Online Freedom in the Balance

July 9, 2013
MENA Journalists and Netizens Trained in Internet Policy and Freedom of Expression

Against a backdrop of tightening government restrictions on freedom of expression across the Middle East and North Africa, Internews recently held a series of four intensive workshops on Internet policy and digital safety. The two-day workshops served some 100 journalists, bloggers, netizens and members of civil society groups in Egypt, Palestine, Jordan and Tunisia.

“In the two years since the uprisings in Tunisia and elsewhere, governments have begun to crack down on free expression,” said Jillian York, the lead trainer for the workshops. York, who serves as Director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, continued, “These trainings provided journalists and other actors with a toolkit for addressing these issues.”

The workshops supported Internews’ overall goal of ensuring access to information for everyone. Laura Mottaz, Project Manager for Internews’ Global Internet Policy Project (GIPP), noted, "Many countries are at a precipice right now, in that they are are just beginning to establish their first Internet policy regimes. This is a rare opportunity to work proactively to make sure that these new policies protect online freedom of expression and privacy around the world."

Trainings in Egypt, Palestine, Jordan and Tunisia

The series of trainings kicked off February 23-24 in Cairo, Egypt, where the training for some 25 participants was geared primarily toward journalists. There followed trainings in Ramallah, Palestine on May 19-20 for about 35 people, and in Amman, Jordan on May 26-27, for about 30 people. Participants in these workshops had more diverse backgrounds and included journalists, students, and members of civil society organizations.

The final training in Tunis, Tunisia on June 12-13 was hosted by the ESPRIT technical college and was attended by about ten students and bloggers. This training was scheduled just before the Freedom Online conference in Tunis, a two-day international forum on freedom of expression on the Internet where Internews representatives also spoke and led a workshop.

York, who sits on the advisory board for Internews’ Global Internet Policy Project (GIPP), conducted each of the four trainings. Mike Godwin, Internews Senior Policy Advisor on GIPP, joined her for the final one in Tunis.

Internews staff for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) vetted potential participants in advance of the trainings and provided logistical support.

Learning About Internet Governance and Content Control

The trainings in the four countries provided some history and background on Internet governance, as well as concrete strategies for how to engage in the process of influencing policy. Participants first got an overview of the international regulatory bodies and international treaties that govern the Internet. They then reviewed the technical and legal mechanisms for controlling content on the Internet, delving into case studies from Egypt, Pakistan, Thailand, Turkey, Tunisia, and the United States.

The workshops then addressed the ways that governments attempt to balance security needs with the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and privacy. The training also covered efforts around the world to increase government transparency and access to information. Finally, participants learned best practices for protecting their own digital safety, including how to assess their threat model and level of risk, and what tools they might use to improve their safety online.

In each of the four countries, the trainings were timely: throughout the Middle East and North Africa, governments have been instituting new regulations on digital technology and communications. For example, shortly after the training took place in Amman, the government implemented filtering of more than 300 news websites, in accordance with 2012 amendments to the Press and Publications Law. This possibility had been addressed in the training. 

Salah G. Hamed, a social media analyst and blogger who attended the training in Amman, called it, “two days of what I found to be a very educational cyber security training. It was short, yet we did discuss a lot of topics related to many privacy and censorship matters, which came in handy afterwards when the Jordanian government tackled Internet freedom in the country!”

Internews Guide to Digital Safety

As part of its focus on digital safety and the free flow of information, Internews has published an online guide, SpeakSafe: Media Workers’ Toolkit for Safer Online and Mobile Practices. This guide provides journalists, citizen reporters, bloggers and media workers with a series of simple yet effective practices to maintain control over their information and communications. The guide is available as a PDF download in English, Spanish and Arabic