Bloggers for Freedom with Esra'a Al Shafei, Nazanin Afshin-Jam, Bart Woord, Pavel Marozau

A panel including former Secretary General of the International Federation of Liberal Youth (IFLRY), Bart Woord; Belarusian and Estonian civic activist, media manager, and web producer, Pavel Marozau; international human rights activist and President and co-founder of Stop Child Executions, Nazanin Afshin-Jam; and dissident blogger from Bahrein creating virtual spaces for young people within the Middle East, Esra’a Al Shafei, who appears under a pseudonym, address the 1st Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.

 

Full remarks

 

Bart Woord: I’m going to start in a very inelegant fashion by asking you not to take pictures of one of our panel members, Ezra. We will touch upon the issue later, but it’s really important for her privacy and for her to continue her important work that she not be recognized. We’ve already asked also when it comes to the recording. So if you want to take pictures with me and Pawel, it’s fine, we can sign it. But please not of Ezra. 

Welcome to this panel on blogging, on cyberspace, on fighting for democracy and human rights online. I don’t know about you but I’m completely stunned by the power of our previous speakers, all of our previous speakers. Emotionally also affected. The personal stories that we’ve heard, the enormous struggle that they’re in, the pain that they had, the hopes that have been disappointed. So after all these stories, you might, you might think that our theme of this session is going to be a bit more abstract, a bit more, you know, technical and geeky. But I hope that we’ll be able to show you that this is not the case. The work being done nowadays on the internet on these topics are extremely vital for the cause that we’re all here for it and we all stand for. So I’m extremely grateful for the organizers to actually put this topic and agenda so that we can hopefully also between the audience and us we can exchange some ideas and some best practices about how to use this new phenomenon, the internet, for our work. 

The general theme of this session is as you can see in your agenda is freedom of expression. And freedom of expression is something that we talk about very often, literally,  and we are also going to have a session about later. And it’s something that sometimes I feel that we don’t mind will always grab the importance of the topic. 

I myself as I was indeed introduced or nowadays based in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan is one of those neglected authoritarian countries internationally. They have lots of oil so, you know, why would we make enemies with them? I mean, it’s clearly also a dictatorship in Europe, part of the Council of Europe, monopolizing media repression of journalists, basically, state sponsored political apathy among young people, if I could call it that way. And I was for example, like a speaker of freedom expression, I was having a training in Azerbaijan with about 25-30 young people. And one of the things that we sometimes do in our organization is we have training using non-formalication to have them create a banner, the banner of our seminar, like the one you have here. But created by the participants themselves. And we basically just have white sheets. And I know of people doing this for example as well in the Netherlands. Sometimes we say, okay, we hang these white papers on the wall and say, okay, we hold it at the end of our session, or three day seminar, we have some nice notes here, some of your own feelings or emotions or thoughts. You write down on your banner, on the banner of us. So it’s really become something of us. And then often, if you do it, sometimes in Western Europe or something, indeed after two [or] three days, it’s nicely filled up to some extent. So some blank spaces. I mean, people think it’s a little bit odd, a bit silly, doing such a thing. 

But as I was in Azerbaijan, I was explaining this and I wasn’t even finished until they basically ran up to grab some markers and start writing and start drawing. Like in 10 minutes, the banner was full; it was full of notions of freedom, of rock bands. It was full of signs of peace. It was really showing me that this freedom of expression is such a human thing. It’s a human thing that we all want to do. But unfortunately, in many countries, particularly authoritarian countries, young people do not get the freedom to. Either through monopolized media, either through authoritarian schooling systems. And this is really sad. 

Because if I’m sitting here, and I listen to all these people and I talk with all of you on coffee breaks, what I taste is oxygen. I feel oxygen, oxygen of expression. We can breathe freely, and it feels so wonderful, it tastes so wonderful to just be here, speak out on those extremely important issues and feel free to do so. Unfortunately, in many parts there is no oxygen; people are suffocating. And even worse, people are being strangled by [potential] gang governments, authoritarian governments, but also social environments, repressive social environments. And therefore, I’m actually extremely honored to have someone [on] the panel here who brings oxygen. Who brings oxygen to young people through the internet in societies where this unconditional freedom of expression cannot be taken for granted. And this is Esra’a Al Shafei. She’s a dissident blogger, but she’s also creating, like I said, virtual spaces for young people within the Middle East to receive awards for it. But besides the award, she also received last night things for her work, death threats, and things like that. So I would actually just like to give the floor to you now Esra’a. I’ll just ask you to tell us a bit about the work that you’re doing and the importance of the work that you’re doing.

