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Using social media to promote human rights

“I had no words to add, I just sat down for some minutes. I felt she wanted to spare me from listening, listening to horrors that many others preferred untold,” wrote Rosebell Kagumire on her blog.

The Internet Freedom Fellows address the audience at an event © Yves Bouvie/US mission photoRosebell, a human rights activist and multimedia journalist, wrote about her encounter with a woman at a medical center in northern Uganda. “I should not be telling you this,” said the woman as she was recounting the story of her abduction and the years of sexual violations she suffered during the civil war.

Rosebell's blog features commentaries and stories on political issues with a focus on women's rights in Uganda and the region. Her blog is very popular among young people who are looking for an independent analysis of events not usually found in traditional media.

Promoting human rights through social media, mobile communication and digital networks is not only Rosebell’s objective but the goal of six other writers, bloggers and journalists, all human rights defenders in their countries, who have been nominated Internet Freedom Fellows by the U.S. Department of State.

The seven activists gathered at the UN last June and shared their stories at a side event to the UN Human Rights Council entitled "The Human Voice of Freedom: The Internet and Human Rights". Along with highly regarded experts in the field of social media, they talked about their work in protecting human rights using social media and discussed the importance of a free Internet to the promotion of human rights and freedom of expression. 

“We have to be creative in opening up ways of communicating so that we can still get the message out,” said Aung San Thar, a video journalist for the “Democratic Voice of Burma”, an independent media organisation promoting human rights and freedom of expression in Myanmar.

Kwon Eun Kyoung, from the Republic of Korea, is the editor of the online newspaper “The Daily NK” which focuses on human rights abuses in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “It is important to encourage individuals in liberal countries to educate themselves on the problems and human rights violations happening in heavily censored countries to help make a difference,” she said.

“In countries where the government has monopoly over the media, I work to offer alternative information and other points of view,” said Henda Chennaoui, a journalist and social media blogger widely followed on Facebook in Tunisia. 

Other Internet Freedom Fellows include Wael Abbas, a blogger and human rights activist from Egypt whose online writings have brought awareness about important human rights issues in his country; Wen Yunchao from China, and Andreas Harsono, from Indonesia, prominent writer, human rights activists whose blog is particularly popular with young users in the city of Jakarta.

“The Internet Freedom Fellows programme was launched last May to highlight the innovative use of the Internet in promoting and defending human rights,” said Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, U.S. Representative to the UN Human Rights Council. “Around the world people are using new media in the call for freedom, transparency and greater self- determination. We must always remember that it is not the tools, but the courageous people who use them – journalists and reporters and individual citizens – who are the human voice of freedom,” she said.

The side event engaged a web audience from around the world. The Internet Freedom Fellows, several of whom have large twitter followings, tweeted live during the discussions, and the hashtag #InternetFreedom briefly “trended” on Twitter during the event. Other human rights defenders were “skyped” into the UN gathering located in the Palaisdes Nations in Geneva from their own homes to engage in the discussion. After addressing the group, Azerbaijani blogger Emin Milli tweeted a link to what he called “My UN speech from my kitchen in Azerbaijan.” 

“This is exactly what we hoped to achieve,” said David Kennedy, Public Affairs Counselor at the U.S. Mission to the UN in Geneva. “This engaged group of courageous young internet activists opened wide the doors of discourse on human rights. This is the interconnected environment they work in everyday, but it was really something to see it here at the Palais des Nations.” 

Earlier this year, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke about the Internet as a platform for expression and pledged to find innovative ways to promote the use of Internet in support of human rights. She highlighted the importance of the “Freedom to connect” to encourage individuals to protect freedom of expression, association and assembly.
The Internet Freedom Fellows programme is funded by the U.S. Department of State and managed by the U.S. Mission to the UN in Geneva, in cooperation with the Institute for Media and Global Governance, a Geneva-based non-governmental organization.

10 August 2011