Friday, January 28, 2011

In the fight for democracy, social media is far from irrelevant

In November of 2009 I was invited to attend an event called the World Blogging Forum in Bucharest, Romania organized by Romanian foreign language students with support from the Romanian government. I was one of only two North American bloggers (the other was from the U.S.) with bloggers from all around the world gathering to discuss blogging and social media in their countries.

It was a fascinating perspective as the conference proceeded and the discussions occurred, both in the formal hall and in the corridors. There was a very different perspective and views on social media from the bloggers in the democratic/more developed countries, such as Western Europe, and those countries still struggling for democracy and without media freedom, such as the Caucasus, the Middle East and China.

In the democratic world, it was about telling our personal stories, commenting on issues important to us, advocating for causes and, in many cases, sharing ideas on how to monetize on our blogs.

In the countries where they don’t have the democratic freedom we take for granted, where they don’t have the free press we enjoy, where they live daily under oppressive and dictatorial governments, their perspective on social media was very different. For them, social media is a vital tool of empowerment and democracy promotion.

For countries without a free press, blogs are their free press, with actual citizen journalists reporting on events the government wants censored, and that wouldn’t be reported otherwise. And Twitter is their rapid response and organizational tool. Small handheld cameras and video sharing tools like YouTube add another layer, bringing video that would never be shown on state television.

On the first day of the conference, after the Romanian president made an opening address, the first session was on blogging and citizen journalism. I was the last of three presenters on the topic, giving a survey of the Canadian political blogging scene, and how parties, citizens, journalists and politicians are using social media tools.

But I felt incredibly out of place following two speakers from the other side of the equation. Zhou Shuguang is a widely-known Chinese blogger and techie who has been a thorn in the side of the Chinese government, and has spent much of his time burrowing holes in the Great Firewall of China the government has erected to try to censor the Internet. His is a truly impressive story.

But as I read about the amazing events in Tunisia and Egypt, and as I watch the gripping live coverage from Egypt on Al Jazerra English, the speaker I keep thinking back to is Egypt’s Wael Abbas. Before Abbas’ presentation, like many in the West I didn’t know much about Egypt, but I though it was a fairly friendly, free country, particularly compared to many of its neighbours.

His perspective (here's his blog), and his story, was eye-opening. And he also provided examples of how social media then was already playing an important role in the fight for democracy in Egypt, and played a key role in a tug of war between activists and the government that has continued to today, and has now boiled over.

Here’s my report on his presentation. In light of current events, it’s quite prescient:

I had read about the Chinese Great Firewall and its attempts at censoring the Web, often aided and abetted by Western companies looking to stay on the good side of the Chinese government to get access to the lucrative market, but I’m sad to admit the situation in Egypt described by the next speaker, Wael Abbas, was completely new and shocking to me. Abbas is a blogger and human rights activist who was named Middle East person of the year by CNN in 2007.

In Egypt, said Abbas, there’s no protection for journalism, there’s censorship on supposed security grounds, copies of papers are often confiscated and presses delayed or closed, tapes confiscated from videographers, TV stations raided by security officials and tapes seized, all leading to an environment of self-censorship by the media to avoid confrontation with the government.

As a result, he said there was a dire need in Egypt for an alternative form of media to support civil society and provide real, uncensored news to the Egyptian people. The government had been blocking the Web but ended that practice when it wanted to encourage telecom investment. Instead, said Abbas, the government doesn’t censor blogs, but instead harasses, detains and arrests bloggers within the country instead in an attempt to intimidate then into ceasing their activities.

Blogging and citizen journalism first came into its own in Egypt when the mainstream media weren’t covering protests against President Mubarak, election rigging and police violence. Bloggers stepped in to fill that gap and while sometimes the barrier between blogging and activism blurred, the objective approach bloggers tried to take found public support. They presented video and pictures of what was happening and asked people to draw their own conclusions. The media were actually spurred-on by the bloggers, being encouraged to report more of what was actually happening, and publishing blogger content. Opposition parties also reached out to the new media.

Abbas himself drew negative government attention when he published photos of hired thugs that arrested female protestors, and exposed paid pro-Mubarak protesters, and posted controversial video. He has had his Facebook, YouTube and Yahoo accounts shut down under government pressure for his activities, and the government has accused him of being a criminal, a homosexual and having converted to Christianity in attempts to discredit him.

While at its peak around 2005, Abbas said bloggers helped push the envelope for press freedom and political freedom by the opposition, its still under attack and the government’s counter-attacks are working, causing him to lose optimism that real change will happen in Egypt.

It’s hard to see change without international support and that’s hard to get for the situation in Egypt, said Abbas, because there’s not much awareness of the situation internationally. Mubarak is viewed as a moderate friend of the West but people don’t know that Egypt has fake press freedom, fake opposition parties and fake elections, it’s all a mirage.

Despite the Egyptian government's attempts to cut off the Internet in the country to deny this vital tool to the protesters, Abbas is still blogging and posting video on his blog of the protests, arrests and beatings. It's amazing, important, compelling work.

I hope he stays safe.

Recommend this Post on Progressive Bloggers

1 comment:

Frankly Canadian said...

Wow, makes you appreciate our mainstream media a little more now eh? I never thought I would ever say that here in Canada, LOL. Good post Jeff, a real eye opener.