How Effective Are Free Speech Campaigns?

    by Jillian C. York
    July 19, 2012
    Image of the Syrian opposition flag by "FreedomHouse2 on Flickr":http://www.flickr.com/photos/syriafreedom2/, CC BY 2.0 license.

    When prominent Egyptian blogger Alaa Abd El Fattah was arrested during a protest in 2006, his friends and fellow bloggers from all over the world sprung into action, launching a multifaceted campaign to free the activist.

    The campaign’s success was inspiring, and the techniques used would serve as a blueprint for future efforts.

    A forgotten detainee is a triumph to his jailers. And in that sense, it pains us that we don't have the means to launch a support campaign for each single one of those detainees held in prisons of oppression." -Yassin Swehat

    As bloggers and netizens have increasingly become targets of repressive governments — see the Threatened Voices project — such campaigns have become almost commonplace. In many cases, the bloggers at the center of such an effort have stated the importance of the campaign in securing their release.


    Azeri blogger Eynulla Fatullayev, for example, credited his campaign with saving his life. Similarly, Bahraini activist Maryam Al-Khawaja has credited media attention for once preventing the arrest of her sister, activist Zainab Al-Khawaja.

    But while in Bahrain or Azerbaijan, the government may have been swayed by global pressure, the same does not hold true for a country like Syria, where Reporters Without Borders has claimed the number of citizen journalists killed and arrested increases daily.

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    That begs the question: What is the goal of campaigns for bloggers under such circumstances? Currently, a campaign for Syrian blogger Hussein Ghrer is underway, with supporters seeking to gain media attention for the cause. As Yassin Swehat, a Syrian blogger living in Spain told me, Hussein — one of the longest-standing members of the Syrian blogosphere — has always been courageous, “be it against the systematic strangling of political and intellectual rights and liberties, or against social phenomena that he opposed and stood against intellectually and legally,” such as honor killing, or parental rights for Syrian women.

    “I don’t recall a single issue raised in the blogosphere with which Hussein didn’t get involved with his opinions,” Swehat said. Or as Razan Ghazzawi, a twice-detained Syrian blogger in Damascus, put it simply: “Hussein is about justice.”

    Though the campaign is quite clear in its goals — demanding the immediate and unconditional release of Ghrer, his colleagues from the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, and other prisoners whose detention exceeds the maximum legal limits for incarceration without court referral under Syrian law — it seems unlikely that the Syrian government will be swayed by the bloggers’ crusade.



    Detained Syrian blogger Bassel Safadi, freebassel.org. Photo by Joi Ito on Flickr.

    With that in mind, I decided to ask several observers for their thoughts on the efficacy of such campaigns. The roundtable of sorts includes Swehat; Ghazzawi; Robert Sharp, head of Campaigns and Communications at English PEN; Micheline Hazou, a British-Lebanese blogger and advocate for an open Internet; Leila Nachawati, a Syrian-Spanish blogger and activist; and Mohamed*, a blogger from Saudi Arabia. Here are their thoughts:

    MediaShift: What is the goal of the campaign to free Hussein Ghrer and similar campaigns for bloggers in authoritarian countries?

    Swehat: The #FreeHussein campaign hopes to shed light on the plight of Hussein and his colleagues at the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM) as political prisoners of a repressive and totalitarian regime like the Syrian regime. Certainly, the campaign’s main objective is to establish a sustained legal and media pressure on the regime to release Hussein, his colleagues and the many other political prisoners. However, until that objective is fulfilled, shedding light on their cause is a form of symbolic triumph (for the cause) against oblivion. A forgotten detainee is a triumph to his jailers. And in that sense, it pains us that we don’t have the means to launch a support campaign for each single one of those detainees held in prisons of oppression.

    Hazou: Once you are dealing with a regime that imprisons people for their thoughts, among them bloggers, the effort on social media platforms is not likely to sway this regime’s decision. The main purpose of a “Free” campaign on social media platforms or a blog post is to show solidarity with a fellow blogger. When released, I would hope these prisoners realize they were not forgotten.

    Sharp: When a blogger is imprisoned, it is not just his voice that is silenced. Those who share his point of view are discouraged by his example, and choose to keep quiet. A public solidarity campaign on social media can have the opposite effect, emboldening others to speak out and fill the void left by their imprisoned comrade … so while the text of a message may be “Free Hussein Ghrer,” the subtext is “We Have Not Forgotten Hussein Ghrer,” which is a powerful message to send to the authorities. Sending letters or (as English PEN does) books to these prisoners carries a similar message.

    Mohamed: It seems that [the goal is usually] to try to get mainstream media to cover an arbitrary detainment story to put pressure on the authorities, but as far as I know, this has never happened [in Saudi Arabia] because of a hashtag campaign. Those campaigns, however, seem to have a useful social impact. In Saudi Arabia where political experience and activism are next to zero, it can be useful on the long run for people to question authorities, demand rights, and work as a nation (instead of as a sect or a tribe).

    MS: In situations where release is an improbable goal, can campaigns like these help to secure better treatment for the imprisoned blogger?

