#UN75 : « Désormais, l'ONU doit demeurer accessible par le biais de plateformes virtuelles »
En commémoration du 75ème anniversaire de l’Organisation des Nations Unies (ONU), CIVICUS organise des discussions avec des activistes, des avocats et des professionnels de la société civile sur les rôles que l'ONU a joués jusqu'à présent, les succès qu'elle a obtenu et les défis qu'elle doit relever pour l'avenir. CIVICUS s'entretient avec Laura O'Brien, responsable du plaidoyer avec les Nations Unies pour Access Now, une organisation de la société civile qui s'est donné pour mission de défendre et d'étendre les droits numériques des utilisateurs en danger dans le monde entier. Access Now se bat pour les droits humains à l'ère numérique en combinant le soutien technique direct, le travail politique intégral, le plaidoyer mondial, le soutien financier de base, des interventions juridiques et des réunions telles que la RightsCon.
Dans quelle mesure la charte fondatrice des Nations Unies est-elle adéquate à l'ère de l'internet ?
Depuis des années, la société civile encourage l'ONU à moderniser ses opérations afin de demeurer pertinentes à l'ère du numérique. En 2020, l'ONU a été confrontée à une dure réalité. L'organisation internationale a été obligée de faire la plus grande partie de son travail en ligne, tout en essayant d'atteindre de manière significative la communauté mondiale et de faire progresser la coopération internationale au milieu d'une crise sanitaire mondiale, d'un racisme systémique, du changement climatique et d'un autoritarisme croissant. La commémoration du 75ème anniversaire de l'ONU par un retour à sa charte fondatrice - un document axé sur la dignité inhérente de l'être humain - ne pourrait être plus cruciale.
La Charte des Nations Unies a été rédigée bien avant l'existence d'Internet. Toutefois, sa vision globale reste cohérente avec la nature universelle de l'internet, qui permet au mieux la création illimitée de sociétés de connaissance fondées sur les droits humains fondamentaux, tout en amplifiant la nécessité de réduire les risques, non seulement par des moyens souverains, mais aussi par la coopération internationale. Guidée par les principes de la Charte des Nations Unies, la Déclaration rendue publique à l’occasion de la célébration du soixante-quinzième anniversaire de l’Organisation des Nations Unies s’engage à renforcer la coopération numérique dans le monde entier. Par cet engagement formel, les Nations Unies ont enfin pris en compte l’impact transformateur des technologies numériques sur notre vie quotidienne, ouvrant la voie - ou mieux, comme l’a dit le secrétaire général de l’ONU, établissant une « feuille de route » - pour nous guider à travers les promesses et les dangers de l’ère numérique.
Alors que les dirigeants mondiaux ont reconnu la nécessité d'écouter « les peuples », comme le stipule le préambule de la Charte des Nations Unies, la société civile continue de rappeler à ces mêmes dirigeants d'écouter plus activement. Compte tenu de sa mission d'étendre et de défendre les droits fondamentaux de tous les individus, la société civile reste une force clé pour faire progresser la responsabilité de toutes les parties prenantes et garantir la transparence dans des processus multilatéraux souvent opaques.
Quels défis avez-vous rencontré dans vos interactions avec le système des Nations Unies et comment les avez-vous relevés ?
J'ai commencé à travailler dans mon rôle public en tant que défenseuse des intérêts de Access Now aux Nations Unies, quelques mois avant le confinement dû à la COVID-19 ici à New York. En ce sens, j'ai dû, dans mon nouveau rôle, relever les défis auxquels la société civile était confrontée à l'époque : comment faire en sorte que les acteurs de la société civile, dans toute leur diversité, participent de manière significative aux débats de l'ONU, alors que cette dernière déplace ses opérations au monde virtuel ? À l'époque, nous craignions que les mesures exceptionnelles utilisées pour lutter contre la pandémie soient utilisées pour restreindre l'accès de la société civile et ses possibilités de participer aux forums des Nations Unies. Nous nous sommes donc mobilisés. Plusieurs organisations de la société civile, dont CIVICUS, ont travaillé ensemble pour établir des principes et recommandations à l'intention des Nations Unies afin d'assurer l'inclusion de la société civile dans ses discussions pendant la pandémie et au-delà. Cela nous a aidé à travailler ensemble pour présenter une position unifiée sur l'importance de la participation des parties prenantes et pour rappeler aux Nations Unies de mettre en place des protections adéquates visant à garantir l'accessibilité des plateformes en ligne, ainsi que des garanties suffisantes pour protéger la sécurité des personnes impliquées virtuellement.
Qu'est-ce qui ne fonctionne pas actuellement et devrait changer, et comment la société civile travaille-t-elle pour apporter ce changement ?
L'année 2020 a été une année d'humble réflexion critique sur soi-même, tant au niveau individuel que collectif. Aujourd'hui plus que jamais, le monde se rend compte que le modèle centré sur l'État ne conduira pas à un avenir prometteur. Les problèmes auxquels est confrontée une partie du monde ont des conséquences pour le monde entier. Les décisions que nous prenons maintenant, notamment en ce qui concerne les technologies numériques, auront un impact sur les générations futures. Alors que le monde se remet des événements de 2020, nous avons besoin que les dirigeants mondiaux tirent les leçons de l'expérience acquise et continuent à s'engager dans cette réflexion critique. La résolution de problèmes mondiaux exige une action interdisciplinaire qui respecte et protège les détenteurs de droits issus de milieux divers et intersectoriels. Nous ne pouvons tout simplement pas continuer à fonctionner et à traiter ces questions de haut en bas. En effet, les menaces telles que la désinformation ont souvent leur origine au sommet.
Partout dans le monde, la société civile se mobilise en première ligne des campagnes mondiales qui cherchent à sensibiliser aux problèmes auxquels nous sommes confrontés aujourd'hui et à leur impact sur les générations futures, tout en plaidant pour la responsabilisation dans les forums nationaux, régionaux et internationaux. De la condamnation des coupures d'Internet de #KeepItOn à la remise en question de la mise en œuvre des programmes d'identité numérique dans le monde de #WhyID, nous nous efforçons d'informer, de surveiller, de mesurer et de fournir des recommandations politiques qui respectent les droits, en fonction de nos diverses interactions avec les personnes les plus à risque.
Quelles sont, selon vous, les principales faiblesses du système multilatéral mondial actuel et quelles leçons peut-on tirer de la pandémie de COVID-19 ?
Le système multilatéral mondial doit cesser de fonctionner et de traiter les problèmes mondiaux de manière déconnectée. Cela nécessite non seulement un multilatéralisme mieux organisé en réseau - dans l'ensemble du système des Nations Unies, tant à New York qu'à Genève, et incluant les organisations régionales et les institutions financières, entre autres - mais aussi une approche plus interdisciplinaire des problèmes mondiaux. Par exemple, les recherches disponibles suggèrent que plus de 90 % des objectifs de développement durable sont liés aux droits de l'homme et au travail au niveau international. Pourquoi, alors, les acteurs internationaux continuent-ils à soulever ces objectifs uniquement en relation avec les débats sur le développement et non en relation avec les droits de l'homme ?
De nombreux enseignements peuvent être tirés de la pandémie pour promouvoir une coopération internationale plus inclusive. En 2020, les Nations Unies ont pris conscience des avantages de la connectivité Internet : atteindre des voix plus diverses dans le monde entier. Des personnes qui, en raison d'innombrables obstacles, sont généralement incapables d'accéder physiquement aux instances des Nations Unies basées à Genève et à New York ont désormais la possibilité de contribuer de manière significative aux débats des Nations Unies via Internet. Dans le même temps, cependant, le basculement en ligne a également conduit à la reconnaissance officielle par les Nations Unies des graves conséquences pour les quatre milliards de personnes qui ne sont pas connectées à Internet. Ces personnes peuvent se heurter à divers obstacles dus à la fracture numérique et à l'insuffisance des ressources en matière de culture numérique, ou demeurer hors ligne en raison de l'imposition de coupures sélectives de services Internet.
À l'avenir, l'ONU devrait continuer à donner accès à ses débats par le biais de plateformes virtuelles accessibles. Tout comme l'ONU est conçue pour faciliter les interactions entre les États, la société civile gagnerait à avoir à sa disposition des espaces tout aussi sûrs et ouverts pour se connecter. Malheureusement, trop de communautés continuent d'être marginalisées et vulnérables. Les gens subissent souvent des représailles lorsqu'ils élèvent la voix et diffusent leurs histoires au-delà des frontières. Nous nous efforçons de créer ce genre de forum civil ouvert avec RightsCon - le principal sommet mondial sur les droits de l'homme à l'ère numérique - et d'autres événements similaires. En juillet 2020, RightsCon Online a réuni 7 681 participants de 157 pays du monde entier dans le cadre d'un sommet virtuel. Les organisateurs ont surmonté les obstacles liés au coût et à l'accès en lançant un Fonds pour la connectivité qui a fourni un soutien financier direct aux participants pour qu'ils puissent se connecter et participer en ligne. Ces réunions doivent être considérées comme faisant partie intégrante non seulement de la gouvernance de l'internet, mais aussi de la réalisation des trois piliers des Nations Unies - développement, droits de l'homme et paix et sécurité - à l'ère numérique. Lorsqu'elle est menée de manière inclusive et sécurisée, la participation en ligne offre la possibilité d'accroître le nombre et la diversité des participants sur la plateforme et supprime les obstacles liés aux déplacements et aux contraintes de ressources.
Globalement, la communauté internationale doit tirer les leçons de l'année 2020. Nous devons travailler solidairement pour promouvoir une coopération internationale ouverte, inclusive et significative pour un avenir prospère pour tous.
#UN75: ‘Moving forward, the UN should continue to provide access through accessible virtual platforms’
Following the 75th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations (UN), CIVICUS is having conversations with civil society activists, advocates and practitioners about the roles the UN has played so far, the successes it has achieved and the challenges ahead. CIVICUS speaks to Laura O’Brien, UN Advocacy Officer at Access Now, a civil society organisation that works to defend and extend the digital rights of users at risk around the world. Through direct technical support, comprehensive policy engagement, global advocacy, grassroots grant-making, legal interventions and convenings such as RightsCon, Access Now fights for human rights in the digital age.
To what extent is the UN’s founding Charter fit for the internet era?
For years civil society has encouraged the UN to modernise its operations to maintain its relevance in the digital age. In 2020, the UN met this harsh reality. The international organisation was forced to take the majority of its operations online, all the while trying meaningfully to reach the global community and advance international cooperation amid a global health crisis, systemic racism, climate change and rising authoritarianism. Commemorating the UN’s 75th anniversary by revisiting its founding Charter – a document centred on inherent human dignity – could not have been more crucial.
The UN Charter was drafted long before the internet even existed. Nonetheless, its global outlook remains consistent with the universal nature of the internet, which at its best enables borderless knowledge societies grounded in fundamental human rights, while also amplifying the need to reduce risks, not solely through sovereign means, but also through international cooperation. Guided by the principles of the UN Charter, the Declaration on the Commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of the United Nations rightfully commits to improving digital cooperation worldwide. Through this formal commitment, the UN finally paid heed to the transformative impact digital technologies have on our daily lives, paving a path – or, as better captured by the UN Secretary-General, a ‘roadmap’ – to steer us through the promises and perils of the digital age.
While world leaders recognised the need to listen to ‘the people’ – as captured in the preamble of the UN Charter – civil society continues to remind those leaders to listen more actively. With missions rooted in extending and defending the fundamental human rights of all individuals, civil society remains an essential force to advance stakeholder accountability and ensure transparency in often opaque multilateral processes.
What challenges have you faced in your interactions with the UN system, and how did you manage them?
I stepped into my public-facing role as UN Advocacy Officer at Access Now a few months before the COVID-19 lockdown here in New York. As such, I was a new voice navigating the challenges civil society was facing at that time: how do we ensure that civil society partners, in all their diversity, are meaningfully involved in UN discussions as the UN transitions its operations online? At that time, we feared that the exceptional measures used to fight the pandemic could be cited to restrict civil society access and opportunities for participation within UN fora. So we mobilised. Several civil society organisations, CIVICUS included, worked together to provide principles and recommendations to the UN to ensure civil society inclusion in UN discussions during the pandemic and beyond. This helped us work together to present a united position on the importance of multi-stakeholder engagement and to remind the UN to put adequate protections in place to ensure accessible online platforms and sufficient safeguards to protect the security of those participating virtually.
What things are currently not working and would need to change? In what ways is civil society working towards that kind of change?
2020 was a humbling year of critical self-reflection both on an individual and collective level. Now, more than ever, the world is realising that the state-centric model will not propel us into a hopeful future. Problems in one part of the world have consequences worldwide. The decisions we make now, particularly regarding digital technologies, will impact on future generations to come. As the world recovers from the events of 2020, we need world leaders to build off the lessons learned and continue to engage in critical reflection. Solving global challenges requires interdisciplinary action that respects and protects rights-holders who come from diverse and intersectional backgrounds. We simply cannot continue to operate or tackle these issues top-down. Indeed, threats like disinformation often originate at the top.
Civil society worldwide is mobilising to spearhead global campaigns to raise awareness of the issues we face today, and their impact on future generations, while advocating for accountability across national, regional and international forums. From condemning internet shutdowns – #KeepItOn – to questioning the implementation of digital identity programmes worldwide – #WhyID – we are working to report, monitor and measure, and provide rights-respecting policy recommendations based on our diverse interactions with those most at risk.
Looking more broadly at the global multilateral system today, what do you think are its main weaknesses, and what lessons can be drawn from the COVID-19 pandemic?
The global multilateral system needs to stop operating and addressing global issues in silos. This requires not only better networked multilateralism – across the UN system in both New York and Geneva, and including regional organisations and financial institutions, among others – but also that global issues be addressed from a more interdisciplinary perspective. For instance, research suggests that over 90 per cent of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are connected to international human rights and labour. Protecting human rights is therefore necessary to reach the SDGs. Why then do international actors continue to raise the SDGs only in tandem with discussions around development and not human rights?
Many lessons can be drawn from the pandemic to advance more inclusive international cooperation. In 2020 the UN was made acutely aware of the benefits of internet connectivity, reaching more diverse voices worldwide. People normally unable physically to access UN platforms based in Geneva and New York – due to a myriad of barriers – were now able to contribute meaningfully to UN discussions online. Yet simultaneously, online operations also made the UN formally acknowledge the severe impact for the approximately 4 billion people who continue to remain disconnected from the internet. Those individuals may suffer network discrimination, experience various barriers due to digital divides and inadequate digital literacy resources, or remain disconnected through targeted internet shutdowns.
Moving forward, the UN should continue to provide access to UN discussions through accessible virtual platforms. Just as the UN is built to facilitate state-to-state interactions, the world would benefit from similarly secure and open venues for civil society to connect. Unfortunately, too many communities remain marginalised and vulnerable. People often face reprisals for raising their voices and telling their stories across borders. We strive to create this open civil forum at RightsCon – the world’s leading summit on human rights in the digital age – and similar events. In July 2020, RightsCon Online brought together 7,681 participants from 157 countries across the world in a virtual summit. The organisers overcame affordability and access barriers by launching a Connectivity Fund to provide direct financial support for participants to connect and engage online. These convenings should be considered integral to internet governance, but also to achieving the three pillars of the UN – development, human rights and peace and security – in the digital age. When carried out inclusively and securely, online participation presents an opportunity to widen the number and diversity of those engaging with the platform and removes barriers and resource constraints linked to travel.
