7: ON CONNECTED VOICES
ON CONNECTED VOICES
Welcome to Nordic By Nature, a feature length podcast on ecology today inspired by the Norwegian Philosopher Arne Naess, who coined the term Deep Ecology.
In this episode ON CONNECTED VOICES, you will hear from two guests, prominent in the world of internet access and freedom of speech.
First you will hear the from Walid Al Saqaf. Beyond his daily research and development work at Södertörn University in Sweden, Walid combines his roles of free speech advocate and software developer to focus on the non-commercial use of Internet and its impact on democracy and freedom of speech.
Walid founded a ground-breaking news aggregation service in his home country of Yemen, which spurred him onto work with tracking Internet censorship and enabling activists and journalists to bypass government imposed firewalls to access news and social media websites.
Walid is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Internet Society (ISOC) and co-founder of the Society’s Blockchain Special Interest Group. His work in tech development for increasing Internet Access has earned him international recognition, including a TED senior fellowship, and Örebro University’s Democracy Award, and he has been featured by global media such as CNN, the Guardian, and the Huffington Post.
After Walid, you will hear from Bahraini civil rights activist, and blogger Esra’a Al Shafei.
Esra’a is the founder of Majal.org, a network of digital platforms that amplify underrepresented voices in the Middle East and North Africa. She is passionate about music as a means for social change, and is the founder of MideastTunes, where musicians across the world with Middle Eastern and North African origin can share their music that is often censored on mainstream music platforms.
The World Economic Forum listed Esra’a as one of 15 Women Changing the World, and she was featured in Forbes magazine’s 30Under30 list of social entrepreneurs making an impact in the world. She also a senior TED Fellow, and Echoing Green fellow. As an outspoken defender of free speech, Esra’a was FastCompany magazine’s “100 Most Creative People in Business and The Daily Beast one of the 17 bravest bloggers worldwide.
I hope you have time to sit back, relax and listen to this podcast with your headphones!
WALID AL SAQAF
Yes. So, I’m Walid Al Saqaf.
I’m a senior lecturer at Södertörn University, in Journalism and Media Technology. And I do a lot of research in Internet studies, areas such as artificial intelligence, blockchain, Internet of Things, big data, social media analysis, etc..
In the area of big data, for example, there is a lot of discussion around how to analyze the amounts of data that exists. There are numerous sources of data. For example, we have the social media. One area in social media is network analysis, to understand how people communicate with each other.
What makes them attracted to certain types of content? This is more or less in the marketing domain. So many companies wish to know how to attract audiences would like to analyse this mass amount of data.
And furthermore, there are decentralized solutions in technology nowadays emerging. You may have heard a blockchain, for example. There has been an issue regarding trust or shall I say, distrust in centralised media. And among those platforms that have been often criticised is Facebook. And then you have the notion of politicisation of content online and how to recruit certain elements like bots and hackers to attack individuals online.
So, there is a lot going on in the media technology, space, cyber space in particular. That’s where I’ve been quite active. I feel that the human rights has a place in this newly developing digital world, and I must say that within the scope of human rights, for me, freedom of expression stands its own ground and is really an important aspect for us, particularly those who come from the Middle East, as I originally am from Yemen, though I’ve been living in Sweden for a while.
I do attain my identity as a Middle Easterner and try to promote freedom of expression in the Middle East in any way I can. And I feel that technology in various forms can be a supporter or a helper in this space, particularly in the area of eliminating censorship. When it comes to censorship, there has been a lot going on in the last decade or so.
On the so-called ‘Arab Spring’
You recall what happened during the Arab Spring? And well, some people don’t like to name it that way. But nonetheless, the popular revolutions that took place in the Middle East, in Yemen, for example, in my homeland, we had various platforms that emerged at the time. And much of what has been published on these platforms was user generated. So it was users trying to promote their ideas, get their voices heard through the Internet, because in places like the Middle East, China and elsewhere, where there are authoritarian regimes, there has been suppression of freedom of the press and media and expression in general, particularly as the mainstream media are controlled by the state most of the time.
