Blogging conference tackles Arab Spring & democratization of media

I JUST came back from attending the 1st International Bloggers Conference that was held in Foz de Iguassu, Brazil, from Oct. 27-30.  Co-sponsored by the Barao de Itarare Center for the Study of Alternative Media and the Itaipu Dam, the meeting drew 468 participants from 22 countries and 16 Brazilian states.

My friend, the Saudi blogger Ahmed al-Omran, was one of the invited speakers, as well as the American blogger Jillian C. York and the Pakistani blogger Muhammad Farhan Janjua.

Although the conference was billed as being “international”, my foreign friends complained to me that the lack of translation into English at the opening ceremony, and the dearth of Brazilians that spoke English at major airports in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, left them frustrated and unable to communicate their needs to Brazilians. I had to translate for Farhan to explain to him what the speakers were saying at the opening ceremony, that was held right in front of the Itaipu Dam with a live, local band and a fireworks show.

Itaipu fireworks

I commented to my friends that I didn’t know how Brazil was going to manage to host the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016, when so many Brazilians do not speak English or any other foreign language. This is going to be a major headache for the country and for foreign visitors, though they will be able to count on the friendliness and warmth of most Brazilians to get themselves understood.

I enjoyed the conference, though at times I felt that I was at a meeting of militant leftist youth, such was the evident strong support for the ruling Workers Party or PT in Portuguese, former Brazilian President Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva, and the MST or Movimento dos Sem Terra (Movement of the Landless). This was the main drawback of the meet in that many of the speakers tended to ramble on, talking about the struggle for a more democratic media, one free from the control of the capitalist monopolies such as the Globo TV network, that is controlled by the Marinho family of Rio, and the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper. What the speakers failed to note was that the much hated (among lefties) weekly newsmagazine Veja, and the Folha newspaper, have been responsible for anti-corruption campaigns this year that helped force the resignations of five ministers in the government of President Dilma Rousseff, the lastest one being Sports Minister Orlando da Silva, of the Communist Party of Brazil, who was forced out at the end of October. (Some analysts say that Rousseff is privately happy that she is getting rid of many appointees who were forced upon her by her mentor Lula).

Sadly, the political debate in Brazil has become extremely polarized, with the leftists of the PT, PCdoB, and PSol on one side and the perceived rightists of the PSDB (called the Tucanos and the party of Jose Serra, the man who ran against Rousseff in the presidential election last year and lost) on the other side. The fact remains though, that the PT only manages to control the two houses of Congress because it rules in a strange coalition with the PMDB, which has been the traditional home of large landowners and businessmen, exactly the type of people that leftists love to hate so much! One die-hard PT supporter admitted to me over drinks during the conference that the marriage between the PT and the PMDB was one of pure convenience, and that the PMDB “are ready to sell their support to whomever is in power.”

A view of the conference in session.

That the conference was co-sponsored by the state-owned Itaipu Dam (co-owned by the governments of Brazil and Paraguay) and the Petrobras oil company, should have given me a clue that it would be packed solid with leftist supporters of the Workers Party. The meet would have been much more interesting if different points of view were represented, and if the proceedings had been less politicized. It would also have been a good idea to have more practical information delivered to participants. Diego Casaes, a global campaigner for Avaaz, and I agreed that that future conferences should have workshops on, for example, internet security and how to make effective videos for an online audience, and extra panels with more speakers.

Arab Spring, Pakistan and overthrowing Qaddafi

For me the most interesting panel was the one that tackled the effects of the Arab Spring on Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and the fight for freedom of expression online in Pakistan.

Ahmed Bahgat, a trainer of activists in Egypt, talked about how the revolution that overthrew the dictator President Hosni Mubarak, has now stalled, and that the ruling military junta does not want to give up power and hold elections. “They have now pushed back elections to 2013 because they do not have a candidate of their own to back. This is also why they are provoking clashes in the streets of Cairo between Muslims and Christians, so that the continuing violence can give them a reason to declare martial law and postpone elections indefinately,” said Bahgat.

