Last January, Mark Chavunduka, the gutsy editor of Zimbabwe’s Sunday newspaper, The Standard, published an account of a failed coup attempt against president Robert Mugabe. Two days later, he was arrested by military police, badly beaten, and charged, under a law rooted in the nation’s colonial past, with issuing a false report “likely to cause fear, alarm and despondency among the public.” Within a month, thanks in part to the global telecommunications that are slowly reshaping Zimbabwe’s future, Chavunduka was in London contemplating a lawsuit against the Mugabe regime.
Chavunduka is among the most recent beneficiaries of a new kind of grassroots online activism spearheaded by organizations like PEN and the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) that are dedicated to bringing international attention to the plight of writers imprisoned, attacked, or facing execution in dictatorships around the globe. Long dependent on costly, helter-skelter communication with families and activists in the developing world, and on intermittent contact with policy makers and other human rights bureaus in the West, these groups are now part of a rapidly growing network of online human rights activity. For the mere cost of an ISDN line, they’ve launched Web sites and listservs, stayed in close contact with activists and dissidents in far-flung countries, and orchestrated massive e-mail campaigns within hours of learning of new cases of repression.
IFEX, headquartered in an 1100-square-foot former garment manufacturer’s building on the edge of downtown Toronto and run by an eight-member staff on a budget of less than $600,000 U.S., embodies the stripped-down, streamlined activism that’s become prevalent in the field. Founded in 1992, IFEX (ifex.org) serves as a clearinghouse for information about threats to free expression worldwide, and, not coincidentally, it has made the Net the focus of its operations from the start. “Last year we sent out 2000 alerts, and we’re on course to send out 2500 this year. You can’t imagine what that would entail if we were using a fax machine,” says IFEX executive director Wayne Sharpe.
Within 24 hours of Chavunduka’s arrest in Zimbabwe, IFEX informed its 2000 subscribers that the editor and another journalist from The Standard, Ray Choto, were in custody—unleashing an outpouring of protests from groups such as the International Federation of Journalists, which represents 450,000 journalists in 100 countries. “Our rapid response and international protest humiliated Mugabe to let these journalists go,” says Sharpe. The two still face a trial at home, and there are signs that Mugabe is further tightening the screws on the independent press in Zimbabwe, but the IFEX campaign on the journalists’ behalf has generated outrage among human rights groups and foreign governments who may yet have some sway over the case. “The publicity of shame is really our biggest weapon,” says Sharpe. “It’s very effective.”
In nations like China, Turkey, Iran, and Indonesia, where governments have long held a monopoly on information, the Net is revolutionizing political discourse, providing a stream of independent ideas and communiqués that’s often at odds with state-sanctioned reports. As a medium invented to keep communication open after a nuclear attack, the Net has proven hard to censor. Even though the government in Beijing has blocked the Human Rights Watch Web site (hrw.org) in some parts of China, for instance, HRW’s bulletins are often channeled through other sites. As Jagdish Parikh, a research associate at HRW who specializes in Internet development, puts it, users in China can now climb “the great wall” that has long quarantined them from the international media.
The power of online activism, as opposed to political rallies, face-to-face meetings with policy makers, and fax and letter campaigns, is difficult to measure, and Parikh worries that grassroots organizers will be tempted to rely on the Net to the exclusion of other means of protest. “I wouldn’t say that the Internet is going to bring more justice on its own. That would be too much power to give to any one medium,” says Parikh, who is also concerned that the ease of online advocacy will encourage an “armchair revolutionary situation,” in which users think they’re changing the world simply by e-mailing their senators. But the potential effectiveness of a single posting was powerfully demonstrated by the ordeal of Faraj Sarkuhi, a dissident writer and journalist who was arrested at the Tehran airport on November 3, 1996, while attempting to board a plane for Germany. He managed to smuggle a letter to PEN describing his detainment and torture, and PEN immediately posted a translation of the letter on its Web site, publicly discrediting an official statement by the Iranian authorities that Sarkuhi was traveling in Germany. A harrowing document, the letter was reprinted in Harper’s, and the alacrity of the international response resulted in his release from jail after 47 days; although Sarkuhi was rearrested and held for a year, he now lives in exile in Germany. “The world suddenly knew about his case,” says Diana Ayton-Chenker, director of the Freedom-To-Write Program at PEN (pen.org/freedom/freedom.html). “He became the most famous imprisoned Iranian writer.”
Even when e-mail has no other tangible benefits, Sharpe points out, it provides a crucial form of catharsis for individuals under restrictive circumstances. Unlike paper mail, it instantaneously plugs users into the outside world, providing a conduit for fears, observations, and ideas that receive no coverage in the official press. The explosion of e-mail surrounding the war in Kosovo, which has been called the first Internet war, certainly supports this notion. From the outpouring of e-mail from China that knocked out the White House Web site following the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, to the Net users who mobbed Belgrade’s cybercafés when the American satellite service Loral Orion was faced with a suspension of its Internet connection to Yugoslavia, the flow of individual communication in and out of Serbia has assumed a heightened importance.
When Serbia’s last independent radio station, B92, which Sharpe calls “an island surrounded by a bunch of propaganda crud,” was shut down by Milosevic in March, it began broadcasting over the Net. Sharpe and Ayton-Chenker agree that the consequences of severing the station’s link to Yugoslavia would be devastating. “This should be considered humanitarian assistance as far as I’m concerned,” says Ayton-Chenker. “The Net provides a lifeline the same way medical assistance and international monitoring do.”
The profusion of voices on the Net has nevertheless posed a challenge to the nonprofits. which must winnow through an often bewildering stream of human rights alerts, some of which are more reliable than others. Dependent on volunteer work and freelance consultants, offices like Human Rights Watch, which vets every article that appears on its Web site, are at times overwhelmed by a flood of appeals and breaking news they do not have the resources to accommodate.
As human rights groups develop a more effective Internet presence, says Parikh, the challenge will be not just to filter the noise more efficiently, but to move away from a broadcast model, toward a more interactive one. “One-way flow is much easier to build than two-way flow,” he says. And human rights organizations “have been slow to recognize the potential of this medium to build an interactive dialogue with the ordinary community.” If such Web sites, which now serve primarily as bulletin boards for press releases and petitions, are to build greater awareness and political clout with the public, he says, they should offer interactive maps and multi-tiered educational discussions, chat rooms, and forums. “It’s like building a community and acknowledging the importance of the diverse points of view of individual citizens. Human rights groups have to take a lead on that if they really want to make this a globally interactive medium.”