two weeks now with far less Internet and television access than usual, so it’s difficult for me to gauge what the American reaction has been to the strife in Tunisia thus far.  A quick Google search shows me a decent amount of US media coverage of the situation–both online and offline–though considerably less attention than was paid to the Iranian elections of 2009, which were undeniably ubiquitous in all forms of media, garnering widespread awareness of the situation.

Though I don’t like or agree with it one bit, I understand why the US government focuses disproportionately on Iran: fear of nuclear weapons, fear of attacks on Israel, fear of Islam.  I don’t understand, however, why public and media attention is equally disproportionate.  If media is not a mouthpiece of the government, then shouldn’t our outrage be equal?

The online media coverage of the Tunisian events may well be adequate (though is likely not), but where it the outrage we saw in 2009 vis-à-vis Iran?  Where are the ubiquitous hashtags?  Both the Iranian Green movement and the current outrage emanating from Tunisia are homegrown, native, huge, and yet, one garnered widespread international support while attention to the other is limited to a small transnational network, as far as I can see.

I very much understand the current outrage from my Tunisian friends, particularly as it is leveled at the US government in respect to Internet freedom.  While the US stepped forward to help Iranians (whether by fast-tracking circumvention tools for export or asking Twitter to halt its updates), little had been said publicly over the years regarding Tunisian censorship, nor the American companies that make it possible (Tunisia, like several other countries in the region, uses McAfee’s SmartFilter software to block a vast swath of websites, and does so with impunity).  Europe, on the other hand, has spoken up this time around.

Forget the government – where is the media outrage?  Sometimes I think the media has forgotten who it works for.  This isn’t Tunisia, we have a free press.  What’s their excuse?

Now, with the arrest of Slim Amamou, I call on my friends once again to speak out, loudly.  If you have connections to the media, use them.  If you have questions, I can put you in touch with people on the ground in Tunisia.  Don’t let this go ignored.

Why I Don’t Believe in “Net Freedom”

For the past two weeks, Tunisia has been racked with unrest following the December 17 self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a young, educated vendor whose produce stand was confiscated because Bouazizi failed to show a permit.  The protests sweeping the country have resulted in further censorship from authorities, whose stronghold on the Internet has increased as social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter are blocked.

In the past year since Secretary of State Hillary Clinton brought Internet freedom to pertinence in her much-lauded speech at the Newseum, the rhetoric surrounding net freedom has continued to focus mainly on Iran and China.

Though Tunisia has always been part of the rhetoric–Clinton mentioned it twice, in reference both to increased filtering and to the effects of censorship on business–it has never been at the forefront of the net freedom discussion, despite evidence that its censors are among the most sophisticated and the most pervasive in the world.  Despite being under the guise of democracy (not unlike Iran) and secularism (not unlike Syria), Tunisia censors media and Internet at the surface level, and also regularly imprisons those who speak out or protest against the regime, including bloggers (in 2009, Tunisia was ranked by CPJ as one of the ten worst places to be a blogger).

The State Department’s Internet freedom policy, to many, appears generally to reflect broader U.S. policy.  We want to overturn Iran’s regime, so we make special requests to Twitter to ensure it’s not shut down during crucial periods, but we ignore the interrogation and arrests of bloggers in our ally, Egypt.  We want to save the Iranians, so we loosen up export controls to allow junk products like Haystack to reach them, while doing nothing about the similar restrictions placed upon Syrians.  When we look to China, we see business opportunities, and so we focus on strengthening those through freeing up the Internet, while secular allies like Tunisia–which do a great job of faking progress to the world–go largely ignored.

And it’s not as if we can pretend we had no idea: In a recently-released WikiLeaks cable, our own diplomats can be seen referring to Tunisia as a “police state,” with “little freedom of expression.”  We’ve known that, and we’ve said nothing.

The State Department is not the media, but when Hillary Clinton calls out a country (as she has done with both China and Iran), the media listens.  And as of yet, the media has barely touched on either the protests or the pervasive censorship happening in Tunisia.  The Guardian‘s Brian Whitaker (who, to his credit, recognizes what a big deal this is) asks whether media coverage really matters (after all, the media coverage given to Iran did nothing to overturn the regime).  Though I think Whitaker certainly has a point, I think what matters more is the awareness that such media coverage creates.  Two years ago, most Americans knew little about Iran: now they know that a large swath of the populace is fighting against their regime.  Most Americans know very little about Tunisia, but the awareness that media coverage would create would teach them.  And perhaps that awareness would then push people to fight harder for an egalitarian Internet freedom initiative from their own government.

And this is why I don’t believe in the Net Freedom agenda anymore.  If we as a nation truly believed in Internet freedom, then we would focus not only on those countries that might benefit us (a free Iran, a capitalist China) but on all of those nations where citizens are restricted from speaking out.  We would loosen the export controls on Syria–not just Iran–to allow Syrian citizens access to communications and circumvention tools, and we would give our ally Tunisia–secular, egalitarian Tunisia–incentive to stop oppressing its citizens.  If the United States of America were still truly about freedom, we would do these things, because an ally that oppresses its citizens is no ally at all.

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