Overall, the international community must lean into the lessons of 2020. We must work in solidarity to advance open, inclusive and meaningful international cooperation in order to achieve a prosperous future for all.
#UN75: “En lo sucesivo, la ONU debe seguir proporcionando acceso a través de plataformas virtuales”
En conmemoración del 75º aniversario de la fundación de las Naciones Unidas (ONU), CIVICUS está teniendo conversaciones con activistas, personas defensoras y profesionales de la sociedad civil acerca de los roles que la ONU ha desempeñado hasta ahora, los éxitos que ha conseguido y los desafíos que enfrenta de cara al futuro. CIVICUS conversa con Laura O’Brien, Oficial de Incidencia en la ONU de Access Now, una organización de la sociedad civil que se ha propuesto la misión de defender y extender los derechos digitales de los usuarios en riesgo en todo el mundo. Access Now lucha por los derechos humanos en la era digital mediante una combinación de apoyo técnico directo, labor política integral, incidencia global, apoyo financiero a nivel de base, intervenciones legales y encuentros tales como RightsCon.
¿En qué medida la Carta fundacional de la ONU resulta adecuada en la era de internet?
Durante años la sociedad civil ha animado a la ONU a modernizar sus operaciones para mantener su relevancia en la era digital. En 2020, la ONU se encontró con una dura realidad. La organización internacional se vio obligada a llevar a cabo la mayor parte de su trabajo en línea, al tiempo que intentaba llegar de forma significativa a la comunidad mundial y avanzar en la cooperación internacional en medio de una crisis sanitaria global, el racismo sistémico, el cambio climático y el autoritarismo creciente. Conmemorar el 75º aniversario de la ONU mediante un retorno a su Carta fundacional - un documento centrado en la dignidad inherente al ser humano - no podría ser más crucial.
La Carta de las Naciones Unidas fue redactada mucho antes de que existiera internet. No obstante, su visión global sigue siendo consistente con el carácter universal de internet, que en el mejor de los casos permite crear sociedades del conocimiento sin fronteras basadas en los derechos humanos fundamentales, al tiempo que amplifica la necesidad de reducir los riesgos, no solo por medios soberanos, sino también mediante la cooperación internacional. Guiada por los principios de la Carta de las Naciones Unidas, la Declaración sobre la conmemoración del 75º aniversario de las Naciones Unidas se compromete acertadamente a mejorar la cooperación digital en todo el mundo. A través de este compromiso formal, las Naciones Unidas finalmente prestaron atención al impacto transformador que las tecnologías digitales tienen sobre nuestra vida cotidiana, allanando el camino – o mejor, como lo expresó el Secretario General de las Naciones Unidas, estableciendo una “hoja de ruta” - para guiarnos a través de las promesas y peligros de la era digital.
Si bien los líderes mundiales reconocieron la necesidad de escuchar a “los pueblos”, tal como se recoge en el preámbulo de la Carta de las Naciones Unidas, la sociedad civil continúa recordándoles a esos mismos líderes que deben escuchar más activamente. Dada su misión de ampliar y defender los derechos humanos fundamentales de todos los individuos, la sociedad civil sigue siendo una fuerza clave para avanzar en la rendición de cuentas de todas las partes involucradas y garantizar la transparencia de procesos multilaterales que a menudo son opacos.
¿Qué desafíos ha enfrentado en sus interacciones con el sistema de las Naciones Unidas y cómo los ha manejado?
Comencé a trabajar en mi rol de representación externa, en calidad de Oficial de Incidencia en la ONU de Access Now, pocos meses antes del confinamiento por el COVID-19 aquí en Nueva York. En ese sentido, debí navegar en mi nuevo rol los retos que enfrentaba la sociedad civil en ese momento: ¿cómo asegurarnos de que los actores de la sociedad civil, en toda su diversidad, participen de forma significativa en los debates de las Naciones Unidas a medida que la ONU desplaza sus operaciones al ámbito virtual? En ese momento temíamos que las medidas de excepción utilizadas para luchar contra la pandemia pudieran ser utilizadas para restringir el acceso de la sociedad civil y sus oportunidades de participación en los foros de las Naciones Unidas. De modo que nos movilizamos. Varias organizaciones de la sociedad civil, entre ellas CIVICUS, trabajaron juntas para establecer principios y recomendaciones para la ONU de modo de asegurar la inclusión de la sociedad civil en los debates de la organización durante la pandemia y en lo sucesivo. Esto nos ayudó a trabajar juntas para presentar una posición unificada en relación con la importancia de la participación de las partes interesadas y para recordar a las Naciones Unidas que debía establecer protecciones adecuadas para garantizar plataformas en línea accesibles y suficientes salvaguardas para proteger la seguridad de quienes participan en forma virtual.
¿Qué es lo que actualmente no funciona y debería cambiar? ¿De qué manera está trabajando la sociedad civil para lograr ese cambio?
El año 2020 fue un año de humilde autorreflexión crítica a nivel tanto individual como colectivo. Ahora, más que nunca, el mundo se está dando cuenta de que el modelo estadocéntrico no nos conducirá a un futuro esperanzador. Los problemas que enfrenta una parte del mundo tienen consecuencias para todo el mundo. Las decisiones que tomemos ahora, en particular en lo que respecta a las tecnologías digitales, repercutirán sobre las generaciones futuras. A medida que el mundo se recupere de los acontecimientos de 2020, necesitamos que los líderes mundiales aprovechen las lecciones aprendidas y continúen participando en esta reflexión crítica. La solución de los problemas globales requiere de una acción interdisciplinaria que respete y proteja a personas portadoras de derechos procedentes de entornos diversos e intersectoriales. Sencillamente, no podemos seguir operando ni abordando estas cuestiones desde arriba hacia abajo. De hecho, amenazas tales como la desinformación suelen originarse en la cúspide.
En todo el mundo la sociedad civil se está movilizando al frente de campañas globales que buscan sensibilizarnos acerca de los problemas que enfrentamos actualmente y su repercusión sobre las generaciones futuras, mientras que abogan por la rendición de cuentas en foros nacionales, regionales e internacionales. Desde la condena de los cortes de internet de #KeepItOn hasta el cuestionamiento de la implementación de programas de identidad digital en todo el mundo de #WhyID, estamos trabajando para informar, supervisar, medir y proporcionar recomendaciones de políticas que respeten los derechos, sobre la base de nuestras diversas interacciones con las personas que están en mayor riesgo.
¿Cuáles son, en su opinión, las principales debilidades del actual sistema multilateral global, y qué lecciones pueden extraerse de la pandemia de COVID-19?
El sistema multilateral global debe dejar de funcionar y de abordar los problemas mundiales en forma inconexa. Esto requiere no solamente un multilateralismo mejor conectado en red - en todo el sistema de las Naciones Unidas, tanto en Nueva York como en Ginebra, e incluyendo a las organizaciones regionales y las instituciones financieras, entre otras organizaciones - sino también un abordaje de los problemas mundiales desde una perspectiva más interdisciplinaria. Por ejemplo, las investigaciones disponibles sugieren que más del 90% de los Objetivos de Desarrollo Sostenible (SDG) se vinculan con los derechos humanos internacionales y el trabajo. Por lo tanto, es necesario proteger los derechos humanos para alcanzar los SDG. ¿Por qué, entonces, los actores internacionales siguen planteando los SDG únicamente en relación con los debates sobre el desarrollo y no en relación con los derechos humanos?
Se pueden extraer de la pandemia muchas lecciones para promover una cooperación internacional más inclusiva. En 2020, las Naciones Unidas tomaron conciencia de los beneficios de la conectividad a internet: llegar a más voces diversas en todo el mundo. Gente que debido a un sinfín de barreras normalmente no puede acceder físicamente a las plataformas de las Naciones Unidas con sede en Ginebra y Nueva York, ahora pudo contribuir significativamente a los debates de las Naciones Unidas vía internet. Sin embargo, al mismo tiempo el funcionamiento en línea también hizo que las Naciones Unidas reconocieran oficialmente el grave impacto que representan los aproximadamente 4.000 millones de personas que siguen desconectadas de internet. Esas personas pueden sufrir discriminación en la red, experimentar diversas barreras debido a las brechas digitales y a la insuficiencia de recursos de alfabetización digital, o permanecer desconectadas a cause de la imposición de cortes selectivos del servicio de internet.
En lo sucesivo, la ONU debe seguir proporcionando acceso a sus debates a través de plataformas virtuales accesibles. Así como la ONU están construida para facilitar las interacciones entre los Estados, el mundo se beneficiaría si hubiera espacios igualmente seguros y abiertos para que la sociedad civil se conecte. Lamentablemente, demasiadas comunidades continúan siendo marginalizadas y vulnerables. La gente a menudo sufre represalias cuando alza la voz y difunde sus historias a través de las fronteras. Nosotros nos esforzamos por crear ese tipo de foro civil abierto con la RightsCon - la principal cumbre mundial sobre derechos humanos en la era digital - y otros eventos similares. En julio de 2020, RightsCon Online reunió a 7.681 participantes de 157 países de todo el mundo en una cumbre virtual. Los organizadores superaron barreras de costos y acceso mediante la puesta en marcha de un Fondo de Conectividad que proporcionó apoyo financiero directo para que los participantes pudieran conectarse y participar en línea. Estas reuniones deben considerarse una parte integral no solo de la gobernanza de internet sino también de la concreción de los tres pilares de las Naciones Unidas - desarrollo, derechos humanos y paz y seguridad - en la era digital. Cuando se lleva a cabo de manera inclusiva y segura, la participación en línea ofrece la oportunidad de ampliar el número y la diversidad de participantes en la plataforma y elimina las barreras y limitaciones de recursos relacionadas con los viajes.
En términos generales, la comunidad internacional debe aprender las lecciones de 2020. Debemos trabajar de manera solidaria para promover una cooperación internacional abierta, inclusiva y significativa a fin de lograr un futuro próspero para todos y todas.
BANGLADESH: ‘Out of fear, people are being silent’
CIVICUS speaks with Aklima Ferdows, who works with the Centre for Social Activism in Bangladesh, about civil society’s challenges and support needs in the face of a sustained government crackdown.
Can you tell us about your background and work?
I have a civil society background, working with civil society organisations (CSOs) for almost 10 years, mostly on advocacy and capacity development. I also have law background and voluntarily work with the Centre for Social Activism (CSA), whose work focuses mostly on the freedom of expression and protection of human rights defenders. CSA documents human rights violations and advocates for the rights of marginalised communities on the ground.
What are the current challenges around the freedom of expression in Bangladesh?
Bangladesh had a long struggle for freedom and finally got independence from Pakistan in 1971 after a nine-months’-long war. But unfortunately, although we achieved our independence, our freedom is not assured even after so many years of independence. For civil society workers, human rights defenders, journalists and citizens in general, there is an environment of fear and self-censorship in the country now. Out of fear, people are being silent or are speaking on relatively ‘softer issues’ such as the rights of poor people, women and children. Because of fear of reprisal, people are refraining from doing things they used to do or not protesting or speaking openly. People need to think several times before they speak and act.
Social media and online content monitoring are becoming strict, and you can see the changes in social media use. People used to share various types of news, updates and their thoughts. Now they mostly use social media for sharing their personal stuff or family related activity. People also complain about their calls being recorded. There were efforts to make people register to use social media with their national identity document. Some websites and online portals have been banned, contents are blocked and there are occasional internet shutdowns and slowdowns, including during elections. We have had several killings of online activists in recent years. Other online activists have left the country or gone silent. People’s ability to express themselves freely and creatively is limited and people are more fearful about sharing their views with other people.
As an example of how the freedom of expression is restricted, in August 2019 a local councillor filed a case in Khagrachari district of the Chittagong Hill Tracts area against one of the reporters of the Daily Star, a major daily newspaper, simply because the reporter had used the word ‘Indigenous’ in a report. The plaintiff alleged that the journalist had intentionally made a provocation to destroy peace in the hills in the report, titled, ‘Three Indigenous villages face land grabbing’. The police were ordered to investigate. Although the court dismissed the case, it showed how sensitive the authorities can be. The people living in the country's plains and hills have long been demanding constitutional recognition as Adibashi (‘Indigenous’ in English). The Press Information Department issued a release (reference no. 2,704) in March 2015 urging the media, experts, university teachers and civil society members to avoid that word in discussions and talk shows on the International Day of the World's Indigenous People. There is no legal barrier to using the word ‘Adibashi’ anywhere in the country, but it seems that we are trying to push a group of people in their own country into a status of denial.
Eighty-three lawsuits were filed against the Daily Star’s editor, Mahfuz Anam, by plaintiffs across the country, in 56 districts, who were not personally aggrieved. The matter began on 3 February 2016 when the editor of a TV talk show made an introspective comment about a lapse in his editorial judgment in publishing reports, based on information given by the Taskforce Interrogation Cell during the rule of the 2007-2008 caretaker government, without being able to verify those independently. He was accused of defamation and sedition. The number of cases show how many people can be mobilised against one. Allegations and legal actions can be brought against anyone on the grounds that they are trying to instigate communal violence, hurt religious sentiment or cause law and order violations.
What are the other key restrictions against civil society freedoms, and what are the impacts on civil society?
People need to get permission from the local authorities to hold an assembly or gathering. This has become very strict now. In some cases, people don’t get permission and, in some instances, permission have been withdrawn at the last moment.
Another source of fear is the disproportionate use of force by law enforcement agencies. It is being used against opposition parties and their related organisations, but also against civil society, garment workers, student groups and cultural activists. The police force is often aggressive and there is impunity. So, people are reluctant about organising collectively as they did before. There are clear, direct threats as well as intimidation and there are also smears. For example, anti-corruption campaigners have been accused of avoiding paying taxes. And then there are repressive laws, which affect the freedom of expression and other freedoms of the people.
Cases are being brought to harass people under the Digital Security Act, passed in October 2018. The law brought in jail sentences to a maximum of three years or fines of 300,000 taka (approx. US$3,750), or both, for publishing or assisting in the publication of information that is offensive or is known to be false with the intention of tarnishing the image of the state, or spreading confusion, or sending or publishing information intended to annoy or humiliate someone. The punishments can be almost doubled for a second offence. Now anyone can claim that someone is spreading rumours or is humiliating someone else, even if they are just sharing news online without any intention of spreading confusion or humiliating someone.
The law also brought in a sentence of seven years in jail for hurting religious sentiment and values, and there are sentences of up to 14 years in jail or 2,500,000 taka (approx. US$29,450) in fines, or both, for charges of computer spying or digital spying for collecting, preserving, or sending any secret documents through a computer, digital device, computer network, digital network, or any electronic form. Journalists fear that the provisions of this Act will work against conducting investigative journalistic work and compromise the quality and freedom of journalism in Bangladesh. Under an earlier law, the ICT Act of 2016, several cases were brought against activists, journalists and activists. Now the police don’t even need a warrant to take someone in for questioning; it can be done based on mere suspicion.
Another key obstacle for civil society is the restriction of funding. This has been going on for some time. The Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act controls foreign funding for CSOs. There is also a funding shortage from foreign donors and development partners for rights advocacy programmes following the passing of the NGO Law and development partners have shifted their priorities to other regions. One of the provisions of the NGO law allows the NGO Affairs Bureau to suspend the registration of a CSO or to close it down if it makes any ‘derogatory’ remarks about the constitution or constitutional bodies.
