Blogging Truth to Power in the Middle East
I had the honor today of moderating a panel on elections and new media co-sponsored by Google and Freedom House. What made it particularly interesting was the participation of a group of eleven bloggers from the Middle East and North Africa — individuals who every day take risks in order to promote human rights, and who often find themselves in trouble for saying and doing things we take for granted. Like their colleague Ahmed Maher, they do not know whether they will be imprisoned for their writing and activism.
Rather than talk about the meeting, I thought I’d let you learn more about the bloggers themselves — and, when possible, offer links to their sites. I encourage you to check them out and to support their important work.
AbdelKader Benkhaled is an active Algerian blogger and member of the political party the Peace Society Movement, or Harakat Mudjtamaa Silm. He regularly contributes to various newspapers, magazines and websites in addition to leading trainings on electronic media in many departments across Algeria. Mr. Benkhaled has attended several training sessions on effective media communication skills, and is a member of various youth associations for bloggers and students.
Bassem Samir is a founding Member of the Egyptian Democratic Academy, which seeks to promote the principles of democracy and citizenship, equality and forgiveness, as well as to renounce the culture of violence, racism, corruption and despotism in accordance with the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Since 2007, Mr. Samir has served as the Director of the Human Rights Unit of the Egyptian Union of Liberal Youth organization, which promotes the principles of political, economic and social liberty in order to redefine the relationship between the individual and the State in Egypt.
Dalia Ziada is the current Director of the North Africa Bureau of the American Islamic Congress. Prior to working at the American Islamic Congress, she was the Egypt Regional Coordinator for the Tharwa Foundation for Diversity, Development and Democracy; researcher for the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information; and was the political reporter and translator for Al-Ahram Daily Newspaper. Most recently, Dalia organized Cairo’s first human rights film festival to high acclaim and was featured in Time Magazine. Dalia is an outspoken women rights activist who advocated against Female Genital Mutilation in Egypt. In addition to blogging, she has translated two books into Arabic and her first book of poems will be published in early 2010.
Esraa Rashid is the Media Coordinator at the Egyptian Democratic Academy. The Academy runs Almahrousa, an online radio which is very popular among Egyptian youth. Creator of the April 6 Strike Group on Facebook in March 2008, she organized a strike in support of workers in Mahalla al-Kobra that lead to her arrest and sentencing of two-weeks in jail. It was the first arrest order of its kind issued to a woman by the Egyptian Interior Ministry. The success of the strike, the size of the Facebook group – over 70,000 members -, and the notoriety she received for her jail term made her a well-known figure throughout Egypt and among human rights activists. Her blog articles focus on human rights violations in Egypt, with a critical perspective on workers’ rights. In 2007, she attended an International Republican Institute sponsored training course in Casablanca, Morocco on the various mechanisms of running a local election.
Kamal Sedra is the Managing Director of the Development and Institutionalization Support Center (DISC), an Egyptian consultancy firm dealing with good governance, human rights, and community development throughout Egypt and the Middle East. Mr. Sedra has previous experience organizing DISC’s advocacy campaigns, and he is the founder and manager of a number of websites such as the Egyptian Transparency Network, Nazaha-eg.net, which won the 2009 e.Democracy Forum Award; Aswatna-eg.net, or “Our Voices,” which covers Egyptian election news; and NGO Jobs (ngo-jobs.net), a site for job and training opportunities. Prior to coming to DISC, he was the head of the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services Training Center. Mr. Sedra has attended 20 professional trainings and conferences on topics including information resource management, anti-corruption and voter education, 7 of which he has facilitated both locally and internationally. He has consulted and served as a trainer for numerous organizations, including YMCA Egypt, Catholic Relief Services, and Mansoura University.
Shahinaz Abdel Salam has been a freelance journalist and blogger in the Egyptian Movement for Change, also known as the Kefaya movement, in Egypt since 2005. She is an avid blogger concerned with the lack of freedom of expression in the Middle East. As an activist, she has volunteered her time and services to NGOs and other civil society organizations in Egypt, sharing and streamlining ideas to encourage the formation of coalitions among human rights organizations. Previously, Ms. Abdel Salam has worked as an assistant journalist for reporters from the Irish Times, Reporters Without Borders, and Grec TV, as well as a consultant regarding blogging, human rights and freedom of expression in Egypt. She is currently working with the Arab Network for Human Rights to produce and write the 2009 annual report on the state of blogging and the Internet in the Arab world. She also continues to contribute news articles to a community-grown blog that expresses the view points of 20 women in 10 Arab countries.
