What’s Standing Between Us and Online Freedom of Expression?

Speakers of the workshop”Obstacles of Online Freedom of Expression in the Arab Region”,from right to left: Mohamad Najem, Laila Nashawati, Dalia othman, Azaz Al Shami
Photo credit: Reem AlMasri

The fifth workshop at the fourth annual Arab IGF was organized by SMEX and dealt with the theme of “Obstacles of Online Freedom of Expression in the Arab Region”.
The session began with the assertion that the Human Rights network, specifically organizations like the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), focuses on gender rights and freedoms of expression and access to build an inclusive feminist Internet. Effectively, women face more obstacles to accessing the Internet, including cyberbullying. Nevertheless, the Internet also opens a lot of windows and possibilities for women, having empowered many of them to work in the field.
The panel was drawn by one of the attendee during the workshop

According to Dalia Othman, Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, online activism in the Arab world is struggling to get its message out. Platform censorship and algorithms make it difficult for more people to penetrate more platforms. For instance, many pages have been taken down in the past few years, including most ISIS social media accounts and a Facebook page called “ Intifada”, which called for an uprising in Israel in 2011, both of which seem hard to condemn. Hence, the issue of deciding when censorship is legitimate, i.e. when it is fighting extremism, was also raised. For instance, although it is universal that ISIS is an extremist movement, Al-Nusra Front is a gray area, making it easy for bureaucracy to take over.
As for algorithms, they are a set of computer processes that manage  online data related to anything from everyday life to financial markets. We should all become more familiar with algorithm functions to be able to effectively practice our digital freedoms. In addition, there is a need for transparency in this regard, which is slowly becoming available through online tools like onlinecensorship.org.
On the other hand, according to Azaz Shami, blogger, Human Rights researcher, and translator, “in the real world, it’s possible to hide. However, this is not the case on the Internet”. If newspapers publish something on their websites, governments may be able to prosecute them and impose fines to control content. In Sudan, for instance, the government ensures slow speed and high costs for Internet services, which it controls.
Similarly, with the ascent of citizen media, Arab administrations are creating new laws to oversee online discourse and other rights of expression and access. Governments are abusing the freedoms and duties of journalists, activists, bloggers and others, who are never completely free to report all facts and opinions.
These main issues are just a glimpse of the long way we still have to go before we achieve an ideal situation of digital freedom. However, the amount of initiatives directed toward promoting this situation is an encouraging light at the end of the tunnel.
Report: Patricia Batruny and Maria Franjieh
Edited by: Sarah Yakzan


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