Any CSO or person receiving funding from a foreign entity must have permission. To get permission you need to give a copy of the proposal to the NGO Affairs Bureau, which sits in the prime minister’s office. Permission is sometimes withheld. Critics of civil society have occasionally raised concerns about some CSOs, alleging they could have links to terror financing, or that they are doing different work in the name of development. There is a fear that anything that doesn’t go well with the authorities could be blocked and the CSO denied funding.
Then there is the new draft Volunteer Social Welfare Organizations (Registration and Control) Act of 2019. According to media reports, the draft says that all CSOs will have to register with the Ministry of Social Welfare, and any receiving foreign funding will also have to register with the NGO Affairs Bureau. CSOs cannot set up and operate unless they do so. Section 10 states that all CSOs will be able to work in only one district when they first register. After registration, CSOs can expand their scope of work, but only to five districts at a time. We have 64 districts, so this is the most restrictive.
Section 14 requires CSOs to have an account with a state-owned bank and conduct all financial transactions via state-owned banks. It requires CSOs to submit their annual workplans, audit reports and activity reports. It also requires CSOS to submit tri-monthly bank statements to the local social welfare office and registration authorities. Section 11, in sub-sections 1 and 2, states that registrations must be renewed every five years, and failure to reregister or the refusal of registration will result in an organisation being dissolved.
Incredibly, section 16 says that the government can expel the heads of CSOs and replace them with a government-appointed five-person committee and section 17 says that CSOs can be dissolved if they are believed to not be working in the best interests of the public or to have broken the law.
According to the NGO Affairs Bureau, between March and June 2019, the government cancelled the registration of 197 CSOs.
Civil society members are in a very tight situation now. They have become very cautious and are playing safe out of fear. If they don’t compromise, they might lose the funding they have and face threats. We are not seeing CSOs making many statements on human rights issues. Many CSOs are struggling for funding. There are some social movements starting up, working on issues such as the protection of natural resources and against gender-based violence, but they are being cautious about talking about gross human rights violations.
What impacts did the December 2018 general election have on civil society?
In advance, people felt a participatory election might not be held. I went out one day just to see how many posters in the vicinity were from the opposition. In my neighbourhood, I would say 99 per cent of the posters were of the ruling party candidate. Opposition party candidates and activists were not fully free to campaign, and the election was allegedly manipulated.
Fears increased during the election, in which the ruling party won a landslide victory, because it confirmed the ruling party’s power. The ruling party has everything and after the election, we hardly hear the strong voice of opposition.
What role is being played by student groups affiliated with ruling party?
One of the main sources of attack are by the non-state actors linked to the ruling party, particularly its student and youth wing. Academic institutions such as universities are controlled by ruling party student activists. At protests, ruling party student groups work alongside law enforcement officers to attack people and harass them. This sometimes includes sexual harassment of women protesters.
Given these challenges, what are the main support needs of Bangladeshi civil society?
Bangladeshi civil society voices should be raised with unity and there is a need to raise concern about Bangladesh at the international level more and more. At the international level, the rights of the Rohingya refugees from Myanmar have received huge attention, which is necessary, but this should not be used to overshadow other human rights violations in the country.
We also need security and protection initiatives for CSO members. Bangladeshi CSOs should be developing these but they do not have funding for this, and requests for security and protection in funding proposals do not get much attention. There is also a need to explore flexible funding for CSOs.
There is a need for more solidarity actions with local civil society. Those few organisations that are still trying to defend human rights, and local and grassroots groups, urgently need solidarity.
Civic space in Bangladesh is rated as ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
CONSPIRACY THEORIES: ‘When social trust has been eroded, people don’t know what to believe’
As part of our 2019thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about their experience of facing backlash by anti-rights groups and how they are responding. CIVICUS speaks about the role that conspiracy theories are playing with Chip Berlet,an investigative journalist and activist who specialises in the study of extreme right-wing movements in the USA.
You have done a lot of work around social and political speech that demonises specific groups in society. You call this the rhetoric of scripted violence. What is scripted violence, and how is it operating in the USA?
Scripted violence is part of a dynamic process in a society under lots and lots of stress. It starts with stories circulating in a nation that warn of subversion and conspiracies. These stories are called ‘narratives of insecurity’ by Professor Abdelwahab El-Affendi, and he warns that these stories can lead to mass violence and other forms of terrorism. The process continues with ‘scripted violence’, which is when a high-status political or religious leader publicly identifies and demonises a specific group of people alleged to be conspiring to ruin the ideal nation. The result is called ‘stochastic terrorism’. That’s an awkward term, but it just means that the specific terrorist act is unpredictable. Yet the violence has been generated by this three-step process that starts with conspiracy theories.
Conspiracy theories are nothing new, but now they seem to be more widespread than ever. What role has the internet played in spreading them?
Conspiracy theories have always been around. Conspiracy theories are improbable explanations alleging a vast conspiracy by evil powerful people and their cronies. Stories circulate that make allegations posing as facts. During moments of societal stress and political change it is often harder for folks to separate what is reality-based, what is political propaganda and what is pure fantasy.
The internet has been fertile ground for planting misinformation and conspiracy theories because it’s a new medium, and all new forms of mass media go through a phase in which they are easily misinterpreted, and there are as yet not enough safeguards in place, so it’s hard for folks to tell reliable and unreliable content apart. We live in a time in which too many people think stories are real if they are on the internet. When you go to a library, there is the fiction section, and then there’s the rest of the library, where you can find history, science and other material based on facts. But content has not yet been separated that way in the internet age.
We are going through an adjustment period. We are still learning how to use the medium. In the past, misunderstandings arose when people were using a new medium that they didn’t truly understand. In the USA, the best example of this happened in 1938, when a fictional story about a Martian invasion, The War of the Worlds, was broadcast during a radio programme, and people didn’t realise it was not real news, so some people called the police and went running out into the streets in a panic. Similarly, it is really difficult for the average person to differentiate between what’s a reliable piece of information and what’s just a conspiracy theory recirculated by someone with no training or understanding of the subject they post on. Much worse is when sinister propaganda is spread for political gain. There currently is no mechanism to separate what’s true and what’s fake on the internet, although I hope someday there will be.
Conspiracy theories abound on both right and left, but these days largely seem to be fuelling far-right movements. Do you see any affinity between conspiracy theories and the extreme right?
I don’t think it has as much to do with the left or right side of the political spectrum, but rather with fear and instability in a specific society at a specific moment. What would cause relatively normal and average people, wherever they are on the political spectrum, to act out against a claimed enemy? It’s because they believe their society is under attack, and then act accordingly.
In any healthy society there always are conspiracy theories circulating, but when you hear them from somebody pushing a shopping cart down the street with all their belongings and shouting about an imminent Martian invasion, almost nobody pays any attention. These conspiracy theories are dismissed because they are being circulated by marginal or low-status folks. Most rational people simply reject them.
In an unhealthy and unstable society, in contrast, people don’t know what to believe, and may latch onto normally farfetched theories to explain why they feel so powerless. When social trust has been eroded and there is so much anger, increasingly less legitimacy is assigned to people who have actual knowledge. Instead, it is transferred to those who will name the evildoers. And some people lack the kind of restraints that most of us luckily have and prevent us from attacking others who are not like us and might seem threatening or dangerous.
Let’s say I’m an average middle-aged, middle-class white male in the USA, and I’m stressed and anxious because I fear that my status in society is being diminished. And then someone comes and tells me it’s okay to feel that way because there are evil forces at play that are causing this and tells me who is to blame for what is happening to me. According to this narrative, I would be still seated near the top of the social ladder if it weren’t for those people.
Of course, people who have privilege see it as normal. We are not aware of it. So, when the status quo that has folks like them near the top changes – because previously marginalised groups successfully claim rights for themselves – the privileged don’t see this as the loss of unfair privileges, but as undermining the natural order, the traditional community or the nation itself. They talk about themselves as real ‘producers’ in the society being dragged down by lazy, sinful, or subversive ‘parasites’.
In other words, conspiracy theories are a reflection of a society that is under stress, and they cause people who would normally be ignored suddenly to have an audience to speak to because they appear to have the answer that everybody else is lacking. People are disoriented: they do not feel connected to a common narrative of a healthy nation. Folks feel that their society, ‘our’ society, is under attack by ‘the others’, whoever they might be. So, if someone comes and tells them the name of the group of ‘others’ who are destroying our idealised community or nation, then common sense will tell us to stop them. Perhaps we need to eliminate them before they attack us – and that’s the narrative storyline of every genocide in history.
Isn’t it strange that so many ‘others’ in today’s conspiracy theories do not really have the power that they are attributed: they are usually already vulnerable groups whose rights are being attacked?
There is an interesting dynamic storyline in many conspiracy theories about the sinister people below working with certain traitorous powerful people above. Conspiracy theories, especially in the middle class, tend to identify a group of evil people down below on the socio-economic spectrum when defining who belongs and who doesn’t belong to the nation. So, a lot of the problems are blamed on these people down below in the ‘lower’ class who are portrayed as lazy and ‘picking the pockets’ of the middle class by draining tax dollars. Barbara Ehrenreich, for example, wrote a book about this called Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class.
But the middle-class conspiracy theorists generally also blame a sector of the ruling elites who are portrayed as traitors. So if you look, let’s say, at the US political scene today, the narrative during the Trump administration blames some people who are down below and who are portrayed as lazy, sinful, or subversive. These folks are breaking the rules or taking advantage. But some people listed as conspirators are high-status: such as those rich, Democratic Party bureaucrats who are depicted as the ones pulling the strings, as in a puppet show. Sometimes those spreading the conspiracy theories use a graphic of a huge mechanical vice squeezing the middle class from above and below.
Is there anything that progressive civil society could do to counter these regressive trends?
There sure is. Democratic civil society has historically developed mechanisms to face these challenges. Historically, religious leaders and journalists have played a very important role in making these kinds of claims become judged unacceptable. But the influence of both of these actors has now collapsed. Religious figures have been losing their status everywhere except in religious authoritarian countries. The internet is undermining the influence of major news organisations, and the cost of producing good journalism has become very high relative to the cost of posting a rumour on the internet. So, democracies need to develop new safeguards and mechanisms to counter these trends.
In the age of the internet, these mechanisms have not yet been developed. But although we are going through a very unstable and stressful period, the situation is not hopeless. The history of democracy is a sort of cycle in which at some point things stabilise only to fall apart again eventually until resistance builds up and safeguards are put back in place.
Leaders with some status and legitimacy within democratic civil society need to admit that we are in a really bad place and we’ve got to fix it together, so that the answer comes not from the demagogic and authoritarian political space, but from the democratic one – the demos – and that’s all of us. People need to start talking to their neighbours about the things that are not going well and about how to fix them, because these problems can only be solved collectively. When doing activist training sessions, I tell people to go sit at a bus stop and talk to the first person who sits down next to them. If you can get up the courage to do that, then you certainly can talk to your neighbours and co-workers. Regular people need to start doing just that.
In the USA, there is a kind of smug, liberal treatment of people who feel that they are being pushed down the ladder. These folks are not ‘deplorables’; they are basically scared people. These are people who had a union job and worked in a machine shop or at building automobiles. They worked for 30 years and now have nothing: their whole world has been shot down while others have become billionaires. They cannot be dismissed as ‘deplorables’. That word slip may have actually cost Democrat presidential candidate Hillary Clinton the election. We need to engage these people who are so angry and disoriented in face-to-face conversations. We need to care about them.
How can these conversations take place when social media, increasingly the means of communication of choice, often operates as an echo chamber that solidifies beliefs and fuels polarisation?
I know, I’m so old-fashioned. My solution is actually quite low-tech. You know, my wife and I have been political activists for many years, and as students in the 1960s we were involved in the anti-racist civil rights movement. At one point black organisers said: if white people really want to challenge racism against black people they should move into white communities where there is racism and try to turn it around. So in 1977, my wife and I picked up our household and moved to Chicago, Illinois. We lived in an overwhelmingly white Southwest side neighbourhood where there was white racism, but also Nazis, literally guys in Nazi uniforms, kicking black people out of the neighbourhood. A house on our street was firebombed.
Eventually we became part of a community group, and for the first three years we were out-organised by neo-Nazis. Few things could be more mortifying for a leftist activist in 1970s USA. But in the Southwest side of Chicago there was also a multi-racial group, which we joined. One day some of us who were strategists were invited over to a house for a meeting with a group of black ministers. They sat us down and gave us coffee and tea, cakes and cookies, and then one of them asked, “Do you know why black parents take turns sleeping in your neighbourhood?” We looked at each other; we had no idea. They said, “That’s because when the firebomb explodes one of the adults has to be awake to get the kids out of the house.” It had never occurred to us that black parents had to take turns to stay up all night in their own homes so they could just stay alive. Then another of the ministers said, “Do you think all those white Catholic women want babies to get killed by firebombs?” We said no, and he replied, “Well, there’s your strategy.”
Our strategy was to start talking to people: first to Catholic women who were horrified to learn what was going on, then getting them to talk to their neighbours and members of their congregations. Eventually some white Catholic priests started talking about what was happening. Five years later, the neighbourhood had become safe for black people to live in.
It seems we still have a lot to learn from the civil rights movement and their organising tactics. Nowadays it’s so tempting to organise and mobilise online, because it’s so fast, but it’s also so much more difficult to create sustained commitment, isn’t it?
Yes. I think face-to-face organising is still how you change neighbourhoods, and how neighbourhoods change societies. But of course, you cannot ask young people who are using technology to organise and protest to let go of the internet. You can’t tell people to ignore the technologies that exist. We do have a technology that enables instantaneity. I post constantly on the internet, I have a Facebook page and so on. I think it’s great to use the internet to organise people to confront racism online as well as to organise counter-demonstrations when white supremacists gather. But that’s not enough, in the same way as in the 1960s it wasn’t enough for writers to just write about the evils of racism. Those kinds of articles were published all along, but nothing really changed until people started organising – that is, talking to their neighbours to challenge the status quo.
Take civil rights legend Rosa Parks, who sat down in the white section of a bus in Alabama. There is the misconception that her act was spontaneous, but it was nothing like that: it was a tactic created by a training centre that had been set up in the south by religious leaders and trade unions. Behind one black woman who refused to give up her seat in the front rows of a bus were 10 years of training and organising at the Highland Center.
In a way, that’s also what the young climate activists and the members of the new democracy movements are doing. Look at Hong Kong: it is people rising up and saying ‘enough,’ often organising online while also organising and mobilising locally, staying in their neighbourhood, talking to their neighbours, building networks. And internationally we see young people demanding a right to stay alive – just stay alive.
You need organisation, you need training in strategies and tactics, you need support groups, and you need to talk to your neighbours. That’s how it works; there is no magic formula.
Civic space in the USA is rated as ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
DROITS DES MIGRANTS : " Les discours haineux sont motivés par des relations de pouvoir inégales et des stéréotypes négatifs "
Dans le cadre de notre rapport thématique de 2019, nous interrogeons des militants, des dirigeants et des experts de la société civile sur la manière dont ils sont confrontés aux réactions hostiles de la part des groupes anti-droits. CIVICUS parle de la montée des discours haineux en Europe et des stratégies de la société civile pour y faire face avec Martin Pairet, responsable des Réseaux chez European Alternatives, une organisation transnationale de la société civile et un mouvement citoyen qui promeut la démocratie, l'égalité et la culture au-delà de l'Etat-nation.
European Alternatives se concentre sur la promotion de la démocratie au-delà des frontières. Dans quelle mesure êtes-vous préoccupé par la montée du nationalisme autoritaire en Europe ?
