CAIRO: The United Nations Information Center hosted on Tuesday and Wednesday a regional panel discussion between human rights defenders and social media activists in observance of International Human Rights Day.
“The role of this meeting was to introduce the defenders to the bloggers, between whom we felt a rift growing apart,” said Khawla Mattar, Cairo Director of the UN Information center.
The panel was also organized in cooperation between the Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) and the Arab Organization for Human rights (AOHR), and presented the experiences of human rights defenders and social media activists “with the movement for democracy, liberties and human rights” throughout examples from the Arab region.
Among the debates featured were ones that presented the experiences of bloggers and activists in Egypt and Libya throughout the uprisings, in which the role of the alternative media was highlighted.
“Until this day the alternative media is playing a role to present the truth and counter the official media,” said Egyptian blogger Basma Abdel-Aziz, who then vowed that “[the official media’s] forgery was destined to end.”
Abdullah Al-Jerbi from Libya also agreed, “The Feb. 17 revolution showed the power of bloggers and their ability to effect change,” he then cited the example of Mohamed Nabbous who was killed on Mar. 19 when trying to take photos of crimes committed.
“The concept of the sovereignty of the state over its domain is gradually disappearing through the use of the internet,” explained then Abdel-Moneim Al-Hour, also from Libya.
Al-Hour then told of how Libyans in Egypt contacted mobile service provider Vodafone to extend their network range into Libyan territory as far as Tobruk after Qaddafi cut off communications in Eastern Libya.
“We even then sent them recharge packages to maintain their access,” said Al-Hour, “[the bloggers] allowed us to monitor and report crimes committed by the Qaddafi regime.”
The role of bloggers wasn’t well received throughout the Arab world however, as Mohamed Salem Al-Ka’by, a human rights activist from the UAE explained.
“In the Emirates we had a case of five bloggers who were detained earlier in 2011 … they were not only criticized as dissenters by 95 percent of the community, but even by their own parents.”
Al-Ka’by then told a long tale of how rights activists had tried to release the bloggers after being referred from one official to another, until finally being pardoned by the ruler of Sharjah on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the declaration of the Emarati federation.
The session also included a small argument in the question and answer session between Egyptian rights activist Hafez Abu Seada and Palestinian blogger Asmaa Al-Ghoul, who had accused the former and the civil society in general of taking advantage of the revolutionary momentum created by the bloggers and attributing it to themselves.
“That’s not true,” said Abu Seada, “and the proof is the arrests of rights activists on Jan. 26 by the authorities … Even right now, a prime activist, Alaa Abdel-Fattah is under arrest.”
Abu Seada then said that “civil society didn’t accomplish the entire revolution but it jumpstarted it.”
“We defended bloggers, led activists, spread information, and so on,” he said, “Yesterday there was a SCAF press conference, it was denounced immediately on Twitter and criticized with evidence collected by civil society.”
In the closing session, AOHR officials noted their observances regarding the past and future, as Raji Sourani, chairman of the AOHR, recounted the first meeting of the organization in 1983.
“We weren’t allowed by any of the 22 Arab League countries to host the first conference, which forced us to go, ironically, to Limassol, Cyprus, well outside the Arab world,” although now there are branches in all 22 Arab states.
He noted however that the ordeal wasn’t without risk, and some members were even sentenced in their countries to death throughout the years’ struggle, but in the end the founders were happy to see their slogans adopted by the revolutions of the Arab Spring.
Sourani said that although some revolutions passed the first phase, they still have lots to do to fulfill the primary goals and need assistance, “Our hopes are not just about the revolution succeeding, but also holding those who committed crimes accountable.”
On the other hand, Alaa Shalabi, secretary general of AOHR, warned of possible ‘hunger revolutions’ if the demands for social justice were not achieved.
“Here in Cairo, the city has over 20 million inhabitants, of those, 13 million live in the slums,” he said, “we fear if they break out, there’ll be a ‘Cairo fire’ much worse than that of 1952,” also warning that the scenario wasn’t only endemic to Egypt possible to occur in 12 other Arab states.
Shalabi remarked on the role of the media, “channels like Aljazeera or Alaribya played different roles in different regions, but we certainly can’t deny their contributions … No one has absolute neutrality.”
However, he warned of what he described as ‘GNGOs’ (government-controlled NGOs), which appear to be defending human rights but “in fact are run behind the scenes by intelligence agencies,” often working against activists.
Frej Fenniche, UNHCR senior human rights officer, finally noted that the 2011 events were the results of accumulations.
“Everyone was surprised and no one was prepared, neither the revolutionaries, nor the governments, nor the world, nor even the UN,” he said.