Oslo Scholars Program

enabling tomorrow's human rights leaders, today

Activism Despite Surveillance

The following post is written by Carlota Fernandez-Tubau. Carlota is a junior from Tufts University majoring in International Relations and Peace and Justice Studies. She is a 2013 Oslo Scholar.

“When it is genuine, when it is born of the need to speak, no one can stop the human voice. When denied mouth, it speaks with the hands or the eyes, or the pores, or anything at all. Because every single one of us has something to say to the others, something that deserves to be celebrated or forgiven by others.”

The Book of Embraces, Eduardo Galeano

Some speak in signs, some speak in their writing, some speak through their eyes, some through their dances or songs and others speak through their actions, but when denied the ability to speak through mouth due to certain external factors, as Eduardo Galeano states in this excerpt from his work The Book of Embraces, human beings have consistently found ways to vocalize their beliefs and opinions to maintain a freedom of thought and expression.

The human voice carries a lot of power within its timbre that has refused to be restrained in the times that it is necessary to communicate. Galeano explains the lives of prisoners under the Uruguayan dictatorship who developed a hand sign language in a time where communication was condemned, in order to have their “beliefs and beauties, doubts and guilt, and questions that have no answer” survive through their condemned silence.

This undying and fearless human desire to communicate and resist the challenges that try and limit human interaction can be seen in the work of activists across the world who though under the strict surveillance of certain authoritarian states, aren’t deterred from finding the means to communicate what they hold as necessary for the world to hear.

The lives of Ali Abdulemam, Rafael Marques de Morais and Lobsang Sangay (to name a few) reveal the danger of speaking out against authoritarian states. Numerous papers have reported on Ali Abdulemam’s escape from Bahrain.  After being forced into hiding for more than two years, the renowned Bahraini blogger and human rights advocate was able to speak at the 2013 Oslo Freedom Forum (OFF), a conference for dissidents and human rights activists.

Abdulemam used the OFF platform to shed light on the vast human rights violations committed by the Bahraini regime, but also to ask more of the international community: “It is not that the world has forgotten Bahrain. The west and the international community has turned its back on us.” Soon after he spoke, Human Rights Watch published an article where Sarah Leah Whitson, their Middle East director, made the claim that “Bahrain’s justice system is a haven for torturers”. On Wednesday, Ali exposed the psychological and physical violence he has been subjected to. He talks about a series of car horn sounds that can lead to prison sentences of up to three years; the number of bloggers tortured, censored, and arrested in Bahrain; the six NGO’s focused on freedom of expression banned from Bahrain; and the friends and comrades of his that have all been killed by torture due to their use of publishing companies, blogs, and cameras to spread awareness of Bahrain conditions. Abdulemam communicates a situation of imposed silence within Bahrain that has not been able to deter the spirit of the many people, including himself, that choose to stand against the dictatorship despite the deadly consequences.

In a similar act of defiance and freedom of expression under situations of surveillance, journalist Rafael Marques, author of Diamantes de Sangue (Blood Diamonds: Corruption and Torture in Angola) defends human rights in Angola through his writing. His book exposes links to corruption and violence found within the Angolan diamond-mining infrastructure with evidence of the killings and torture of miners from members of the Angolan army.

Following it’s publishing, Marques prosecuted nine Angolan army generals on charges of crimes against humanity.  His work to purify the Angolan government and military of corrupt and criminal offenders allegedly guilty of human rights violations was met with a lawsuit filed against the book. Charged with slander and defamation by the Angolan army themselves, this lawsuit was a failed effort to deter Marques from his advocacy work. Instead of being coerced into silence, he never gave up his lawsuit and chose to defend himself against the generals’ charges in court. The counts against him were dismissed on the grounds of his freedom of speech and right to publish his book.

Marques speaks on the “systematic human rights abuses” miners are subjected to at the hands of Angolan soldiers. Since 2004 he has been publishing reports exposing the pattern of killings, torture, organized rape, and starvation used as a tool of enforced population displacement in Angola and has continued his activist work despite the setbacks the government attempt to place on his work.