Esra’a Al Shafei: Thank you. So I come from Bahrain. And like all of the previous panelists, the Middle East in general is a very censorship ridden region. Freedom of speech, or human rights have never really been granted to us as people. Traditional media, like newspapers, radio, television have always been state owned. So we were never really able to express ourselves or express our disappointment with the lack of human rights that we have been denied of having for many decades now. And this is especially true for persecuted minorities, which my work really focuses on, as you will see in a few minutes. Fortunately, now we have the internet, which entirely changed that. And the internet really gave us the freedom to express ourselves in ways that we never thought we’d ever have. And it’s not just the freedom that it gave us but also the many, many tools that it gave us to empower ourselves and to fight for human rights in a way that has shown itself to be extremely effective. I mean [] we witnessed change really happening entirely just by the usage of the internet. And I do that every single day of my life. And I see that happening. 

I founded mideasttunes.com after I witnessed that a lot of minorities were being completely isolated and not really given the opportunity to be a part of us as people, as society. So when I founded MidEastTunes, it was during the blogosphere phenomenon, when, during 2003, there was a huge blogging phenomenon for precisely the reason that I just outlined now because it gave people the freedom of speech that [] really no Middle Eastern country has ever had. So out of many hundreds of thousands of bloggers, unfortunately, what we’re witnessing is the fact that they’re still completely isolated, even within the virtual worlds. You have the Kurdish bloggers by themselves, and then the Bahai bloggers by themselves, and then the Iranians by themselves and Israelis. And no one was really communicating with each other in a way that was necessary for us to really commit to change. So that’s what mideasttunes.com has committed to do and thankfully we have done that very successfully. And we have members from over 26 countries around the Middle East, representing almost every minority. And when I talk about minorities, I’m not just talking about ethnic or religious minorities. I’m also talking about people who have really not been able to be part of society. And these are people who have been discriminated against such as even single mothers, for example, in countries like Iran or Saudi Arabia, homosexuals, atheists even have been really discriminated against and a lot of people have not focused on that. 

[cut of]… funds it with at least $2 billion a year. You know, so we said, well, how come they get so much support despite these human rights violations? We said international pressure is the only way that we can succeed and make the entire world aware and involved in Kareem’s case because he serves as a symbol for everyone and for human rights in general. Not just for him specifically. So unfortunately, when we called CNN and Reuters and many of the press, they told us well, this happens every day in China and Pakistan and India. Why would, why would we write about this? You know, we have many other stories that we need to write about. And this, of course, really troubled me. 

We thought, if the media is not going to write about it, we’re going to force them to write about it; we’re really going to force them. I don’t mean by terrorizing them or by gunpoint. But really, what I mean, is really creating a strategy that is newsworthy. And we said, let’s do something different for a change. Let’s create a rally, not just to send a message to the government, but to send a message to the media because the media will send the message to the government. So we created protests in over 26 countries around the world. At the same time, at the exact same place, which is in front of the Egyptian Consulate or in front of the Egyptian Embassy. So they had no idea what was coming suddenly, and every embassy, you know, they said, well, there’s people campaigning for Kareem at the same time. And then CNN came, and Reuters came, and everyone started writing about it. And the television stations came, and it was pretty much a worldwide phenomenon, because it was happening in Brazil, anywhere from Sweden. It could happen, you know, really all over the world. And it was in just many different languages. So it was a huge international campaign. And finally, the Egyptian foreign ministers started writing against this campaign in the Washington Post and saying, listen, it’s completely legitimate, why we’re holding Kareem and things like that. And they’re absolutely disturbed that we were able to achieve this. But that’s not really what makes this campaign so amazing, other than the fact that it won so much attention for Kareem as a person. But this attention has actually contributed to keeping him safe from prison. When news of Kareem being tortured was sent to us, what we did was, in collaboration with the Committee to Protect Bloggers – which we also sponsor –  we organized a postcard campaign, where over 2300 postcards, letters and postcards, were sent to carry Kareem showing him their support. And this has contributed to him not being tortured anymore because the prison guards were also scared that the entire world was watching, you know. So they cannot really torture him and get away with it. And fortunately, this method worked so well that we’re now doing the exact same thing in Iran, where we’re sending, it’s called postcardsforiran.org. 

