Human Rights Conference Brings Advocates Together

By Gary Feuerberg

WASHINGTON-The rights of individuals to associate with whom they wish and to express their opinions in media, on the Internet, and at meetings are under assault in many countries in the world, according to human rights organizations. They say repressive governments are devising an array of legal and extrajudicial mechanisms as well as using violence to silence their critics.

Human rights advocates are not taking the increasing attacks on basic freedoms lying down. At the 2010 Washington Human Rights Summit in Washington, D.C. Feb. 17-19, many leaders from countries around the globe on the frontline of the battle for freedom gathered.

The several sessions included one about freedom of expression under fire. The session brought together a panel of human rights advocates from Malaysia, Egypt, China, Belarus, and Iran who discussed their response to the intolerance toward exercising fundamental rights of assembly and speech. The panelists noted that the repression is creating increasingly hostile conditions for human rights defenders and democracy activists everywhere.

In many cases, the perspectives of the panelists came from personal experience.

Among the panelists was Canadian-Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari, who was famously imprisoned in Iran for 118 days until released on bail last October. Bahari was held in solitary confinement in the notorious Evin Prison in Iran where he was interrogated daily.

"More than 65 journalists and bloggers are in jail, before demonstrations, the bandwidth is narrowed, and many social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook are shut down," said Mr. Bahari.

The Iranian government is becoming more paranoid very day, and is much weaker than outsiders realize, according to Bahari. The Internet and satellite television are also helping the democratic process, as youth become educated about democracy, a measure which Bahari says will bear fruit soon.

He said he would like to see the U.S. become more active in facilitating the free flow of information on the Internet.

Dr. Hamidah Marican, executive director of Sisters in Islam, did not know why a particular book was being banned in Malaysia. Later, her group was told that the book would "confuse" Muslims. They appealed the decision and managed to get it overturned last month.

Malaysia's Constitution guarantees the basic freedoms of assembly and speech, but on the ground, Dr. Marican said, it is a different matter. The 1984 Printing Presses and Publishers Act was invoked to close down a particular printing press after the 2008 elections there, because, as they were told, "It gave a lot of publicity to the opposition," according to Dr. Marican.

Lately, the government has been using the 1948 Internal Security Act to silence bloggers, she added. The act has been used to detain persons indefinitely without trial. Dr. Marican said that she is being investigated and that she and other human rights advocates fear for their own safety and their families.

Gamal Eid, from the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, gave a horrifying account of repression in Arab nations. In Tunisia, there is only one independent newspaper. Web sites are blocked in Saudi Arabia, but in Egypt, which is his country of origin, the government does not block Web sites, according to Mr. Eid. Instead, they "kidnap the blogger and torture."

"In the Arab world, you have to decide whether you are with the government or against the government," said Mr. Eid via live webcast of the conference session. "In the Arab world system, they don't [respect that] anyone can be neutral."

There was also harsh criticism for state repressions in China.

"Almost every state in the world is giving China a free pass," said Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China.

Hom added that it is not only the critics that are being silenced. She says anybody who is different "is branded anti-China." She told the audience of a time when she was making a comment at a conference in Berlin, explaining that people like her are not anti-China but love their country too. The Chinese government spokesperson clenched his fist, pounded the podium, and said, "No more talking."

In Belarus, they are working to stay a step ahead of government control.

Iryna Vidanova, Editor-in-chief of 34 Multimedia Magazine in Belarus, said when the Internet first began there, the government didn't take it as a serious threat since it owns and controls the television stations. So when an online youth group registered as an organization, the government didn't stop it. Later, when the power of the Internet became evident, the government didn't know how to respond, Ms. Vidanova said.

Another example of catching the government off guard occurred after the government closed down her magazine and the secret police confiscated materials. But their last issue was put on a CD and was freely distributed in the country. While it was an expensive solution and CDs can't be updated like Web sites, it got past the government censors.


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