Exploring the transitional role of online actors in a rapidly changing MENA region
A Heinrich Böll Foundation-Global Voices joint event.
Amman, 20-23 January, 2014
Introduction and overview:
Three years after the start of the Arab uprisings, the challenges faced by digital activists, bloggers, and netizens in the Middle East and North Africa have shifted substantially. While in some countries the internet and speech rights are considerably more free, others face continued and significant surveillance, censorship, and new threats to individuals and communities from emerging actors, as well as significant threats of violence or imprisonment.
Uncertainty about the future and political polarization have made attempted transitions to democracy difficult and often times painful, especially for those of us, netizens, who supported and helped drive it.
Uncertainty about the role of netizens themselves in a post-”Arab Spring” MENA has for some given way to frustration and uncertainty about what to do next. Others fear a digital counter-revolution at a time when organized non-state actors and governments are developing sophisticated cyber security and surveillance tactics, sometimes working hand-in-hand with private companies.
Illiberal legislation is also on the rise. New laws tailored to curtail free speech online are mushrooming across the region, exposing netizens to even more prosecution and imprisonment.
The Heinrich Böll-Global Voices Arab Bloggers Conferences have over the past four years brought together the most influential voices from across the region and helped them debate and share knowledge and experience. These meetings played an important role in helping digital activists across the MENA region know and build a network of solidarity with each other prior to the Arab uprisings. This network helped them to shape and share activist strategies and tactics, learn from each other, and build a community of practice driven by local initiatives, resources, and agendas.
We believe there’s a need, today more than ever, for a meeting of this kind. While there have been other meetings on digital security and training in the past three years, they have been often driven by external agendas, focused on narrow themes, meant for a specific group of activists or targeting sub-regional publics.
The Arab Bloggers Conferences have distinguished themselves by being spaces created primarily by local activists and for local activists. They are based on a participatory model of peer learning and civic activism incentives rather than external agendas.
By being at the crossroads of technologists and political activists and enjoying the trust of its worldwide community, Global Voices has helped bridge the gap between those local actors who are from different generations and enjoy different skills and backgrounds.
We want our meeting to be as much a sharing as it is a learning experience, offering activists the opportunity to discover new ways of reporting and communicating effectively about their causes. We want the meeting to be a place for MENA activists to share ideas about what’s working and not working in changed political environments, to come up with new, joint projects, to invigorate their efforts with new ideas, and to meet and learn together with the next generation of digital activists, who are focusing on post-revolution concerns.
Objectives and desired outcomes:
The meeting aims at achieving the following objectives:
- establish strengthened communities of practice.
- showcase leading community-based projects from the MENA that are helping advance civic engagement through the use of the internet.
- share cutting edge knowledge in digital security and privacy protection.
- build collaborative knowledge around internet policy and rights issues.
- strengthen links between different generations and breeds of online actors hopefully leading to synergies conducive to collaboration and mutual support.
- map out opportunities for increased collaboration that the Heinrich Böll Foundation and the Global Voices community can support in the long haul.
- support the emergence of a new generation of facilitative leaders.
- expand and sustain existing networks of support for a free and fair internet in the MENA.
Each participant should leave with concrete ideas and action items on how they can have a positive impact on the internet freedom situation in the MENA.
Event and Participants
Since our first Summit in Beirut in 2008, we helped build an active network of digital activists — people who are at the forefront of the struggle for change, each in her or his own country.
During the Arab uprisings in 2011, this network proved to be effective, each individual acting as a critical information node transmitting first-hand knowledge, and a powerful engine to spreading the news about what was happening on the ground.
This active network continued to function after the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya led to the toppling of local dictatorships and as the grim reality on the ground in Syria started to emerge. The group worked as an informal network, sharing ideas, practices and informed comment.
Drawing from our experience in facilitating the building of such groups, we want to sustain the emergence of similar communities of practice by reaching out to new actors in the region and new hubs of local and international expertise.
The meeting will be built around participatory principles fully focused on peer learning based on respect and inclusion.
We want attendees to be active, innovative digital actors so as to act themselves as facilitators for their communities at home. Participants will have shown through their work a commitment to change and to the values of human rights, nonviolence and democracy.
To achieve that goal we are inviting online actors from 17 Arab countries (Tunisia, Mauritania, Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Yemen, Sudan and Saudi Arabia), in addition to representatives from Turkey and Iran.
Representatives of international advocacy groups known for their support for freedom of expression online in the region will join us along with experts in digital security and online surveillance.
Representatives of the Heinrich Böll Foundation as well as a selection of representatives of the different Global Voices community projects (Lingua, Rising Voices, Global Voices Advocacy, MENA contributors and editors) will also be in attendance.
Time, place and format:
The meeting will take place between 20 and 23 January 2014 in the Jordanian capital, Amman. It will last for 4 days, comprising a closed meeting (3 days) followed by a public meeting (1 day).
The primary language will be Arabic, with simultaneous translation in English available during the public day.
As in previous meetings, we want to encourage the sharing of knowledge, experiences, and best practices between all participants. The public meeting will therefore include a mix formats allowing for different levels of interactivity and ﬂuid, informal conversations. Formats will include plenary sessions with short keynote speeches, motion-driven public sessions with opposing panels, and open fora with high levels of interaction between subject matter experts and the public.
The closed meeting is intended for digital digital actors. “Morning Tracks” will each day explore four overarching themes: digital security, Internet policy, innovative and impactful storytelling, and data visualization. Facilitators will help participants drive the morning tracks, rarely intervening to keep the conversation on track. During the afternoons, participants (activists, artist and technologists alike) will be encouraged to share ideas of their own and lead “Afternoon Labs” – workshops based on what participants want to teach or learn.
Side events will be organized throughout the closed meeting.