And if you go to our websites and our projects page, you’ll see the first thing listed there. So far, we have collected over 751 postcards in the past three weeks only. Sending postcards to the officials of Iran, all over the world, such as embassies, as well as postcards to prisoners of conscience themselves to tell them that the entire world is with you. Because psychologically, it really helps them, and it also, in the case of the prison guards want to torture them, it would really help them keep them safe. So we’re using postcards as a medium. And the internet makes this entirely possible because there’s actually services that allow you to send postcards to various different places around the world. So I mean, the internet is just creating a major change, especially in the Middle East, where unfortunately totalitarian regimes have been there for centuries.

Bart Woord: Exactly. It’s a combination indeed of your work on mass dissemination of information, very quick, but also mobilization of people, which is kind of the internet’s first medium in which you actually have these two really. 

To the next person sitting next to me, a friend of mine, a very respectable person in the Belarusian opposition movement abroad. Besides that, [he is] also active a lot on using digital tools to raise attention. Also among young people, but also among politicians. It’s Pavel Marozau. To ask a question to just elaborate a little bit on the work, what you do, perhaps also just quickly say a little bit about what’s going on in Belarus at the moment.

Pavel Marozau: Good, thank you. First of all, I want to say that Belarus it’s just a country now, but before it was part of the Soviet Union, and one of the former Soviet Republics. Now it’s a key transit country between Russia and [the] European Union. And my country in the last decade of the 20th century was affected by two main disasters. First, it was the Chernobyl catastrophe on the nuclear station near us. And second, our current dictator Alexander Lukashenko, who came to power in 1994. 

Who is Lukashenko? He’s just a brother of such persons like Muammar Qaddafi, like Hugo Chavez, like Robert Mugabe. And you can imagine all the spectrum of problems which we have in our country, just very similar to our colleagues in Venezuela or Iran or Zimbabwe. And for me, it’s a very strange situation just because we are very close to Europe; I can say we are an integral part of Europe. And we are a nation which really, always in our history, was in Europe. Only in just the last century were we out of our European family. 

Because of this, me and my colleagues are now working on changing this situation. And in a situation of a dictatorship, I can say this is a high post-soviet system of power, maybe more similar to feudalism than to each of the other systems which we know. But in a situation of total monopolization of all traditional media, like TV stations, radio stations, [and] main newspapers, we understand that we can use only the internet. We can use only this space for distribution of our information, or I can say, uncensored information to the people. And we understand that one of the most important and maybe very powerful tools for this is using humor and satire against the dictatorship in Belarus. Just because any dictator in any country is very very vulnerable to humor and satire just because they always tried to build a very very serious system. Whereas our colleagues from Libya from Palestine – I am sorry said that. only one big brother, only one very serious person, who is responsible for all. And our task is just to show that this is not some kind of unique person, not like a god, just a usual very bad guy who needs to be replaced as soon as possible. 

We started with such technology like cartoons. We just started to make cartoons and I can present to you one of our last examples about trying Lukashenko to wash his own system and to be in the European Union but with European values just like it is. And I can ask to show this.

Bart Woord: Thanks, what a wonderful cartoon. Could you also elaborate a bit on the work that some of your colleagues are doing? I know you have a community of digital or cyber dissidents around you. Perhaps you can elaborate a bit on that.

Ezra’a Al Shafei: Because there’s not really, I mean, it’s extremely huge taboo to even discuss it. And people have been threatened to death. One of my good friends actually is in prison right now in Egypt simply for criticizing Islam, as well as the President of Egypt. And I’m a Muslim, though I fight completely for the rights of others to criticize my religion. And that’s really what we’re using MidEastTunes.com for and generally the internet as well. But for me, I mean, we fight really in the only way that we believe in, which is through a fierce but respectful dialogue amongst ourselves. And basically, despite the social, political and physical barriers, the internet’s really allowing us to do that in a way that traditional media till today cannot really achieve. So, I mean, I’m gonna ask you some…

Bart Woord: We’re gonna, we actually decided that we’re gonna do something a bit more interactive. But so, Esra’a, could you just explain a bit more concretely also what exactly you with mideasttunes.com? Like, what are the participants and bloggers on mideasttunes.com doing?

