A global anti-censorship network: GV08 Summit Day One, Session One

When we went out to a bar on Friday night for a well-deserved drink here in Budapest, all my newfound friends and I could talk about were the various issues, many of them deeply moving, that came out on the first day of the summit. For someone like me attending a Global Voices summit for the first time, the first two days have been educative, eye-opening, and stimulating. In this piece I attempt to briefly recount the opening remarks, and describe the first panel, on efforts toward a global anti-censorship network. I owe gratitude to Jillian York, Renata Avila and Juliana Rotich, who live-blogged various parts of the opening sessions.

Opening Remarks

Day One opened with Ethan Zuckerman and Rebecca MacKinnon, co-founders of Global Voices Online, narrating the background to how Global Voices came into being. The opening session was blogged live by Jillian York and Renata Avila using the tool CoveritLive. Ethan described an international conference for bloggers held at Harvard University in December of 2004, where the idea for Global Voices Online was hatched.

In his work on media coverage patterns, Ethan noticed that the mainstream media focused on certain kinds of people and certain kinds of places, and left out others. He and Rebecca started round ups of bloggers. Soon the work became too much for two people. David Sasaki was brought in as the first regional editor, covering Latin America. More funding came from Reuters, and in 2005 Global Voices held its first summit in London. The 2006 summit took place in New Delhi, India, leading up to this summit in Budapest, Hungary. Over the years, the challenge has been to go beyond the realm of educated elites who dominate the blogging world. Ethan and Rebecca talked of how Global Voices has been working on bringing in other voices from other parts of the world. That concern gave rise to another prominent Global Voices project, Rising Voices. Now the concern keeps getting broader, said Ethan, and at present there is a need to go beyond citizen media, to media activism.

Another major development over the years has been translation. Ethan said Global Voices now translates twelve languages, which are further translated into other languages, “touching all corners of the world.”

Also making opening remarks on Day One was Sami Ben Ghabia, Adcovacy Director for Global Voices. Sami is originally from Tunisia, but is now living in the Netherlands. Sami described how the Advocacy Project for Global Voices has been following how citizens are using digital media for social activism. Sami showed video clips of Moroccan citizen journalists secretly taping corruption practices by the Moroccan traffic police. The clip in question, shot by a video blogger called TarSniper, showed a police officer collecting bribes from drivers. Another clip showed Egyptian bloggers exposing torture, and a third example showed Tunisian bloggers exposing police brutality. In the Tunisian example, police shot live bullets into a crowd of demonstrators, killing a number of them. The police denied shooting and killing the two people.

Sami concluded his remarks with a statement that read “Youtube and blogosphere=dangerous combination for repressive regimes,” and listed several Internet tools that have sprang up that are used to circumvent censorship on the web. Amongst those he listed were Feedburner, Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Googlemaps, youtube, vodpod, flickr, and feedblitz.

Day One Session One

Panel: Toward a Global Anti-censorship Network

After the opening remarks, John Kennedy, Global Voices Chinese Language editor, introduced Helmi Noman, who moderated the first session. The first session was titled “Toward a Global Anti-censorship Network”, with four panelists: Andrei Abozau, a Belarusian activist, Chris Salzberg who covers the Japanese blogosphere, Alaa Abdel Fatah from Egypt, and Awab Alvi of Pakistan.

Andrei Abozau described the website LuNet, which was accused of slandering Belarus’s president, Alexander Lukashenko. Andrei talked about how the control of the Internet in Belarus, which has been around for two years now, “has destroyed liberty and freedom of expression.” He said it had also affected trade and entrepreneurship, as some businesses use the Internet for their work and are affected by the censorship. Andrei said the focus of new struggles “should have a global scale,” to come up with new ways of bypassing filtration and censorship tools. He said democratic societies should be called upon to apply economic sanctions on countries that censor free speech.

The second panelist, Egyptian blogger Alaa Abdel Fatah spoke of how the legal system in Egypt has been used to limit freedom of speech. Alaa showed pictures of an Egyptian blogger tortured by Egyptian police, archived on www.misrdigital.blogspirit.com. The remarkable thing about the video, said Alaa, was that it was shot on a cellphone, and was then uploaded on Youtube. It had not been shown on any mainstream media networks. Another example of citizen media in Egypt was the website www.tortureinegypt.net, which, as the name says, exposes torture in Egypt. The blogger is a young woman, who lost job when her blogging was exposed, and she now works for a radical paper. Her parents were also harassed, leading her to find out that “It’s easier to stand up to a dictator that to stand up to your father”

Another example from Egypt was www.elhakika.blogspot.com, which Alaa said tracks petro-chemical companies for industrial pollution. One company sued a blogger for libel. In Egypt, the court needs proof of all the claims. One can go to jail for managing to prove all cases except one, for example, said Alaa. And the court process can be vey painful as well; one can stay arrested throughout the duration of the trial. “I was personally involved in a case. I was sent to prison for criticizing Mubarak,” reported Alaa.

The next speaker was Chris Salzberg, Japanese language editor for Global Voices. Chris started by saying he was not Japanese, and therefore what he was about to say would not be representative of all Japan. He also observed that “Web censorship means different things in different contexts, nations, and societies,” before noting that in Japan the Internet was free and open, although there were debates about regulation.

Japan is a very different example. The internet is open in most respects, but what I want to do in this 10 minutes is go back over what censorship really means. It means something different in Japan than in Egypt, or elsewhere.

Chris prepared a document, available at http://gyaku.jp/internetregulationjapan.pdf. His presented discussed an article taken from a Japanese magazine, titled “The age of net regulation is coming.” One interesting example was how a Japanese Internet user warned on their website that they were going to kill certain people, and went ahead to kill them and themselves. A new bill passed in the Japanese parliament, on June 11th. The bill was aimed at regulating Internet content, copyright legislation, and mobile web access, among others. In the new bill, manufacturers of computer software would be required to preinstall filtering software in PCs and mobile phones, and filter phones for under 18s, gay and lesbian sites, among others.

Warning that surveys always need to be used critically as not all questions capture the accurate reality, Chris presented results of a survey in Japan, in which 67.8% of the population were said to favor internet regulation, with 76% percent supporting web filtering. Companies wee now pushing against censorship because customers were abandoning companies that participated in the filtering. Bur Chris also observed that in Japan government and corporate censorship were not big concerns; rather people were concerned with how other users used digital media.

The last speaker for the first session on Day One was Dr. Awab Alvi, a dentist who is also a blogger and an activist in Pakistan, who founded the blog Don’t Block the Blog.

Awab said in Pakistan there was an attempt to silence Pakistani bloggers, after a blog named drawmuhammadweek.blogspot.com was set up. This lead to blogspot being blocked. Immediately that happened, a proxy servers went up, to sidestep the censorship. Now blogs can be seen wit pkblogs.com, which renames blogs blocked in countries such as Iran, India, Pakistan, China and other countries. Another way of circumventing the censorship, such as Greasemonkey scripts, which rewrites the URL to sidestep the blocked blogger.com. India friendship package was another way, enabling access to Indian blogs at www.inblogs.net

Awab said only 7% of Pakistanis have access to computers, and internet exposure sometimes starts with pornographic sites, and then grows into other uses. Newspaper readership has gone down, while online presence (not readership) is up.

Another aspect in Pakistan was SMS activism. With more people having access to cellphones than to computers, people send text messages as a way of communicating. Mobile content was huge, bypassing online access. There was need to come with ways of sending text messages directly to the Internet. After a question and answer session focusing on what bloggers can do to help other bloggers in other countries, the session ended with a refreshments break.


Join the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.