Tweeting human rights and two Revolutions (so far)

Sarah Joseph

The Castan Centre’s twitter account (@castancentre) is intended to disseminate news of relevance to human rights, usually consisting of a short descriptor (very occasionally with attempted wit) followed by a link to a story.  To give a sample of its flavour, many of the links below are to our twitter feed (and you can then click through the link contained therein to see the more substantive story).  Our aim is to be a trusted “go to” source for interesting & important human rights news from Australia and around the world.  As “human rights” is a very broad concept, we have a fair bit of scope – eg we tweet a lot of stories about health, given the global recognition of the right to health under the International Covenant of Economic Social and Cultural Rights. We tweet a lot about the environment, given the many links between environmental problems and human rights. We also don’t shy away from the irreverent or quirky – human rights news doesn’t always have to be grave and serious.

I am one of the three people who tweet for the Centre. I often use an iPad app, Pulse News (a program allowing one to easily access up to 60 RSS feeds), to tweet stories from around the world from sources such as the Guardian, New York Times, Al Jazeera English, Ha’aretz (Israel), the Times of India and (if you are interested, I tend to do this around 7 or 8am, though sometimes it’s later, & sometimes it … um … doesn’t happen). It’s not a chore, coz at the same time I’m basically reading the news, something I love to do. My favourite source is not a mainstream source at all, but Global Voices in English, a site which collates interesting blogs and tweets from around the world (mainly the developing world) and translates them, usually with some contextual narrative. Many aren’t about human rights, but many are, and they reveal important stories that often appear later in mainstream media (Global Voices is rarely scooped).

For example, it’s largely via Global Voices that the Centre has been tweeting about homophobia in Uganda. Many interested in human rights will know that for a year Uganda has been debating the adoption of a draconian anti gay law which, if introduced, could result in the death penalty being an available punishment for homosexual activity. Fewer would know that Ugandan homophobia was stoked in October by a local paper, Rolling Stone (no relationship with the famous music magazine), outing 100 gay men with the headline, “Hang Them“. Fewer still would know that a court case was recently brought against that paper, which was found by the Ugandan court to have violated the constitutional rights of the outed men. Fewer still would know that one of the driving forces behind that litigation, David Kato, was, tragically, murdered a few weeks later. The latest, but probably not the last, step in this story, were the grossly offensive statements by the pastor at Kato’s funeral, claiming that homosexuality was a “sin”. That chain of stories has attracted a lot of feedback from the followers of the Centre’s twitter feed, and we are proud in playing a small role in disseminating these important human rights stories which, for the most part, you won’t find in the Australian mainstream media.

With the use of tools like Pulse News, as well as Twitter itself, I feel so much better informed than when I read mainly Australian papers.  For example, Centre had been tweeting about Tunisia for at least a fortnight before the overthrow of Zine el Abidine Ben-Ali in Tunisia because Global Voices had been onto this story from the start, when a 26 year old fruit seller named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire (see also here), thus sparking what ultimately became a protest of such magnitude that an authoritarian long-standing government was overthrown in a few weeks!  Twitter of course was on board throughout (as it is with almost any story one wishes to follow), giving anyone who was interested the chance to see up-to-the-minute news and views of a profound event that may yet be the match which sets off most of the Arab world.

Which brings me, of course, to Egypt. Twitter, Global Voices, and many other grassroots sources were abuzz with the idea that demonstrations planned for Jan 25 would be a significant step towards real democratic change in Egypt. And, remarkably, eighteen days later, those protests have brought about the end of Mubaraks’s thirty year regime.  And the best place to get up-to-the-minute info was via journalists and protesters on the ground, again often via twitter. The Centre has been retweeting hundreds of Egypt tweets from such sources, mixed in with links to analyses from mainstream media (including much commentary about perceived Western paranoia about Islam’s role in the protests and in post-Mubarak Egypt and the (non) role of Al Qaeda, US backflips trying to catch up with history, views from Israel, some opportune Wikileaks cables, the flabbergasting arrogance of Hosni Mubarak … and so on).  High and low points in the story of the protests themselves include the rise of facebook activist Wael Ghonim as a hero of the revolution  (see also here), the deaths of over 300 people, the crackdown on foreign journalists (see also here), the battles between protesters and pro-Mubarak thugs (widely believed to be plainclothes police and organised by the government) around Days 8 and 9 of the protests, and the unbridled joy at the announcement of Mubarak’s departure (eg here and here).

