FPC Tour – Day 1
Today was hellish. The heavy schedule was a bit harsh, and consisted of three meetings with a fairly high echelon of the US-State Department policy makers, then two lighter meetings with State Department officials in charge of implementing these policies (and an occasional interlude devoted to visiting the Newseum, a highly recommended Museum on journalism and News reporting). the Foreign Press Centre Tour people run a pretty tight ship, which is all for the better, but as far as I am concerned, and for all their kindness, I was dead tired at the end of the day. But it really was worth it.
When I met the fellow bloggers prior and engage with them during the day, I genuinely felt humbled and a bit out of place. Many of them have grass-roots activism record, and for some of them, there are genuine and serious life-threatening implications to their web-activism; The best I can come up with, insofar my contributions are compared to theirs, is some thoughts on social engineering and economic policy, which is a pretty meagre record. Furthermore, next to some of these countries, Morocco does sound like a paradise of sorts; it might not be a democracy, and it surely is lacking in safeguards regarding freedom of speech, but it certainly does not have a record in pursuing ruthlessly its dissidence, certainly not in the fashion other countries are know to be dealing with their owns’. It certainly does put some perspective to it, and I have to recognize that, even though there is police brutality and a general sense of soft pressure on their cyber-dissidence, the Moroccan authorities are not as systematic in their repression as Bahrain, or Iran, or Pakistan are.
The meetings with the senior officials were interesting and refreshing: I personally did not have much opportunity to interact with senior officials – even in Morocco- but US policy-makers we have had the opportunity to meet do have a very pleasant way of conciliating their silver-tongue-like speech, with what they wanted the meetings to be, namely a free and frank exchange of views. We met successively with Alec Ross, Senior Advisor, Judith Mc Hale, Under-Secretary, and Daniel Baer, Deputy Assistant Secretary. So that was the first time I met with high-ranking officials, and that might explain the candid way I am about to describe the paradox, for the United States, of being both a supporter of freedom and web-activism, while keeping close ties with repressive regimes.
It was a bit surreal though, because I felt as if they wanted to take us into their confidence -and I felt that was particularly true of Ross and Baer, while keeping the diplomatic traditional codewords and a very pondered, very polished speech to describe the 21st century statecraft doctrine (that’s Mrs McHale’s part). Because Alec Ross, in his quality as a Senior Advisor for Innovation, has been intimately involved with this doctrine, his explanation of its main features gave some insight of what I believe to be a paradox in US diplomacy, especially towards freedom of speech. Now, according to Mr Ross, it was a stated policy for all past and current 67 Secretaries of State, from Thomas Jefferson to Hillary Rodham Clinton, that the United States support and promote Freedom of Speech, the right to have access to information… whatever the leaders of the Free World have to do. And yet, the main features of this ’21st Century Statecraft’ new doctrine are an implicit admission of failure to meet these standards, or shall we say of past complacency about past (and present) alliances with oppressive regimes that do not necessarily allow dissidence to express itself.
This of course does not mean they did not take an interest in trying to study the opposition groups -and I suspect that’s one of the FPC Tour purposes. Nothing wrong with that, as it fits the purpose of the exercise, the exploration of practical uses of web-tools in empowering civic activism and individuals into civic actions;
As for local US involvement, Mr Ross has repeatedly said that US ambassadors have “One Mouth and Two Ears” and should therefore be listening, and at the same time interacting with the local web-activists (he referred to the numerous twitter-feeds embassies around the world set up for their local activities) The trouble is, the impression many have come to form of the American diplomacy is rather that of “Two Mouths and One Ear”, where the United States support democratic principles, and yet are actively considering countries like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Bahrain or countries in Central Asia to be “Strategic Partners”. And it seems the State Department is funding a $28 Million-program in developing censorship-circumvention software and other solutions to bypass governmental web-access blocking routines, all of which is an eminent contribution to freedom of speech and web-citizen activism.
There were pretty straightforward questions from my fellow bloggers, which concentrated on the shortcomings of official US commitment to democracy and freedom of speech. The remarks were not idealistic, i.e. the bloggers were disillusioned about how effective this support is, but nonetheless did want to know more about how US Support can translate into field and local actions. And that’s where the second type of meetings came in play, where we had had the opportunity to meet two State Department bloggers, Laura Rodriguez and Luke Forgerson in DipNote (the official State Dept. Blog) Both seem to be more aware of the shortcomings of a too grandiloquent commitment to free speech. On the other hand, and because they work closely with USAID programs around the world, they were able to provide us with practical examples of US support to web-activism, and were overall, more in touch with the blogging issue.
Overall, I had the impression high and middle-ranking officials we met today were not trying to convey America’s wholehearted support of a new world order where every citizen has a right to a digital expression of their opinions, but rather their interest in the trends they have recorded everywhere in the world. I am no diplomatic code-breaker, but that’s what I felt was the implicit message in both Deputy Assistant Baer and Under-Secretary McHale’s remarks; As a matter of fact, if it was not for the rhetorical mantra about America as the “moral leader of the free world”, it was very informative of how the State Department is adapting its scope and how it relates to the rest of the world, and it could gain a lot more credibility that way. But then again, the United States, just like any country, needs to look after their interest, even if those contradict stated moral principles, and that, I believe, was more or less considered as a given among all participants in these meetings.
That’s all for today! Tomorrow will be the last day in Washington, as we are heading to the NetRoot Conference in Minneapolis afterwards.