European Alternatives s'efforce de soutenir la démocratie à travers le continent, et notre analyse actuelle est que la démocratie n'est pas assez mature et que les droits fondamentaux nécessaires au fonctionnement de la démocratie ne sont pas respectés en Europe. Le processus de dégradation des pratiques et des institutions démocratiques s'est déroulé sur un certain nombre d'années, au moins une décennie, mais s'est particulièrement accéléré avec la crise de l'hospitalité que nous connaissons actuellement face à la migration. Cette crise de l'hospitalité est avant tout une crise des valeurs européennes. Nous défendons le principe de solidarité et la création de nouvelles formes de communauté transnationale, et nous voyons exactement le contraire - la normalisation des mouvements et partis anti-droits dont le discours est amplifié par les médias, et les réseaux sociaux en particulier. C'est ce qui se passe dans tous les pays d'Europe, et en particulier dans les pays où les hommes politiques ont beaucoup à gagner avec une politique anti-migrants, comme en France, en Allemagne et en Italie.
Considérez-vous cette situation comme le résultat d'un déficit démocratique ou d'un non-respect des droits humains ?
Je pense que c'est un peu des deux. Il existe en fait un profond déficit démocratique et, ces dernières années, on s'interroge de plus en plus sur la manière dont les décisions sont prises à tous les niveaux - local, national, européen et mondial. Les gens réclament une plus grande représentation et une participation significative dans les processus décisionnels, par le biais de mécanismes tels que les référendums organisés à l'initiative des citoyens. Il y a beaucoup d'autres exemples que nous avons vus ces dernières années en Europe, de personnes s'organisant pour combler les lacunes des institutions représentatives et s'impliquant dans la prise de décision, par exemple à travers des Assemblées de citoyens. Beaucoup de gens ont l'impression que leur voix n'est pas entendue et se sentent donc impuissants - ils ont le sentiment que quoi qu'ils fassent, ils ne pourront pas changer les choses et ne reprendront pas le contrôle de la politique, ce qui signifie qu'ils n'auront pas leur mot à dire sur les décisions qui affectent leur vie et qu'ils ne pourront contrôler leur avenir.
En ce sens, la démocratie est assez faible, et les gens ont de moins en moins d'espoir que quelqu'un occupant un poste de décision puisse vraiment comprendre leurs problèmes et leurs craintes, auxquels le système ne prête pas attention et n'est pas en mesure de répondre. C'est à ce moment que le nationalisme, l'extrémisme et la haine commencent à augmenter et que les discours haineux deviennent attrayants. Et dans ce contexte, il devient très difficile d'entendre le discours sur les droits humains, parce que ce n'est pas nécessairement quelque chose à quoi les gens se réfèrent ou auquel ils se connectent toujours, car il est assez abstrait. Les organisations européennes de défense des droits humains ont travaillé dur pour faire face à la crise humanitaire, mais elles ont parfois sous-estimé le pouvoir des émotions, et de la peur en particulier, et ne se sont donc pas concentrées sur la manière de répondre à ces craintes, ce qui a été problématique.
Dans votre analyse de la crise actuelle de l'hospitalité, vous vous concentrez sur les discours haineux. Comment définiriez-vous cela ?
Le discours haineux est un phénomène complexe qui ne peut pas vraiment entrer dans une définition simple. En fait, il n'existe pas de définition internationalement acceptée du discours haineux, et chaque État membre de l'Union européenne (UE) a sa propre définition juridique. La définition utilisée par le Conseil de l'Europe inclut toutes les formes d'expression qui propagent ou amplifient la xénophobie et diverses formes de haine et d'intolérance. Le discours haineux va à l'encontre des droits humains, c'est donc une forme de discours anti-droits. C'est aussi un phénomène social qui a été amplifié par les réseaux sociaux dans le contexte de relations de pouvoir de plus en plus sociales également liées à la crise économique et financière et au fait que le pouvoir financier et économique est concentré dans quelques mains. Mais les stéréotypes jouent aussi un rôle important. Je dirais que les discours haineux sont motivés à la fois par des relations de pouvoir inégales et par des stéréotypes négatifs.
Ces dernières années, la normalisation des discours haineux a contribué à la radicalisation des personnes et des groupes contre ceux considérés comme " l'autre " : les attaques contre les groupes marginalisés, notamment les femmes, les LGBTQI, les Roms, les migrants, les réfugiés et les communautés religieuses minoritaires, se sont répandues sur les réseaux sociaux et le discours de haine se transforme progressivement en violence effective. C'est pourquoi nous avons constaté une augmentation des crimes haineux.
L'un des problèmes, et la raison pour laquelle il est important d'avoir une définition claire du discours haineux, est que, bien qu’il soit une forme de discours contre les droits, une tentative de le réglementer et de le supprimer peut mener à la violation d'autres droits, et particulièrement d'un droit fondamental, le droit à la liberté d'expression.
Bien que les droits des femmes, des LGBTQI, des personnes de couleur et des peuples autochtones doivent être respectés, leur droit d'être traités équitablement et avec respect peut parfois entrer en conflit avec la liberté d'expression. Il est donc important de savoir où tracer la ligne et comment identifier ce qui relève de la liberté d'expression et ce qui constitue un discours de haine ; et ce qui peut être fait à ce sujet. Mais il s'agit d'un processus très dynamique et les définitions changent continuellement, en partie à cause de l'essor des nouvelles technologies. Au fur et à mesure que de nouvelles formes de communication voient le jour, nous devons nous demander si tel ou tel discours est un discours haineux. Où est la limite ? Certains commentaires ou communications visuelles que l'on retrouve sur les plateformes médiatiques constituent-ils un discours haineux ? La distinction entre ce qui est ironique et ce qui est sérieux peut être difficile à saisir en ligne.
Où, en Europe, la situation est-elle la plus préoccupante ?
Le problème prend des formes différentes selon les endroits. Un exemple concret de cette situation préoccupante est celui de l'Italie, où il y a eu une augmentation significative des crimes haineux entre 2017 et 2018. En raison de l'utilisation de différentes méthodes de collecte de données, il est difficile de savoir dans quelle mesure ceux-ci ont augmenté, mais il est évident qu'ils ont fortement augmenté lorsque l'extrême droite est arrivée au pouvoir.
En Italie, les discours haineux ont ciblé spécifiquement les réfugiés et les personnes de couleur. Cécile Kyenge, membre italienne noire du Parlement européen, est victime d'agressions racistes depuis des années. Lorsqu'elle a été nommée la première ministre noire du gouvernement d'Italie en 2013, elle a reçu des insultes racistes de la part du parti d'extrême droite de la Ligue. En 2018, une fois que le leader du Parti de la Ligue, Matteo Salvini, est arrivé au pouvoir, ils ont porté plainte pour diffamation contre elle, pour avoir accusé le parti et ses dirigeants d'être racistes !
Il est très révélateur qu'un crime haineux ait été commis le jour même où Matteo Salvini a été assermenté comme Vice-Premier Ministre, le 3 juin 2018. Un migrant malien de 29 ans a été abattu (en anglais) par un homme blanc qui passait en voiture et lui a tiré dessus avec un fusil. Il a été tué alors qu'il ramassait de la ferraille pour construire des cabanes, aux côtés de deux autres migrants qui ont également été blessés. Ils vivaient tous dans un village de tentes qui abrite des centaines de travailleurs agricoles mal payés. Il s'agissait clairement d'un exemple de discours haineux transformé en acte, puisque cela s'est produit quelques heures à peine après que Matteo Salvini eut averti (en anglais) que, maintenant qu'il était au pouvoir, "les bons moments pour les sans-papiers étaient terminés" et que "l'Italie ne saurait être le camp de réfugiés de l'Europe".
Le fait que l'extrême-droite ait accédé au pouvoir ou non fait une différence, ce qui devient évident lorsque l'on compare l'Italie et l'Allemagne. Les discours haineux sont également en hausse en Allemagne, mais dans ce cas, une nouvelle loi (en anglais) a été adoptée à la fin de 2017 pour réglementer les discours haineux en ligne. Cette loi exige que les plateformes de réseaux sociaux éliminent rapidement les discours haineux, les " fausses nouvelles " et tout matériel illégal, et elle semble avoir été très efficace pour réduire les discours haineux en ligne. En revanche, l'Italie ne dispose pas d'un cadre juridique aussi solide et le contexte n'est pas non plus propice à une révision du cadre juridique. En résumé, la montée des discours haineux en Italie est le résultat du mélange d'un environnement politique régressif et de l'absence d'une législation forte.
Dans les cas de la Hongrie et de la Pologne, les gouvernements ont également réagi vigoureusement contre les migrants. Ces exemples sont particulièrement intéressants parce qu'il n'y a parfois pas de migrants dans certaines parties du pays, surtout à la campagne, mais il peut quand même y avoir des politiques anti-migrants même dans des endroits où il y a très peu de migrants. Cela a beaucoup à voir avec qui est au pouvoir et quel discours est livré par les dirigeants et diffusé sur les réseaux sociaux. Et si les discours de haine peuvent cibler divers groupes particuliers, je pense que dans la situation actuelle en Europe, ils commencent toujours par les migrants et les réfugiés, puis s'étendent à d'autres groupes marginalisés. Nous l'avons vu avec le Brexit au Royaume-Uni : la campagne référendaire a été imprégnée d'un discours anti-migrant, mais divers groupes de personnes qui n'étaient pas des migrants ou des réfugiés ont été de plus en plus menacés par des approches d'exclusion, qui ont fini par viser quiconque était différent, avait une apparence ou un langage différents.
Existe-t-il une législation au niveau européen pour lutter contre les discours de haine ?
Il n'y a rien de spécifique contre les discours haineux, mais parce qu'ils constituent une violation de tout un ensemble de droits, il existe un large éventail de règles applicables, telles que la décision-cadre sur la lutte contre certaines formes et manifestations de racisme et de xénophobie au moyen du droit pénal. Il y a aussi l'Agence des droits fondamentaux, une agence financée par l'UE qui collecte et analyse des données et effectue des recherches sur les droits fondamentaux. Elle fournit une assistance et une expertise aux niveaux européen et national, notamment dans les domaines de la non-discrimination, du racisme, de l'intolérance et des crimes de haine. Enfin, il existe un Code de conduite pour la lutte contre les discours haineux illégaux en ligne que la Commission européenne a récemment approuvé avec Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter et YouTube, qui vise à permettre aux utilisateurs des réseaux sociaux de donner librement leur avis en ligne et sans crainte de subir des attaques motivées par des considérations de race, couleur, religion, origine nationale ou ethnique, orientation et identité sexuelles, handicap ou autre. Elle vise également à faire en sorte que les législations communautaires et nationales en matière de lutte contre le discours haineux soient mieux appliquées dans l'environnement en ligne dans l'ensemble de l'UE. Mais le processus d'adaptation de la législation européenne est lent et long, et l'UE ne dispose pas toujours de mécanismes suffisants pour tenir les États membres responsables lorsqu'ils ne se conforment pas à la législation.
Que peut faire la société civile pour contrer les discours haineux, à part faire pression pour obtenir des changements législatifs ?
Il existe de nombreuses stratégies qui peuvent être utilisées pour contrer efficacement le discours haineux. Bien sûr, il est important de modifier la législation pour garantir qu'elle couvre toutes les formes de discrimination et de discours de haine, mais il est également important - et très difficile - de sensibiliser la population. La prise de conscience de leur droit à l'égalité de traitement doit tout d'abord se faire auprès des personnes visées par les discours de haine. Même parmi les citoyens européens, nombreux sont ceux qui ne connaissent pas exactement leurs droits. Il est donc important de partager l'information avec la société civile et d'encourager les groupes de la société civile à la partager davantage.
Le rôle des autorités locales et des organismes publics tels que la police est également essentiel pour garantir le droit à l'égalité de traitement, et le fait qu'ils agissent ou non face aux discours de haine fait une différence. Il est donc important que la société civile travaille avec ces acteurs pour qu'ils puissent reconnaître les propos haineux et agir contre eux.
En outre, la société civile peut faire mieux dans le domaine des stratégies de communication pour protéger les droits fondamentaux en général. Cela nécessiterait un investissement dans le renforcement des capacités, étant donné que les connaissances requises ne sont pas uniformément diffusées. Les acteurs de base n'ont pas nécessairement les moyens de faire ce genre de travail, mais c'est souvent ce genre de travail qui a le plus d'impact sur les groupes affectés, car il est essentiel pour les aider à atteindre ces groupes.
Il faut beaucoup plus d'investissements pour contrer les groupes haineux en ligne, car le contenu en ligne peut avoir un impact bien au-delà du contexte pour lequel il a été formulé. Selon des études sur le discours antisémite, les gens ont tendance à se sentir menacés par ce qu'ils voient en ligne, quel que soit l'impact direct sur leur réalité, de sorte qu'il est clair qu'il faut investir davantage pour contrer cet effet.
Comment European Alternatives travaille-t-elle pour contrer les discours haineux ?
Nous nous efforçons de mettre en contact les groupes qui travaillent sur des questions similaires et de combler les lacunes en matière de capacités. Nous y sommes parvenus grâce à une série d'activités de formation sur la lutte contre les discours haineux et le radicalisme d'extrême droite en Europe centrale et orientale. Il est important de réunir des militants et des citoyens de différents pays, car il est très difficile pour les gens de comprendre qu'il ne s'agit pas de phénomènes isolés qui se produisent dans leurs communautés, mais plutôt que beaucoup de communautés vivent la même chose et qu'il existe une gamme de solutions qui ont été essayées dans divers contextes locaux pour y remédier. Il est très important que ces échanges se poursuivent, parce que nous avons vu qu'ils fonctionnent : nous voyons des organisations qui collaborent au-delà des frontières et échangent des expériences qu'elles peuvent adapter pour lutter contre le discours haineux dans leur propre contexte.
Il est également essentiel d'investir autant que possible dans l'éducation civique et l'éducation aux droits humains. Nous le faisons par le biais d'un cours en ligne sur la lutte contre les discours haineux en Europe, qui est basé sur le dialogue en ligne maintenu avec nos partenaires. Les vidéos sont open source et sont disponibles sur notre chaîne YouTube. Nous avons une liste de lecture appelée " Countering Hate Speech" (Contrecarrer les discours haineux), pour qu'ils puissent être regardés en séquence. Le cours offre aux participants l'opportunité d'accéder à des contenus d'experts développés par European Alternatives et de mettre en avant leurs propres expériences, valeurs et perspectives tout en s'engageant avec leurs pairs à travers un échange virtuel. À la fin du cours, les participants apprennent même à planifier et à organiser une journée d'action contre le discours haineux.
Grâce à ces activités, nous essayons d'atteindre un grand nombre de jeunes. Le dialogue entre les individus et entre les communautés est essentiel parce que sur les réseaux sociaux, il y a de moins en moins d'espaces où les gens peuvent avoir une vraie conversation dans un environnement sûr. Et le dialogue est tout à fait efficace pour sensibiliser et réfléchir à des stratégies collectives.
Je pense que la raison pour laquelle nous continuons dans cette voie, c'est parce que nous pensons qu'il ne peut y avoir une démocratie qui fonctionne bien lorsque les gens ne sont pas respectés. Le respect de notre humanité commune est une condition préalable à toute réforme démocratique.
