Why Didn’t Arab ‘Civil Society’ Discuss Human Rights at IGF?

Photo by Gabba Gabba Hey! via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

‘See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ unattributed stencil art. Photo by Gabba Gabba Hey! via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

“Is it time for the Internet spring in the Arab region?” This was the title of the only workshop (out of 150 sessions) meant to highlight Internet issues in the Arab world at the 2013 Internet Governance Forum. Held in Bali, Indonesia, this forum is the eighth UN-convened, open multistakeholder forum that brings together people from all sectors to discuss Internet policy issues. This was the first time that my organization, 7iber, participated in the forum.

While issues of civil rights online filled the air of the forum’s hallways, Arab delegates had a minimal presence among the 1500 participants from private, public and civil society sectors. In the ‘high level’ meeting that opened the forum, there was no Arab representative among the 19 panelists. Although plenty of sessions addressed human rights online in broad terms, this was the only place where it felt appropriate and pragmatic to raise regionally-specific human rights challenges. For a media rights organization like 7iber, based in Jordan, this should have been the place space to bring forth issues of Internet freedom in this region in the conference.

If people attending the session had not been up to date on Internet news in the Arab world, they might have left the session thinking our region is perfect — a leading example in openness and policy-making. The panel’s discussion was off-base as its title was dreamy. IGF panel submissions required organizers to select participants from different sectors. This panel’s organizers seemed to believe that they could present an inclusive conversation by convening the head of the ICT Development Department of the Arab League, two members of Arab IGF Secretariat, two representatives from ICANN, the director of the international Diplo foundation, and a Yemeni internet rights advocate who resides in Sweden. During the first hour, the Arab IGF secretariat and Arab League panelists provided a progressive image of the “multistakeholder” process of Internet policymaking in the region. Then, the international civil society representatives from the Diplo foundation and ICANN used the panel to market their educational initiatives in the region.

At no point during the 90-minute session did panelists mention how Saudi Arabia recently jailed seven activists for organizing protests on Facebook. Nor was there comment on how Kuwait jailed a writer for tweets ‘defaming’ an ex-prime minister. The Whatsapp message of “Sisi is more criminal than Bashar” on the phone of a Jordanian, that sent him to a state security court under charges of “disrupting relations with foreign countries,” went under the radar. And so did the arrest of an Algerian blogger for posting a caricature mocking the Algerian President on Facebook. There was no discussion of why Bahrain was named “enemy of the Internet” in 2012 (a Bahraini blogger was tortured in Bahrain). There was no comment on the popular online magazine editor who was arrested in Morocco for publishing an article about an Al-Qaeda video.

Panelists did not go over recently proposed legislation in Qatar and Kuwait which targets and incriminates online freedoms of speech. They did not touch on new media laws in  Jordan that require sites to seek governmental approval before launching, a policy that has resulted in the blocking of over 200 websites. Nor did they broach Saudi Arabia’s plans to connect Twitter accounts with a national identification card. They did not speak of the countless old-school unregulated acts of online censorship in Bahrain and Oman.

It was only at the very end of the panel, during the question and answer period, that attendees from Jordan and Morocco were able to break the problematic facade created by the panel.  Addressing the Arab League representative, we questioned the evidence of the feel-good concept of “multistakeholderism” in states that incriminate online expression. The Arab League representative insisted that civil society was more present on the panel than governments, but the absence of civil society representatives attending the panel left this narrative unchallenged. In an attempt to conclude the discussion, the representative exclaimed, “how can I give you internet freedoms if you are threatening my national security?”

It was depressing to to see that while Latin American countries and Indonesia are developing data protection and privacy laws to protect online users’ privacy and right of access, the Arab world is still debating online freedom of speech. It was also astonishing to see how the presence of civil society alliances (on a local level like in Indonesia, or a regional like in Latin America and East Asia) across panelists and audience members prevented governments or enterprises from spreading propaganda without contestation.

The weak presence of the Arab civil society allowed a one-sided official narrative to only scratch the surface of repressive practices of governments in this region. I have never been a believer in the results of huge conferences, which are so often dominated by entities that wield the most power through tools, finances, and policy-making. However, the meetings at the IGF are the only place in which governments, civil society, and the private sector may directly and publicly interact at the same table. Regardless of a general fatigue of official meetings and a disbelief in systems of governance, it was still disappointing to encounter the domination of an official regional narrative at a global event of this magnitude. I left the session thinking that we are, unfortunately, realistic about the fruitlessness of engagement with our governments (that we did not elect), as evidenced by the earlier remarks of the Arab League representative.

Much work needs to be done within our role as actors within civil society. While we cannot detach or treat our online rights as separate from our offline rights, we can’t ignore the role of the Internet in shifting the process of consumption and the production of knowledge. Don’t the huge commonalities in the repressive practices of Arab governments online justify a need to form alliances? How can we generate greater legitimacy in shedding light on Internet issues, put forward a counter-regional narrative for the rights of 125 million users, and, to say the least, hack this global discussion?

Reem Al Masri leads research and development work at 7iber, a Jordanian media organization that promotes free expression online. The original version of this article appeared on 7iber.com.

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