Expression under repression - at WSIS and the 'Net
With this excellent title Havis, an international NGO promoting the freedom of expression organised a whole two-day event, gathering a collection of rather interesting people from all over the globe. All discussions and presentations focused on the "most extreme cases", the exercise of the freedom of communication under hostile regimes - hence the title. The Tunisian government has asked the organisers to change the topic of the event because they found it irrelevant to the WSIS. AUDIO LINK
With this excellent title Havis, an international NGO promoting the freedom of expression organised a whole two-day event, gathering a collection of rather interesting people from all over the globe. All discussions and presentations focused on the "most extreme cases", the exercise of the freedom of communication under hostile regimes - hence the title. The Tunisian government has asked the organisers to change the topic of the event because they found it irrelevant to the WSIS. The staff found the enquiry absurd, and went ahead despite reports of physical coercion of the freedom of gathering in the city center earlier in the week. The only visible precaution was the omission of brakes, which just made the three-and-a-half hour session even more hard-core.
APC reporters attended a panel discussion with 3 pioneer bloggers, entitled Local Repression, Global Lessons. Isaac Mao from China is the Managing Director of Blogbus.com, a bloghosting provider. Hossien Derkshan is and Iranian blogger and activist, running a popular Persian language blog and organising the national blogosphere. Taurai Maduna is not really a blogger, but the editor of the first national-level news portal of Zimbabwe. The panel was moderated by Rebecca MacKinnon, an ex-CNN reporter gone activist, the founder of the Global Voices website.
MacKinnon opened the scene with asking "Why do you have to wait for a journalist to put the voice for the repressed into quotes?" and arguing that communication organises communities, in a superior way. Mainstream media filters the news according to its own agenda, but personal stories ring true to the ear. However, even these marginal voices can be silenced by national Internet filters. At this point she introduced the hot report by OpenNet Initiative and Berkman Society on Tunisian Internet filtering. The paper premiered just after the panel, a part of a larger project investigating national practices and making general recommendations for policy makers. One lesson learned is that 3 multinational corporations produce most filtering software in the world. These companies, based in the United States West Coast, are virtually the only beneficiaries of electronic censorship. The reports are available from www.opennetinitiative.net.
Individuals need independent information, and denying them is not solely a political question, but very much connected with ICT4D (Information and Communication Technologies for Development), as was evident in 2002's SAR outbreak in China. Whatever governments say about national security, serious evaluation goes beyond the rhetorics and examines actual cases on the ground.
That's what the MacKinnon did with moving on to the panelists. Taurai Maduna recounted his experiences first. In Zimbabwe, Internet penetration is minimum, and goverment repression is high. It happened that authorities arrested 40 people in a raid on a local netcafé just because an email was sent from the location insulting the leader. With such an attitude to human rights, it is impossible for NGOs to work with the government. Even independent newspapers publish total lies, so that people didn't know what to believe, not before Kubataba was online. Kubataba publishes views uncensored, and acquired a credibility amongst locals. Apart from online discourse, dissent is mostly spread by underground artists whose work is distributed from hand to hand, such as videos and music compilations. Several campaigns spread the word on the new portal. One campaign was organised from money won for distributing condoms, and embellished the condom package with stickers saying "Get up, stand up!". So www.kubatana.net provides free speech from a human rights perspective, but is also important from a development perspective, as the only site providing content targeting Zimbabwean people.
Hossein Derakshan discovered blogging in the 9/11 hype and started his own blog in Persian. He voiced dissent against both the American and the Iranian president, and his views quickly gained popularity, so he decided to spend a year of his life exclusively on organising the Iranian blogosphere. First he found out that the free blogging service www.blogger.com has Persian language support, so he wrote a howto document about blogging in Persian. As a next step he went around persuading Iranian intellectuals, clerics and politicans to open their own blogs, so that blogging would be taken seriously. He was so successfuly that Iranian bloggers have the vice-president and a 70 year old high priest geek among their numbers. In about 4 years, Persian blogs counted 700.000, and teenagers exchanged blog addresses coupled with their phone numbers. Although only 10% of the population has their own access, Internet is there in schools, cafés and libraries. Popular websites receive as much as 50.000 visitors daily. That is possible because 70% of the population is below 30. Blogs are important for the government as a drive behind the development of the Internet, but hushed as tools of organisation and consciousness building. They are virtual social places which connect an atomised society, for example where men can learn about how women experience the world without the mediation of a strict male-driven protocol, or express their opinion about the nuclear programme which is a complete taboo even in personal conversations IRL. Hossein says that the official claim that the latest elections were democratic "is a big big big lie", and you can read it on the blogs. Therefore, the government is making increasing attempts to block certain sites, especially blogs. Despite all that, Hossein's own blog receives 70.000 hits a day, and operates under a fresh domain name that has not been blacklisted in the last months. He calls for peaceful political change and the establishment of an independent democratic Iran.
Isaac Mao begins his story by saying that Internet filtering is intricately connected with a range of other questions - for example the Chinese government goes beyond technical solutions by tracking down and imprisoning the electronic dissenters. Therefore free thinking is the most important, and free speech can only come after. Even while making his speech he is operating in a censored and self-censored environment, as recordings and reports of his presentation may reach the Chinese authorities. His government is very concerned about the security of Mr. Mao, and calls on him and his family members regularly to see if they are ok. His protection is also enhanced by the block on his personal blog, so he rather talk about his work with the blogoshpere. Aside from his work as a manager of www.blogbus.com, He organised a conference for bloggers where they discussed their personal views on filtering, which the government flatly denies. Under such circumstances it is extremely difficult to open a discussion about the topic, but the conference provided a framework for more than 200 Internet-users to get together and talk it over. For instance, 4 month ago the China began to block Wikipedia. Wikipedia China would like to persuade the officials to remove it from the blacklist, but finding the responsible person seems impossible. They couldn't even find out which department or departments are in charge of Internet filtering. Although there are several million blogs in China, few are available in English. Hong Kong is the hub of the information flow between China and the English-speaking world, where bloggers translate and summarise important moves in the native blogosphere. Isaac Mao is confident that free thinking will spring from these voices under repression, and free speech will follow suit.
The questions session is subverted by some pathetic losers, presumably a hired nterventionists. They make a long speech about the basic necessities of food and shelter and GDP, and claim that freedom of communication and Internet access can only come after. As if they would never have heard about ICT4D. Their question boils down to asking why do the panelists talk about freedom of speech when there are graver problems in Tunisia and elsewhere. They answer that the governments talk about these grave problems quite enough, but they don't want to talk about their censorship practices. That's why it is important to hear independent voices, such as those collected in the Global Voices website. Even if they are under repression too, the Internet and the WSIS provides unique opportunities to talk about things that the powers-that-be would not like to see discussed.