I was recently invited by USAID to participate in a closed meeting with global activists promoting human rights. The roundtable was described to me as follows:
We are having a high-level event in Washington and we are hoping you can participate. It will be very small, with only 20-25 people, and we are seeking someone who can speak to best practices and the future of human rights blogging at an awards ceremony honoring international human rights bloggers. Either Secretary of State Rice or Administrator Fore of USAID will be in attendance.
The organizers wanted an independent academic and avid blogger with a good understanding of human rights monitoring and digital activism. I accepted the invitation since the roundtable would be an opportunity to brainstorm about the challenges and opportunities of blogging for political activism and human rights advocacy.
I was initially not going to blog about this event given some of the sensitivities involved, but as it turns out President Bush had a public meeting with the activist bloggers right before our roundtable (which is why we started almost an hour late). The White House meeting was covered by Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post. The organizers of the roundtable thus encouraged me to blog about the event (although I still have some reservations about the public nature of all this).
The roundtable was attended by the above activist bloggers (now residents of the US) and several representatives from USAID, the State Department, the National Security Council (NSC) and Department of Defense (DOD). Clearly, I was the only non-USG, non-dissident blogger around the table, which made sense since I was invited to provide an independent perspective to the conversation. Consider this blog post as an extension of that invitation.
After some formal introductions, we were each given about five minutes to present our perspectives on the issue of human rights and blogging. Only ten minutes were available for Q&A. Here are some of my personal, independent reactions, to the roundtable:
- I was surprised how often Russia was referred to as the Soviet Union;
- The introductory remarks placed too much faith in technology as the solution. There was little discussion about tactics and overall strategy;
- The reference to the platform developed by the MIT Center for the Future of Civic Media (C4) to enable activists to communicate securely and anonymously was not entirely accurate. First, the project is being designed for reporters, not activists, and second, the platform has not been built yet;
- One of the blogger activists said that US rhetoric vis-a-vis the support of human rights was less helpful than direct action, i.e., applying pressure via leverage of trade, etc;
- Another activist said that his network does not want US material or financial support, only moral support;
- The blogger from Iran (now living in the US), noted that the regime was spending some $60 million to try and control the proliferation of jokes sent by SMS that makes fun of the president and ruling officials;
- When a USG official asked about the use of mobile phones for political activism, one blogger replied that the best way to help repressive regimes is to use mobile phones. I echoed his concerns by pointing out that mobile phones can be a liability because (1) they can be tracked, i.e., geo-located; (2) encrypted SMS is still not the standard; (3) address books are not encrypted or easily deletable which means that confiscated mobile phones can place hundreds in danger.
The meeting was cut short because it started late, so there was actually little time for brainstorming. Below are my (independent) concerns about the meeting and the future of human rights and political activism. They may not jive with the US Government’s take on these issues, but then again, I know that they wanted someone independent in the room to get as many different perspectives on the topic of human rights and technology. For this, the organizers have my utmost respect.
- I don’t think that the US Government should be publicly meeting with human rights bloggers, especially the leading dissident, political activist bloggers because this makes life more difficult and more dangerous for the majority of citizen journalists and digital activists still living in repressive regimes; note that the invited bloggers all live in the US;
- While repressive regimes need no excuse to crack down on bloggers/journalists, they often do using accusation of ties to the US government when in fact there are none. So why make it any easier for them to do so by having dissident bloggers who live in the US pose with President Bush?
- Some argue that most activists feel their best hope for any nominal protection is to be as public as possible about their high-level meetings. But these activists already live in the US, they have already been granted asylum and therefore are not in as much danger as their colleagues still living under repressive rule. So while the bloggers who met with President Bush won’t be arrested since they live in the US, my concern is for those dissident bloggers who are risking their lives every day to influence change in their own countries;
- Dissident bloggers tend to be political activists and/or former reporters. They are not tech savvy. In fact, when I asked a blogger sitting next to me at the meeting for their email address, they gave me a yahoo email address. This particular blogger was the only one in the group who still lives in their original country to which they were returning to the following day. I told the blogger that I would not be emaling them on that address and that they should set up a hushmail address as soon as possible;
- Activist bloggers are in dire need of training in digital activism so that they can ensure both personal and data security; I was truly shocked about the yahoo email address;
- Echoing what fellow bloggers have told me in the past, not everyone blogs. Bloggers are not the only voice of the people. Speaking out is only part of the problem; more of a challenge is being heard. This presents a catch-22 since a successful activist blogger who manages to be heard will usually present themselves as a target by the regime.
In closing, I don’t think the White House should be publicly supporting dissident bloggers. Instead, the USG should be promoting human rights and principles of free speech in general. If the USG wants some policy guidance on this, I would refer them to the general approach taken by the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC). In particular, I would consider learning from the successful US policy regarding the support of the Otpor student movement against Milosevic.
Again, I realize my views may not align with the USG officials who participated in the roundtable, but again, I was invited specifically to provide an independent perspective and to blog about it, which, to their credit, is an important element of policy making—diversity of opinions, that is. I look forward to contributing more of my thoughts in any future meetings.