Towards a total human rights outlook

Antony Loewenstein gave the following speech at the Global Voices Citizen Media Summit 2008 in Budapest today:

NGO’s and on-the ground activists: Defending the Voices

How can NGOs seeking to advance freedom of expression most effectively work with on-the-ground free speech activists to combat censorship?

As a journalist, author and blogger living in Sydney, Australia, the opportunity to be involved in this Global Voices event is a privilege. I thank the organisers for the opportunity.

My country may be a democracy of sorts, but internet censorship is a creeping problem in every country of the globe, including my own. Late last year, with new Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd just elected after more than a decade of conservative rule under John Howard, the government announced measures to supposedly offer greater protection to children from online pornography and violent websites. Similar ideas have been implemented in France and proposed in Scandinavia.

Australia’s Telecommunications Minister Stephen Conroy said in December: “Labor makes no apologies to those that argue that any regulation of the internet is like going down the Chinese road. If people equate freedom of speech with watching child pornography, then the Rudd-Labor Government is going to disagree.”

Conroy said that anybody wanting to opt of the system, to be implemented by ISPs, would have to notify authorities.

The system has not yet been imposed, but NGOs, web companies and free speech advocates have been loudly campaigning against the moves, arguing that the plan would cripple the already slow speed of broadband in Australia.

The high-profile NGO, Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA), issued a blistering press release in response to the proposal and motivated the local blogosphere to quickly mobilise its resources, namely online noise, writing letters to government ministers and the media. The statement read, in part:

“Australia is supposed to be a liberal democracy where adults have the freedom to say and read what they want, not just what the Government decides is ‘appropriate’ for them. These announcements smack of the condescending paternalism which contributed to the downfall of the Howard government. The proposals threaten the free speech rights of every Australian, and our concerns will not be silenced by Government sound bites equating free speech with access to child pornography.”

It continued: “EFA has previously raised concerns about Australia joining North Korea, China and Burma in the club of nations who censor their citizens’ access to the internet. While the Minister makes no apologies for this alarming development, he has given us little reason to put our faith in his bureaucrats to administer such a system competently, transparently and fairly. Who decides what is ‘appropriate’ for adult Australians to read on the internet, and according to what standards? What will happen if the Government decides that information about abortion or gay marriage is ‘inappropriate’ at the behest of [Christian conservative] Family First Senator Steve Fielding?”

Stephen Dalby, chief regulatory officer with Australian ISP company iiNet, said in mid-June: “This whole notion of taking a technological solution to what is otherwise a social issue really has some problems…Our only concern is that the government may push this through, raise their hands and say ‘right, we’ve done something about it.’ Let’s hope there’s some sincerity in looking at fixing the community problems associated with this more intently.”

That may be wishful thinking. Equally concerning is the lack of transparency about which websites will be blocked. I’m less concerned about filtering child pornography than websites that allegedly celebrate violence or terrorism. Does this mean, for example, that the website for the Palestinian group Hamas may be censored because the US and many Western countries regard them as terrorists? Likewise with Hizbollah or even al-Qaeda? Do we not have the right to view information that some people may find offensive but a free society should both tolerate and protect? Sadly, censorship is no longer just a problem in non-Western nations.

The “war on terror” has emboldened those in Western societies who cloak their censorship under the guise of “protecting” citizens from supposedly harmful online material. As we’ve seen during the Bush administration years, intrusive governments are increasingly willing to legislate what they deem we can and cannot see and watch. Free societies are never truly free and eternal vigilance is essential. A disturbing future is already being imagined for us.

The Former US House speaker, Newt Gingrich, said in 2006 that free speech may have to be curtailed in the fight against terrorism. “Either before we lose a city or, if we are truly stupid, after we lose a city”, he said, “we will adopt rules of engagement that use every technology we can find to break up their capacity to use the internet…” The authoritarian impulse is alive and well in the West.

Australia’s proposals are likely to be realised before the end of the year, but I suspect some ISPs, though unlikely to ignore the directives, may balk at rules and regulations that are likely to constantly change according to the whims of the day.

We often presume that people who live in a repressive regimes do not want Big Brother deciding their online habits, but a recent study by Pew Internet & American Life Project found that the vast majority of Chinese web-users supported their government controlling and managing the internet. “Our” values are clearly up for discussion and should never be imposed on others. It almost beggars belief that Google CEO Eric Schmidt recently told The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta that he never anticipated repressive regimes would begin imposing internet censorship at the router level. Perhaps he temporarily forgot his own company’s complicity in China’s extensive web filtering. Just who is imposing whose values on whom?

