News / USA

Democracy Activists Look at Digital Opportunities, Challenges

Oleg Kozlovsky, Issac Mao, Ernesto Hernandez Busto use the Skype technology to participate in the recent conference on the Internet and dissidents
Oleg Kozlovsky, Issac Mao, Ernesto Hernandez Busto use the Skype technology to participate in the recent conference on the Internet and dissidents


The power of digital devices, such as mobile phones equipped with cameras, was seen in protests that followed the disputed Iranian election in June, 2009.  Postings on such websites as Facebook and Twitter brought thousands to the streets, and digital images from Tehran fueled sympathetic protests around the world.

A recent conference in Dallas looked at the Internet as a tool for democracy activists, and at the challenges facing Internet commentators, or bloggers.

The power of the Web and portable digital devices was seen in Iran last year. It was seen a year earlier in protests in Latin America and other parts of the world against kidnappings by the Colombian rebel group FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

Dissident bloggers involved with some of the protests met with Internet experts, and current and former U.S. officials, at a new center and institute named for former U.S. President George W. Bush.  Mr. Bush opened the conference, held at Southern Methodist University.

The cyber-dissidents were joined by two bloggers unable to attend because of flight cancellations following the recent volcanic eruption in Iceland.  They took part by way of the Internet site Skype. "If they arrest one, 10 more bloggers become dissidents," said Russian blogger Oleg Kozlovsky. He described a growing movement of dissidents in his country who post blogs on the Internet, despite the threat of arrest.

Another blogger joined the discussion from China.

"There is no single person can be easily targeted," said Isaac Mao. He said the Chinese censors are not able to crack down on all of the growing dissident voices on the web.

Harvard University researcher Ethan Zuckerman says Chinese censors aggressively block content they disapprove of. "But what they do, which is much more powerful and really much more sinister in some ways, is encourage the development of alternative platforms," he saiod

In March, the worldwide search firm Google stopped censoring its site in China and moved its servers to Hong Kong, but Chinese internet users can easily access the government-favored search site  China blocks the videos from Youtube, but provides an alternative site, without political content, called

Censorship strategies vary from country to country.  Robert Guerra of the private watchdog organization Freedom House says the Iranian government, faced with images of protests, restricted bandwidth to slow the speed of Internet videos.

"What we've also seen since the election of last June is that they've increased their technical sophistication, so much so that there's real-time surveillance and repression.  People that post a message online or send a message through their mobile phone are tracked down within hours and taken into custody," he said.

Iranian blogger Mohsen Sazegara now lives in America but has felt the long arm of the Iranian regime and its supporters.  Sazegara was one of the founders of Iran's Revolutionary Guard before becoming disillusioned with the Iranian government.  Now he posts videos sent by activists in Iran and says his websites have been attacked.  He believes the group responsible is linked to the Revolutionary Guard.

"They posted a pamphlet instead of my website that said the Cyber Army of Iran has hacked this website and at the same time, they removed all my home videos from Youtube and succeeded to control one of my three Facebook pages," he said.

Blogger Ahed Al Hendi was arrested and jailed in his native Syria because of his online postings.  He now lives in the Uinted State and supports democracy activists worldwide.  He says that in Syria, bloggers still face persecution. "I heard the news of arresting a girl.  She's a high school student.  She's 19 years of age.  Instead of being at her school, she's now in the prison.  Tens of bloggers remain in prison right now in Syria, subject to ill treatment, torture, and they have no access to their lawyer," he said.

Venezuelan activist Rodrigo Diamanti writes blogs critical of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, and Diamanti helped to form a group called Un Mundo Sin Mordaza - A World Without Censorship. "We organized and we have representation in more than 20 countries around the world.  And we all write about the importance of freedom of speech as a fundamental right.  We understand that once you lose this principal right, you will start losing the other human rights," he said.

Cuban Internet activist Ernesto Hernandez Busto blogs from Spain, and he sees growing cooperation between traditional dissidents and Internet bloggers.  He says the partnership bodes well for change in Castro's Cuba.

Colombia activist Oscar Morales Guevara says his experience organizing millions of marchers against the FARC on the Internet site Facebook changed his life. "When we did that and when we saw the power of people organizing things, we decided that we would continue the effort and try to speak up," he said.

David Keyes, director of the organization, is critical of countries like China and Iran, and also of some U.S. allies, including Saudi Arabia.  He says the Gulf state limits Internet freedom and has sentenced a man to death for his work in Lebanon as a television psychic.  

But Keyes says digital technologies have changed the political landscape in repressive societies. "The Internet has given democratic dissidents power that's unprecedented in human history, literally the ability to talk to millions of people across the world with a few clicks.  At the same time, there may be deleterious effects to over-reliance on technology," he said.

He says the Internet cannot replace the face-to-face contacts and real-world activism that political change requires.   But Ethan Zuckerman of Harvard says the digital technologies can create a virtual public arena where people living under repressive governments can exchange ideas. "They're not able to write in the newspapers.  They're not able to hold meetings in public.  I think of Egypt, where you literally can't assemble more than five people without getting arrested for holding an illegal demonstration.  But the Internet represents a digital public space," he said.

An Iranian blogger based in Toronto, Arash Kamangir, says the Internet is a place for international conversations, which he thinks most Iranians want.

Internet experts say emerging issues involving the web are difficult.  Robert Guerra of Freedom House worries about  initiatives by democratic countries such as Australia to censor objectionable content.  Ethan Zuckerman of Harvard says the same high tech tools that protect dissident bloggers can also be used by terrorists to conceal their identities.

You May Like

Video Americans, Tourists, Reflect on Meaning of Thanksgiving

VOA garnered opinions from several people soon after November 13 Paris attacks, which colored many of their thoughts

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

In northern Thailand, the annual tradition of constructing floating baskets to carry away the year’s bad spirits highlights the Loy Krathong festival

Video Tree Houses - A Branch of American Dream

Workshops aimed at teaching people how to build tree houses have become widely popular in America in recent years

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syriai
November 26, 2015 5:21 AM
Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs