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Bahrain testimony a highlight of "best ever" IFEX conference

IFEX members at the IFEX General Meeting and Strategy Conference in Beirut, 30 May - 3 June 2011
IFEX members at the IFEX General Meeting and Strategy Conference in Beirut, 30 May - 3 June 2011

Melanie Pinlac

Security forces prevented IFEX member Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), from attending the IFEX General Meeting and Strategy Conference in person in Beirut last week. But they couldn't prevent him from talking about recent human rights abuses in Bahrain via Skype, nor IFEX members and partners who were listening from initiating an international mission to Bahrain in the coming days. This was just one of the many highlights of the IFEX 2011 conference.

The Bahraini government had prevented Rajab from flying to join his IFEX colleagues in Beirut on 29 May. Maryam al-Khawaja, who heads BCHR's foreign relations department, cancelled her trip after receiving death threats.

Instead, fellow free expression and human rights defenders gathered for a 40-minute call on 2 June, during which Rajab thanked them for their support and welcomed plans for a mission composed of IFEX members and other concerned groups to Bahrain in the coming months.

Rajab also brought them up to date with the rounds of arrests, detentions, assaults and threats that both preceded and followed 1 June when the King cancelled the state of emergency and called for "national dialogue" on reform.

"How can there be a dialogue when people even this morning are being detained?" he asked. If the government is serious about dialogue, it must "stop persecuting people for doing their human rights work, allow journalists to publish freely, stop the bans on blogs," he said.

Rajab repeatedly thanked IFEX members for shining a light on Bahrain when other internationals failed to do so: "We are victims of the West who won't criticise the Bahrain government even though they criticised Libya and supported the revolutions in Egypt or Tunisia.

"Your support is like air for us, it's like hope for us. It is lifting our spirit," he said.

Other conference highlights:

IFEX took advantage of its Beirut setting to thread the current Arab context throughout the conference. In the opening session, "The Many Seasons of Arab Spring", popular writer Naziha Rejiba from Tunisia joined renowned journalist and blogger Nora Younis from Egypt and Frontline Defender's Khalid Ibrahim about where next for the Arab Spring uprisings. Some had a more positive outlook than others.

Danny O'Brien of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) led a session about emerging online threats to journalists, which honed in on how repressive regimes exercise cyber-censorship, surveillance and other forms of control - especially in China and Egypt. He also focused on measures that can be taken to circumvent Internet filtering, noting that different tools should be used depending on the situation.

Media expert Aidan White moderated a discussion on media ethics in a world of conflict and crisis, with speakers from Lebanon, Peru and Senegal, concluding that "we can never let governments off the hook for the range of threats that journalists face, but many of the ethical problems in the newsroom are self-inflicted."

Lawyer Peter Noorlander brought "Order in the Court"; he facilitated a session that looked at effective approaches that IFEX members have taken when monitoring trials against journalists and other free expression advocates - with real examples from West Africa, Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

A dynamic videoconference hook-up connected freedom of information experts from the World Bank, the Carter Center and the South Africa-based Open Democracy Advice Centre in Accra, Ghana, with participants in Beirut in a talk show led by Helen Darbishire of Access Info Europe. They highlighted the importance of access to information - notably the need for solid legislation guaranteeing both journalists' and citizens' right to information held by public bodies. Check out Access Info's Legal Leaks Toolkit for a step-by-step guide on how to file an access to info request in your country.

In the marketplace, Tactical Tech's sessions on turning information into "info-activism" in your campaigns and staying secure online (with some tips more obvious than others, like not leaving passwords on post-it notes), drew widespread acclaim.

IFEX members lent their voices to a number of joint actions, from drawing attention to the plight of political prisoners in Burma to calling on UN Special Rapporteur on free expression Frank La Rue to visit Sri Lanka.

And this is just a taste! For more of what went on during the IFEX conference, don't miss the IFEX conference blog, where IFEX members, journalists, human rights activists and free expression advocates from all over the world reported from the ground about their experiences in Beirut - in at least four different languages. Read it here (and see the pictures!).


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