Amnesty International’s report on global human rights in 2010 reports that government attempts to block Internet and mobile phone access backfired in countries such as Tunisia where massive anti-government protests led to the president’s ouster.
The story begins with Mohamed Bouazizi, in December 2010, a street vendor living in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia. He set himself on fire outside the City Hall to protest police harassment, humiliation, economic hardship and the sense of powerlessness felt by young people like himself.
News of Mohamed Bouazizi act spread around Tunisia via mobile phones and the Internet. “It galvanized the long-simmering dissent against the country’s oppressive government with unforeseen ramifications.” Mohamed Bouazizi died from his burns, but his anger lived on in the form of street protests throughout the country. Activists in Tunisia did their organizing via social networking sites and took to the streets to demonstrate their support for Mohamed Bouazizi’s grievances. Experienced hands joined with young protesters in using the social media to challenge a repressive government.
The Tunisian government sought to enforce a tight media blackout and shut down individual access to the Internet but news quickly spread thanks to new technologies. “The protesters made it clear that their anger was about both the government’s brutal repression of those who dared to challenge its authoritarianism as well as the lack of economic opportunity caused in part by government corruption.” Less than a month after Mohamed Bouazizi’s desperate act, the government of President Zine El ‘Abidine Ben ‘Ali collapsed and he fled the country.
Shortly after the upheaval in Tunisia triggered similar situations in other countries. People took to the streets in Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Libya and Yemen. The postings on the Internet clearly expressed it was the lack of economic opportunity experienced by many who were supporting the activists in Tunisia.
After the incident in Tunisia, similar governments were looking over their shoulders and “scrambling” to find avenues to use social media technology against activists. The report mentioned instances in countries such as Egypt and Syria where bloggers have been arrested.
The report also outlines abuses, torture and restrictions regarding the use of the Internet. At least 50 countries are accused of holding unfair trials and a similar number detains prisoners of conscience.
Another incident in China, the government attempted to block a story about a young man who, when stopped by police after killing a woman and injuring another while driving drunk, was dismissed because of his relationship to a senior police official. The cry, “My father is Li Gang” became shorthand for lack of accountability. The story behind the cry was posted and reposted on the Internet throughout China even as the authorities struggled for control.
Somehow, the fight for freedom can never be underestimated. Using the social media as a tool to further the cause of human rights is astounding. Sure, the governments which rely on torture and repression to control their citizens will somehow try to counter with their own social media tools. It won’t be easy for these regions where violations of human rights happen every day. But, the restoration of human rights will happen with the help of social media as demonstrated in the above Amnesty stories.