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March 26, 2014

Twitter and Human Rights: A Complicated Story

By Emily Price

Twitter and other social media outlets are a blessing and a curse for human rights defenders.

On one hand, they are great for getting the word out. On the other hand, they challenge the traditional notions of state, leading many governments to react to them with misguided severity.

During the past decade, social media has played an integral role in some of the most significant human rights crises around the world. Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004 was one of the first mass protests spurred on by Twitter and citizen-access to the internet. The June 2009 murder of Neda Sotan, an innocent bystander in peaceful anti-Ali Khamenei demonstrations in Iran, went viral on Twitter, resulting in the phrase, “the Neda effect,” a reboot of the old broadcast cliché, “the CNN effect.” Social media also announced the self-immolation of Tunisian Tarek Bouazizi in December 2010. The Jasmine Street protests followed, and the surge of Bouazizi posts famously triggered Tunisia’s mass popular protests in 2011.

But social media has also created new problems for activists whose electronic cries for human rights in Tunisia, Iran, Syria, Egypt and elsewhere have made them the new instantaneous, anonymous enemies of state. The opportunities for online free speech have been matched by authoritarian regimes with new legal gymnastics that turn time-stamped, geo-tagged statements of opinion into criminal evidence and grounds for jailing.

Insecure, authoritarian governments view the power of social media on popular opinion as a threat, choosing to prosecute even though boxing informal tweets and status updates into formal legal violations can be a stretch—as signaled by Turkey’s 15th administrative court’s stay of execution on Prime Minister Erdoğan’s decision to block Twitter. Apparently “freedom-shmeedom” is not a sound legal claim.

In the era of television and newspapers, state officials had formalized routes for responding to accusations from human rights groups. In the era of social media the rules have changed. Governments scrambling to maintain control are using stringent, mostly absurd defamation, blasphemy, libel, and copyright laws as leverage in human rights cases.

Reporters without Borders’ 2014 report on Enemies of the Internet, reveals that the Bahrain General Directorate for Combatting Corruption and Electronic and Economic Security “includes the task of combatting the ‘crime of defamation,’ especially on online social networks.” The Bahraini Directorate also calls on the public to report “online smear campaigns tarnishing the reputation of national symbols and leading public figures,” which explains why a seventeen-year-old was recently arrested for insulting King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifah on Twitter.

In Kuwait, courts sentenced Mohammed Eid al-Ajmi to five years in prison for a Tweet, 140 characters or less, “insulting the amir”—a state security charge. This charge is an attempt to fit al-Ajmi’s tweet into Article 19(3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights on freedom of expression. According to this section, expression can be restricted if it protects the rights or reputations of others, protects national security or public order, or public health or morals.

Al-Amji’s tweet must have really hurt some feelings. Kuwaiti legal code might have allowed his case to be resolved in a simpler, more humane fashion – via a tweet by a state-appointed agent offering a counter argument. But, because crackdowns on social media using security or blasphemy laws often link posts to inciting violence, al-Ajmi lost five years of his life.

Leaving it largely up to private companies to navigate these new waters—where profits trump rights—is a sinking ship. The United States government can and must be a leader in this transition.

Social media is not a battle to be won or lost. It’s an opportunity for governance founded on the unfiltered voices of their people, voices that must be protected.