Freedom goes online

On World Press Freedom Day 2008, Alexandra Sandels looks at the importance of Internet activists for freedom of expression in the Arab world. Has the real struggle for press freedom gone online?

Even in countries like Yemen, where less then one percent of the people are online, the impact of the Internet is real. © Samer Mohdad /

BEIRUT, May 3, 2008 (MENASSAT) – May 3 marks World Press Freedom Day, a concept initiated by the United Nations in an attempt to spur awareness of the importance of press freedom and to "remind governments of their duty to respect and uphold the right to freedom of expression," as stipulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Freedom of expression: a human right.

How beautiful.

If only these words were implemented and practiced as often as they are spoken – especially in the Arab world.

Although much of the focus on World Press Freedom Day 2008 is on China – because of Tibet and the Olympic Games – the Middle East and North Africa remains one of the regions most deprived of press freedom and freedom of expression.

MENA region lags behind

In a newly released report, U.S.-based Freedom House, recognizes only one country in the MENA region as "free" – Israel. Three other countries – Kuwait, Lebanon and Egypt – are qualified as "partly free," while all others are considered "not free."

It is not always governments that prey on press freedom either.

Paris-based Reporters without Borders (RSF), in a report released today, identifies 39 so-called "predators of freedom," which include individual leaders but also groups such as the FARC guerilla in Colombia, the drug cartels in Mexico and "armed groups" in Nepal.

Among the "predators" in the Arab world, RSF identified Lybia's Muammar Ghaddafi, Syria's Bashar Assad, Saudi's Abdallah Ibn al-Saud, Tunisia's Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali as well as several warlords in Somalia.

Among the newcomers this year are the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), "who were added to the list after they began again to target journalists covering their incursions into the Palestinian Territories."

But RSF also singles out the security forces of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas' armed wing in the Gaza Strip. "Each faction systematically hounded journalists suspecting of siding with the other camp." RSF said.

Despite these worrying trends, there is one other Big Truth in the Arab world: much of the censorship is self-censorship. Arab journalists know the "red lines" that apply to their trade and most operate within their relative safety.

Some very courageous ones – most notably in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen – refuse to do so and they pay the price.

Egypt is celebrating World Press Freedom Day 2008 by putting three newspapers editors on trial.

In Morocco and Tunisia, two journalists went on a hunger strike today to protest their imprisonment.

Online activism

Increasingly though, in the Arab world, it is bloggers and other Internet activists who are challenging the status quo – and who are going to jail for it.

With much of the traditional media muzzled by authoritarian regimes, the Internet has become a vital tool in the fight for freedom of expression. Armed with nothing but a keyboard and dedication to their cause, Arab Internet activists take use of the blogs, online networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and video-sharing pages like YouTube as means to further their calls and provide readers with the news that otherwise would receive little or no coverage in mainstream media.

Recently in Tunisia, bloggers and activists turned to the Internet to tell the story about the protests of thousands of workers employed in the rich phosphate mines of Gafsa, Redyef and Oum el Arayess against inflation and the rising cost of living – an event that went unreported in the official Tunisian media.

In Egypt, a leaked video depicting two police officers abusing and sodomizing a micro-bus driver with a stick resulted in the landmark sentencing of the two to prison sentences in November 2007. It was the celebrated Egyptian blogger Wael Abbas who got a hold of the clip and subsequently uploaded it on his blog. The footage sparked outcry from Egyptian society and attracted much unwanted international attention.

Esra’a Al-Shafei is the Director of the student-run web portal Mideast Youth, a website aiming to provide "constructive dialogue and understanding within the Middle East and North Africa." The site often features discussions on taboo-labeled topics, including religious minorities and homosexuality.

For Al-Shafei, the Internet is key in the promotion of free speech in the Arab world today.

"It is offering us a wealth of things and they are actively being used as anti-censorship tools. There is a major increase in the number of Internet users in the Arab world and [governments] are beginning to realize the impact of it," she told MENASSAT.