And so, and individuals ended up finding the Internet as their refuge. So, they used it to promote their viewpoints, expressed their opinions, have things published that may not otherwise not be published. So during the time of the Arab Spring and even before that, I had been working on developing a news website- well you can call it a news aggregator website – which collects various forms of content from Yemeni news websites and then promotes these based on the clustered information. For example, if there has been an incident, how did various news websites cover it? It was so the search engine would aggregate and cluster information so that people would get a mosaic of views on the particular incidents. And so over time, it grew and became one of the more popular websites in Yemen. But the authorities at the time, led by Saleh, President Saleh, who used to be an authoritarian leader, ended up blocking the website.
I recall the day I was opening the website, trying to reach out to various users and understand how things are going. I realised the website was no longer accessible in Yemen. Since then, I’ve become quite an advocate of against censorship and trying to use tools to promote freedom of expression online and circumvent censorship. Because the first thing I thought is that the Internet itself is not controlled by anyone. So, the authorities in Yemen may well be able to stop certain individuals from accessing a particular domain, but they cannot stop the internet as a whole. So, I ended up building tools. One of them was called Al Qasar. Al Qasar is an Arabic word, meaning the circumventer. And I built it mainly for the users in Yemen to access my website at the time. It was called the admin portal. So, whoever wanted to access news content published on my website, would use Al Qasar.
And over time, I realised, OK, this is not only a Yemeni problem, it is actually a Middle Eastern problem and maybe even a global problem, because there are many countries outside the Middle East that also censor and still ‘til today. So, the tool ended up becoming a hit. Generally speaking, it got used in many countries such as China, Iran, as even as far away countries as Australia and the USA, where certain types of censorship would take place. For example, in closed environments, in particular, working environments, etcetera.
So, it ended up becoming a tool that was useful to many individuals. And so alongside working on Al Qasar, I also started searching and researching and understanding how censorship affects people, what is involved in censorship, why are various tools used to suppress certain voices and how so that became, of course, my Phd. So, I worked during 2011 to 2014 on censorship, circumvention, research and censorship research on the media. And I ended up publishing that with the help of data I gathered through Al Qasar. And so, yeah, it was a very must say, eventful journey in that space. Yeah, but things have changed in the last few years, to say the least. I mean, all the dreams we had in the Middle East and Arab Spring had faded away, maybe transformed to nightmares.
And additionally, much of the technology that initially were used to bypass censorship were actually no longer as effective simply because authorities also evolved. I mean, the way they censor the Web’s websites and content online has evolved in such a drastic way that makes you wonder whether they have their own research teams and various scientists working alongside them, because a typical case is surveillance in the past.
From Censorship to Surveillance
Censorship used to be like the first intention or objective of the authorities. And so, what they ended up doing actually is still censoring in such a way that would allow individuals to access content, but then they would be monitored throughout this period. And if caught, they would then be prosecuted or penalised. So, it made people, yes, able to access content, but always mindful of the fact that they may be watched. And that is even worse kind of censorship.
To be honest, because if you know that you being tracked all the time and any action you take on a Website, particularly if at that website is known to be anti-government, for example, then you are exposing yourself to a greater harm, greater risk. That is what drove me to consider surveillance as perhaps the second evolutionary stage in the form of censorship. Technically speaking, as well as traditionally.
It creates not only censorship on the technical aspect, but also internally. Or maybe one can call itself censorship and it causes people to no longer trust their own judgment when using technology. So, it’s quite a frightful scenario. I’m not sure how one can confront that because of the fact that a lot of users aren’t media literate. They don’t know how technology works and operates.
So they are sometimes taken advantage of. I mean, one cannot overstate the impact that the scandal of Facebook camera’s analytical, for example, had caused in terms of distrust of media companies and media technology in general. And so, I mean, we are now at a very different ballgame to sort of speak as something that requires much more strategic thinking and long-term vision by researchers, activists alike.
Blockchain technology potential
But there are certainly some promising technologies, in my view. Among them is blockchain technology, because one thing that it introduces is the elimination of the central authority or what we used to call the owner of the media technology. And so, what happens in a location environment is that instead of having an individual entity or one single entity in charge of storing the data, the data itself becomes distributed.
