AFP, May 13, 2011
In its annual analysis of the world’s human rights, Amnesty International praised the role of websites such as Twitter and Facebook in fomenting the biggest revolt against repressive regimes since the end of the Cold War.
But the London-based rights group cautioned that social networking sites which had helped cyberactivists to outmanoeuvre the authorities in successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt were a double-edged sword.
“There is no question that social media played a very important role in allowing people to get together,” Amnesty International Secretary General Salil Shetty told AFP.
“There is no doubt that there is a massive opening up of space through the Internet — but we have to remember all the time that this also gives an opportunity for governments to crack down on people.”
Amnesty stressed in the report, released on the eve of the group’s 50th anniversary, that “governments are scrambling to regain the initiative or to use this technology against activists.”
The Arab Spring, as the wave of revolts has become known, started with a popular uprising in Tunisia that ended the 23-year-rule of president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in January.
This “Jasmine Revolution” inspired an uprising in Egypt that put an end to Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year presidency and revolts have since spread across North Africa and the Middle East.
But Shetty warned there was a “serious fightback from the forces of repression” in countries where revolts had started but as yet failed to oust repressive rulers, such as Libya and Syria.
In Libya, where rebels have met with stiff resistance in their fight to overthrow leader Moamer Kadhafi, the regime had been “very systematically using the Internet and quite sophisticated social media stuff to repress people,” he said.
Syrian student Haytham al-Hamwi, who lives in Britain but has regular contact with people in Syria, said security forces were seeking to infiltrate networks of activists who use the web to organise anti-regime protests.
“Any guy who is arrested has to give his Facebook username and password and his email and password and they (the security forces) will look through his friends,” said the 34-year-old.