Day One Strategy Conference: Off to a Good Start
Day One of the IFEX Strategy Conference was off to a good start despite some session delays. But the ambitious program meant there was a lot of ground to cover and I had a hard time selecting issues on which to focus, given the various interesting topoics.
That notwithstanding, I enjoyed catching up with old friends, making new ones, and finding out more first-hand from Egyptian, Tunisian, Yemeni, and other, “revolutionaries” who’d participated in recent uprisings in their respective countries.
Unfortunately, opening session speaker Maryam Al-Khawaja of Bahrain was apparently barred from traveling, so her stand-in, Iraqi Khalid Ibrahim briefed participants on the situation in Bahrain, and in his own country, where the dust has yet to settle since the U.S. invasion of 2003.
Perhaps most telling about activists, journalists, bloggers and others attending this gathering is their dedication and commitment to the cause. It’s not just grandiose rhetoric, but a sincere belief that one should fight for one’s convictions. The message came across loud and clear in their presentations and comments.
The opening session, which also featured speakers from Egypt and Tunisia was peppered with insights about how each dealt with the upheaval in her country.
Tunisian Naziha Rejiba’s eloquent references to old-world media and Arabic literary traditions were most poignant when she repeated the mantra that became the Tunisian revolt’s anthem from a compatriot’s poem: “Iza al shaabu youman arad al hayat, fa la budd an yastajeebul qadar” (loosely translated: if a people wants life, fate must comply).
Fast-forward to social media and how young Egyptians made optimum use of them in their quest for freedom — initially from the Interior Ministry’s abuses, and later from the regime of Hosni Mubarak, as recounted by Nora Younis.
While the session was animated and fun, unfortunately the moderator lacked in time management skills and there was no time for questions from the audience.
Another session, a seminar on “Emerging Online Threats to Journalists,” was quite instructive for novices, with moderator Danny O’Brien demonstrating how repressive regimes exercise censorship, surveillance and other forms of control.
He featured the Committee to Protect Journalists’ “10 Tools of Online Oppression,” a useful guide on how online crackdowns are conducted. He also suggested ways to circumvent controls.
Nora Younis chipped in for a repeat appearance recounting how she’d become a blogger in the early days of Egyptian online activism.
Authorities dismissed bloggers at first, thinking the Internet was insignificant, she said. They’ve since wised up and the current ruling military council uses social media to reach out to the people, but Younis said it was a veneer and that few people fell for it.
Speaker Serenade Woo shed light on China’s choke-hold on all Internet users and how Chinese journalists were acutely aware of what their red lines were.
Cutting off phone lines, online tracking of Internet users and outright threats to dissidents were par for the course, she said, which meant people learned to talk in code, or to use diversionary tactics.
But ever-present security operatives remained hell-bent on snooping on everyone and on barring citizens from references to Arab revolutions. The word “jasmine,” as in Jasmine Revolution, has become taboo.
A workshop on “Tactics for Online Advocacy” with Ramsey George was instructive with helpful hints on turning information into “info-activism,” notably through digital media.
George’s captivating videos, a hand-out guide on the topic, and discussion of advocacy movements, were quite engaging with participants sharing their own experiences, or recounting successful campaigns that had attracted their attention.
A final session of the day involved one-on-one interaction with different groups of advocates. I chose to continue discussing online advocacy and web tools with Ramsey George to learn more about his activities in Jordan.