But with Internet penetration in the Arab world still very low compared to Europe and the U.S., and some countries so poor that many people can't even afford to go to an Internet cafe, is Internet activism really reaching the masses?

Al-Shafei thinks it is.

Even in a country like Mauritania, where the percentage of Internet users is in the single digits, she says, "the word still gets out somehow. People print posts from the Internet, talk about them with their friends. Eventually it reaches the countryside as well."

Walid Al-Saqaf, administrator of the news engine Yemenportal (which is constantly outrunning Internet censorship in Yemen), echoed Al-Shafei's claim, saying that the Internet now plays an important role in Yemeni society even if less than one percent of Yemenis have access to it.

"In a country like Yemen, culture plays a crucial role in disseminating information. If one person reads an article on the Internet, for example, he will spread this message to literally hundreds of people. Word of mouth is extremely powerful in our society," Al-Saqaf said in an interview with WAN.

In Egypt, Internet activism will be put to the test on Sunday, May 4, when President Hosni barak turns eighty.

Egypt’s activists and cyber-dissidents are planning to mark the President's birthday by organizing a day of strikes and protests. Through various Facebook groups and blogs, they are urging their fellow countrymen to wear black and strike on Sunday. One of the Facebook groups promoting the May 4 strike has almost 74,000 members at this point.

Egypt has recently witnessed a string of workers' uprisings against rising commodity prices and stifled wages. In the latest strike on April 6, it was again the Internet activists that shed light on the event – as well as arrests of their colleagues.

Tighter control

Not surprisingly, oppressive regimes are trying to bring the Internet under their control. Tunisia reportedly dedciated a special branch of the police tracking cyber-dissdients, whereas the blocking or banning critical websites is the tool of choice for the regimes in Syria, Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

Syria, in an Internet crackdown in November 2007, blocked access to more than one-hundred web sites, including the video-sharing site YouTube, the blog platform Blogspot and the social networking site Facebook.

Censorship set apart, the cyber activists themselves increasingly claim to be subject to harassment, intimidation, or even arrest.

Syrian blogger Ahed Al Hendi claims he was detained by security in December 2006 for posting a comment on an opposition website from a Damascus Internet cafe. He remembers the following from the holiday season of 2006:

"I want to tell you about Christmas 2006 which I regret to say was spent groveling in a Syrian prison. It was no Christmas by any means. It was more like hell," Al Hendi wrote in email to MENASSAT.

Esraa Abdel Fattah was held in Egyptian custody for more than three weeks for creating a Facebook group urging Egyptians to take part in an April 6 general strike.

Most recently, Saudi Arabia released reformist blogger Fouad Al-Farhan, the first cyber-dissident to be detained the Kingdom. No official statement for neither his arrest nor release was ever given, but the reason behind the affair is thought to be Al-Farhan’s outspoken blog posts.

Despite continuous hardships, it will prove a hard task to stop the determined army of Internet-savvy activists, using the Internet as their weapon.

"The internet has been a godsend for freedom of expression in the Arab world," the Egytian-American syndicated columnist Mona Eltahawy told MENASSAT.

"A reader of my blog said it right when he left me a message saying:
'In the USA and most of the western nations, they have so many ways to express their opinions. They have freedom of press, speech and so on. So they use the blogs and Facebook to keep in touch with family and friends. But in Egypt, blogs and Facebook became a great method of expressing your opinion since most of the media are controlled by the government.'
"When a blogger like Wael Abbas helps to put away police officers for three years," Eltahaway said, "then dictators around the region know they're being watched. Bloggers are the watchdogs that the media have been prevented from being for too long."

More information about World Press Freedom Day 2008:

- World Press Freedom Day, a dedicated website by the World Association of Newspapers;
- World Press Freedom Day - 3 May, contains links to information resources and documents on press freedom prepared by the United Nations and specialized agencies to mark World Press Freedom Day 2008;
- World Press Freedom Day 2008: UNESCO-CI, contains information about the 2008 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize which was awarded to Mexican reporter Lydia Cacho Ribeiro; as well as coverage of the UNESCO conference in Maputo, Mozambique.

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