During an OFF day session on cyber-security, Marques discovered that his Apple laptop had a significant drop in performance, and upon speculation by Jacob Appelbaum, Marques’ computer was found to have a piece of malware. The corrupting installed software was taking a screenshot of Marques’ computer activity every 20 seconds and uploading the images to a server in India. Marques stated that, “the malware was custom designed for me.” The corrupted email that had triggered the malware “was crafted for him to read specifically.” Marques knows that the Angolan government would resort to counter-surveillance in an effort to censor his work, limit his speech and find ways to legally deter him.

Despite their efforts, Marques continues his work and says, “We, local activists, bereaved families, victims of torture and outspoken community leaders, will continue to work to expose the human rights abuses led by the diamond industry in Angola, in complicity with the government.” Marques wants the best for his countrymen and is prepared to face surveillance, prosecution, and potentially death to communicate the systematic issues of oppression within Angola.

Lobsang Sangay, a Tibetan refugee and political activist spoke at the OFF about the situation in Tibet and the hope of establishing a democracy focused on non-violence despite the strong oppositional forces from the Chinese government. Sangay spoke at the forum about the surveillance and overseeing tactics of the Chinese government who “spends more on internal security than external defense.” The challenges of working from exile as is the case for many Tibetan political activists, are day to day experiences under intense pressure and constant monitoring due to lop-sided power dynamics. Sangay shared an anecdote about an experience being asked to interview with TIME Magazine demonstrating the extent of the Chinese cyber-surveillance on Tibetan activists. He told the audience at the Freedom Forum: “A few days [after responding to the TIME journalist] I received another email from her that said,  ‘These are the questions I wanted to ask you.’ I said the journalist is being so generous she’s sending all of her questions before coming to the interview, but then I thought about the asymmetric power dynamic, the 111 billion dollars for Chinese internal security, and I wrote back without opening the attachment, and asked if she sent those questions, and she replied that she never did.”

Though as a refugee Sangay had never seen Tibet he is proud to be a Tibetan and to fight for the rights of his people. In 2011 though he had spent 16 years in America and was finishing his time at Harvard Law School, Sangay was voted to become the next Sikyong of the Tibetan Government-in-exile. Despite the constant pressure and surveillance of the Chinese government Sangay speaks passionately and confidently about the Tibetan situation stating that “Tibet will serve as a litmus test for the rest of the world for the possibility of a completely non-violent democracy.” He explains that these prospects for the future comes from the determination found in the spirit of the Tibetan activists willing to die for their cause and find ways to protest their conditions despite the limitations to their freedom imposed by the Chinese government.

Tibetan protestors choose to self-immolate as a form of resistance to the oppressive conditions imposed by the Chinese government. Their actions speak at a time when surveillance makes it difficult to speak openly in dissent to their relationship with China. Sangay said that these self-immolations happen because of continued occupation and repression. Anyone who mentions the words “Human Rights” in the streets of Lhasa gets arrested and tortured. He said that, “when there is no room for any form of protests, no space for any form of protests, and the fear of getting arrested with long imprisonment and torture is so terrifying, Tibetans are choosing to die immediately than to fall in the hands of Chinese authorities.”

What all three of these activists shed light on is the fact that despite the severe and deadly consequences of their actions, they as well as many other political protestors continue to find ways to deliver their messages about their beliefs and critiques of these authoritarian regimes.  Life under surveillance takes many shapes and forms: psychological and physical violence, monitoring of websites, specially designed malware, phone taps, physical surveillance and home intrusions, are a constant menace. But despite the consequences these objectors continue to fight for their causes. They have a message to deliver that refuses to be deterred by the constant surveillance and violence that serve as immediate consequence from these authoritarian regimes. They are fighting to communicate. Abdulemam says that when people ask him why he does what he does he thinks of his children and the people of Bahrain. “I want him to live in peace and not in the fear I lived in as a child, I want a better future for my children so I do all that I can to support the people of Bahrain.” Like Galeano says, “no one can stop the human voice” because it consistently adapts to the situation refusing to submit to the oppressive forces that try to silence it. It can be heard in the horns in Bahrain, it can be felt in the fires of the self-immolating protestors in Tibet, it can be seen in the cries and testimonies of the Angolan miners fighting against their oppression. The human spirit is forever changing and always committed to communicating itself and its beliefs to others despite the pressures of condemnation.

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