In the past few years, more citizens have opted for the online platforms where they can be active members in changing their cultures and communities. Activists, in particular, have seized this opportunity to practice their activism online, in order to have their voices heard and to reach a wider range of the society. However, Although online activism might have been legitimate in some cases, it is forbidden in others. The digital world is not as a universally free space as we might think. For instance, in Saudi Arabia, expressing one’s beliefs and calling for freedom of religions might not only be deemed as disturbing culture and religion but also considered as a criminal offence.
In the light of this, I will discuss the case of Raif Badawi, which represents a series of challenges that online activists might face in Saudi Arabia.
In January 2015, Raif Badawi, a Saudi online activist, was sentenced to ten years imprisonment and one thousand lashes[huffingtonpost]. This sentence was based on an accusation against Badawi of establishing an online forum called “Saudi liberal network” (now it is called ‘free liberal network‘ where he praised secularism and religious freedom, which encompass contradictive views to Islamic beliefs and Saudi culture.In fact, according to new Saudi regulations (issued in 2014), promoting atheism is just as a criminal offence as violent terrorism . Such regulation may actually arise, according to Morzov, due to the constant talking up by western policy makers about the threats such bloggers impose on their local governments.
Raif’s wife Insaf Haider, who has been given asylum in Canada with their three children, has appeared on media calling on governments and publics to demand Raif’s release. She has appeared on BBC news remarking that Raif had not insulted religions or mocked any politicians or religious clerics. Yet, what might she, and Raif, think is ethical, might be unethical or even illegitimate in the culture and law under which they expressed their view.
What is more interesting in this case, is that the majority of publics in Saudi Arabia seem to take their stance against Raif and other activists who are accused of disturbing culture and disrespecting Islam. As seen in a leaked clip of flogging Raif in public (In the previous video), people were clapping and seemed happy to see him flogged. Surprisingly, this majority includes close family members to the activist such as his father “Muhammed Badawi” who has appeared on social media accusing his son and his son in law “Raif’s lawyer” Waleed Abu Elkhair of being atheists. Thus, he requested the court to divorce his daughter “Samar Badawi” from her husband, and that resulted in divorcing her “by force”. In his account on Twitter, the father tweeted “Thank God, Samar is now divorced from the atheist spy Waleed Abu Elkhair”. Below is a screenshot of his tweet:
The fear of advocacy
On the other hand, there is a minority of publics who advocate Raif’s call for freedom of religions, but the fear of being accused of disrespecting Islam or being arrested for a minor word they might say, makes it challenging to disclose their identities or their views.Thus, it is hard for activists to find supporters in Saudi Arabia.
This fear of being in trouble, however, has not stopped some activists who believe that disclosing their identities is an essential part of being an activist. Wajeha Alhuwaider, a Saudi activist, has stated that it is a part of being activists to disclose our identities even though many activists in Saudi Arabia are using Nicknames and sometimes computer software to change IP addresses to avoid being tracked.
However, even when anonymously using digital media, it does not necessarily block the authority from tracking. In fact, it is common in Saudi Arabia for activists to be arrested by tracking their online activities . This is due the to the Saudi regulations that enforce state surveillance on the online content and activities; For instance, YouTube videos made in Saudi Arabia are monitored and some websites and social media accounts are blocked. Also, circulating blocked content in any form is considered to be a cyber crime; and all blogs, forums, chat rooms are required to obtain a license from the Ministry of Culture and Information. As a result, websites owners have to self-regulate the content added to their websites to avoid being arrested or having their websites blocked . Therefore, it is evident that even though it is possible to circumvent state monitoring, anonymity is still not guaranteed in the online world. That is due to the lack of freedom in digital media which limits the freedom of thoughts. According to Eban Moglin, freedom of thought requires freedom of media, as he explained in FOSDOM conference:
This sounds quite promising, However, such a technical solution might take a decade or more to be completely developed and deployed, despite other limitations it may pose. Thus, it is crucial now to define free approaches, especially for online activism, in order to ensure users freedom and safety.
Hillary Clinton as well, in her speech in 2010,has proclaimed the need for the freedom of the internet.
How to circumvent these obstacles ?
So Here, The role of digital civics researchers and practitioners is more challenging as it is not only having to design and build technical solutions for activism but also to ensure activists safety when applying these solutions.
It was evident that the risks of being an online activist could be intimidating, and the cost could span from carrying a bad reputation to a death penalty. The case of Raif Badawi highlighted the limited freedom in the online world due to religious, social or political barriers which should be taken in consideration by activist researchers and practitioners.
Finally, in order to support online activism, we also need to think of how to overcome cultural and political barriers for activists, and how to help them use digital media to build a rapport between their activism and the social milieu they are active in.