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How does internet policy affect Maghreb-Machrek human rights defenders (HRDs) in their work? Who are the major players in internet policy and how can Maghreb-Machrek HRDs effectively engage them? These were the questions discussed at the regional seminar on freedom of expression, freedom of association and the right to the internet, held in Marrakesh, Morocco on 30 November and 1 December.
The two-day seminar was organised by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) as part of the “Building a culture of online human rights and digital security through the capacity building and networking of human rights defenders in the Maghreb-Machrek region” programme. Alongside the regional seminar, APC hosted a two-day workshop on advocacy planning and the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). Sixteen journalists, activists and HRDs, including women HRDs, from Sudan, Tunisia, Iraq, Palestine and Morocco participated in the activities.
The seminar and workshop came on the heels of a regional consultation by APC member Alternatives, which brought together its project partners and experts from the region to discuss the sustainability and the expansion of the programme, how better to reach and support human rights defenders in the area, and how to enhance the work of the Digital Security School 216 in Tunis.
During the seminar, participants discussed the impact of the internet on freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and democratisation in the region, and looked at the bodies and mechanisms that play a role in governing the internet, as well as human rights mechanisms, and explored the tensions and intersections of both. The participants also exchanged experiences and information about specific cases of violations of internet rights from their regions, discussing advocacy strategies and possibilities for cooperation.
These specific cases and strategies were explored further at the workshop on advocacy planning and the Universal Periodic Review. Participants used the Frank La Rue framework to systematically evaluate the current state of freedom of expression online in their countries, pointing to the need for best practices to revise policies and legislation that violate human rights. Several participants reflected that new laws relating to the internet are often more restrictive and violate constitutional protections for freedom of expression and association.
Discussing the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) Universal Periodic Review (UPR) as a mechanism to hold government accountable for violations of human rights, participants learned about UPR modalities and opportunities in sessions led by UPR-Info, an NGO that provides support for engagement in the process. Partners from Sudan shared their experiences consulting with civil society on the UPR and submission of a stakeholder report.
“What I found interesting was how strikingly similar the experiences were in the different contexts,” said Mohammad Tarakiyee, APC’s MENA Internet Rights campaign coordinator. “While the state of the internet policy varies greatly in the region from country to country, we can see the same patterns emerging, and they all worryingly tend towards more control over the internet and restrictions on human rights online. But on the other hand there is also increased awareness and knowledge from civil society in the region, and a sense of urgency to come together and work towards maintaining and promoting human rights online.”
The seminar and workshop will feed into two policy papers that APC will publish in 2015 that aim to help human rights defenders and organisations understand and shape internet policy in the region.
More on the “Building a culture of online human rights and digital security through the capacity building and networking of human rights defenders in the Maghreb-Machrek region” programme: http://www.apc.org/en/projects/building-culture-online-human-rights-and-... programme