So it is stored on various platforms, various servers across the world. And these servers, each individual server alone, cannot control the types of content that it saves, etc. because it’s built around a consensus mechanism. So, you have, for example, in the case of Bitcoin, which is the first location, you have thousands of nodes across the globe recording the same data and ensuring that this data is protected from malleability or manipulation.
And so that leads us to consider this as a way to ensure that and no one single central authority is in charge or is in control. That is one positive thing I would consider in location technology. Another thing that is also likely to be of value to activists is that it becomes censorship resistant in a way, because if you think of having your content published and this content becomes part of a blockchain, then it is no longer possible to block the central, let’s say, database that used to publish content in the past.
Now you would actually have governments actively find out and or shut down or shut access to any of the nodes of the blockchain that are ever in existence. That would be a very expensive procedure. Economically speaking, more expensive than the value that governments would have.
So that’s something that I think would be of interest to activists and those involved in freedom of expression. And the third aspect that I think would be valuable is something that we at the university here said in turn are beginning to research, which is confronting fake news.
And the way it works is that if you have original content being published by, let’s say, an entity such as an official or a celebrity. This content can have its original copy saved on the blockchain. And som since this content is possible to verify through it, since it is signed within a private key, something like a digital signature. So, this information would then be related or better connected to the originator or the creator. No one would be able to forge this content because it’s signed, it’s encrypted, graphically signed, and it’s known to the lot belong to a certain individual or entity. And so over time, record of creative content that’s original becomes established on the blockchain. I mean, this is a project that we are working on today on the university.
Developing a user case for blockchain journalism
We’re trying to see if this could develop into a user case for blockchain in the journalism space so that if the individual journalism items are stored on the blockchain or at least their hash, which is like a code connected to it, is stored on the blockchain, then it would be possible over time to find out what original content has been published throughout the years. And at the same time, we would identify elements trying to forge content and at the same time eliminate the possibility of fake news going to the mainstream, because mainstream, let’s say, social media or any form of platforms would all be able to verify and double check if that content is in fact on the blockchain.
And it was signed by the original writer that the no, I mean, I can identify and relate to. And if it’s not, then it has not proven its authenticity. So that’s one user case that we are considering researching today. And we hope to come up with some papers on this in the future.
If you think of media as a product, any product cannot be worth anything unless there are consumers of this product. So, in the case of news content, people have come to a phase where there is so much distrust that there are those who never believe what is published anymore. And media in its various forms, including, for example, the extreme types of media, right wing or even the extreme left.
I mean, various forms of media and propagating messages that are not factual. This obviously led to a cycle of what one can call confirmation bias tendencies, where people only tune to the what they think is correct or factual. And this brings us to the notion of extreme opinionated content reaching the mainstream as factual content, which is dangerous.
If you only confine yourself to your own bubble of information or thoughts, you can never change your mind. I mean, it’s rarely that you will need to change your mind because you’re surrounding ourselves with the same type of content. And so that causes polarisation. And when you are in a polarised society, that leads to tension and possibly violence. So it’s a massive threat to democracy as we see it.
So, one thing that I would consider as helpful in the long run is to establishing better ways of verifying content, meaning that it would be possible to be more objective than simply saying this is true and this is not. For example, by providing evidence verifying if factual content through, let’s say, use of tools such as in Asia, forensics, for example, videos that have been produced that are fake can be traced to their original copies. So original content.
So that would mean that there will be more media literacy requirements not only on behalf of the public, but also journalists themselves. They need to be trained so that they understand what is objectively factual and what is an opinion. And that’s something we are working on at the university. We feel that education is key to helping confront the ongoing slaughter on journalism as a profession, as an industry, and hoping we hope that through going back to the basics by verifying content before publishing.
