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Panel on freedom of expression

21 November, 2005

Together with the internet blogging project Global Voices online, the Dutch NGO Hivos organised a two day program on 17 and 18 November on freedom of expression. On the first day two panels and two lectures were scheduled, the second day was devoted to a workshop on secure communication tools for NGOs. It was only thanks to the Dutch embassy that the event could actually take place. The event was the subject of immense and incredible pressure from Tunisian authorities. They pulled every trick to cancel the event, including the presence of 20 grey-clothed unidentified representatives from some law enforcement services in the back of the room. They threatened to close the doors halfway during the event, if the announced coffee break was to be held, to make sure nobody could get back in.

The main argument from the Tunisians was that the summit took place in two different territories; one was an exhibition hall with presentation rooms and adjacent was U.N. territory, where the plenary sessions were held with matching diplomatic protection for participants. Obviously, on Tunisian territory it was out of the question to debate such a sensitive issue as freedom of expression, and like the EU, Hivos should have quietly moved its discussion to U.N. territory. But Hivos was unable to move the panel on such a short notice, especially because of the impossibility to advertise the new location to all possible participants.

In the first panel, three speakers from Zimbabwe, Iran and China spoke about their experiences with the limits of freedom of expression. Chairwoman Rebecca McKinnon from Global Voices said she had left a comfortable position as CNN desk chief to join the bloggers movement, especially because these global citizens voices could compensate for the over-reporting on the US and Western Europe.

The blogger from Iran, currently living in the United States, Hossein Derakshan gave a lively description of the explosion of blogs in Iran. A few months after he started one of the first blogs in Iran in 2001, there were between 3 and 4.000 blogs. Five years later, there are 700.000 blogs in Iran.

The blogger from China, Isaac Mao, choose his words very carefully, and explained the level of control was so strong, in China it was important to focus on free thinking than on free speech.

The representative from Zimbabwe, Taurai Maduna, said Internet participation was very low and legislation extremely tough. Under the Public Order and Security Act for example, it is illegal for more than 5 people to gather without a previous license. He mentioned two other examples of successful activist communication in the country, One was a sticker illegally stuck on condoms. Freely distributed by many government organisations, the condoms suddenly said "Get up, Stand up!" Another one was a CD entitled "Rock the regime into retirement." Maduna said he was unable to detect any specific internet monitoring by the Mugabe government, since nobody had ever been arrested on an internet related accusation. But later on, speaker Nart Villeneuve from the Citizen Lab in Canada said it was likely that a shipload of Chinese censorware was underway to Zimbabwe.

Nart villeneuve also pointed to a brandnew study on internet filtering in Tunisia. "To document the extent of Tunisia's Internet content controls, the OpenNet Initiative (ONI) tested 1923 sites from within the state, and found 187 (10%) blocked. Tunisia's filtering efforts are focused and effective. The state employs the SmartFilter software, produced by the U.S. company Secure Computing, to target and prevent access to four types of material in particular: political opposition to the ruling government, sites on human rights in Tunisia, tools that enable users to circumvent these controls, and pages containing pornography or other sexually explicit content."

The day ended with a second panel debate with panellists from Malaysia, Iran and Europe (your editor) about the limits of freedom of expression and a closing speech from the Dutch minister of Economical Affairs. The next day, a group of extremely eloquent and funny geeks from Front Line and the Tactical Technology Collective presented the project 'Secure NGO in a box', all kinds of free software tools to enable NGOs to secure their internet communication. The tools include software to generate secure passwords and store them in a secure safe on a hard disk or even USB-stick; references to anonymising proxies, and an easy to understand guide to use anonymous communication tools such as Tor, JAP and Freenet. The audience (minus the Tunisian secret service representatives) responded very enthusiastically when they mentioned Tor is now also available for use on a USB-stick, to use in any internet cafe.

Translated highlights from Chinese blogs

NB! wrong URL mentioned in newsletter
Weblog Hossein Derakshan

Internet filtering in Tunisia in 2005

NGO in a box - security

Download Tor software for use on USB-stick



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