The Moorish Wanderer

FPC Tour – Day 2 and 3

Posted in Flash News, Read & Heard, The Wanderer by Zouhair ABH on June 17, 2011

I did not have time to blog about the second day last evening because of the exhausting flight route we took, a strange one in fact, as the flight from Washington DC to Minneapolis MI had to go through Atlanta GA, which is 872km South… (incidentally, I found out that Washington has a “small” national airport named after President Regan, while Atlanta was honouring the former Georgian governor and President Carter. It reminds me of  places and significant infrastructure named after former significant leaders in Morocco as well…

The second day had a lighter timetable, and changed focus from official policy to a more grass-root activism in new social media use for advocacy and causes. The morning event was hosted by the National Endowment for Democracy, based too in Washington, with some significant panellists and organizations, notably Robert Guerra from Freedom House. The conference main themes evolved around the tools developed and used by cyber-activists, with an emphasis on the Arab Spring, as well as internet safety for these activists, and -surprisingly enough- how private corporations can indeed participate in this process by committing to what Susan Morgan (Global Work Initiative, GNI) described as a kind of ethical policy in protecting freedom of speech and digital gathering.

Of all four panellists, Meier’s contribution was interesting to listen to: his remarks focused on the live reports on the Internet during the Egyptian uprising, as well as the very promising Ushahidi project. He was quick to point out that the pure web-activism, in terms of time allocation and resources consumption, is comparatively less important  (Meier gave a rule of thumb estimation of 10%) than the essential grass-roots work, to gather up testimonies, videos, pictures, and quite simply to report on the ground situation.

Though it was an NED conference, there were some interesting people attending the meeting, and among those were internews, who basically design softwares and train bloggers and cyber-activists on how to bypass governmental censorship (firewalls and others) and basically work on the ways and means to insure freedom of speech.

Meier's presentation during the NED Meeting

It was quite strange to notice that these people, even though they do receive some kind of public support, actually contribute more -in efficiency and resources- than the State Department. It might have to do with the fact that any support from an official body of the US government would be construed as foreign meddling in domestic affairs, and that the cause of Freedom of Speech, as the official goal of governmental policy, is best advanced with NGOs with seemingly no ties to any public American institution. So it was a bit peculiar for me to note that they are doing more on the ground by designing pieces of software and training cyber-activists how to use the internet safely, and by raising awareness among international -and in our case, American- public opinion. And quite frankly, my Bahraini fellow FPC blogger and journalist, Lamees, might actually benefit more from their support than that of the State Department’s.

The second day following touch down at Minneapolis was lighter, and we had the opportunity to visit the University of Minnesota’s‘ campus, more specifically the School Of Journalism who accepted to host a morning meeting for all of us. The talks evolved around the impact of use of the internet on reporting news. Now, because it is a school of journalism, and because the scholars and graduate students who attended the talks with us have a focus on Journalism, the various talks evolved around how journalists can use the social media to get the story out, especially in the case of the Tahrir Square rallies. There was also a discussion on the shortcomings of such tool, more specifically how to verify ‘the story’ and how journalists can make sure the local contacts are reporting genuine facts from the ground.

Today is the second day with NetRoot Nation 2011 Conference. Follow the Hashtag #nn2011 on twitter to keep updated on what’s happening!

FPC Tour – Day 1

Posted in Flash News, Read & Heard, The Wanderer, Tiny bit of Politics by Zouhair ABH on June 14, 2011

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.

At the Newseum, next to the Pullitzer Award-winning pictures.

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.

All Work and No Play Makes Johnny a Dull Diplomat

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.

State Department Fresco at the Entrance. The building is really impressive: lots of conference rooms, a business centre... and tight security.

That’s all for today! Tomorrow will be the last day in Washington, as we are heading to the NetRoot Conference in Minneapolis afterwards.