HATE SPEECH: ‘The fact that this is how online platforms are supposed to work is a big part of the problem’
As part of our 2019thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about their experience of facing backlash by anti-rights groups. CIVICUS speaks with Brandi Geurkink, European campaigner at the Mozilla Foundation, a non-profit corporation based on the conviction that the internet is a global public resource that must remain open and accessible to all. The Mozilla Foundation seeks to fuel a movement for a healthy internet by supporting a diverse group offellows working on key internet issues, connecting open internet leaders at events such asMozFest, publishing critical research in theInternet Health Report and rallying citizens aroundadvocacy issues that connect the wellbeing of the internet directly to everyday life.
The regular internet user possibly identifies Mozilla with Firefox and doesn’t know that there is also a Mozilla Foundation. Can you tell us what the Mozilla Foundation is and what it does?
I get this question asked a lot. When I told my family I was working for Mozilla, they said, ‘wait, you are not a software professional, what are you doing there?’ What makes Mozilla different from other software developers is that it is a non-profit tech company. Mozilla is the creator of Firefox, which is a web browser, but an open source one. It also has users’ privacy at its core. And all of Mozilla’s work is guided by the Mozilla Manifesto, which provides a set of principles for an open, accessible and safe internet, viewed as a global public resource.
Profits that come from the Firefox browser are invested into the Mozilla Foundation, which is the Mozilla Corporation’s sole shareholder, and our mission is to build an open and healthy web. Mozilla creates and enables open-source technologies and communities that support the Manifesto’s principles; creates and delivers consumer products that represent the Manifesto’s principles; uses the Mozilla assets – intellectual property such as copyrights and trademarks, infrastructure, funds and reputation – to keep the internet an open platform; promotes models for creating economic value for the public benefit; and promotes the Mozilla Manifesto principles in public discourse and within the internet industry.
Mozilla promotes an open and healthy web through a variety of activities. For instance, we have a fellowships programme to empower and connect leaders from the internet health movement. This programme supports people doing all sorts of things, from informing debates on how user rights and privacy should be respected online to creating technologies that will enable greater user agency. Mozilla also produces an annual report, the Internet Health Report, and mobilises people in defence of a healthy internet. A lot of this work takes the form of campaigning for corporate accountability; we seek to influence the way in which tech companies are thinking about privacy and user agency within their products and to mobilise consumers so that they demand better behaviour and more control over their online lives.
How do you define a healthy internet?
A healthy internet is a place where people can safely and freely communicate and participate. For this to happen, the internet must truly be a global public resource rather than something that’s owned by a few giant tech companies, who are then in control of who participates and how they do it. Some key components of a healthy web are openness, privacy and security. We place a lot of emphasis on digital inclusion, which determines who has access; web literacy, which determines who can succeed online; and decentralisation, which focuses on who controls the web – ideally, many rather than just a few.
The internet is currently dominated by eight American and Chinese companies: Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Alibaba, Amazon, Apple, Baidu, Facebook, Microsoft and Tencent. These companies and their subsidiaries dominate all layers of the digital world, from search engines, browsers and social media services to core infrastructure like undersea cables and cloud computing. They built their empires by selling our attention to advertisers, creating new online marketplaces and designing hardware and software that we now cannot do without. Their influence is growing in both our private lives and public spaces.
What’s wrong about giant tech companies, and why it would be advisable to curb their power?
A lot of the problems that we see online are not ‘tech’ problems per se – they’re sociopolitical problems that are amplified, and in some cases incentivised, to spread like wildfire and reach more people than ever before. When it comes to disinformation, for instance, a big part of the problem is the business models that guide the major social media platforms that we communicate on. The most successful tech companies have grown the way they have because they have monetised our personal data. They cash in on our attention in the form of ad revenue. When you think about how we use platforms designed for viral advertising as our primary method of social and political discourse – and increasingly our consumption of news – you can start to see why disinformation thrives on platforms like Facebook and Google.
Another example of the ‘attention economy’ is YouTube, Google’s video platform, which recommends videos to users automatically, often leading us down ‘rabbit holes’ of increasingly more extreme content in order to keep us hooked and watching. When content recommendation algorithms are designed to maximise attention to drive profit, they end up fuelling radical beliefs and often spreading misinformation.
What can be done about people using the internet to disseminate extremist ideas, hate speech and false information?
I’m glad that you asked this because there is definitely a risk of censorship and regulation to fix this problem that actually results in violations of fundamental rights and freedoms. Worryingly, we’re seeing ‘fake news laws’ that use this problem as an excuse to limit freedom of speech and crack down on dissent, particularly in countries where civic space is shrinking and press freedom lacking. Mozilla fellow Renee di Resta puts this best when she says that freedom of reach is not the same as freedom of speech. Most of the big internet platforms have rules around what constitutes acceptable speech, which basically take the form of community guidelines. At the same time, platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter give people the ability to amplify their ideas to a huge number of people. This is the ‘freedom of reach’, and increasingly we’re seeing that used to spread ideas that are at odds with the values that underpin peaceful and democratic societies, like equality and human rights.
I think that it’s important to acknowledge that the business models of major technology platforms create the perfect storm for the manipulation of users. Disinformation and hate speech are content designed to appeal to emotions such as fear, anger and even humour. Combine this with the ability to target specific profiles of people in order to manipulate their ideas, and this becomes the perfect place for this sort of ideas to take hold. Once purveyors of disinformation have gained enough of a following, they can comfortably move offline and mobilise these newly-formed communities, which is something we’re seeing more and more of. It’s this freedom of reach problem that platforms have yet to grapple with, maybe because it’s at odds with the very way that they make money. The challenge is to come up with ideas that improve the mechanisms to eliminate, on one hand, the likelihood of amplification of anti-rights ideas and hate speech, and on the other, the danger of censorship and discrimination against certain types of legitimate discourse.
There has been a lot of controversy about how social media platforms are, or are not, dealing with misinformation. Do you think fact-checking is the way to go?
Responsible reporting and factual information are crucial for people to make informed choices, including about who should govern them; that is why fighting misinformation with care for free speech is key. Among the things that can be done about misinformation it is worth mentioning the verification of advertisers, as well as improved monitoring tools to detect bots and check facts. These are things that if implemented correctly would have an impact on these issues, and not just during the time of elections.
But the critical place where platforms are currently failing to live up to their commitments is around transparency. There must be greater transparency into how people use platforms like Facebook and Google to pay for ads that are intended to manipulate political discourse. At the same time, we must ensure that these companies are open about how content monitoring happens on platforms and that there are redress policies in place for people whose content has been wrongfully removed or deleted. Specific attention should be paid to the situation of fragile democracies, where disinformation can be more harmful because of the absence or limited presence of independent media.
There have been election campaigns plagued by disinformation tactics in many different places, from India to Brazil. In response to public pressure, Facebook expressed a commitment to provide better transparency around how their platform is used for political advertisement so that sophisticated disinformation campaigns can be detected and understood and ultimately prevented. But the transparency tools that the company has released are largely insufficient. This has been repeatedly verified by independent researchers. There is a big disconnect between what companies say in public regarding what they intend to do or have done to prevent disinformation and the actual tools they put out there to do the job. I think Facebook should focus on creating tools that can actually get the job done.
And besides what the companies running the social media platforms are or are not doing, there have been independent initiatives that seem to have worked. A tactic that disinformation campaigns use is the repurposing of content, for instance using a photo that was taken in a different place and time or sharing an old article out of context to spread the rumour that something new has just happened when it’s actually something else entirely that has been reported five years ago. In response to this, The Guardian came up with a brilliant solution: when someone shares on Twitter or Facebook an article of theirs that’s over 12 months old a yellow sign will automatically appear on the shared image stating that the article is over 12 months old. The notice also appears when you click on the article. This initiative was a proactive move from The Guardian to empower people to think more critically about what they are seeing. We need many more initiatives like this.
Are disinformation campaigns also plaguing European politics in the ways that we’ve seen in the USA and Brazil?
Most definitely, which is why in the lead up to the 2019 European elections four leading internet companies – Facebook, Google, Twitter and Mozilla – signed the European Commission’s Code of Practice on Disinformation pledging to take specific steps to prevent disinformation from manipulating citizens of the European Union. This was basically a voluntary code of conduct, and what we saw when monitoring its implementation ahead of the European elections was that the platforms did not deliver what they promised to the European Commission in terms of detecting and acting against disinformation.
Fortunately, ahead of the European Parliamentary elections we didn’t see election interference and political propaganda on the scale that has happened in the Philippines, for example, which is an excellent case study if you want to learn about disinformation tactics that were used very successfully. But we still have a big problem with ‘culture war debates’ that create an atmosphere of confusion, opening rifts and undermining trust in democratic processes and traditional institutions. Social media platforms have still not delivered on transparency commitments that are desperately needed to better understand what is happening.
Civil society identified a case in Poland where pro-government Facebook accounts posed as elderly people or pensioners to spread government propaganda. Before the European elections and following an independent investigation, Facebook took down 77 pages and 230 fake accounts from France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain and the UK, which had been followed by an estimated 32 million people and generated 67 million interactions over the previous three months alone. These were mostly part of far-right disinformation networks. Among other things, they had spread a video that was seen by 10 million people, supposedly showing migrants in Italy destroying a police car, which was actually from an old movie, and a fake story about migrant taxi drivers raping white women in Poland. A UK-based disinformation network that was uncovered in March 2019 was dedicated to disseminating fake information on topics such as immigration, LGBTQI rights and religious beliefs.
Of course this is happening all the time, and not only during elections, although elections are moments of particular visibility when a lot more than usual is at stake, so there seems to be a spike in the use of misinformation tactics around elections. This also tends to happen around other, particularly stressful situations, for example a terror attack or more generally any current event that draws people’s attention.
Why do online dynamics favour the amplification of specific kinds of messages – i.e. messages of hate instead of a narrative of human rights?
Internet platforms are designed to amplify certain types of content that are created to appeal to deep emotions, because their aim is to keep you on the platform as long as possible and make you want to share that content with friends who will also be retained as long as possible on the platform. The higher the numbers of people online and the longer they stay, the higher the number of ads that will be delivered, and the higher the ad revenue will be. What will naturally happen once these platforms are up and running is that people will develop content with a political purpose, and the dynamics around this content will be exactly the same.
Some will say that users doing this are abusing internet platforms. I disagree: I think people doing this are using those platforms exactly how they were designed to be used, but for the purpose of spreading an extremist political discourse, and the fact that this is how platforms are supposed to work is indeed a big part of the problem. It does make a difference whether someone is trying to make money from users’ posts or the platform is just a space for people to exchange ideas. We need to understand that if we are not paying for the product, then we are the product. If nobody were trying to make money out of our online interactions, there would be a higher chance of online interactions being more similar to interactions happening anywhere else, with people exchanging ideas more naturally rather than trying to catch each other’s attention by trying to elicit the strongest possible reactions.
Does it make sense for us to keep trying to use the internet to have reasonable and civilised political conversations, or is it not going to happen?
I love the internet, and so I think it’s not an entirely hopeless situation. The fact that the attention economy, combined with the growing power of a handful of tech companies, drives the way that we use the internet is really problematic, but at the same time there is a lot of work being done to think through how alternative business models for the internet could look, and increasingly regulators and internet users are realising that the current model is really broken. A fundamental question worth asking is whether it is possible to balance a desire to maximise ad revenue, and therefore people’s time spent on social media, and social responsibility. I think that companies as big as Google or Facebook have a duty to invest in social responsibility even if it has a negative impact on their revenue or it requires a level of transparency and accountability that frightens them. Responsibility implies, among other things, getting people’s consent to use their data to determine what they see online, and provide users’ insights into when and how you’re making choices about what they see.
You may wonder, ‘why would they do that?’. Well, it’s interesting. The CEO of YouTube, Susan Wojcicki, recently published a blog post saying that the spread of harmful content on YouTube is more of a revenue risk for the company because it damages their reputation. I think that there is an element of reputational damage, but the much bigger risk that these companies face is policy-makers cracking down on these platforms and their ability to continue operating as usual without greater accountability. For instance, the European code of practice on disinformation was self-regulatory; we have seen at least in this case that the platforms that committed to the Code didn’t deliver tools that were sufficient to provide greater political ad transparency, and they are still not held accountable for this. Does this example mean that policy-makers will be under greater pressure to regulate the online space by mandating transparency instead of requesting it? These are the sort of conversations that should define new approaches to dealing with harmful content online in order to make sure it remains a positive force in our lives.
IRAN: ‘The severity of the crackdown only shows how scared the regime is of the protest movement’
CIVICUS speaks with Sohrab Razaghi, executive director of Volunteer Activists (VA), about the situation in Iran on the anniversary of the anti-regime protests sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of morality police.
VA is an independent civil society organisation (CSO) based in the Netherlands, whose primary aims are building capacity among activists and CSOs, facilitating information exchange among civil society activists, community peacebuilding and advocating for the expansion of democracy and human rights in Iran and more generally in the Middle East. VA is the successor of a pioneer Iranian CSO, the Iranian Civil Society, Training and Research Centre, founded in 2001 and based in Tehran until 2007.
What is the situation in Iran one year on from the start of the protest wave?
The situation in Iran is complex. While last year’s massive protests made people hope for change, the crackdown on the protests caused hopelessness. The authorities were mostly able to suppress the protests and regain control of the streets, forcing people back into their homes.
Moreover, while the ‘Women, Life, Freedom’ protest movement had an appealing chant and vision, it lacked a long-term plan that could lead to change. Over the past year, it has been unable to translate its slogan into a political programme and was therefore unable to mobilise other social and political forces around its goals.
But despite the authorities’ success in regaining control, we have continued to see acts of civil disobedience across Iran. Activists, artists and academics express themselves through social media and make public displays of protest not wearing hijab. The fact that the voices of protesters have not been silenced sustains hope for change.
A concerning development, however, is the increasing gap between established civil society and the protest movement. CSOs were hesitant to participate in the protests when they began, and this gap has only increased since. There is even a lack of a common vocabulary in calling for mobilisation and articulating demands. Established CSOs disagree with what they view as radical moves by the protest movement, as they have a more conservative view of society and the future. A possible explanation for this divergence may be the generation gap, as the protest movement is formed by much younger activists.
To reassert control, the authorities have imposed stricter control over media, universities, unions and other associations. In essence, civic space has shrunk dramatically over the past year, with the authorities purging most sectors of everyone who disagrees with them.
Internationally there was a huge wave of support for the protest movement from governments, civil society and media, particularly early on. This was extremely helpful for echoing the voices of Iranian protesters and pressuring the authorities to meet their demands. But as the authorities regained control of the streets, we have seen a change in the approach of western governments. They are returning to diplomacy and negotiations with Iran, slowly normalising their relations. This has boosted the Iranian regime’s confidence, re-legitimising it and giving it space to spread its propaganda.
What tactics has the government used to limit further mobilisation?
The number one tactic of the regime to crack down on protests has been to arrest protesters. Over the past year, thousands have been arrested, including over 20,000 who were arrested during the protests. Some have been given long jail sentences.
The second tactic has been the prevention of organising and networking. Even small communities have been actively prevented from getting together. Online networking has been limited by censorship, filtering and hacking. Leaders and activists trying to establish any form of group are arrested and their work is disrupted. They threaten activists with jail and even death. They also target their personal life by demanding that they be fired or suspended from work or university. Many teachers and professors who supported the protest movement have been fired and students expelled.
To reach those who may not have joined the protest yet, the authorities spread propaganda, fake news and conspiracy theories that delegitimise the protest movement. Some communities fear the protest movement as a result.
To prevent the development of a political alternative to the regime, the authorities have targeted the opposition within and outside Iran. Their main aim seems to be to sow division among opposition groups and force them to deal with issues internal to the opposition movement instead of focusing on developing an alternative coalition. Iranian cyber forces have supported these efforts through hacking and social media manipulation.