Imad Bazzi is a prominent Lebanese blogger, journalist, and civil society activist. He is a co-founder of the Arab Bloggers Forum, an organization dedicated to improving bloggers’ professionalism, generating debate about social issues and defending internet activists from censorship in the Arab world. Mr. Bazzi, in conjunction with 13 Lebanese bloggers, recently launched the first Lebanese bloggers committee, The League of Lebanese Bloggers. Previously, he was the Communications and Outreach Officer for Greenpeace Mediterranean, and the project manager for the Center of Sustainable Democracy in Beirut. Mr. Bazzi has won several awards for his activism in the blogosphere, including the 2008 Young Arab Artists Prize in Amman and the Hamberton-Campbell award for e-initiatives. He is also in the running for the Best of the Blogs (BOB) Award for “Best Weblog in Arabic,” to be awarded by Germany’s international public broadcaster, Deutche Welle. His blog covers a wide variety of topics relating to Lebanese politics and society, monitors domestic human rights abuses, and condemns sectarianism and ideological agendas. Mr. Bazzi strives to bring about peaceful, democratic change in Lebanon, creating a more just, secure, and independent country. His writings have also appeared in numerous Arabic newspapers and magazines.
Mustapha El Bakkali is a blogger, journalist, poet, and producer, who currently works for the BBC’s Arabic Bureau in Rabat. Mr. El Bakkali has a rich background in video and type media gained through his previous responsibilities as the producer for the television production company Mediacast Maghreb. He is a co-founder and correspondent for Aljazeeratalk.net, a former freelance journalist for Aljazeera.net, the Vice Chairman of the Association of Moroccan Bloggers, and producer and director of a short film on blind Moroccan university students. In 2008, Mr. El Bakkali was awarded 3rd place for the “Best Video Blog” at the Best of the Blogs (BOB) Awards, the world’s largest international Weblog awards ceremony for weblogs, podcasts and video blogs. He is also a founding member of Bloggers Without Borders (Doha, Qatar), and is currently working on a soon to be published book, titled, New Media and its Impact on Arab Youth’s Values.
Abdel Wahab Al Oraid is the Editorial Director of Cultural Affairs and the Director of the Eastern Regional Office for Okaz newspaper in Saudi Arabia. He is a journalist with 18 years of experience in the press industry and has worked with several institutions in the United Kingdom, United States, Bahrain, and Jordan. He was a war correspondent and has covered a number of war zones in Kuwait and Iraq. Mr. Al Oraid additionally plays an active role in Saudi Arabian’s civil society as a member of the Bahraini writers Association, and the Saudi Journalists Association, which aims to protect the rights of journalists in the Kingdom and coordinate their relations with established media. Mr. Al Oraid is a published poet.
Rami Nakhla is the Website and Activities Director for the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression. Mr. Nakhla is particularly interested in gender inequality and discrimination in Syria and has dedicated the majority of his professional career highlighting this issue in Syria. In 2006, he became very involved with initiatives to change Syrian laws to strengthen the protections for women and minorities. He has spent the last year as a member of the Syrian Women Observatory team, which periodically publishes articles and highlights recent human rights violations against women. In 2008, he participated in a German sponsored conference on Gender and Emancipation with other participants from German, United States, Sudan, and Syria. Mr. Nakhla founded Syria Press, a daily electronic news paper and has established a “Get Your Rights” group that offers technical help to enable over 650 people to overcome government censorship on the internet.
Soufiene Chourabi is a journalist for Attariq Al Jadid newspaper, an opposition newspaper in Tunisia that has often come under direct and harsh repression efforts by the government. Mr. Chourabi is also a correspondent for the online news site Menassat.com, which focuses on news, trends, and events concerning the media in the twenty-two countries of the MENA region and his articles focus on the state of free media and press in the Middle East. He is a member of the Tunisian Syndicate of Journalists and has attended trainings for civilian leader activists as well as a Frontline organized training on electronic security.
Fathi A. Al-Dhafri currently serves as the National Coordinator for the Youth for Change program in Yemen, a venture begun in 2008 by TakingITGlobal, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and other local groups to improve the organization of youth activism, through volunteerism, youth activities, or networking opportunities across a selection of 10 Arab countries. Since 2006, Mr. A-Dhafri has served as a consultant and trainer for the Youth Leadership Development Foundation and has attended numerous conferences about youth leadership development in the United States, Italy, Jordan, and Yemen. He is currently working on publishing his book Blogging for Change, an e-book that is composed primarily of postings and news articles that have appeared on his blog. Mr. Al-Dhafri is hoping to expand his knowledge of Web 2.0 skills as a way to sharpen his advocacy and grassroots organizing skills.
I will only add that one participant at the event noted the sad reality that this generation of cyber-dissidents, who have the ability to distribute their writings via the internet, are far less known than the Soviet-era dissidents — Havel, Sakharov, Scharansky, Walesa, etc. — who often had to resort to distributing their essays underground, using carbon paper and word-of-mouth. If you would like to learn more about these activists fine work, I urge you to go to the Freedom House site (linked above) as well as to two other organizations working to make their efforts better known — Global Voices and CyberDissidents