Esra’a Al Shafei: So aside from the fact that we’re really practicing a right to freedom of speech using this platform, what we also do is that we organize members of the majority. When I say members of majority, I mean people like Arabs, or people like Iranians, or Muslims, who can campaign for the rights of minorities. Because minorities cannot campaign for their own rights and expect to actually achieve it in a way they will be isolated, they will continue to be discriminated against. It’s what happened for many centuries now. You know Zoroastrians in Iran would fight for Zoroastrian human rights, and they would not, you know, achieve it. Bahá’í would fight for their human rights and not really achieve it. The only way they have achieved this is when Muslims stand up for their human rights in countries like Iran and Egypt, and they say, we express solidarity with you, we will stand for your human rights and help you achieve it. 

And that’s when the change really comes because it shows that the collaboration necessary for stability is completely possible. So some people already have mentioned Bahá’í’s being completely persecuted against in Egypt, as well as in Iran. I would emphasize as well Egypt. Because Egypt continues to come off as, you know, this democratic country, when in fact, it’s far from the case. And [] Middle East Tunes actually launched a series of campaigns to support the human rights of people like migrant workers. And we launched the first and only web portal in the Middle East dealing with the rights of migrant workers. And we also launched campaigns, such as the Arab Network for Kurdish Rights, and the Muslim Network for Bahá’í Rights. Because, like I told you, it’s members of majorities, when they fight for the rights of minorities, that’s [when] really revolutionary things happen. And I think a lot of the work that we have done has really proved that. 

And I’m going to show you one video right now that we have done by the Muslim Network for Bahá’í  rights. And what we do as young people is, of course, now with the age of the internet, it’s very hard for people to remain attentive. You know, everyone pretty much has ADD. So it’s very hard for them to really focus and see what issues are worth fighting for. So we use things like comics and videos [] and sites like YouTube where young people go in order to kind of break our way into not just the minds of young people and inspire them to take action, but also breaking our way into the traditional media. Now here you’ll see a video that was done by the Muslim Network for Bahá’í rights, which is a website where Muslims from Iran and in Egypt and all over the Arab world, and even countries like Indonesia where Bahá’í’s have also been discriminated against, come together to say to Baha’is, you are our brothers and sisters, and we will defend your human rights regardless of our religious differences. And the internet was a perfect tool for us to make this possible. And now we find a slightly funny, but very true video of an ad we saw on CNN and we felt the need to really change. It’s kind of self explanatory, so I’m actually just going to play it but this is an ad that promotes Egyptian tourism on CNN and we changed it to make it about the Bahá’í human rights in order to gain attention for their fight.

So, yes, so fortunately, we use this medium and use sites like YouTube and do these kinds of videos and comics as well. And they have appeared in magazines and newspapers in Egypt and in Lebanon and in a lot of different places and it created a lot of discourse. Thankfully, after three months, this video was released, and after many people were talking about it, and after civil rights organizations in Egypt have been fighting for the right to Bahá’í’s to get ID cards for the past six years at least. Fortunately Egypt has agreed to give them their ID cards and that’s just proof of collective activism, especially coming from members of the majority. Like I told you, when they get involved and fight for minority human rights, big change can happen. And that’s the perfect proof that it’s possible, especially with the usage of traditional media. And we’ve done the same things for Kurds and for many other minorities who deserve human rights, regardless of who. And their cultural rights, which unfortunately, many are denied as well.

Bart Woord: Thanks. Could you also just, there’s this campaign Free Kareem. I think quite a few of you might know it. It’s one of, I think, the most visible online campaigns for the release of Egyptian bloggers. Could you also just elaborate a little bit on – because you were heavily involved in this – what you did with this campaign?

Esra’a Al Shafei: [] Ffirst of all, Kareem is an Egyptian blogger, who, like I said, was sentenced to four years in prison for criticizing Islam, as well as the President of Egypt by simply calling him a dictator. After 15 minutes of me hearing of the fact that he was arrested as he was my friend, I had met him just two months before he was arrested in Cairo. And literally after 15 minutes, one of his lawyers sent an email saying that Kareem is in prison. So I got online immediately. I registered the domain freekareem.org. And by the first hour we had at least 33 posts having to do with Kareem, and we said why he was arrested, who he is and why you should get involved. And we humanized him as much as possible, posting videos of him, pictures of him, anything that we found relating to Kareem in order to involve as many people as possible. 