What forms has resistance taken in response?
Iranian activists have pursued two strategies in response. First, the protest movement sought to widen its scope to increase its resilience. By mobilising excluded ethnic groups such as Baloch and Kurdish people, the protest movement expanded to more cities and communities, making the crackdown more difficult. Second, the protest movement tried to stay on the streets for as long as possible, hoping to create division among crackdown forces.
Internationally, the movement’s main strategy was to try to isolate the regime by forcing the severance of as many diplomatic connections as possible. For example, it successfully advocated for Iran to be removed from the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women and it also sought to force the closure of Iranian embassies in western states.
How have Iranian organisations from the diaspora or in exile supported the protest movement in Iran?
We have observed two phases in the involvement of the diaspora and exiled Iranian organisations in the protest movement. In the first phase, they organised large-scale solidarity mobilisations and projects in support of the ‘Women, Life, Freedom’ protests in Iran. Over 80,000 Iranians from the diaspora participated in the solidarity protest in Berlin in Germany, for example.
After this initial phase, however, each political group in exile tried to present itself as the leader of the protest movement. This broke the solidarity and unity of the movement. Instead of fighting against the regime, some diaspora groups mostly fought each other. Independent activists and organisations in the diaspora that didn’t want to be caught in this fight decreased their involvement. For the protest movement to succeed, opposition groups and political movements need to get better at resolving their conflicts, reaching compromises and building a unified anti-regime coalition.
Has the crackdown intensified as the first anniversary approaches?
Civil society activists have continued to be arrested and organisations put under pressure and shut down. But as the first anniversary approaches, we are seeing repression increase, particularly in universities and among journalists. Universities have recently fired more lecturers and professors and expelled more students who participated in last year’s protests. Student associations have been shut down long ago and any form of student organising is banned.
Journalists are also being heavily repressed. The authorities are disrupting reporting and coverage of protest actions and calls for protests around 16 September. They are threatening and arresting journalists, prosecuting them and handing them heavy sentences.
Independent lawyers, who have been instrumental in supporting arrested and imprisoned activists, are also being threatened. Lawyers have played key roles in defending activists in court and spreading information about their trials, informing the public on the authorities’ repression. As a result, they are being threatened with losing their licences or being arrested.
Is Iran closer to change now than a year ago?
I think we are multiple steps closer to change than before. Iranians are less scared of the consequences of their activism. They dare to take action against the regime. The voice of protest is louder and the severity of the crackdown only shows how scared the regime is of the protest movement. The regime understands it won’t be easy to shut down this protest movement, which threatens the legitimacy and therefore the existence of the regime.
We also see a major lifestyle change. People on the streets are now dressed differently and are less afraid of showing their lifestyle in public. Although political change is minimal, cultural change following last year’s protests is clearly visible. This change shouldn’t be underestimated.
What needs to happen for political change to take place?
Iranians need to realise the power of being together. Change comes from power, and power comes from organising and acting together. To bring about change, we need social power and to create social power, organising is essential. By forming associations, organisations and networks, Iranians can demand and achieve change.
For this to happen, three types of changes are required. First is a change in attitude. Iranian activists need to think positively and constructively instead of negatively and destructively. Second is a change in behaviour. We will only achieve democracy if we also act democratically and use democratic tools. This means avoiding any form of violence and understanding that democracy does not rise from bloodshed and fire. Third is a change in context. It is key to empower society to say no and resist the regime.
The international community could support change by helping to increase the resilience of the social movement and its activists, both online and offline. The pursuit of meaningful and sustainable change is a marathon and it’s instrumental to echo the voices of activists and provide sustainable support. A coalition of international civil society organisations could help by providing strategic support to Iranian activists.
Civic space in Iran is rated ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Volunteer Activists through itswebsite.
MIGRANTS’ RIGHTS: ‘Hate speech is driven by unequal power relations and negative stereotypes’
As part of our 2019thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about their experience of facing backlash by anti-rights groups. CIVICUS speaks about the rise of hate speech in Europe and civil society strategies to counter it with Martin Pairet, Network Manager at European Alternatives, a transnational civil society organisation and citizen movement that promotes democracy, equality and culture beyond the nation-state.
European Alternatives focuses on promoting democracy across borders. How concerned are you about the rise of authoritarian nationalism in Europe?
European Alternatives works to support democracy across the continent, and our current analysis is that democracy is not really mature enough and that the fundamental rights necessary for democracy to work are not being respected in Europe. The process of degradation of democratic practices and institutions has taken place over a number of years, a decade at least, but has particularly accelerated with the crisis of hospitality that we are currently experiencing in the face of migration. This crisis of hospitality is above all a crisis of European values. We stand for the principle of solidarity and the creation of new forms of transnational community, and we are seeing exactly the opposite – the normalisation of anti-rights movements and parties whose discourse is being amplified by the media, and by social media in particular. This is happening in every country in Europe, and particularly in countries where politicians have a lot to gain through anti-migrant politics, such as France, Germany and Italy.
Do you see this situation as the result of a deficit of democracy, or as the result of a failure to respect human rights?
I think it’s a little bit of both. There is in fact a deep democratic deficit, and over the past few years there has been increasing questioning about how decisions are being made at every level – local, national, European and global. People have been demanding more representation and meaningful involvement in decision-making processes, through mechanisms such as citizen-initiated referendums. There are many other examples that we’ve seen over the past few years in Europe, of people organising to supplement the shortcomings of representative institutions and getting involved in decision-making, for instance through citizen assemblies. A lot of people feel their voices are not being heard and therefore feel powerless – they feel that no matter what they do, they won’t be able to change things and they won’t regain control over politics, which means they won’t have a say over the decisions that affect their lives, and they won’t control their futures.
In this sense, democracy is quite weak, and people are getting increasingly desperate for someone in decision-making positions to really understand their problems and their fears, which the system is not paying attention to and is not able to process. This is the point when nationalism, extremism and hate start to rise, and hate speech becomes appealing. And in this context it becomes very difficult to hear the human rights discourse, because it is not necessarily something that people always respond or relate to, as it is quite abstract. European human rights organisations have been working hard to tackle the humanitarian crisis, but have sometimes undervalued the power of emotions, and of fear in particular, and have therefore not focused on how to address those fears, which has been problematic.
In your analysis of the ongoing crisis of hospitality you focus on hate speech. How would you define this?
Hate speech is a complex phenomenon that can’t really fit into a simple definition. In fact, there isn’t an internationally accepted definition of hate speech, and every member state of the European Union (EU) has its own legal definition. The definition used by the Council of Europe includes all forms of expression that spread or amplify xenophobia and various forms of hatred and intolerance. Hate speech is against human rights, so it is a form of anti-rights speech. It is also a social phenomenon that has been amplified by social media within the context of increasingly social power relations also related to the economic and financial crisis and the fact that financial and economic power is concentrated in few hands. But stereotypes also play an important role. I would say that hate speech is driven by both unequal power relations and negative stereotypes.
In recent years, the normalisation of hate speech has contributed to the radicalisation of people and groups against those seen as ‘the other’: attacks against marginalised groups, including women, LGBTQI people, Roma people, migrants, refugees and minority faith communities, have spread on social media, and the hate narrative gradually translated into actual violence. That’s why we’ve seen a rise in hate crimes.
One problem, and the reason why it is important to have a clear definition of hate speech, is that while hate speech is a form of anti-rights speech, an attempt to regulate and suppress it may lead to the violation of other rights, and particularly the violation of a fundamental right, the right to the freedom of expression.
While the rights of women, LGBTQI people, people of colour and indigenous peoples ought to be respected, their right to be treated fairly and respectfully may sometimes collide with the freedom of expression. So it is important to know where to draw the line and how to identify what falls under the freedom of expression and what is hate speech, and what can be done about it. But this is a very dynamic process and definitions are continuously changing, partly because of the rise of new technologies. As new forms of communications arise, we need to ask ourselves whether this or that is still hate speech. Where is the limit? Do certain commentaries or visual communications that we find on media platforms constitute hate speech? The distinction between what’s ironic and what’s serious can be difficult to grasp online.
Where in Europe is the situation most worrying?
The problem is taking different forms in different places. One specific example of this worrying situation is in Italy, where there was a significant rise in hate crimes between 2017 and 2018. Because of the use of different data collection methods, it’s difficult to know how much these have increased, but it is evident that they have risen sharply while the far-right was in power.
In Italy, hate speech has specifically targeted refugees and people of colour. Cécile Kyenge, a black Italian member of the European Parliament, has faced racist attacks for years. When she was appointed as Italy’s first black government minister back in 2013, she received racist insults from the far-right League Party. In 2018, once the League Party’s leader Matteo Salvini had reached power, they brought a defamation case against her, for accusing the party and its leaders of being racists!
It is very telling that a hate crime happened on the same day that Matteo Salvini was sworn in as Deputy Prime Minister, on 3 June 2018. A 29-year old migrant from Mali was shot dead by a white man who drove by and fired on him with a shotgun. He was killed while collecting scrap metal to build shacks, alongside two other migrants who also suffered injuries. They all lived in a tent city that houses hundreds of poorly paid farm workers. This was clearly an example of hate speech turned into act, as it happened just hours after Matteo Salvini warned that, with him in power, "the good times for illegals are over” and that “Italy cannot be Europe's refugee camp.”
It does make a difference whether the far right has reached power, which becomes apparent when you compare Italy and Germany. Hate speech has also been on the rise in Germany, but in this case, a new law was passed in late 2017 to regulate hate speech online. This law requires social media platforms to quickly remove hate speech, ‘fake news’ and any illegal material, and it appears to have been quite efficient in reducing online hate speech. In contrast, Italy does not have a similarly strong legal framework and the context is not conducive to a revision of the legal framework either. In sum, the rise of hate speech in Italy is the result of a mix of a regressive political environment and the absence of strong legislation.
In the cases of Hungary and Poland there have also been strong governmental responses against migrants. These examples are particularly interesting because sometimes there are no migrants in parts of the country, especially in the countryside, but there can still be anti-migrant policies even in places with very few migrants. This has a lot to do with who is in power and what discourse is being delivered from the top and disseminated on social media. And while hate speech can target various particular groups, I think that in the current situation in Europe, it always starts with migrants and refugees, then extends to other marginalised groups. We saw this with Brexit in the UK: the referendum campaign was permeated with an anti-migrant discourse, but various groups of people who were not migrants or refugees became increasingly threatened by exclusionary narratives, which eventually targeted anyone who was different, looked different, or spoke differently.
Is there any legislation in place at the European level to counter hate speech?
There is nothing in place specifically against hate speech, but because hate speech is a violation of a whole set of rights, there is a broad set of rules that apply, such as the Framework Decision on combating certain forms of expressions of racism and xenophobia by means of criminal law. There is also the Fundamental Rights Agency, an EU-funded agency that collects and analyses data and carries out research on fundamental rights. It provides assistance and expertise at both the European and national levels, including in the areas of non-discrimination, racism, intolerance and hate crime. Finally, there is a Code of conduct on countering illegal hate speech online that the European Commission recently agreed with Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube, which aims at enabling social media users to express their opinions online freely and without the fear of being attacked out of bias based on race, colour, religion, descent, national or ethnic origin, sexual orientation and gender identity, disability, or other characteristics. It also seeks to ensure that EU and national laws on combating hate speech are better enforced in the online environment across the EU. But the process of domesticating European legislation is slow and long, and the EU doesn’t always have sufficient mechanisms in place to hold members states accountable when they are not complying.
What can civil society do to counter hate speech, besides pushing for legislative change?
There are many strategies that can be used to counter hate speech effectively. Of course it is important to change legislation to ensure it covers all forms of discrimination and hate speech, but it is also important – and very difficult – to raise awareness. Awareness of their right to equal treatment must be raised, first of all, among the people who are being targeted by hate speech. Even among European citizens, many people don’t know exactly what their rights are. So it is important to share information among civil society and encourage civil society groups to share it further.
The role of local authorities and state agencies such as the police is also key in ensuring the right to equal treatment and it does make a difference whether or not they act in the face of hate speech. So it is important for civil society to work with these actors so that they are able to recognise hate speech and act against it.
Additionally, civil society can do better in the area of communication strategies to protect fundamental rights in general. This would require an investment in capacity development, given that the required knowledge is not evenly disseminated. Grassroots actors don’t necessarily have the means to do this kind of work, but it’s this kind of work that often impacts on affected groups the most, as it is key in helping them reach out.
A lot more investment is needed to counter hate groups online, because online content can have an impact well beyond the context for which it was formulated. According to studies about anti-Semitic speech, people tend to feel threatened by what they see online regardless of how much impact it actually has on their reality, so clearly more investment is needed to counter this effect.
How is European Alternatives working to counter hate speech?
We work to connect groups that are working on similar issues and to fill the capacity gap. We’ve done this quite successfully through a series of training activities on Countering Hate Speech and Far-Right Radicalism in Central and Eastern Europe. It is important to bring together activists and citizens from different countries, because it is quite hard for people to understand that these are not isolated phenomena that are happening in their communities, but rather that a lot of communities are experiencing the same, and there is a range of solutions that have been tried in various local contexts to tackle it. It’s very important for these exchanges to continue, because we’ve seen it’s working: we see organisations collaborating across borders and exchanging experiences in ways that they can adapt to tackle hate speech in their own contexts.
It is also key to invest in civic education and human rights education as much as possible. We do this through an online course on Countering Hate Speech in Europe, which is based on online dialogue maintained with our partners. The videos are open source and are available on our YouTube channel. We have a playlist called ‘Countering Hate Speech’, so they can be watched in sequence. The course offers participants the opportunity to access expert content developed by European Alternatives and to put their own experiences, values and perspectives to the forefront while engaging with peers through a Virtual Exchange. At the end of the course, participants even learn how to plan and organise an Action Day Against Hate Speech.
Through these activities, we try to reach out to a high number of young people. Dialogue among individuals and among communities is key because on social media there are fewer and fewer spaces where people can have a real conversation in a safe environment. And dialogue is quite effective for raising awareness and thinking strategies through collectively.
I think the reason why we keep at this is because we think there cannot be a well-functioning democracy when people are not respected in the first place. Respect for our shared humanity is a precondition for any democratic reform to work.
ONLINE CIVIC SPACE: ‘We shouldn’t expect tech giants to solve the problems that they have created’
As part of our 2019 thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks to Marek Tuszynski, co-founder and creative director of Tactical Tech, aBerlin-based international civil society organisation that engages with citizens and civil society to explore the impacts of technologyon society and individual autonomy. Founded in 2003, in a context where optimism about technology prevailed but focus was lacking on what specifically it could do for civil society, Tactical Tech uses its research findings to create practical solutions for citizens and civil society.
Some time ago it seemed that the online sphere could offer civil society a new space for debate and action – until it became apparent that online civic space was being restricted too. What kinds of restrictions are you currently seeing online, and what's changed in recent years?
Fifteen years ago, the digital space in a way belonged to the people who were experimenting with it. People were building that space using the available tools, there was a movement towards open source software, and activists were trying build an online space that would empower people to exercise democratic freedoms, and even build democracy from the ground up. But those experimental spaces became gentrified, appropriated, taken over and assimilated into other existing spaces. In that sense, digital space underwent processes very similar to all other spaces that offer alternatives and in which people are able to experiment freely. That space shrank massively, and free spaces were replaced by centralised technology and started to be run as business models.
