After three days of deliberation, press freedom advocates gathered in post-revolutionary Tunisia have issued a wide-ranging declaration recognising the role social media has played in bringing about “unprecedented freedom of expression and democratic transformation.”
The Carthage Declaration, issued on Saturday (May 5) at the close of UNESCO’s annual summit to mark World Press Freedom Day, called on all concerned parties to “promote user-generated content and citizen participation in media.” But cutting both ways, it also urged media workers and social media users to “ensure quality, independent and pluralistic information by applying high professional standards and avoiding undue influence by economic, political and other actors.”
This year, the conference was jointly organised by the government of Tunisia on May 3-5, under the title "New Voices: Media Freedom Helping to Transform Society," and prominently featured bloggers and social media activists from Egypt, Syria and elsewhere in the Arab World.
After Thursday night’s World Press Freedom Prize award ceremony and entertainment at the Tunisian Presidential Palace, discussions kicked off in earnest at the Carthage Le Palace Hotel on Friday morning to draw some joint conclusions on the future of the industry.
Yemeni Nobel Peace Laureate Tawakkol Karman issues a rousing call in her keynote address, asking Arab governments to enshrine in law the freedoms gained “by young people [who] have sacrificed themselves… to bring down the oppressors." Breaking loudly into song, Karman energised the forum with a rendition of Tunisia's national anthem, an "anthem of the Arab revolutions," she said.
The main panel, which included Al Jazeera New Media Head Moeed Ahmad and prominent Tunisian blogger Lina Ben Mhenni, attempted to tackle the role of youth and and social media in transforming societies.
Ahmad explained that Al Jazeera has sought to engage with new voices in the region - even before the Arab uprisings - through its distributed reporting platform Sharek, and announced plans to launch a more robust and comprehensive version of the contributor-driven website in the coming months.
Ben Mhenni, meanwhile, praised the achievements of Tunisia’s revolution, which “liberated the innovative powers of our country.” But calling out a struggle for the future of the country’s media, she said:
“The only aspect... which I would have liked not to exist, is the wish of many people from the old power and the new power and other interested groups, which are trying to beat back transparency, and they want control… of the media.”
Perhaps the most important outcome of the panel, though, was the recognition of bloggers by Frank La Rue, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. “I think it is important to recognize all bloggers as citizen journalists, and they should be given the same protection as journalists,” he said.
He identified the two biggest challenges journalists face today: a rising tide of violence, with some 22 people already killed this year, and the increase in legal censorship around the world, through the use of libel and defamation legislation.
Later in the day, the Doha Centre for Media Freedom had a chance to share with the conference its work with young voices, as Rania Al Hussaini explained the purpose and process of the centre’s media literacy programme.
The programme that Al Hussaini heads is rolling out in Qatar on a five-year plan, and seeks to teach students at 120+ schools about news and press freedom. “The message that we have for the schools...[is] to show that there is not one truth but many sides of the story, to explain how the news is made and why it is so difficult, to teach skills... and offer students the opportunity to make their own news,” she said.
Previously, Qatar had no such programme, and a poll carried out amongst educators at schools around the country emphasised its necessity. Just on the question of media freedom, respondents proved completely split, with 36 percent saying the country’s press is unrestricted, and another 35 percent admitting it is limited.
Discussing other ways to engage with the public, Maha Abouelenein, Google’s head of communications for the Middle East and North Africa, said that it’s important to keep your ear to the ground, and pay attention to what people want to talk about. “A lot of the news and information that is shared on the internet is part of a community and part of telling a story where the audience defines what’s important to them. At Google we call it ‘wisdom the crowd’,” she said.
Beyond simple engagement, another key component of discussion on Saturday was how individuals - or organisations for that matter - can leverage social media tools, and maintain some degree of security while using them.
In a panel organised by DCMF, Bahraini journalist Lamees Dhaif said social media had empowered youth to cover the uprising there beyond mainstream media. “These people are not professional journalists but they practice journalism in a more professional way than the journalists. Social media emanated from the sense of responsibility from the people - they have no political agenda,” she said.
Another participant, Abu Alhayjaa M. Majeed of the Information Security Coalition, offered practical tips to protect yourself online:
- Use a good anti-virus, a paid one, and consider using an anti-malware tool as well.
- Encrypt your online communication, like using Skype for chat, or Gmail chat, which uses a secure protocol.
- Encrypt your stored data - hard drives, system drives, etc. Using Win 7, you can use BitLocker. Also consider backing up your data at least once a week, and consider using an online storage service, so that you can’t be forced to hand over your data physically.
- Use software that is regularly updated
- Use strong passwords, even on on your screensaver. And make sure your screensaver password comes on at minimum time
- Consider using international sim cards that work in numerous countries, so that you’re less exposed in those individual countries.
- Encrypt your phone
- Never open attachments or links from people you don't know or trust
- Surf the web anonymously
- Use HTTPS everywhere possible
From there, though, the conversation veered towards what level of responsibility companies have to protect journalists and activists. Bill Echikson, Google’s Head of Free Expression Policy and PR for Europe & the Middle East, said frankly, though, that they can’t guarantee 100 percent security for users of their services.
“Companies cannot promise you'll be safe using their tools. But we can get together and try to limit the handing over of material to governments, rather than racing to hand it over first,” he said, advocating Google’s policy of minimising the disclosure of information to governments and alway verifying any request’s legal legitimacy.
In closing, the forum’s Carthage Declaration drew together threads woven throughout the two days of discussion - recognizing its setting in the cradle of the Arab Spring, to understanding the “historical juncture... [for] culture, law and journalistic practices” the conference sits at, and calling for the empowerment of “women and youth to participate in the mass communications.”
Strongest amongst its recommendations - and accepted by the assembly without dispute - were the calls to promote a more diverse media space, to allow government-funded broadcasters to act independently as public service outlets, and to repeal criminal defamation law.
But the message to individuals taking some social media to get their message across was also clear, with the urge to create a culture of “independent, voluntary and credible self-regulation as a means to build public trust.”