We successfully involved a lot of bloggers in this because it was a historical case. As you know, Egypt serves really as the backbone of Arab societies. Whenever Egypt does and gets away with it, other Arab governments will do the same, especially my own. For example, our constitution was heavily influenced by Egyptians and Egyptian policymakers and really influential people. So whatever Egypt was doing, we immediately as Arabs had to get involved and say, well, you cannot get away with this. We started calling the media because we said if the media does not pay attention, Egypt will not pay attention. Egypt does not care what us as blogger think. They care what, you know, big people think you know, the UN the USA. These are people who sponsor Egypt, consider it a human rights member of the Human Rights Council.

Pavel Marozau: It’s true. I can say that the internet in Belarus is a very unique space for democracy, for human rights activists. And I can say, because of this, all important and, I can say, innovative things, which happened about maybe even not fighting, but about civil activism about some examples of human rights defendants happened on the internet. We have in Belarus quite a strong community of bloggers who are really active, who are not fearful about consequences and always push out important themes for our society. 

We have communities of civil activists who are also using the internet for communications. For example, they are using Skype technology, the Skype system, to communicate securely between them. They use modern technologies like Twitter, like Facebook, to work with colleagues to distribute information. More or less on wave of innovations, which all of us in many countries are using to promote democracy, to save human rights from violations. So, a lot of examples I can say may be difficult in the measures of this panel to show all. I can remember, for example, a very important example, when all of us decided to join forces towards one important problem. 

In 2006, our government decided to try to control the internet somehow in Belarus. They studied Chinese experience and the experience of our other dictatorships and they started to develop legislational ways, install a special system of filtering and so on. And we started also a humoristic civil campaign on the internet, called [inaudible]. The main idea of this campaign was just to show to the people in a satiric forum what kind of internet they will receive after changing the legislation about the internet in Belarus. And we just created different kinds of analysis of popular services. For example, YouTube, we just renamed it LuTube. And LuTube consists only of clips with Lukashenko, no other clips at all. We changed the popular search system, Yandex, just to Lundex. And in Lundex you can only search with things connected only with Lukashenko, only with the right things I can say, and so on. And this was quite a popular campaign. And this is not [] the main idea. But the main idea just around this campaign, we organized a circle of different initiatives and media, independent journalists, bloggers and civic initiatives. And all of us started to work together on one goal, and I think it was a very good example.

Bart Woord: Okay, thanks Pavel. You also indeed mentioned the topic of security, kind of cyberspace. There is this tendency of nationalization of the internet by some countries. You see the creation of a Chinese internet, a Belarussian Internet, an Uzbeki internet. And it’s really [] quite scary. And that’s actually something I want to check with Esra’a, because you were talking about the use of YouTube and the benefits of using YouTube. Now, I know that you actually had a meeting recently with a couple of representatives of YouTube, in which you gave them a particular message. Could you just also share with the audience what you were discussing with these representatives with YouTube?

Esra’a Al Shafei: Well, as you know, with the internet, now, a lot of things are being owned by pretty much the same internet companies. You get Google and you got Yahoo, and all of these big companies are basically taking over the internet. So the internet, I mean, as much as it is free, as you know, when you start a web blog, you go on blogger.com. And then of course, that’s owned by, you know, Google, and YouTube, and that’s owned by Google, and many other really prominent websites that people are using, and we are just really scared. 

When totalitarian regimes approach these kinds of companies for the sake of, you know, self interest and telling them, well, you need to remove this video, it’s very offensive, it’s illegal, if you don’t remove it, we’re gonna, you know, block your entire site. And sometimes you see sites like YouTube and things like that, really, they cave in, and they say, oh, you know, if they block, you know, if they block our website, we’re going to lose millions of viewers, and hence, maybe profit, you know. So in this way, you see two self interested companies – well one company and one regime – really teaming up together against us, you know. So our message really is for people like Google and Yahoo and YouTube and others that they’re based in free countries. They don’t understand what they’re putting or what other regimes, or the regimes that they would cave in to, are putting people like us through. I mean, it’s complete hell. I mean I thankfully don’t live in a situation like my previous panelists here went through, you know. But these are the kinds of regimes that no one should submit to no matter what because it’s completely criminal. 

