Thursday, 14 May 2009

New activism needs internet rights protection

Report: Growing pressure on internet freedom and communication rights of Bulgarian citizens*

Internet and new media have boosted civil society activism in Bulgaria in 2004 - 2008. Coincidentally, the pressure against internet freedom and communication rights of Bulgarian citizens have grown to unprecedented level. These challenges have been outlined by BlueLink's contribution to the internal assessment of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) in May 2009. To respond to them and meet better the needs of the re-emerging individual activism in Bulgaria further effort to protect internet and communication rights is needed on national and global level, the network suggested to APC and its members.
Similar to other post-socialist countries over its first decade of change Bulgaria had seen an influx of Western donor aid. Unfortunately most of it resulted in the formation of a clique of well-paid NGO functionaries, with little or no connection to the real needs and demands of citizens. New media formats, social networking opportunities and broader access to internet have been instrumental in the emerging of a new generation of activists since 2004. In contrast to the majority of NGO professionals, the new activists are mostly young or in their active age, with regular jobs and incomes, and driven by genuine concern and commitment to certain causes. Environment has been among the first among these causes, which lead to growing protest against the abuse of protected natural areas in the country.
Internet has transformed the growing mass of concerned individuals into a real movement. BlueLink has offered ICT services and know-how to environmental activists and organizations throughout the reporting period. The network has worked with other members to accelerate APC's activities in the area of sustainable development. At the same time, BlueLink has recognised the growing need to put more efforts in the field of internet and communication rights, as essential condition for strengthening civil society. Although as content and IT service provider the network strictly does not campaign on any other issues, not even environmental ones, internet rights, access to information and transparency have been identified by BlueLink's 2008 - 2014 strategy as core campaigning issues to actively engage with.
"We are trying to respond to a pressing need in Bulgarian society to enforce and support activism and participation on individual citizen level", said Dimitur Vassilev - Velin, the interim executive director of BlueLink. Vassilev - Velin, a BlueLink co-founder, has been involved environmental protest and activism since 1988. What we are experiencing today is growing pressure on individual expression, basic rights to assemble and protest, resistance by all means to public access to information and participation, he explained. Internet, communication rights and new media have a lot to suffer - and a lot to offer to civil society in this context, Vassilev - Velin pointed out.
In 2008 BlueLink started the Freenet online campaign against harassment of bloggers and environment protesters by the police and secret services. A broad coalition has been formed by different pressure groups in Bulgaria, to oppose planned law amendments aimed to exclude internet from the scope of basic communication privacy rights guaranteed by Bulgaria's constitution. But this has not been enough, and there is a lot more to be done, Vassilev said.The situation is not unique to Bulgaria. Similar trends symptoms of net oppression could be observed across the EU, certainly in the UK where activists have recently been spied upon by civil servants, and treated as terrorists . Circumstances in the developing world countries are in many ways similar to the developments in Bulgaria and elsewhere in Eastern Europe.
As a Bulgarian member BlueLink will support active international engagement. APC has been a leader in defense of internet rights since its foundation in 1990 and is well are of the issues and problems that exist globally. APC's further involvement will bring credibility, solidarity, and - in many cases - better safety for the members working in the ground. With its access to international donors, APC is well positioned to help with fundraising for ground work, which due to its nature will be difficult to budget for locally. Taking this agenda and problems to the global internet rights community, as well as sponsoring and organising regional or global coordination and awareness raising events like last years Data Retention Conference hosted by Hungarian APC member Green Spider in Budapest in 2008.
*Originally published by BlueLink.

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