Access Denied – digital rights at SPEAK! 2019

Digital rights are human rights – an ideal to which the Dutch government and many Dutch NGOs including RNW Media are deeply committed. In the words of the Human Rights Ambassador of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Her Excellency Dr Bahia Tahzib-Lie, “everyone should have access to safe and secure space online… women and men across religious, racial, ethnic and regional divides should be able to come together online and express themselves freely.”

Dr Tahzib-Lie was speaking at Access Denied: Click to claim your civic space, an event focusing on digital access in restrictive settings, organised by RNW Media in partnership with the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. RNW Media creates and maintains digital platforms in restrictive settings that enable young people to come together in a way which is often impossible in the offline space.  These platforms function as alternative online civic spaces and can come under threat. Network disruptions and large-scale shut-downs have become increasingly common in recent years. For this reason, the Access Denied event brought together a number of organisations working to extend and defend digital rights around the world, as well as RNW Media colleagues from Africa and MENA who live with the on-the-ground reality of digital rights violations.

Speaking out
The event at de Balie in Amsterdam on September 21st was one of a range of RNW Media’s activities in support of SPEAK! 2019. SPEAK! is a global campaign organised by CIVICUS which provides a platform for people across the world to “speak out” on the issues that matter most to them. In her opening remarks, RNW Media CEO Jacqueline Lampe emphasised the importance of being free to speak out, quoting the Japanese peace advocate, Daisaku Ikeda: “dialogue helps us overcome the division within our own heads and generate mutual understanding and solidarity”.

Last safe space
Dr Tahzib-Lie then set out very clearly the human rights policy of the Dutch government and the importance it attaches to internet freedom and freedom of expression both online and off. Describing an open, free and secure internet as being essential to furthering prosperity, enhancing societies and protecting our values she expressed concern at the increasingly disproportionate restrictions being placed on human rights online. Describing such restrictions as a slippery slope she said:

The world wide web and social media can serve as the last safe space for human rights defenders to share their ideas, exchange thoughts and enjoy their fundamental rights. Internet shutdowns limit public participation, minimise reporting of atrocities and limit the accountability of people in power. Clearly internet shutdowns are too destructive and simply unacceptable.

Just how destructive internet shutdowns can be was made vividly clear with a video recorded in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in which Congolese journalist Lemien Sakalunga reflects on life during the 3-week period at the beginning of this year when the government cut off all internet access to ‘prevent a popular uprising’ after contested elections.

Human rights, human lives
The video was followed by a panel discussion between Rodriguez Katsuva, editor for RNW Media’s projects in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Habari RDC and Amour Afrique, Guillermo Beltrà, Policy Director of digital rights NGO Access Now and RNW Media’s Director of Global Networks Michelle Ernsting. Katsuva explained that it’s relatively common for journalists in DRC to have no formal training and they rely on the internet to be able to check sources and gather information. While the government may claim that a shutdown is intended to stop the spread of ‘fake news’ it actually has the opposite effect and prevents access to reliable information. Katsuva also brought out the very human, personal side of the internet shutdown experience:

We are talking about human rights, human lives. This woman, this beautiful woman, she is sick. We do not know what is happening, because there is not enough money to go to the hospital, but her first-born son worked hard and got a fellowship to do a Master’s programme, in Paris, in Europe. This woman, every evening, when she calls her son on Messenger or WhatsApp, she said, my son, hearing your voice is a kind of medicine. During the 21 days of the shutdown she could not talk to her son. This woman is my mother.

Connectivity matters
Beltrà talked about the work of Access Now and the monitoring of internet shutdowns around the world. He also described their digital security helpline which helps users at risk around the world protect themselves. He emphasised the importance of connectivity for young people especially:

If we think of the generation that are digital natives, born and grown with these technologies. They do not know or have not experienced what it means to participate in society without the technology. I think that is another element of vulnerability we need to bear in mind.

The ensuing discussion touched on the role that tech giants such as Google and Facebook play—both in limiting access to online content via their own algorithms and in complying with government request to restrict access.

Fighting hate speech
The panelists were then joined by Rawan el Nuntaser and Alzubayr Busaeidah, editors for Huna Libya (RNW Media’s project in Libya), and the discussion moved on to the concept of shrinking online access and civic spaces. El Nuntaser began by explaining the internet access issues in Libya had less to do with shutdowns and more to do with censorship of culturally sensitive material. The main problem in Libya’s online sphere, she said, is hate speech:

There are no regulations, protecting people’s privacy, people’s advocacy or expression. At Huna Libya we face a lot of comments and tweets, that are hateful and very brutal, using derogatory language based on sex, race, ethnicity etc., where people are just trying to dehumanise others for telling their story, for telling their perspective.

Busaeidah then shared his experience of being kidnapped from a café, imprisoned in a militia compound and mistreated after his picture appeared on Facebook with a post claiming he was associated with material seen as supporting gay people. Libyan society, he said, needs the internet because protest in the streets is forbidden and civil society highly restricted. But at the same time online hate speech is a grave threat. The Huna Libya colleagues explained that they fight back on hate speech by offering:

A safe online space for having an open and healthy dialogue, with inclusive content, respectful discussion. So we are hoping and working that when a writer and activist has a drink in a café he will be safe.

World-wide onslaught
Leon Willems, Director of Free Press Unlimited, put these on-the-ground stories of rights violations into a broader perspective saying:

The world-wide onslaught against people who are courageous like Busaeidah is a global phenomenon. And especially if you look at retaliation against women who speak up, it is really like an infectious crime that is going on in societies. The interesting aspect of it, and maybe because of the nature of the internet, is that it is a global phenomenon. We can no longer say, this is happening far away.

Willems went on to discuss the ways in which governments around the world are attempting to take back control of the internet with some 60 laws being introduced over the past two years to regulate freedom of expression on the internet.

Privacy and cyber security
Guillermo Beltrà ended the discussion with what he described as a multi-dimensional answer to the protection of online civic space. First, of course, people must have access to the internet but once online there are other aspects of civic life that need to be protected. These include a global framework for data protection and privacy to ensure that our online activities cannot be used against us; ensuring there are safeguards in place to make sure that digital identity programmes respect human rights; cyber security to protect our digital lives from intruders and the protection of freedom of expression online.

Global solutions
The final speaker at the event was Clara Bosco, Senior Advisor on Civil Society Resourcing for CIVICUS. She described the global SPEAK! Campaign, first launched in 2017, as originating from the need for more collaborative responses to the global challenges that face humanity.

If you look at the threats to fundamental freedoms and rights and at the conditions of digital spaces, there is really a need to moderate responses together. These challenges are actually affecting all of us. north south, rich, poor, people in power or oppressed, ultimately they will affect us all.

SPEAK! has rapidly grown to become an opportunity for advocacy and campaigning across a wide range of issues. The Access Denied event was one of more than 150 actions and events taking place in more than 50 countries as part of SPEAK! 2019