Censorship and the Middle East

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Editor’s Note:  What does living in a region where censorship is totally common feel like? gulli:news asked Esra’a Al Shafei, a Middle Eastern internet activist, and Iran Press Watch is pleased to republish this interview.

By gulli:news

Whoever has fought against the introduction of a filtering infrastructure in Germany during the last months might at times have wondered what it feels like to live under censorship.  In many regions of the world censorship not only of the internet is very usual.  gulli:news has asked Esra’a Al Shafei from Bahrain about living under censorship and about what it means to people in the Middle East.

Esra’a is an award-winning internet activist.  When she was 19 years old she founded Mideast Youth that today has become one of the most important platforms for dialog between people of different nationality, culture or religion in the region.  Her Mideast Youth Foundation operates or supports dozens of projects.


gulli:news: Can you tell us a bit about your projects, what you are doing and what is your motivation behind it?

Esra’a Al Shafei: I founded MideastYouth.com and its network of projects. We are a group of young digital natives reaching out across seemingly impenetrable national social, political, ethnic, and sectarian barriers, employing the freedom and responsibility created by multiple media platforms to demand and create our own civil discourse across multiple divisions in a region where ideals of free expression, political dissent and activism, universal human rights, and civil dialogue are tightly oppressed and forcefully punished. We campaign for the rights of ethnic, religious and intellectual minorities by grasping the revolutionary power of information technology in a region where information is controlled and censored by our leaders to manipulate public sentiment by illustrating the “otherness” of our neighbors and our “enemies”. A growing list of our ongoing projects can be found here.

As a child I was shocked by the inhumane treatment of immigrant workers that I witnessed, and a sense of outrage and injustice grew in my heart. Increasingly frustrated in my early college years by the prejudicial stereotypes throughout media of Middle Eastern youth – a portrayal unanswered because of censorship and state control of media in the region – I turned to my keyboard to respond with my own voice, to show not only the diversity of ethnicities, religions, and cultures in the region, but also the diversity of opinion, fervor, ideals, hopes, and politics; to portray for the first time in the global discourse Middle Eastern youth in all our depth, our feelings, and our complexity. I was joined over time by a growing number of similar voices, declaring in unison that we are Muslim and moderate, idealistic and hopeful, Jewish and peaceful; we are Christians, Baha’i, Sunni and Shia; Persians and Arabs; Turks, Berbers and Kurds, and we are all here at MideastYouth.com so that the world hears us in our own voices, and sees that we are capable of thoughtful and reasoned discussions of our differences. We want our humanity and our futures in our own hands and we use the internet and other forms of technology to fight for those rights.


gulli:news: One of the goals of many of your internet projects is to provide a room for free speech for people from the Middle East. Aren’t there any offline possibilities for these people to express themselves? What’s the importance of the internet for freedom of expression in this area?

Esra’a Al Shafei: As a result of state and/or corporate control and interests, the mainstream media has its limitations. In the Middle East, alternative sources of information are hard to find. Access to reliable and uncensored information is a great obstacle for many people who have the desire to be enlightened about what is really going on in their world. In addition, the inability to express frustrations regarding these inadequacies only intensifies the sense of discontent and lack of freedom. There are significant restrictions on what may or may not be discussed in the public domain, severely limiting any chance of real, productive dialogue, both between Middle Eastern nations and with the rest of the world. The internet is by far the only resource we have which we can use to express ourselves because while they can control material through local ISPs, they certainly cannot control outgoing information which is more significant. It’s also the only source that truly brings us together regardless of our opinions or backgrounds, something traditional media has failed to ever achieve.


gulli:news: How bad is censorship in the Middle East? What does it look like, especially on the internet, and which is the extent of it? Are there significant differences between the different countries?

Esra’a Al Shafei: As implied above, censorship in the region continues to expand, sometimes beyond our control. We are at war with state-controlled filters, whenever they improve their services, programmers in the region improve their proxies and we do our best to bypass their censorship and continue to express ourselves and allowing others to. There are significant differences between countries. In Bahrain, blocked content is primarily domestic politics, though thousands of other sites has been blocked since January of this year, while in a country like Syria, the number is possibly at millions considering the fact that even sites like Facebook, YouTube and Wikipedia are blocked, not to mention thousands of Kurdish material. Pornographic content is also blocked by default here, and often governments use that as an excuse to claim that sites like YouTube or Flickr allow for porn and that it’s why they have been blocked, even though we are aware that the reason is actually political. In Iran, apparently the amount of blocked sites has exceeded 5 million.


gulli:news: What kind of content is usually banned in Middle Eastern countries? Do you encounter it regularly in your daily life, or is it like its supporters tend to say, that if you don’t have to hide anything you won’t have to fear anything, and you do not get in touch with censorship if you are not looking for “evil” things?

Esra’a Al Shafei: Above I explained the kind of material that are blocked, which vary from domestic politics, to local blogs, to porn to networking and social media sites such as YouTube and Facebook. I actually don’t encounter censorship regularly in my daily life because the sites I frequent are not blocked as they do not deal with any issues that are domestic, but whenever I come across any blocked content I just use alkasir (circumvention software created by Yemeni developer Walid Al Saqaf) to access it.


gulli:news: Can you describe a little how living under censorship feels like?