And one more thing. It’s when Google or YouTube or anything, they allow other governments to kind of get away with blocking their website, that’s totally not a problem for us, because we simply circumvent it. And there is no government that has really succeeded and truly, truly, truly censoring absolutely anything. I mean, we’re catching up extremely quickly and although they invest billions and billions a year collectively on censorship, and Internet censorship specifically. And although we cannot use SMS activism anymore because of the dangers it presents, the internet really doesn’t have that. Because as much as they’re catching up to what we’re doing, we’re also doing the same. And we’re going to keep fighting for our right to use the internet in order to fight for the rights that we deserve as human beings.

Bart Woord: Exactly on this new topic, you might be interested in googling yourself, the interesting phenomenon of the grass mud horse in China, and whether people are aware of it. It’s a very, very interesting story. There’s New York Times article on it two weeks ago. 

I also want to draw your attention to somebody who is actually not here. Who I hope is actually with us here today virtually; who is not here physically. It’s Yoani Sanchez. Yoani Sanchez is one of the most amazing, amazing bloggers in the world. And she doesn’t do it from a country like you know, the Netherlands or something. But she’s writing from Cuba, and she’s writing, giving her personal insights into life in Cuba. And she has lots of followers. Unfortunately, she couldn’t be here. And we were planning on having her video. And what I understood is that you cannot be here for technical reasons. But I still want to touch upon a couple of issues. Precisely using her as an example. 

Because Cuba is also one of these countries where there is a combination of tools used by the government in order to make sure that their citizens do not use their right of freedom of expression online. And even though I can assure you that this particular problem is mostly technical here. But in the end, it can be brought back to the political level. Because first of all in Cuba, there is a very extensive use of censorship, online surveillance, and ways of blocking out access to information regarding human rights and democracy. But also other other issues that might threaten the regime in Cuba. 

But it’s also the question of infrastructure. I mean, governments are getting more and more able, or more agile you could say, in repressing the internet. Not so much in its use, but also through its infrastructure. I mean, you have had free internet cafes, which were in particular countries. But now, for example, there are more and more laws, and also in Western, more and more so called Western countries, about certain identification of users; that you have to register with your ID if you want to even access the internet at a cyber cafe. And basically, in general, the internet in Cuba, the infrastructure is so weak that it’s very slow. And it really, really scares off anyone who wants to make proper use of it. 

So besides this kind of online surveillance and censorship, and infrastructure, there is of course also the issue that we already touched upon when we talked about Kareem, about actual physical real life repression of bloggers. Governments simply are afraid of these people who are suddenly using this medium for their own as their own microphone, basically. So that’s a sad thing that Yoani Sanchez couldn’t couldn’t be here. At the same time, it also gives us an indication of the challenges that we face. We speak about using the internet in human rights democracy, because this is not going to come naturally. If we’re not going to ever realize that the freedom of the internet is something that should be defended, and it’s not something that just whatever comes automatically. If we forget about this, then the virtue and the benefits of the internet we’ve been hearing around here might be lost some day. Again, the nationalization of the internet, more and more government control, it’s something that I think we should be very much aware of. 

We have another five, six minutes. In fact, you guys do have the little pyramids, I think, on your desk that are microphones. They’re a bit hidden microphones, I didn’t realize they were microphones. But I would say that if you have any questions now, any comments, then please bring them on, either to the panelist or particular comments you have from your own experience of using the Internet in the fight for democracy and human rights. I see someone here, I see someone down there.

Question #1: I just want to bring up two points. One is concerning Yoani Sanchez. We were in contact with her, we were able to speak with her on a couple of occasions. She did want to be participating. She was hunting around Havana for a place to be able to get access to this type of technology. We tried getting ahold of her today. But it’s been very difficult because she took part in an open demonstration a couple of weeks ago. And she is being very much pressured and they’re trying to keep her sort of boxed in. And also because this is public, and it was announced ahead of time, they know that she would be invited to speak at this time so they will make it very difficult for her. 

The second question I want to ask, which was on another subject, is the issue of companies like Yahoo, collaborating with the Chinese, particularly to target folks using email, and then providing the information so then they are prosecuted, tortured, in some cases, have died. I think Amnesty International indicated back in 2001- 2002 33 cases of prisoners of conscience that were bloggers. And I think there was a number from Reporters Without Borders this year about roughly 48 cases. And out of that 33 who died under mysterious circumstances. I don’t know if anyone would like to address that.