    Ghazzawi: To be honest, this question has a long answer. [One blogger who was detained and later released] said he was treated better when his name was mentioned repeatedly in the media, but … he’s still being viewed by the regime as a dangerous activist.

    Me, on the other hand, I was very well-treated in the two times I was detained, but my mobile phones are monitored. At demonstrations, I am always recognized by protesters, so I am not “just any other protester” at the demo. My Facebook is watched, and I know which security branches are watching them. So it’s true that I was well-treated, but I became too known for the street and for the regime

    We have a name for people who are too known in the revolution; we call them “burned cards,” as in we’re too known that it makes no sense to hide that you’re against the regime. So people like us decided to [get even more involved] because it’s over — there’s no way to hide or to be unknown.

    Nachawati: In repressive countries it makes a huge difference whether activists are well-known or not (and being well-known is more and more about having online visibility); these regimes tend to be the cruelest with the people nobody knows about. These governments not only want to repress their citizens, but they want to do it behind closed doors. Media attention protects activists by putting governments on the spot and exposing their true nature to the world. I’ve heard of many cases where activists have admitted to have received better treatment due to their high profiles. This why we’re trying to get as much visibility around Hussein Ghrer, whom we are very worried about.

    I think this visibility issue is a double-edged sword though. By choosing to raise some people’s profiles we leave lots of others behind in similar situations, and I’m concerned that [we’re forgetting] about others who struggle in different ways, through other channels. I think those of us working on these issues should make sure we raise concerns about freedom of speech as a whole and avoid contributing to creating “superstars” that may attract a lot of (short-term) empathy but maybe no real questioning of repressive patterns and the need to fight them.

    Swehat: I suspect that a prisoner’s fame does play a role in that the regime is wary of what the prisoner will say once he’s out. Although, I personally think, that the main influence in this regard are the personal whims and moods of the specific officers handling a detainee.

    At any rate, I don’t believe that “better treatment” has ever been an important goal/objective for those who are paying the ultimate price in the form of their freedom.Therefore, I don’t think it should honestly be an objective in this campaign. Freedom cannot be split, neither the freedom of Hussein, nor that of our country.

    MS: What is the current situation for bloggers and citizen journalists in Syria? Do bloggers face any particular risks that professional journalists do not?

    Swehat: One cannot say that Syrian bloggers (as a community) have a special place within the Syrian social fabric, be it a positive or negative place, that is. They suffer what the Syrian society at large suffers, and those of them who are involved in the revolution against the Assad regime suffer the same way that ordinary people involved in the revolution do, through arrests, lack of security, etc.

    I think the regime’s main object of anger and hatred are not “bloggers” per say, but specifically “citizen journalists,” i.e., those who deliver images and videos of what’s happening to the international media, thus breaking the media blockade established by the regime. Contrary to the cases of Egypt and Tunisia, Syria’s citizen journalists … for the most part are normal individuals from the residents of areas of unrest who turned into citizen journalists without any prior experience in the field — a phenomenon that deserves further study and investigation, in my opinion.

    Nachawati: The distinction between journalist and online activist, cyberactivist, blogger … becomes very blurry in repressive contexts, where the simple act of reporting on events in a way that does not follow the official narrative puts people under threat. A friend of mine, the Spanish journalist Olga Rodríguez, always says that being a journalist today, within this tendency to state-controlled narrative, is a form of militancy. This is even more the case in countries where freedom of speech is considered the enemy.

    MS: How can individuals lend solidarity to the campaign to free Hussein, as well as other campaigns for imprisoned bloggers?

    Sharp: There is no question that solidarity, through letter writing and recently on citizen media, gives a huge boost to the imprisoned writer. This year, former prisoners such as Eynullah Fatullayev in Azerbaijan and Tran Khai Than Thuy in Vietnam have written to [English PEN], affirming how valuable such campaigns are, even when their government is resolved to keep them locked up.

    Hazou: Mentioning the prisoners in these campaigns might give support to their families, let them know they are not alone. As a blogger, it is difficult to stay silent or indifferent to the fate of prisoners of conscience; [getting involved] is the least we can do. It is better than doing nothing. It is being human.

    Ghazzawi: Personalize the detainee — we’re all special in a way; we should tell what’s special about this detainee, as a person, and it’s always important to remind the world that this campaign is against detention, not exclusively to free this detainee. We need illegal detention to stop. That’s our cause.

    Swehat: Helping these support campaigns doesn’t take a lot of effort really. Simply helping shed light and sharing news about it on social media and social networks websites is an important measure of support. Translating these bits of news is even more helpful. In short, anything that helps not allowing the prisoner’s plight to be forgotten is a precious help. Only those causes that are forgotten are truly lost.

    *Name has been changed to protect the blogger’s identity.

    Photo of detained Syrian blogger Bassel Safadi by Joi Ito on Flickr.

    Special thanks to Yazan Badran for translation.

    Jillian C. York is the director of International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. She writes regularly about free expression, politics, and the Internet, with particular focus on the Arab world. She is on the Board of Directors of Global Voices Online, and has written for a variety of publications, including Al Jazeera, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, and Bloomberg.

    Tagged: blogging citizen journalism free speech freespeech freespeech digital security Hussein Ghrer syria

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