Ensuring the public understands what the verification tools or methods or steps are and how one reaches to those conclusions. If we do that, then journalism would perhaps survive. One reason why people also don’t trust the media as it used to because they realize their interests being served and the typical example that they’re offered often. And when we talk about countries such as the United States, where capitalism is reigning in, as you know, and it is more of a polarised, either Republican right wing media, or Democratic leaning left wing media, that led to the belief that if there are interests involved, or if it’s not purely for the public good or public interest, then it means that these interests will take over the professional journalistic ethics or principles.
Jeopardising or compromising these ethical principles of journalism would lead to a downgrading of the whole profession for everyone, even those who are honest and trying to cover facts with integrity. Yes, there is a very evident decline in trust because of these private interests. And while I cannot offer a solution, there are some better examples to follow. For example, the public broadcasting sector in Sweden, Scandinavia, etc. that are based on fees paid directly or through the tax system.
Public TV and crowdfunded channels
I mean, the Scandinavian examples proves that there is some premise in having a directly funded media organisations such as Swedish TV or Swedish radio, which are said to be among the most trusted in the world. And percentage of relatively speaking. If you have that opportunity, then that would help ensure that journalism remains faithful to its principles and to ethics. But on the other hand, this is not possible in all countries. I mean, in this case, there are other examples such as The Intercept or The Correspondent.
These start-ups that are looking to not necessarily getting money from every single individual or all the population, but from those who are able to afford it and who believe in the message of journalism. They can cover every single thing, but they can dig deeper into investigative stories that are of grave importance, such as issues related to politics or corruption or mismanagement. I mean, serving the watchdog role. So he has there, as I can see, challenges, but they’re not insurmountable, we’re able as homo sapiens to evolve and find ways that allow us to overcome them.
So, I mean, with new technologies come various challenges, and one challenge that came with the Internet is the need for the protection of net neutrality. And net neutrality is basically ensuring that Internet service providers treat content of all types equally without privileging or giving advantage to certain types of content. A typical example that is offered is when you offer one company faster speed, access and throughput so that it can promote its content and it loads faster on your screen. Another company offering another type of content, for example. Or maybe it’s not favourable to the internet service provider.
They are capped so their content gets loaded much slower, which means that you’re giving advantage to certain companies that are offering content over the others. And I’d say it’s counterproductive in the long run because it leads to creating bias, creating favouritism. That means that the internet is no longer the open space for all to contribute to and to access. It will be skewed to those who pay higher or who are more influential. So, it causes to fragment the internet and make it more like islands than a whole global space where everyone is welcome to produce content and consume content. Additionally, that creates also a major obstacle to newcomers and start-ups and smaller entities who would find themselves competing with much bigger entities. And that’s capitalism at its worst because it makes them stronger and richer, richer and the poor poorer. So, it creates a divide.
Net neutrality is opposed by many, including, for example, the father of the Internet, Vince Cerf, who adamantly opposes trying to control or govern content because the Internet was built around open standards, open infrastructure, and these types of filters or controls affect this seamless design of the Internet. And then this obviously results in portraying the technology as not open and not fair to everyone.
Concentration of Power
Another challenge apart from what I’ve mentioned already about distrusting the Internet for various reasons, such as the fake news phenomenon as well as net neutrality, that’s the limits to net neutrality is where there is what we call the ‘concentration of power’ on the Internet. And this leads to a looking at the Internet as privately-owned corporations controlling vast amounts of it.
And that’s actually reality, unfortunately. If you look into the top domains that are being accessed online, you would find five or so controlling more than 90 percent of this bandwidth and traffic that is in the public domain. This is maths, of course, excluding what is called the deep web, which is the ones that are not necessarily public.
So these companies, such as the Googles and Facebook and Apples and these are in fact having a share that is disproportionate to what they’re representing. If you look into the population distribution across the globe, you would also notice that these companies are mostly located in the Western Hemisphere, in fact may mainly in Silicon Valley.
So, they are not at all representative of the diversity and of what we see around the world. And add to that the difficulty for companies to emerge. And in less fortunate societies such as now countries in developing countries, because they do not have the same authority, you’re already behind and those at the very forefront are running much faster, so it’s extremely difficult for you to catch up.