Esra’a Al Shafei: Yeah. We’re very much aware as well of these things happening. And you know, we’re people who are using the internet in order to remain secure, you know. We’re fighting for their minorities, where if you fight for their human rights, you yourself will be targeted as well. This includes even Iranian Muslims, for example, fighting for the rights of  Bahá’í’s in Iran. And they use Yahoo. they use Google, they use, you know, these big sites. And what does it mean, if Google as a company can just, you know, throw down their documents in the face of the Iranian regime and say, that’s exactly what you’re looking for? Now write us a check, and everyone goes home happy. Really Google, their motto is don’t be evil, even though the Iranian regime has the same one. No, I’m kidding. But I mean, I think Google and Yahoo and other companies really need to step up and realize they have massive, enormous amounts of responsibilities for literally human lives. These are really human lives and questions here. So send them that message, please.

Question #2: On neo.org, we’ve had tremendous experience with mobilizing optimism, getting people to get behind something quickly. We’ve been able to raise tens of thousands of euros for NGOs in as little as a week or two. I find that there is a global pessimism that we rail against. And I’d like to ask Esra’a again two questions. One, does she feel that it is better to promote an optimistic point of view on the net or a pessimistic one? Because we hear all these terrible stories, they’re very emotional. But do they do the real job of mobilizing people? And the second question is, how big a role is there for non-government organizations to actually own their own websites, to own independent websites, that can’t be shut down, that can’t be silenced by a corporate incentive?

Bart Woord: She was about to speak on the issue of pessimism. Whether pessimism or negative messages work, and actually mobilizing people behind the cause.

Esra’a Al Shafei: I think it’s very important to be 150% optimistic about everything you do and hopeful. Because if you weren’t optimistic, you know, you really wouldn’t be doing and putting as much effort into these things. I mean cyber activism has proven to be entirely effective. Sometimes it works. Unfortunately, sometimes it doesn’t. But when it does, it’s absolutely beautiful. And it just shows that if enough people really come together, regardless of any political ideology, regardless of really anything, and that’s what we’re doing with middleeasttunes.com. We realize that there are actually a lot of young people as well who are really optimistic about the future. They know that at some point in their lives, they will have their human rights. And they are right now the generation that will make this possible. And that’s not. I mean, that’s a promise from me personally.

Nazanin Afshin-Jam: Yes, I’d like to bring up an example of optimism and that international pressure really does make a difference on the internet. A few years ago, I led an international campaign to save the life of a young girl on death row. Her name was Nazanin Fatahi. Three men attacked, her tried to rape her, and out of self defense, she stabbed one of the men, who later died in the hospital. She was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. And at that time, I didn’t know anything about her case but I tried. I learned about it, and I started a petition online. After almost a year, we had 350,000 signatures. And that was the weight I needed to then go to international groups like Amnesty or visit the Canadian Parliament, talk to other members of parliament around the world, delivering this 350,000 petition to the United Nations. And they took this issue seriously. Now it’s a long story, but with the mobilization of Myspace, friends, Facebook, everybody getting involved, there was so much pressure on the Government in Iran, that she was awarded a new trial. And in the new trial, she was granted a stay of execution and she was exonerated of all murder charges. And eventually she was released. 

So I’ve seen with my own eyes, not just for Nazanin, but the other minor that we we currently work with within our organization, when there is that international pressure, when just regular people mobilize and say, okay, we will sign a petition, or we will send a fax to the head of judiciary or whatever, we see in those cases that international pressure makes a difference. And they are saved in the end. So I’m completely optimistic about our power as the power that we have as individuals to make a difference.

Bart Woord: All right. I think we’re at the end of the session for 30. So I really want to thank Esra’a and Pavel for their contribution and also for coming here. And their message, the importance also of the free internet for all the work that we do. So thank you for your free interest in this topic and listening. Thank you.

Nazanin Afshin-Jam: Thank you, Mr. Woord, and thank you to the panelists. We will be concluding with our last session. May ask the panelists of the last session to come forward.

Speakers and Participants

Pavel Marozau

Belarusian and Estonian civic activist, media manager, and web producer

Bart Woord

Former Secretary General of the International Federation of Liberal Youth

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