For most people, including civil society, using the internet means resorting to commercial platforms and systems such as Google and Facebook. The biggest change has been the centralisation of what used to be a distributed system where anybody was able to run their own services. Now we rely on centralised, proprietary and controlled services. And those who initially weren’t very prevalent, like state or corporate entities, are now dominating. The difference is also in the physical aspect, because technology is becoming more and more accessible and way cheaper than it used to be, and a lot of operations that used to require much higher loads of technology have become affordable by a variety of state and non-state entities.
The internet became not just a corporate space, but also a space for politics and confrontation on a much larger scale than it was five or ten years ago. Revelations coming from whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden and scandals such as those with Facebook and Cambridge Analytica are making people much more aware of what this space has become. It is now clear that it is not all about liberation movements and leftist politics, and that there are many groups on the other end of the political spectrum that have become quite savvy in using and abusing technology.
In sum, changes are being driven by both economic and, increasingly, political factors. What makes them inescapable is that technology is everywhere, and it has proliferated so fast that it has become very hard to imagine going back to doing anything without it. It is also very hard, if not impossible, to compartmentalise your life and separate your professional and personal activities, or your political and everyday or mundane activities. From the point of view of technology, you always inhabit the same, single space.
Do people who use the internet for activism rather than, say, to share cat pictures, face different or specific threats online?
Yes, but I would not underestimate the cat pictures, as insignificant as they may seem to people who are using these tools for political or social work. It is the everyday user who defines the space that others use for activism. The way technologies are used by people who use them for entertainment ends up defining them for all of us.
That said, there are indeed people who are much more vulnerable, whose exposure or monitoring can restrict their freedoms and be dangerous for them – not only physically but also psychologically. These people are exposed to potential interceptions and surveillance to find out what are they doing and how, and also face a different kind of threat, in the form of online harassment, which may impact on their lives well beyond their political activities, as people tend to be bullied not only for what they do, but also for what or who they are.
There seems to be a very narrow understanding of what is political. In fact, regardless of whether you consider yourself political, very mundane activities and behaviours can be seen by others as political. So it is not just about what you directly produce in the form of text, speech, or interaction, but also about what can be inferred from these activities. Association with organisations, events, or places may become equally problematic. The same happens with the kind of tools you are using and the times you are using them, whether you are using encryption and why. All these elements that you may not be thinking of may end up defining you as a person who is trying to do something dangerous or politically controversial. And of course, many of the tools that activists use and need, like encryption, are also used by malicious actors, because technology is not intrinsically good or bad, but is defined by its users. You can potentially be targeted as a criminal just for using – for activism, for instance – the same technologies that criminals use.
Who are the ‘vulnerable minorities’ you talk about in your recentreport on digital civic space, and why are they particularly vulnerable online?
Vulnerable minorities are precisely those groups that face greater risks online because of their gender, race or sexual orientation. Women generally are more vulnerable to online harassment, and politically active women even more so. Women journalists, for instance, are subject to more online abuse than male journalists when speaking about controversial issues or voicing opinions. They are targeted because of their gender. This is also the case for civil society organisations (CSOs) focused on women’s rights, which are being targeted both offline and online, including through distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, website hacks, leaks of personal information, fabricated news, direct threats and false reports against Facebook content leading to the suspension of their pages. Digital attacks sometimes translate into physical violence, when actors emboldened by the hate speech promoted on online platforms end up posing serious threats not only to people’s voices but also to their lives.
But online spaces can also be safe spaces for these groups. In many places the use of internet and online platforms creates spaces where people can exercise their freedoms of expression and protest. They can come out representing minorities, be it sexual or otherwise, in a way they would not be able to in the physical places where they live, because it would be too dangerous or practically impossible. They are able to exercise these freedoms in online spaces because these spaces are still separate from the places where they live. However, there is a limited understanding of the fact that this does not make these spaces neutral. Information can be leaked, shared, distorted and weaponised, and used to hurt you when you least expect it.
Still, for many minorities, and especially for sexual minorities, social media platforms are the sole place where they can exercise their freedoms, access information and actually be who they are, and say it aloud. At the same time, they technically may retain anonymity but their interests and associations will give away who they are, and this can be used against them. These outlets can create an avenue for people to become political, but that avenue can always be closed down in non-democratic contexts, where those in power can decide to shut down entire services or cut off the internet entirely.
Is this what you mean when you refer to social media as ‘a double-edged sword’? What does this mean for civil society, and how can we take advantage of the good side of social media?
Social media platforms are a very important tool for CSOs. Organisations depend on them to share information, communicate and engage with their supporters, organise events, measure impact and response based on platform analytics, and even raise funds. But the use of these platforms has also raised concerns regarding the harvesting of data, which is analysed and used by the corporations themselves, by third-party companies and by governments.
Over the years, government requests for data from and about social media users have increased, and so have arrests and criminalisation of organisations and activists based on their social media behaviour. So again, what happens online does not stay online – in fact, it sometimes has serious physical repercussions on the safety and well-being of activists and CSO staff. Digital attacks and restrictions affect individuals and their families, and may play a role in decisions on whether to continue to do their work, change tactics, or quit. Online restrictions can also cause a chilling effect on the civil society that is at the forefront of the promotion of human rights and liberties. For these organisations, digital space can be an important catalyst for wider civil political participation in physical spaces, so when it is attacked, restricted, or shrunk, it has repercussions for civic participation in general.
Is there some way that citizens and civil society can put pressure on giant tech companies to do the right thing?
When we talk about big social media actors we think of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp – three of which are in fact part of Facebook – and we don’t think of Google because it is not seen as social media, even though it is more pervasive, it is everywhere, and it is not even visible as such.
We shouldn’t expect these companies to solve the problems they have created. They are clearly incapable of addressing the problems they cause. One of these problems is online harassment and abuse of the rules. They have no capacity to clean the space of certain activities and if they try to do so, then they will censor any content that resembles something dangerous, even if it isn’t, to not risk being accused of supporting radical views.
We expect tech giants to be accountable and responsible for the problems they create, but that’s not very realistic, and it won’t just happen by itself. When it comes to digital-based repression and the use of surveillance and data collection to impose restrictions, there is a striking lack of accountability. Tech platforms depend on government authorisation to operate, so online platforms and tech companies are slow to react, if they do at all, in the face of accusations of surveillance, hate speech, online harassment and attacks, especially when powerful governments or other political forces are involved.
These companies are not going to do the right thing if they are not encouraged to do so. There are small steps as well as large steps one can take, starting with deciding how and when to use each of these tools, and whether to use them at all. At every step of the way, there are alternatives that you can use to do different things – for one, you can decentralise the way you interact with people and not use one platform for everything.
Of course, that’s not the whole problem, and the solution cannot be based on individual choices alone. A more structural solution would have to take place at the level of policy frameworks, as can be seen in Europe where regulations have been put in place and it is possible to see a framework shaping up for large companies to take more responsibility, and to define who they are benefiting from their access to personal information.
What advice can you offer for activists to use the internet more safely?
We have a set of tools and very basic steps to enable people who don’t want to leave these platforms, who depend on them, to understand what it is that they are doing, what kind of information they leave behind that can be used to identify them and how to avoid putting into the system more information than is strictly necessary. It is important to learn how to browse the internet privately and safely, how to choose the right settings on Google and Facebook and take back control of your data and your activity in these spaces.
People don’t usually understand how much about themselves is online and can be easily found via search engines, and the ways in which by exposing themselves they also expose the people who they work with and the activities they do. When using the internet we reveal where we are, what we are working on, what device we are using, what events we are participating in, what we are interested in, who we are connecting with, the phone providers we use, the visas we apply for, our travel itineraries, the kinds of financial transactions we do and with whom, and so on. To do all kinds of things we are increasingly dependent on more and more interlinked and centralised platforms that share information with one another and with other entities, and we aren’t even aware that they are doing it because they use trackers and cookies, among other things. We are giving away data about ourselves and what we do all the time, not only when we are online, but also when others enter information about us, for instance when travelling.
But there are ways to reduce our data trail, become more secure online and build a healthier relationship with technology. Some basic steps are to delete your activity as it is stored by search engines such as Google and switch to other browsers. You can delete unnecessary apps, switch to alternative apps for messaging, voice and video calls and maps – ideally to some that offer the same services you are used to, but that do not profit from your data – change passwords, declutter your accounts and renovate your social media profiles, separate your accounts to make it more difficult for tech giants to follow your activities, tighten your social media privacy settings, opt for private browsing (but still, be aware that this does not make you anonymous on the web), disable location services on mobile devices and do many other things that will keep you safer online.
Another issue that activists face online is misinformation and disinformation strategies. In that regard, there is a need for new tactics and standards to enable civil society groups, activists, bloggers and journalists to react by verifying information and creating evidence based on solid information. Online space can enable this if we promote investigation as a form of engagement. If we know how to protect ourselves, we can make full use of this space, in which there is still room for many positive things.
PALESTINE: ‘They label us antisemites or terrorists to silence us and paralyse our human rights work’
CIVICUS speaks about civil society’s online activism against repression and oppression in Palestine with Nadim Nashif, executive director and co-founder of 7amleh: The Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media.
7amleh is a civil society organisation that advocates for Palestinian digital rights. With the aim of creating a safe, fair and free digital space for Palestinians, it researches digital rights, provides training to Palestinian activists and organisations and leads local and international advocacy campaigns.
What is the focus of 7amleh’s work?
We focus on digital rights and digital activism. Palestinian people have been living under occupation for the past seven decades. This kind of occupation obviously involves lots of violence, repression and oppression.
As technology progressed and the internet became part of our lives, the same power relations were replicated in the online world. Palestinians live under siege from the Israeli government. This siege is not only physical; it has also migrated to the virtual world.
There are frequent attempts to prevent Palestinians from exercising their freedom of expression online. This is done by pressuring companies to exclude Palestinians. For instance, many social media platforms are biased in their policy toward Palestinian content and many digital payment platforms don’t allow Palestinians to use them under various excuses due to Israel’s pressure. PayPal, for instance, is available to Israelis but not Palestinians. Palestinians’ freedom of expression is also limited because they can be arrested for what they post on social media. There’s an evident practice of discrimination against Palestinians.
Our organisation is recording all these cases of restriction and documenting them to fight for the rights and freedoms of Palestinians.
How have Palestinians worked around these restrictions to make themselves heard?
The Palestinian identity is under attack. For instance, the Israeli army doesn’t let the Palestinian flag be raised. But Palestinians have tried to find creative ways to express their identity. For example, to represent their flag while not raising an actual flag, they have chosen to display the flag’s colours. These are the colours that can be found in watermelons, so they will instead draw a watermelon.
Social media platforms use the available technology, their algorithms and search engines, to cooperate with the Israeli authorities by monitoring speech and deleting content when certain keywords come up. For example, Palestinian political movements are considered by Israel and the USA to be terrorist organisations, so their names are banned from social media. But digital activists are finding ways to write them that trick artificial intelligence, such as by adding full stops between letters. This is how they can still express themselves and find ways not to be banned entirely online. Those are some tactics Palestinians are using to refuse to play by the rules of those who want to limit them and tell them how to think, write and express their national identity.
Digital activism is key. When you experience human rights violations on a daily basis, the camera becomes a tool of resistance. For many Palestinians, it is the only defence from soldiers and violent settlers attacking them constantly. In many cases, home evictions were prevented because they were livestreamed. That’s why the Israeli government initiated legislation to criminalise photography and video-making.
Online global solidarity is also key, as shown by the 2021 case of the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in East Jerusalem, in which online solidarity movements applied pressure to prevent house evictions. As a result, the Israeli government’s plan didn’t succeed.
How have the authorities reacted to this activism?
They have constantly tried to silence the Palestinian narrative and raise the Israeli one, by criminalising Palestinian activists and sending them to jail. There are cases in which you don’t even understand why someone is in jail.
I remember the case of a young teenager from Jerusalem who posted on Facebook some phrases about Palestinians needing to go to Al-Aqsa Mosque to defend it from Israeli settlers. He spent one and a half years in jail because of this, which was not a call to violence at all. He just said, ‘Hey, this is our holy place, we need to protect it’. You can be sent to jail for saying something about protecting a place! This example is just one of many.
The Israeli government is pushing many laws and regulations to be able to do this. One of them is the so-called ‘Facebook law’ it is trying to pass. Officially, it’s meant to help deal with harmful content. But it aims to grant Israeli courts the power to demand the removal of user-generated content on social media platforms that can be perceived as inflammatory or as harming the security of the state, people or the public. It is so vague that anything the Israeli authorities don’t like will be sent to the courts, without those affected being able to defend themselves. Using ‘secret evidence’, Israel can order companies to take down content they consider to be illegal. This would obviously be used exclusively against Palestinians.
Many tactics of online repression are already being used, including lots of online brigading – coordinated actions by groups constantly reporting social media content to the Cyber Unit. Palestinians are under surveillance 24/7, especially on social media. Accounts are continually under surveillance and reported to social media companies. These companies are taking down almost 90 per cent of what the Israeli government asks them to.
How can international civil society and the international community best support Palestinian civil society?
I think they must take a firm stand when human rights violations happen. There’s an ongoing attempt to silence Palestinian civil society by labelling us as antisemites or terrorists. These accusations have profound effects: they aim to paralyse Palestinian civil society and prevent it recording human rights violations and atrocities – war crimes – committed against Palestinians.
Internationally recognised Palestinian human rights organisations have been on the ground for more than four decades and have recorded everything. They clearly have nothing to do with terrorism or antisemitism – all they care about is human rights and democratic values. But many governments around the world fail to reject the accusations against them. Why?
Any outstanding personality or activist standing up for Palestinians faces a smear campaign. We are trying to develop tools that help us deal with this, but it’s not simple. Palestine is not the only place where this is happening. We’ve seen shrinking civic space and civil society activists and organisations stigmatised as terrorists or terrorist supporters in many other countries in the global south, with many countries of the global north cooperating and supporting the regimes that oppress them.
No human being would accept having their freedoms taken away without fighting back, as Palestinians do; it’s a natural human reaction. We hope allies and friends from global rights movements, political movements and civil society organisations will stand up for us and raise their voices on our behalf.
RUSSIA: ‘The shutdown of media sources threatens to create information vacuum for Russians’
CIVICUS speaks about anti-war protests in Russia and the government’s violations of digital rights with Natalia Malysheva, co-founder and press secretary of Roskomsvoboda.
Roskomsvoboda is a civil society organisation (CSO) that works to defend people’s digital rights. Established in 2012, it promotes the freedom of information and advocates against censorship. It is currently working to ensure people receive accurate information about the war and offering assistance to those who have been detained.
How significant are the ongoing anti-war protests in Russia?
The protests are small. In the first days of the so-called ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine, many people came out to take part in spontaneous rallies for peace in all major cities of Russia. Human rights CSOs have reported that more than 15,000 people have been detained so far for speaking out against the war. But now protests typically consist of small groups of people in multiple locations across the country.
The new law that prohibits and criminalises the dissemination of ‘fake news’ about the Russian military action and the expression of support for ‘anti-Russian sanctions’ has had a strong impact on how people organise, and on whether they go out to protest, because it has installed fear throughout society.
People have been arrested merely for using the words ‘war’ and ‘peace’ in the context of protests, and even for using asterisks instead of letters on their signs – because the government knows that if you protest with a blank sign or a sign full of asterisks, what you are trying to say is ‘no to war’. People who advocate against the war on social media are also often at risk of being arrested.
