Edited Version published as a feature on Dawn.com
In June, I joined eighteen bloggers and activists from around the world on a Foreign Press Center Tour to Washington, DC. The purpose of the tour was to invite foreign journalists to engage with key policy makers and diplomats from the State Department. Ours was the first attempt at bringing bloggers and activists from across the world in a rendezvous with US State Department officials.
As for anyone who has ever engaged with or attended a bloggers summit, one thing is strikingly clear that bloggers aren’t known for restraint and speak their mind far more bluntly. Accompanying me were bloggers and activists from Kenya, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, Kazakhistan, Krygyztan and Palestine amongst others.
The entire week was packed with intense discussions on the use of social media and the State Department’s varying policy in reaction to the Arab Spring. The question of the US government’s varying stance in response to the Arab uprisings in countries with ‘friendly’ dictators was rigorously asked and met with ‘diplomatic’ answers explaining a ‘unanimous stance’ regardless of political ties.
This was day one at the State Department. An early morning meeting with Alec Ross, US Department of State Senior Adviser for Innovation, turned in to a much lengthier discussion on US government’s policy in dealing with crisis in Bahrain and its response to the revolution in Egypt.
Joining us in the meetings were Internet Freedom fellows, including activists from Tunisia and Egypt, who were misquemed with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remarks on Mubarak’s ‘stable’ government while millions of Egyptians protested at the viliorating situation and the US response, or lack thereof about the situation in Tunisia.
Ross insisted that the “State department has a strong stance on Internet Freedom”, referencing to Clinton’s widely read and quoted speech, and that “It is applicable globally, in 195 countries”.
Bahrainis journalist Lamees Dhaif shared stories of Bahrain government’s crackdown on anti-government protesters, following her reporting of the protests, “When they couldn’t find me, they took my sister, they tried to burn down my house. They told me, if I don’t stop writing they would harm my family. I had to stop. I have no other choice.” Dhaeef who eventually moved to live outside of Bahrain, protested at the US approach to the crisis in Bahrain. “Why is the State Department silent on the issue? Why has their been no outrage about the treatment of protesters under the regime?”
Ross insisted that the State Department was doing everything possible to address the issue and pressure the Bahraini regime to look in to human rights issues. “Diplomacy doesn’t always work the way people would imagine it to be. We cannot use harsh terms like people would expect, it doesn’t and can not work on the basis of ‘you don’t listen to us and we won’t work with you’.
On the question of possible sanctions on brutal regimes, he said, “We have learnt that sanctions do not work in favor of the people, it is the people that suffer the most due to these sanctions.”
Not that any of us expected government officials not to defend their policies or to demand intervention, in fact demanding interventions gives leverage to imperialistic tactics within states while raising grave questions on the credibility of activists. Therefore, irrespective of the answers the idea was to get the message across to the concerned authorities. As Ross claimed, “I keep telling officials, you have two ears and one mouth, talk less listen more.”
The next person we met was Undersecretary Judith McHale who was more interested in listening to our suggestions and feedback rather than explaining the US stance. Here was my opportunity to get my message across; in reaction to last year’s ‘Draw a Muhammad Day’ controversy, when Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) practically banned the Internet. Reacting to that statement, the US officials claimed that Pakistan ‘had the right to block offensive content’.
For a country that lays such great emphasis on freedom of expression and knows well the lack of clarity that prevails amongst Pakistani IT ministry and PTA especially with reference to all matters pertaining to technology, making such statements is damaging the anti-Internet censorship movement.
China is undoubtedly amongst the worse violators of Internet freedom in the world, unfortunately though our ‘friendship’ with China also indicates that if need be, our authorities will have no qualms in ‘importing and implementing’ a similar crackdown. As we fear a crackdown on the Internet again this time round, my intention was to inform and to discourage any such statements that would impact anti-Internet censorship campaigns.
Later in the day we met with Daniel Bier, Department Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, followed by meetings with bloggers that handle the State Department’s official website and twitter accounts, including USAID.
As the day came to an end, I was left wondering about various issues discussed. The whole concept of the world as a global village can be overwhelming at times. How will stories of Bahrain’s crackdown on netizen be of relevance to Pakistan? Are we interested in learning about ways in which activists from Kazakhstan are using the Internet? Should the Internet be a matter of concern for war torn Iraq?
The Internet, or social media per say, should be seen no different than a public sphere, rather it is a medium that people use to engage, to share, to explore and more often than usual to learn.
This sense of connectivity has made the struggle for human rights transnational. The idea that human rights are above and beyond territoriality has long been manifested, but the age of connectivity allows us to realise our own ways to contribute and help fight the good fight. Would I be sitting next to a Palestinian activist discussing US policy with top US diplomats if it wasn’t for the Internet? Highly unlikely!
Today, more bloggers are in jail for reporting stories than journalists around the world. Crackdowns on netizens and increasing Internet censorship substantiate the socio-political dimension of Internet control. By curbing online freedoms, governments have made it clear, now more than ever, that the virtual world is yet another public space for discussions and debate or as the authorities put it ‘anarchy’.
Yet, there is a huge spectrum of ideologies and beliefs about the use and importance of Internet between that of Jared Cohen, an internet idealist and Malcolm Gladwel, an internet skeptic. Like everything else, the Internet has its pros and cons. Perhaps it would be easier to analyse them, if we were to manifest the understanding that online activism is not meant to undermine on ground activism. In fact, they should be seen as counterparts, facilitating each other when one appears to be more possible than the other. Most apt example would be that of Google, the Internet search giant, that not only launched online tools for crisis mapping and response but also donated $1 million to charitable organisations involved with flood relief and rehabilitation.
The blogging world in Pakistan caught global attention during the media crackdown by former president General Pervez Musharraf. Over the years we have come to embrace the flocculations; blogosphere has its share of prolific bloggers writing on culture, satire, food and art.
While some of us use the Internet to spread some delicious anarchism against the snollygosters of our times, it’s not always politics and activism on the Internet, it’s a lot more than that– It is a medium of expression.
As global powers recognise the power of the Internet and use it to engage with people, even in countries they are at war with, we continue to fight issues of inaccessibility. With the United Nations report declaring Internet access as human right, would governments around the world use it for election campaigning or to just engage with a global audience? Will we use inaccessibility as an excuse to undermine the impact? Or are we ready to acknowledge the power of the Internet and pool in our resources to prioritise accessibility? Only time will tell.