Web democrats get professional training
18 January 2013
Rafaa is filling an online library with eye-witness accounts of human rights abuses in Syria. Ibrahim is busy constructing a debating site to enable people to discuss and disseminate issues concerning Yemen’s future. Aymen is developing technical platforms for direct democracy in Tunisia. All three of them are on a programme for opinion-makers from the Middle East which is run by Lund University together with the Swedish Institute.
Since the month of October, 15 hand-picked students from the Middle East and North Africa have been experiencing the grim and windy autumn in Landskrona. In the University’s premises in the Citadel quarter, they are to be drilled in human rights while learning the latest developments in digital technology. The programme is aimed at young people who are driven by a will to bring about change in their home countries, above all with regard to social justice and human rights.
Rafaa Almasri is one of five Syrians on the course. She is a blogger and journalist and works for a TV channel from Dubai as well as for a newspaper that is published by the Syrian opposition. Since the start of the uprising, she has taken on assignments as an interpreter for internationally accredited journalists in order to get the opportunity to travel around the country and conduct her own work as a journalist. She has been arrested twice. So when a Belgian journalist told her about the course in Lund, she realised that six months in Sweden would give her the peace, opportunities and tools she needs to develop the project she is passionate about – an online library of testimony of human rights abuses.
“There is huge ignorance in Syria about what human rights are”, she says.
By allowing people to recount the abuses they have suffered and pointing out which of their rights were violated, she wants to raise awareness. She also hopes that the online library will serve as documentation for the day the civil war ends and justice is done.
Rafaa Almasri talks about Syria’s “citizen journalists”, that is the ordinary people who blog and post their testimonies on YouTube.
“They are incredibly brave and risk their lives to talk about what is happening in Syria”, she says. In addition, Syrians today have become experts in how to use proxy servers and other means of maintaining anonymity when posting things on the internet.
Aymen Amri from Tunisia is part of the internet activist cluster Telecomix which was founded by Marcin de Kaminski, a sociologist of law from Lund and director of the study programme. Telecomix works for a free and open internet and has, among other things, taken action against the Syrian regime when it tried to censor parts of the internet. It was through the network that Aymen Amri found out about the study programme.
Aymen Amri seems to have an endless number of ideas on how the internet can be opened up and used in the name of democracy. He is developing some of them at the moment in the form of projects. One of them concerns a web platform – “Party 2.0” – for direct democracy, where Tunisians can make their voices heard and influence politicians in office.
“Democracy in Tunisia is very fragile,” he says. People have trouble getting their voices heard but with the help of a web platform they can discuss, organise and put forward their demands to politicians in office.
In another project, he is developing a tool to grade political leaders. “Rate my governor” he calls it. The hope is that the platform will give public opinion such a great impact that every politician with a sense of self-preservation will be obliged to take it into account.
A third project also aims to make people’s voices heard. Through yet another web platform, it will be possible to put forward suggestions to politicians. These proposals will gain political clout if a sufficient number of people support them.
Aymen Amri is the founder of the first Tunisian so-called hackerspace, where people gather to solve various computer-based problems. Among many other activities, help is provided to “hacktivists” (from hacker and activist) who break into computers for political reasons, such as to help journalists in their investigative work.
“The aim of the hacktivists is to expose the secrecy and corruption in the political system”, he says.
Ibrahim Mohtana, political activist and the only course participant from Yemen, has started a web-based debate forum to enable ordinary people to discuss current and important issues. How political Islam relates to human rights, and the consequences of foreign aid, are some of the subjects that have been addressed in the debates, which are conducted according to the British parliamentary model. The debates have had a major impact and have been quoted in influential western media. Another of Ibrahim Mohtana’s projects aims to get Yemenis involved in drawing up a vision for what the country should be like in 2020. The vision is to be developed through crowdsourcing.
Programme director Marcin de Kaminski, a doctoral student in Sociology of Law, is himself an internet activist. He is involved in the internet think tank, Juliagruppen, and works with the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, SIDA, and the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs among others on internet freedom and digital democratisation. He hopes that the course will contribute to long-term positive development in the region.
“It is a great advantage that everyone has different backgrounds and that we gather expertise from many different fields”, says Marcin de Kaminski. “Everyone is committed and shares the goal of doing good things together. It is a learning process for us as lecturers, too”.
All course participants have been admitted on the basis of the projects that they intend to realise. After six months in Sweden, they will return to their home countries to continue their projects with the support of the course lecturers. At the end of the current year, the course will be concluded with a follow-up conference in Lund.
Text: Ulrika Oredsson
More about the course Social innovation in a digital context:
The course Social innovation in a digital context is offered in collaboration with the Swedish Institute, Lund University’s Internet Institute (LUii) and Lund University Commissioned Education (LUCE). The majority of the lecturers come from Lund University but some expertise has been brought in from elsewhere. A selection from the timetable: human rights, the use of new media in social movements, citizens’ or grass-roots journalism, video activism, security and ethics, social media and political consequences.
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