There are fewer and fewer people who are willing to take part in an uncoordinated rally and get arrested for several days, because most of them have families and jobs they wish to protect. Many people who fear for their lives are leaving the country for their safety. Others simply do not see any prospects in a continuing struggle. Moving forward, we shouldn’t expect mass protests to arise in Russia.
Do you think protests can make any difference?
Right now it is clear that the Russian government does not intend to have a dialogue with the part of society that does not support its so-called ‘military operation’ in Ukraine. This is unfortunately a relatively small segment of society and its demands are overlooked.
Although people continue to go out to protests and some get arrested in the process, in my opinion this will not change the course of the events that are currently taking place. The authorities won’t listen to protesters. Protesting will perhaps start making more sense when – or if – most Russians begin to understand what is really happening.
What is Roskomsvoboda focusing on?
Roskomsvoboda is a CSO that supports open self-regulatory networks and the protection of digital rights of internet users. It seeks to counter online censorship and expand the opportunities brought by digital technologies.
For 10 years, Roskomsvoboda has constantly monitored the activities of government agencies. We publish a register of blocked sites and raise awareness of online abuse, leakages of personal data and the persecution of citizens for their social media statements. We conduct extensive public campaigns and events aimed at informing citizens about the violation of their digital rights, initiating public discussion and bringing people together so they can fight for their rights. Our lawyers defend those who are prosecuted for their online statements or activities, represent the interests of users and site owners in court and participate in the development of proposals for changing legislation.
In the past few days, against the backdrop of an information war and a growing social crisis, we have focused more on helping people get reliable information about what is happening. We have published pieces about new laws that have been adopted to introduce censorship and analysed how they will affect people and their right to speak up. Our lawyers continue to provide targeted legal assistance to those who are being prosecuted for speaking out online, defending people in courts.
The closure of some news outlets and social media platforms is affecting the kind of information people receive. State media outlets provide information that only reflects events from the government’s perspective and disseminate a lot of propaganda. The shutdown of leading media sources threatens to create an information vacuum for Russians, which won’t contribute to the goal of achieving peace.
Restrictions on access to information and censorship have already significantly reduced people’s ability to protest. Even publishing an online call for a peace rally can result in criminal punishment.
We recently issued a statement calling on the world’s leading internet and IT companies and initiatives not to indiscriminately impose mass sanctions and not to punish ordinary people in Russia, many of whom are already in a vulnerable position. We have translated our appeal into several languages and are asking everyone to help disseminate it.
What are the dangers of disinformation in the context of the current crisis?
The biggest risk of disinformation is that of disconnecting Russia from the global information space.
Russian authorities have blocked the world’s largest media outlets and social media. Many western companies have stopped operating in Russia, making it even more closed for international viewers. This prevents people from getting the truth about what is happening; it also destroys the businesses and careers of many people who have worked in partnership with Western countries for many years.
The current closure of businesses has left many people without vital resources. People are not only affected by oppression from the Russian government but must also deal with the potential loss of their jobs and sources of income. With such actions, western countries only risk Russia shutting down completely from the outside world, paving the way for the rise of a ‘sovereign internet’ – an internet thoroughly controlled by the government.
How can the international community best support Russian civil society?
The international community can help by bringing our message to the widest possible audience. On behalf of Russian internet users, Roskomsvoboda urges technology companies located in the jurisdictions of the USA, the European Union and other countries not to massively disable the accounts of Russian users. They should not restrict their access to information and means of communication.
Digital discrimination based on nationality would reduce the ability of Russians to gain access to reliable information, as well as to conduct honest work, study and research activities. So we ask you to please distribute our statement far and wide.
We also started a petition asking the world’s virtual private network (VPN) services to help ensure that Russian users have free access to their services during these difficult times. This is necessary to protect users’ basic rights to privacy, the secrecy of communication and their ability to receive and disseminate information freely. Access to information is a basic human right enshrined in various international agreements. In critical situations, it is more important than ever.
Civic space in Russiais rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor. Russia is currently on theCIVICUS Monitor Watch List, which identifies countries in which a severe and abrupt deterioration in the quality of civic space is taking place.
Get in touch with Roskomsvoboda through itswebsite or itsFacebook andInstagram pages, and follow@RuBlackListNET on Twitter.
RUSSIA: ‘We hope that social media companies will avoid becoming a censorship tool’
CIVICUS speaks about increasing civic space restrictions in Russia with Denis Shedov, a lawyer and analyst at OVD-Info, an independent human rights civil society organisation (CSO) that recently experienced the blockage of its website by the Russian authorities. Denis’ work focuses on the violation of the freedoms of peaceful assembly and expression and other forms of politically motivated persecution in Russia. As well as researching these topics, as a lawyer he defends detained protesters, appeals against bans on peaceful assemblies and challenges unlawful police action in Russia, while also bringing these situations to the attention of the European Court of Human Rights.
TAIWAN: ‘China will do to us what it did to Hong Kong, and what it has long done to Tibetans and Uighurs’
CIVICUS speaks about the situation in Taiwan withMin-Hsuan Wu, known as ttcat,a social movement activist and campaigner and co-founder and CEO of a Doublethink Lab.
Founded in 2019, Doublethink Lab is a civil society organisation (CSO) focused on researching malign Chinese influence operations and disinformation campaigns and their impacts, bridging the gap between the democracy movement, tech communities and China experts, and facilitating a global civil society network to strengthen democratic resilience against digital authoritarianism.
What is the story behind Doublethink Lab?
Doublethink Lab was founded three years ago, in September 2019. Four years ago, we experienced a tremendous amount of disinformation influencing our 2018 local elections. After these elections, there were lots of signals and leads of information-related, mostly disinformation campaigns – all affiliated with or supported by China.
We realised that to tackle the challenge of strengthening and safeguarding our democracy we needed people to combine their talents and diverse professional backgrounds into a project focused on digital defence.
Our main mandate is to produce a better understanding of how Chinese external propaganda functions and effectively influences political processes and public opinion elsewhere, including in Taiwan.
Our strategy to combat disinformation differs from the usual fact-checking initiatives. Our work isn’t published in fact-checking reports. Instead, we follow the disinformation to try to understand who is spreading it and whether it is being spread by our citizens dynamically or by other kinds of actors funded by the Chinese state. Often, when analysing social media posts, it is possible to see the huge structure made up of Chinese bots liking, sharing and retweeting disinformation.
What is the likely outcome of rising Chinese aggression toward Taiwan?
It’s not news that tensions between Taiwan and China are increasing. China is increasingly using ‘grey zone’ tactics to push boundaries, increasing pressure and influencing people. Through various means, China is threatening Taiwanese people. This clearly increases the chance of the whole situation leading to China invading Taiwan.
Most military experts would agree that this won’t happen right now, with Xi Jinping having just secured his third term as chairman of the Chinese Communist Party and awaiting confirmation of a third term as president of China. Some say an invasion could occur in 2025 or 2027, but I think it will depend on how strongly the Taiwanese people can defend themselves from now on: if our resistance increases, the costs of an invasion for China increase accordingly. Our resistance might therefore postpone the crystallisation of China’s wishes for a bit longer.
On the other hand, China’s tactics may be backfiring: as China escalates militarily against us, the Chinese narrative is becoming less and less popular in Taiwan. More and more people have realised China is not a good neighbour. It is no longer thought of as a business opportunity for us but as a potent threat to our ways of life, our livelihoods and our lives. China’s aggressive attitude is pushing Taiwanese people towards embracing defence tactics to protect our country, which is a positive thing for us. We are much more aware of the need to build strong national and civil defence now.
Did the recent visit by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi make any difference, for better or worse?
Pelosi’s visit didn’t complicate the situation, but whether we see it as helpful or not depends on the perspective we look at it from. Her visit in August 2022 was meant as a show of support to Taiwan, and happened despite China’s threats of retaliation. It was the first visit by a US House Speaker in a quarter of a century. From a democracy or human rights perspective, it was quite beneficial. Pelosi spoke up against China’s human rights violations and the challenges posed by totalitarian regimes. Her presence brought visibility to our country’s situation regarding China. It put a spotlight on it, and now people see how China treats us and what a destabilising factor it is for the region. It clearly bothered China, judging by the way it reacted to it on the international stage.
From a geopolitical and military perspective, Pelosi’s visit didn’t produce any benefit. It didn’t – couldn’t – bring any kind of peaceful dialogue. China’s vision and military exercises won’t change. But Pelosi’s visit didn’t complicate the situation; it just brought it under the spotlight so more Western media are paying attention to Taiwan. This kind of attention is somehow opening up many windows of opportunity for Taiwan to collaborate with other countries and agencies. No one knows what will come out of this, but from what I’ve seen so far, increased opportunities of international collaboration may improve our chances of safety.
What would it take to bring peace and stability to the region?
That’s a huge question. For me, the ultimate solution would be the opening up of civic space and the democratisation of China, Russia and other totalitarian regimes in Southeast Asia. However, we know this is too big a hope and it’s not really up to us.
There used to be a civil society in China, but under Xi’s rule civic space has been continuously shrinking for 10 years. More and more activists are getting arrested. We all saw what happened recently in Hong Kong: China cracked down hard on civic movements and arrested people for even having a podcast –regular citizens were sent to jail just in case. China shut down all forms of civic expression, including news agencies. China will do to Taiwan what it did to Hong Kong, and what it has long done to Tibetans and Uighurs within China.
If you ask me, I would say peace would require the demise of the Chinese Communist Party, but people think I am crazy when I put it this way. But from our perspective, this is the only forever solution. If you have an aggressive, expansionist neighbour trying to invade you, attaining peace is quite hard because it is not up to you. There can’t be peace unless your neighbour changes.
Without justice there won’t be any peace. I’m not sure which kind of peace people wish to see: I think they are wrong if they define peace as just the absence of war. It that’s what they want, they can move to Hong Kong. Hong Kong is peaceful now – there are no mobilisations, no protests, no disorder. But is this really peace? It’s just an illusion: people are quiet because they lost their rights and freedoms. This is not the kind of peace we want for Taiwan.
We need to find a way to open up civic space and bring democracy to the region – that is the only way forward.
How is Taiwanese civil society working to make this happen?
Lots of Taiwanese CSOs are working to limit China’s influence in the region, especially in Taiwan. There is an organisation called Economic Democracy Union that conducts serious research about Chinese influence on our economy; their work show how Chinese collaborators pretend to be Taiwanese companies and penetrate very sensitive industries such as electronics or e-commerce – industries that capture lots of personal data. Economy Democracy Union brings these issues to the surface with the aim of promoting new regulations to protect us from these influence-seeking tactics.
There are also many CSOs working to strengthen civic defence, which isn’t just war-related, but rather focused on preparedness for disaster or any kind of military operation; their goal is to teach citizens how to react in these cases.
Right now, Doublethink Lab is doing an investigation on China’s information operations. We do election monitoring and try to disclose disinformation campaigns or far-fetched narratives flooding into Taiwanese media. We are building a global network to bridge the gap between academia and civil society on a global scale. We want people to know what Chinese influence looks like in different countries, the channels it travels through, its tactics and its final goals.
Doublethink Lab isn’t the only organisation advocating for digital defence. There are several others focusing on Chinese media influence, disinformation campaigns, fact-checking processes and civic education to identify fake news, among other related issues.
What support does Taiwanese civil society need from the international community?
We need resources. Most Taiwanese CSOs are small grassroots organisations. People tend to view Taiwan as a rich country with a very prosperous economy, but the truth is that civil society movements struggle a lot. Human rights CSOs and those working to counter Chinese influence usually have fewer resources than a regular charity. CSOs need more resources to be able to recruit new talent.
Right now is the perfect time to ask ourselves what we really need. I always ask my fellow activists what they need, and answers resemble a lot those of activists in Hong Kong or Ukraine. Something the international community can also help with is by exposing Taiwan’s struggle. We don’t want people to think our issues are disconnected from those of the rest of the world – we want to become closer and we want to be understood. We need more connections with CSOs in the rest of the world. We need all forms of help to prepare and get ready for what’s coming.
Civic space in Taiwan is rated ‘open’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
THAILAND: ‘Spyware was used to monitor protesters’ online activity’
CIVICUS speaks about the use of surveillance technology against civil society activists in Thailand with Sutawan Chanprasert, founder and executive director of DigitalReach, a civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes digital rights, human rights and democracy in Southeast Asia.
What is DigitalReach working on?
DigitalReach is a digital rights organisation working in southeast Asia. We are looking at the impact of technology on human rights and democracy in the region. We initiated this project with a focus on the use of Pegasus spyware in Thailand and reached out to The Citizen Lab and iLaw for collaboration. This is because iLaw is a well-known organisation based in Thailand with a great connection with local activists, and The Citizen Lab is well-known for its expertise in spyware investigation.
What were the main findings of this research?
Pegasus spyware, which is produced by NSO group and sold only to state agencies, can infect devices (both iOS and Android) through a technology called ‘zero click’, which means that it needs no action on the part of the targeted user. Once the spyware is installed, it can gain access to everything on the device, including photos and text messages, and can turn the camera and microphone on and off.
In Thailand, this spyware has been used against at least 35 iPhone users: 24 activists, three CSO workers, three academics and five opposition politicians. These infections happened between October 2020 and November 2021, which was peak time for the democracy movement.
There were three reasons why the spyware was used against dissidents: to monitor protesters’ online activity, to monitor the protests and to find out more about the movement’s funding. On the basis of forensic evidence, The Citizen Lab confirmed that zero-click technology was used, exploiting vulnerabilities in the system to gain access to the devices.
This was likely not the first time spyware was used against activists in Thailand, but we have no evidence to confirm this suspicion. Other digital surveillance tools have also been used: as detailed in our report, GPS devices were found attached to some dissidents’ vehicles during democracy mobilisations.
How did the government react to your findings?
On 22 July the Prime Minister said in parliament that he does not know anything about this spyware, and he added that such spyware would be unnecessary as we all knew what was going on from social media. The Deputy Minister of Defence also declared in parliament that it is not the government’s policy to use spyware against people or ‘generally’ violate their rights. Meanwhile, the Minister of Digital Economy and Society stated in parliament that spyware technology had been purchased but not by a department or agency under his authority. However, he referred to it generically as ‘spyware technology’, without ever confirming that he was referring to Pegasus.
Is there anything CSOs and activists can do to counter spyware?
Spyware is considered a dual-use item, which means it can also be useful in criminal investigations. However, we all know this is not always the case. In Thailand and many other countries, spyware has been used against dissidents and members of the opposition, which means that the technology needs to be strictly regulated so it’s not abused. However, it’s hard to see that happening under the current administration, as the government itself is the likely perpetrator. Only policymakers who care about human rights will be able to make progress on this.
As for individual activists, there is no total solution to prevent a device from being infected by this kind of spyware. However, exposure to this threat can be reduced in several ways, such as by using two-factor authentication, using a security key or an authenticator app rather than an SMS, using a messaging platform with the disappearing message feature and by enrolling in Google’s Advanced Protection Program.
What can the international community do to support Thai activists facing surveillance?
This is a tricky question. Thailand doesn’t currently have an active local digital rights organisation, so working on this would be a good first step to increase digital security protection. The global community that works on digital security can play an important role. However, training activities offered in Thailand must be conducted in the local language and customised to fit the Thai context.
There’s also a need for digital security work in Thailand that goes beyond training, including monitoring to watch for emerging digital threats against dissidents, more research and work with local activists and organisations to ensure their long-term digital safety with a sustainable approach. Funding is also needed because local activists and organisations must buy tools to support their digital security.