During my travels to various non-democratic countries over the last years, including Cuba, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, China and Sri Lanka, I’ve met countless bloggers, dissidents and NGOs determined to circumvent government censorship, imprisonment or filtering. Most of them are under-funded, often scared of being caught and looking for international solidarity. Just being heard is half the battle. I was highly conscious in nations such as Iran, China and Cuba that talking to a Western journalist could endanger a blogger or activist.

My forthcoming book, The Blogging Revolution, gives voice to a world still largely ignored in the Western media. For me as a journalist, one of the key things we can do, with the assistance of like-minded NGOs, is allow bloggers to speak for themselves and not automatically classify them as suspect, non-English speakers. For example, in Australia, more than five years after the start of the Iraq war, Iraqi voices are still virtually ignored. It is as if only Westerners, usually middle-age men, have the right to speak for the occupied people.

NGOs should work with news organizations and reporters to educate a Western media that remains highly suspicious of bloggers and the apparent inability to check their credentials. I regularly encounter editors in Australia and overseas who question my use of blogger quotes but don’t look twice if a government official is cited. This is gradually changing but remains mired in conservative, so-called objective reporting rules. NGOs can help in this transition to a more responsive and worldly kind of networked journalism.

I’m currently working with Amnesty International Australia on its China campaign in this Olympic year. Its Uncensor website aims to highlight the extensive use of internet repression in China and hook into growing concerns in Australia and elsewhere over the country’s human rights abuses. Amnesty has hosted many “Tear Down the Great Firewall of China” events across the country, giving citizens the opportunity to learn the ways in which Western multinationals are assisting web repression.

The Uncensor website highlights the cases of well-known imprisoned Chinese activists and displays real-time examples of what internet searches, such as Tiananmen Square and 1989 Democratic Movement, look like inside China. The campaign has generated solid media coverage. Chinese activists in Australia, with many contacts back home, also write regularly about the mood on the streets in Beijing, Shanghai and beyond.

After Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd admirably told students in Mandarin at Peking University in April that, “we…believe it is necessary to recognise there are significant human rights problem in Tibet”, public opinion firmly swung behind strong pressure being placed on Beijing and Olympic sponsors. A majority of Australians polled in April favoured the country’s Games’ sponsors speaking out strongly against China’s abuses with four out of ten saying they would be more likely to purchase a product from an outspoken sponsor. Sympathy for the Tibetan cause was paramount and NGOs such as Amnesty are central to keeping the stories of human rights infractions in the media.

One of the central myths that NGOs should counter is the idea that citizens in non-democratic nations are craving American-style democracy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Of course, freedom of speech, freedom of association and freedom of the press are central to any modern, democratic state, but embracing unregulated capitalism is not largely welcomed. As John Lee, a fellow at an Australian think-tank, recently wrote about China:

“The rise of an alternative to the Western liberal model of development – the so-called Beijing consensus – has been the unexpected consequence of China’s rise and is proving a difficult ideational challenge for the West. Where once we placed our hopes on the me generation to push for political change, we must now confront the fact that China’s young elites believe working within a one-party state is the better bet for their and the country’s future.”

These realities are arguably more attractive for Western multinationals to enter China and navigate the relatively open regulatory system. A recent report in Business Week magazine highlighted the role of Chinese firms assisting some of these foreign multinationals with the confusing Chinese blogosphere and netizens criticising firms for alleged slights against Chinese culture. The founder of one of these companies, CIC’s Sam Flemming, explained it well: “If it touches on nationalism, or if the client clearly made a mistake and disrespected a customer, that’s dangerous.”

The role of Western NGOs is essential in providing a bridge between on-the-ground activists and a sceptical media back home. Convincing the masses that censorship in, say, Iran, is relevant to the outer suburbs of Sydney, can only be achieved through the internet. The ease with which a web user anywhere in the world can campaign for campaigners in repressive regimes creates both a sense of community and protection, however slight. Online campaigning has exploded around the globe.

I’ve long believed that activism must be mainstreamed to be truly effective, rather than just the concern of a minority. Our job as journalists, activists, NGOs, bloggers or concerned citizens is to bring the stories of the world to a media that welcomes localism and shuns complexity. These rules of the game are ripe for change.

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