Advocating freedom of expression | Best of GMF 2014 | DW | 25.02.2014
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Best of GMF 2014

Advocating freedom of expression

Interview with Selmin Çalışkan, Secretary General of Amnesty International Germany

Amnesty International partners with Deutsche Welle for the 2014 Global Media Forum

This year’s Global Media Forum focuses on civic participation against the backdrop of a dramatically changing information society. Do you consider that topic of special importance to Amnesty International as well, since your organization relies on the active participation of its members?

Actually, in practice, participation is still too weak a concept in Amnesty International’s work. The organization is built on democratic principles and its members are responsible for all the strategic decisions. They determine our position on key issues. That’s true for our activities and campaigns as well. So of course we rely on volunteers. Nothing would be possible without them.

The predominance of the Internet has given a new dimension to your original focus on human rights. How has Amnesty International adapted to online life?

The Internet is both a blessing and a curse – two sides of a coin. On the one hand it’s an incredible tool to mobilize people. It allows us to reach out to our members very quickly when we’re launching activities or campaigns or want to send out information. Of course it is also a source of information for us, for instance that a situation might be getting too dangerous, like in Syria, to travel and conduct field research there. In that sense, the Internet is a blessing. It’s also a blessing when it comes to quick and effective detection of human rights violations in places with authoritarian regimes. I’ve experienced for myself that many people working in non-democratic countries can’t move about freely without immediately being attacked or threatened because of their critical views. For them the Internet is a very useful medium, where they can express their opinions anonymously and in safety.

The NSA affair has made it clear that the Internet is not a genuinely safe place. On the contrary, people’s privacy is at huge risk, which in turn poses a risk to their freedom of expression.

That’s the other side of the coin. In that context, of course, the current situation in Turkey comes to mind. President Gül has approved more restrictive Internet legislation instead of exercising his veto power as we urged him to do. By the way, he announced his decision on Twitter. The Turkish government uses online media to justify its restrictive policies, but at the same time prevents others from exercising freedom of opinion. That makes the Internet an instrument of power and domination.

I was in Turkey during the demonstrations in Gezi Park last year. Twitter was a bane to the government because we used it to organize and mobilize people. By using the service we always knew exactly where the police were positioned, where the no-go zones were, where tear gas and water cannons would rain down on us. Alternative media outlets grew online because the mainstream media were practicing self-censorship and no longer reporting what was actually happening on the streets.

Protecting whistleblowers will be your topic at the Global Media Forum. The EU recently rejected a proposal to offer asylum to Edward Snowden. What can your international organization do in such a case?

The fact is that Ed Snowden didn’t request asylum. He’s accused of sitting tight in Russia, but no one has offered him anything else. I find that hypocritical. As a whistleblower, he deserves protection from excessive and unfair prosecution – and that’s what he faces in the U.S. He has a conscience and he has backbone and no one wants to support him. He should be invited to Germany and questioned by a governmental investigative committee. It’s also a matter of processing the information he has about the surveillance conducted here in Germany.

This is the third time Amnesty International is taking part in the Global Media Forum. Do you think your organization and Deutsche Welle share common goals?

Although it isn’t a human rights organization, human rights are an important matter of concern for Deutsche Welle. It gives civil society a voice and provides a platform for diversity of opinion. Here’s one small example: In Russia there is a small group of soldiers’ mothers who formed a kind of election watchdog before Putin’s reelection and posted their observations online. The state responded with intimidation, requiring them to register as a “foreign agent” under the new NGO law. When you hear how restrictively they’re governing civil society organizations there, Deutsche Welle’s existence in Russia takes on a new dimension. These groups know that they can’t publish criticism themselves, but they also know that they can go to Deutsche Welle to address their issues. In an ideal scenario, Deutsche Welle can both protect local activists and at the same time help to prevent them from being silenced. Turning back to Turkey for a moment, now that President Gül has approved tighter Internet control in Ankara, Deutsche Welle can become an important medium for civil society groups there as well, by drawing attention to human rights violations and giving a voice to activists.