Esra’a Al Shafei: It’s extremely inconvenient, but it feels even worse to know that you are constantly under watch, which I know I am. I have to admit my personal situation is nowhere near as bad as what my colleagues in Iran, Saudi Arabia or Syria are going through every day. Perhaps I feel this way because I do not bother discussing domestic politics for the sake of my personal security which I wish to maintain in order to continue and expand upon my work.


gulli:news: What is your experience: Does censorship lead people in the Middle East to long for freedom of expression, or do they accept or even agree with it?

Esra’a Al Shafei: The worsening amount of censorship in the region is certainly causing people to long for freedom of speech, hence why so many people are risking their lives for it. Our generation is very different, and we do not accept censorship. There will always be the few who will claim that censorship is better as it’s cleansing the country of any immoral or unethical activities.


gulli:news: Is there a public discussion over censorship in the Middle East? And if so, does it only occur on the internet – or are there debates in the newspapers, on television, too?

Esra’a Al Shafei: There is one and it does occasionally get coverage in newspapers and on certain news networks like Al Arabiya or Al Jazeera, which are widely available for people to read and watch.


gulli:news: Can you tell us a bit what are the arguments pro / contra censorship? Do you think there is a similarity in the arguments pro censorship to those used in Western countries? What role does the Islam, do Islamic clerics play when it comes to debating censorship?

Esra’a Al Shafei: Many people support the censorship of pornographic content, or anything that is insulting to Islam as a religion in countries like Egypt or Saudi Arabia. But this argument changes when it revolves around politics, most are in favor of exposing and actively discussing government corruption. There is no official or formal stance of Islam on censorship, it differs as an opinion from one Muslim to another. For example I do not support the blocking of the “Faith Freedom” website, which is a forum where ex-Muslims bash Islam endlessly, purely because it gives us the right to challenge it. Some Muslims support its blocking thinking it might corrupt the minds of young Muslims and drive them to a different religion or to atheism. It has a lot to do with personal opinions and less to do with the formal stance of Islam as a religion. Many Islamic clerics are attention-seeking fools who don’t exactly deserve to be taken seriously especially when they start speaking about how “immoral” sites allow strange males and females to “mingle together” (like on Facebook or Twitter) or when they ignorantly declare that any site/blog which discusses or includes homosexuals must be shut down or blocked.


gulli:news: Your organization Mideast Youth is involved in the development of a program called alkasir. What’s it for?

Esra’a Al Shafei: alkasir is a circumvention tool which is described in more detail here and here.


gulli:news: Do you think hacktivism, providing tools such as alkasir is important? Can it make a difference?

Esra’a Al Shafei: Yes it can make a huge difference when you provide tools that allow people to access and share crucial information. One thing I don’t think makes a huge difference is the hacking of political websites including those of the government, which gives leaders a moral high ground. We have to communicate that we are harmless and peaceful people whose only hope is to achieve personal and societal freedom, and hacking their sites only proves the opposite. Our anger must be contained. This is hard but it’s the only way we can succeed. Personally I think the only exception to this rule is if a state-owned site is hacked and replaced with photos of victims who died under that regime, with a very peaceful message, which would be a nice way to directly communicate the tragedy with government officials.


gulli:news: One of your recent projects is the March 18 Movement. (video see below) It’s named after the day of the death of an Iranian blogger, Omid Reza Mir Sayafi, who died in prison this year. You’ve also campaigned for the release of Kareem Amer, who was the first blogger to be sentenced in Egypt and who is still in prison. How much at risk are internet activists in the Middle East?

Esra’a Al Shafei: They are increasingly at risk, which gives many of us a big reason to worry. In fact, bloggers and internet activists are getting arrested much more often than journalists do, especially since they also outnumber journalists by a large amount. The risk of course also differs from one country to another, but not very significantly. Even in countries like Kuwait and the UAE site owners are harassed and get arrested if they operate websites dealing with domestic issues.


gulli:news: I have already named some of your campaigns. Are there successful means to support arrested bloggers? What can we in the West do for them?

Esra’a Al Shafei: Anything successful has to be consistent. If the effort isn’t consistent then it’s hard to make a difference for arrested bloggers. Ideally each group of people would pick a blogger whose case they are passionate about and start campaigning individually to secure their release. This is hard and takes a lot more work but this is how it should be done. A campaign cannot succeed if it’s extremely broad and covers a wide range of bloggers without a single, consistent focus. With the March 18 Movement, the intention is to give awareness, which will hopefully inspire many others to campaign for each arrested blogger’s release. A real campaign involves letters to government officials, speaking with MPs, any influential journalists, NGO leaders, dealing with embassies and their staff, even artists who can support the cause creatively, and a hell of a lot of daily event planning such as worldwide rallies or a “postcard” campaign to communicate with the prisoner, etc. People in the West can be of great help in all of the above – writing letters, attending rallies, involving other NGOs, posting about it, contacting journalists about it, alerting their classmates or colleagues, tweeting it, etc.


gulli:news: Anything else you want to say?

Esra’a Al Shafei: The only thing I wish to add is that despite the social, political, and physical barriers, the internet is bringing people together in every arena. We all really need to take advantage of that.

The interview was conducted by Simon Columbus.


[This interview was posted on Sunday, July 19, 2009, on http://www.gulli.com/news/esra-a-al-shafei-interrogated-2009-07-19/ and reposted on Iran Press Watch with permission.]


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