Recent revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa have demonstrated the unique opportunities that social media has created for human rights activists, according to an Amnesty International (AI) [advocacy website] report [text] released on Friday. However, repressive governments are now striking back by seeking to gain control of mobile telephone networks and the Internet. "The rise of social media offer an unprecedented opportunity for human rights changebut this change stands on a knife-edge," AI said in its report. In particular, during the recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt [JURIST reports], the governments there restricted Internet access and shut down mobile telephone networks. At the same time, AI noted other governments, including the regimes in Syria, Bahrain, Yemen and Libya have embraced more ruthless tactics to counter activism, including murder. According to AI Secretary General Salil Shetty [official profile]:
People are rejecting fear. Courageous people, led largely by youth, are standing up and speaking out in the face of bullets, beatings, tear gas and tanks. This braverycombined with new technology that is helping activists to outflank and expose government suppression of free speech and peaceful protestis sending a signal to repressive governments that their days are numbered. But there is a serious fight-back from the forces of repression. The international community must seize the opportunity for change and ensure that 2011 is not a false dawn for human rights.Much of the discontent that sparked the 2011 Arab revolutions was bubbling to surface even before 2011 and is reflected in AI's 2010 Annual Report [materials].
In late February, Human Rights Watch reported that more than 230 protesters had been killed within a six-day period in Libya, with the military and government supporters using live ammunition and machine guns on protesters, a shutdown of the Internet [JURIST report] and the arrest of those who spoke to foreign press. Syrian Internet users reported in early February that social media sites Facebook and YouTube are accessible [JURIST report] without proxy servers or VPNs. Syria appeared to be lifting the ban imposed in 2007 as a concession to avoid popular upheaval [DP report] in Syria. In late January, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay acknowledged reports of tactics including rubber-coated bullets, tear gas, water cannons and batons [JURIST report] in Egypt, and called on the government to investigate the reports of excessive force including civilian deaths. Pillay also pressed the government to lift the emergency law that had been in force for nearly 30 years and restore the use of mobile phones and social networks.