Cyber-Activism Spreads

Internet campaigns clash with official intolerance of pressure groups.

Cyber-Activism Spreads

Internet campaigns clash with official intolerance of pressure groups.

Wednesday, 5 August, 2009
Increasing internet use in Syria has allowed young people to circumvent restrictions on forming pressure groups, despite official action to rein them in.

The country’s private mobile phone operators, Syriatel and MTN, were one recent target. Three months ago, Hassan al-Zarki and four of his friends launched a campaign to press for cheaper calls.

The group quickly managed to gather 5,630 electronic signatures for a petition about the cost of calls - between 9 and 13 US cents per minute. To back the crusade, they urged supporters not to use their phones for two hours on the first day of each month.

The mobile companies did not respond to the agitation but they did introduce new offers aimed at young people, which Hassan saw as a small victory.

Now, Hassan says he is torn between going on with the campaign and a fear of being stopped by authorities.

Hassan and his friends are part of a new generation of cyber-activists who are using the internet to mobilise citizens to act on certain social, economic and legal issues.

Other campaigns by young internet users have included pressure on the authorities to scrap a widely-condemned personal status draft law, raising awareness about sexual harassment and collecting funds for a four-year-old victim of rape.

Hundreds have rallied behind a campaign against the banning of the social networking website Facebook and one group addressed an online letter to President Bashar al-Assad urging him to unblock the site and protect Syrians’ right to free access to information.

Although the site is officially blocked, many people have found ways to circumvent the restriction.

The spread of internet use in Syria has created a virtual space for young people to form groups and start online social and political activities, said Faek al-Mir, a political activist and a former prisoner of conscience.

The importance of this new movement is that it is encouraging youth to carry out collective work that engages the whole of society, said Mir, who spent more than 11 years in jail for campaigning for democracy.

He said the trend is new to young Syrians, many of whom believe in personal action rather than collaboration when it comes to civil liberties.

Young people have also been using the web to try to bring about change in society.

In recent weeks, the rape of a young girl developed into a public debate about sexual abuse of children thanks to an internet campaign, said one cyber-activist who preferred to remain anonymous.

She said that the achievement of her group was to gather about 5,000 people on Facebook around one social cause.

According to Zeina Arhim, a journalist who launched an online campaign against proposed legislation related to marriage, inheritance and divorce, the internet played a pivotal role in bringing activists together and opening a space for communication and debate among them.

Arhim created a Facebook group against the draft law, which according to many civil rights groups violated women rights. More than 5,000 people joined the group, she said.

Many believe that the momentum gathered by online campaigning against the draft law put pressure on the authorities to finally reject it.

Some say that online activism has become a substitute for real lobby groups, which are absent on the ground in Syria.

“The regime in Syria has worked at incapacitating civil society and in particular the potent energy of youth,” said the political activist, Mir.

Since the Baath party took power in 1963, the authorities have imposed increasing restrictions on youth activities and limited them to organisations tightly linked to the ruling party, critics say.

The emergency law in effect since the 1960s as well as frequent arrests and conviction of young activists have prevented the establishment of youth pressure groups, they say.

These factors, in addition to other technical considerations like the low penetration rate of the internet in Syria, are an obstacle to the development of online youth movements, some say.

According to the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression, the authorities have blocked more than 250 websites.

A 2007 analysis by the OpenNet Inititative, an academic project to expose internet filtering, said blocking in Syria was reducing. However, it said that many blogs and other critical voices, Islamic extremist, Kurdish and pro-Israeli sites were blocked as well as Arabic news sites. The authorities were also blocking many “anonymiser” sites that allow users to circumvent filtering and detection.

Five cyber-dissidents are currently in jail for material they posted online. In the past, officials have also imprisoned a group of young activists for creating an online discussion forum and publishing online articles.

Zarki, the young man who helped launch the internet campaign against mobile phone charges, said that fear of being arrested remains the biggest barrier for cyber-activists.

“Although we know that we are not breaking the law … there is no guarantee that we will not be subject to intimidation by the security services,” he said.

Internet campaigns - even if they do not touch on political issues - cross a red line in the eyes of the authorities because they do not want to see the younger generation participating in the public arena in any form, said one activist speaking on condition of anonymity.

“For a young man to lose his university education and his future for just one activity is not an easy sacrifice,” she said.
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