Ahmed al-Omran tweeting during the conference.

The Arab Spring has not provoked a revolution in Saudi Arabia yet, noted Ahmed al-Omran, but did cause protests by the Shia minority in the Eastern Province and by women across the country pushing for the right to drive.

He noted that the vast amount of oil money allows the ruling family a degree of protection from protests and unrest, but that the fall of Arab dictators had helped break the fear barrier for many Saudis who are now expressing themselves more boldly online on Twitter and Facebook.

Omran also highlighted the recent arrest of three young Saudi activists who were jailed after they posted an episode of their online video program that highlighted the existence of poverty in the Saudi capital Riyadh. All three were released on Oct. 30.

Muhammad Farhan Janjua

Muhammad Farhan Janjua told the audience how YouTube was temporarily blocked in Pakistan when President Asif Ali Zardari was filmed with a cellphone telling hecklers at a political rally to “Shut up!” The video was then posted online, leading the president to demand that YouTube be blocked.

Janjua also related how his news website, Guppu.com, got a huge boost in readership after he broke the story that a contestant on a popular TV game show, sponsored by multinational giant Unilever, died after drowning in a swimming segment. No mainstream media wanted to touch the story with a ten-foot pole, explained Janjua, because they feared repercussions from Unilever, which is one of the biggest advertisers in Pakistan.

Toppling Qaddafi was an ‘imperialist plot’

Pepe Escobar, a Brazilian journalist and special correspondent of Asia Times Online, spoke for nearly 45 minutes on the revolution in Libya and how the toppling of the Libyan dictator Col. Muammar Qaddafi was an imperialist plot of the US, Britain and France to advance their economic interests. He also claimed, rather amazingly, that it was two members of the Qatari Special Forces, disguised as Libyan rebels, who first caught Qaddafi and shot him in both legs. They then, according to Escobar, handed him over to the Libyan rebels.

While Escobar certainly knows Libya personally, and has met many of the actors in that country’s current drama, it was annoying to have to sit through his mini-lecture on Libya’s situation, which only made him look like he was showing off, and even managed to piss off the organizers of the event. Unfortunately, none of the moderators tried to interrupt him, something that also happened on the other panels.

It would have been much better if the organizers had invited some Libyan bloggers to attend the conference and tell us themselves how they felt after getting rid of a dictator that controlled all aspects of their lives and killed thousands Libyans, during the more than 40 years that he was in power.

 

 

 

 

 

Saudi democracy activist freed at last!

I READ the good news this morning: Saudi Arabian human rights and democracy activist Matrook Al-Faleh was released from jail in Riyadh after more than seven months in jail.

Matrook was never officially charged with any crime, and was seemingly arrested for displeasing the government last May when he published a report harshly criticizing the conditions inside Saudi jails. A professor of political science at King Saud University in Riyadh, he was arrested by plainclothes policemen at his office on the university campus.

His wife, Jamila al-Ukula, is a brave woman that I first met in Riyadh a few years ago outside a courthouse when we were waiting to hear the sentence of Matrook and two of his fellow activist colleagues after they called for more democracy in the kingdom and were arrested for more than a year.

I had a long interview with Matrook in Riyadh months after he was released and found him to be very intelligent, kind and concerned with the future of Saudi Arabia.

According to the revised Saudi Penal Code, no one is supposed to be held for more than six months in the kingdom without being formally charged. The authorities rarely follow their own laws, which is a shame really.

I just look forward to the day when intellectuals and acitivists will have the freedom to openly speak their minds in the kingdom and not face six to seven months in jail–in solitary confinement! Authorities should welcome balanced and intelligent criticism of the laws and their actions. It is only that way that the country will improve.

Latest Tweets

Error: Twitter did not respond. Please wait a few minutes and refresh this page.

Newsletter Subscribe