Tweeting the revolution has been exhilarating, especially reading and distributing the first-hand accounts of hope and bravery … and distressing, reading and distributing first-hand accounts of fear and violence. We have seen this story snowball from the seemingly naive proclamations that #jan25 would shake Mubarak’s 30 year rule to its core…(Tunisia’s one thing but Egypt!) … to see that prediction come true!   Twitter was the canary in the coal mine, with the mainstream media following by getting reporters on the ground to Egypt, first and most excellently Al Jazeera, but then many famous Western outlets including Australian media.   The protests were a moving feast (and Egyptian politics remains so), so twitter, an unruly many-headed hydra of information and debate, was a most appropriate place to get information. In that seething soup of speech, the truth eventually separates itself from rumour and rises to the top … along with a morass of opinion.  And, right now: we don’t know how this is going to turn out, with power currently resting with the Egyptian army.  What we do know is that hundreds of thousands of brave people stuck their necks out to proclaim, in voices heard around the world, to their dictatorial, brutal and corrupt government that they were mad as hell and they weren’t taking it any more!  No one knows “what happens next”.

My point above is to underline the excellence of twitter as a source for news of ongoing momentous events (to which I hope the Castan Centre has contributed in a small way, in disseminating some of that material via retweets). I won’t explore here the idea that Twitter or other social media tools have “caused” the Tunisian or Egyptian uprisings, apart from the following short comments.  In a way, the notion may seem somewhat disrespectful to the brave protesters risking their lives and well-being on Arab streets.  But social media has helped to get the word out, before during and after, so potential participants can be reached and people on the ground can be heard in countries which have historically exercised strict control over information outlets, and that phenomenon has surely played some role in the spread of protest from Tunisia to Egypt and beyond. After all, twitter and Facebook have again been abuzz regarding parallel “days of rage” in Sudan on Jan 30 (not so successful but could point the way to greater internal resistance to Al-Bashir in the north, with the South of course seceding), Yemen on Feb 3 (unprecedented thousands on the street), Syria on Feb 5 (nothing major apparently happening there … yet), Algeria on Feb 12 (imminent as I post this), and Bahrain on Feb 14, prompting glimmers of reform in some of those countries (as well as Jordan), with maybe more radical reform to come (see, in this regard, this story about the Economist’s “shoe throwers’ index” of discontent in the Arab world).  The Egyptian government recognized the power of social media in organizing dissent in its (largely successful) attempt to shut down the Internet at the beginning of the protests. Yet info still gets out, including via ingenious platforms such as the Google/Twitter “speak to tweet” initiative.

Of course, a word of caution.  We all got excited in July 2009 over apparently similar events in Iran. Yet Iran’s opposition movement seems to have been put back in its box, for now, and social media outlets are severely restricted. And Evgeny Morozov has argued, compellingly, that while social media can be used to spread dissent against authoritarianism, it can also be used by authoritarians to identify and target dissenters. Such has apparently happened in Iran as well as in Belarus, after post election demonstrations and violence in the latter country in late 2010. Though, to end on a note of hope … we may not have heard the last of those Iranian protesters (or those Sudanese or Belarussian protesters), who’ll be inspired by Tunisia and Egypt. If so, for anyone interested in human rights, even in calm environs like Melbourne, the chirps from twitter will probably be the best place to see events unfold.

For those who might be interested, here are a few recommended tweet feeds:

@castancentre: international and national human rights news. (there is also an Egypt list for those who wish to follow more direct sources on Egypt)

@rightsagenda: news and opinion re human rights, especially in Australia and the UN .

@altlj: Australian law, law reform & social justice

@globalvoices: the tweet version of the site discussed above

People associated with Castan Centre:

@profsarahj: politics, human rights, sport, musings

@mariussmith: politics & human rights in Africa

@melistomato: law, education, quirky stuff (including, most recently, the weather!)

One response to “Tweeting human rights and two Revolutions (so far)”

  1. As just one person involved with Global Voices, it means a lot to us that you keep reading and linking to human rights stories that media often don’t pick up. Thank you!

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