Activists from across the Middle East and North Africa met today to discuss the different changes and challenges Internet users encounter in the region, as well as the role of surveillance and censorship in countries that are undergoing transitions.
The panel, part of the Freedom Online 2013 conference, was held this morning at the Tunis Sheraton Hotel, and was entitled “Change and Challenges: User Perspectives from the MENA Region.”
The panel featured activists including Sami Ben Gharbia, founder of the Tunisian investigative journalism website Nawaat, Slim Amamou from the Tunisian pirate party, Moroccan activist Zineb Belmkaddem, and Mohamed Tarakiyee from the Jordan Open Source Association.
Belmkaddem, an activist with the Moroccan citizen media portal Mamfakinch, discussed the situation of activism in Morocco and stressed the discrepancy between online and offline activism.
“We launched different campaign for mass protests. People responded very well on YouTube and Facebook. Yet, nothing was mentioned in print or state run television,” Belmkaddem said. ”These calls for protest showed that the new use of social media was efficient, and helped us gather the right crowd to communicate our demands.”
For Belmkaddem, the situation of activism took a new turn when Moroccan government partnered with a French group to launch a “deep packet” information inspection program aimed at surveillance, and to make sure there is access to citizen online information. Yet the Moroccan government reacted by targeting the personal lives of activists and disclosing their private data.
“We had to require the necessary skills to secure ourselves. The struggle is not just online. We need to be able to secure ourselves and take it online,” Belkaddem explained. “Disposable pages gave us the chance: we would launch an event few days before and the information would be shared. This is the regime weakness. They are able to track but not able to stop everything from happening. They can’t stop us online the way they can stop us offline. They can’t beat us up online like they do in the street.”
Despite the difficulty of the situation, Belmkaddem remains hopeful with regards to the state of activists in Morocco.
“We are driven by this relentless hope for freedom, and a magnificent cause,” she said. “The secret service are employees and subjects of things in their organizations that make their work not meaningful.”
The Tunisian activists Ben Gharbia and Amamou discussed the role of internet freedom in the politics of the country before and after the revolution. Amamou said that the post-revolutionary Tunisia, while free of censorship, witnessed a rather unexpected reaction from Internet users as threatening online propaganda campaigns proliferated.
“All the parties, whether they were new or old, understood the power of social media and invested in an army of trolls to do the job of threatening and spread propaganda,” he alleged.
Ben Gharbia addressed the role of censorship in strengthening the reaction to the Ben Ali regime, and discussed the status of censorship in post-revolutionary Tunisia.
“All censorship starts with moral and religious targets, and then becomes political. Some bloggers were arrested because of the use of Internet to express their views. Now a rapper was arrested. Many were prosecuted for the use oo their freedom online but there is a strong civil society who can deal with these issues, ” Ben Gharbia said.
He says the solution lies in implementing transparency in the system.
“What we can do is to leak information. The real battle is to open the government to the world.”
Ben Gharbia also suggested that an independent body should be in charge of censorship.
“In Tunisia, the legal framework will set the limits of surveillance, and the body of surveillance should be an independent body, not a police body or judiciary. A body composed of lawyers and human rights advocates, ” Ben Gharbia stated.
While most activists believe that freedom of expression online should be guaranteed, Amamou believes that freedom of the Internet is not the issue.
“Internet cannot be free. Internet is a tool, a technology. It can only be neutral. People using the internet should be free. You need to provide freedoms for people when you are writing a law or a constitution,” he said.
By the end of the panel, hacker Jacob Appelbaum was invited by Belmkaddem to speak about surveillance. Appelbaum criticized the status of surveillance, and called on attendees to support people leakers of information such as Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, and Bradley Manning “who are risking their lives.”