This disparity, I believe, is one reason why some countries such as China and Russia that are already involved in building their own internal or intranet instead of Internet being the global space, they are focussing more on closing down their environment and not allowing external entities to penetrate.
Closed walls and fragmentation
China has been relatively successful in the fact that created its own search engines, created its own social media, and Russia to some degree is following the same footsteps.
And additionally, this would serve as a model for other countries to begin to realise alright, since these conglomerates based in the US are in the forefront and it’s not possible to compete, then let us just simply close access or confine ourselves to working on what we have internal. And this leads to nationalism on the rise and leading to more people no longer communicating with others across the globe and contained within their own bubbles and their own national boundaries.
And that’s fragmentation. That’s clear and simple. So even with the infrastructure that exists today, fragmentation online is still possible. And the fact of the matter is that the most and the highest concentration of cameras detecting any group of people is in London, not in Beijing.
So you can say that this has become more of a competition between governance. Who is able to surveil more people in a shorter period of time and using much more advanced technology?
What is scary a little bit now is that not all of this is transparent. So, you find that the obvious scandal over NSA and the Prism and the Snowden revelations, these have showed us that much of what is happening in terms of surveillance is underground. It’s happening behind closed doors. What we are seeing is the tip of the iceberg. And that leads us to consider the fact that if we learned about it only with these leaks, then that means that with the repression of WikiLeaks and Snowden etc., governments are hoping that whatever they do next will be even much more discreet and much more hidden.
The stealth mode operation that will take place in the future are going to be even much worse. And add to this the new challenge of having to deal with new technologies such as 5G, which, as you can imagine, is now on one of the main conflict issues between the two main powers, China and the United States. This is pointing to a future where there would be competition in terms of open standards or let’s say, standards of technology. If the Chinese end up being the one that set the standard for 5G, then that would put the U.S. as at a disadvantage. But at the same time, even though it’s going to be open standards, the technology that accompanies open standards might not necessarily be open.
That leads to risks of hiding certain proprietary code that may end up surveilling not in the hundreds of thousands, but in the billions of people. And so that means with faster technology, with more efficient, effective, robust technology. There would probably be more politically oriented acts of surveillance that would them further, in my view, damaged the trust in the Internet.
The race towards 5G
It’s a matter of who will control technology because it’s a multi-trillion dollar industry. You know, likely whoever controls 5G will now be the next dominant superpower.
China has grown over the years because they thought of it as slow and steady. They don’t want to leap forward too fast and then fall too fast as well. So, they’re taking it incrementally. And so, they built this stealth mode, very peaceful and very quietly. And now they’ve reached a tipping point where if they secure the next 5G and having 5G as their own standard that they step, then they would actually flip the scale and take over.
The U.S. has been involved more with the short-term investments of selling arms and war profiteering and trying to dominate in that respect and getting big oil deals. But Chinese have been investing long term and very cleverly in this technology that don’t necessarily get the results right away, but they are not for wars.
The U.S. have always been for wars, from Vietnam to the Iraq war and Yemen. So, there are different mindsets here. And I think the Chinese are winning the long run because the United States, they don’t have the same stamina. They cannot fight (wars) forever. There will be a collapse of their economy if they keep on only depending on selling weapons and only certain types of technology.
Potential for change
I mean, I do not want to leave you all with this dark themed ending. The real situation we have now is that technology, with all its negatives and positives, are a conduit. Eventually they are in the hands of individuals and we can use them in whatever way we see fit that serves our purposes. But then when you look back in history, you realise that those who you abused technology did that without us knowing whether that technology would be useful or not in the long run. And so, there is this a very popular saying that humans generally tend to underestimate the long-term impact of technology and overestimate the short-term impact with the Internet. And there is also this notion of decentralized blockchain solutions as having maybe a short-term impact in the way that they are facilitating cash transfers as the case of Bitcoin.
But the long-term impact might even be much more drastic in the sense that it would facilitate to some degree. Decentralisation of communication, as well as storage of data and also leading to a revolution in terms of smart contracts. They basically automate execution of contracts. You can actually have this contract with all its points embedded into a particular piece of code that would then be stored in a box. And so, it becomes permanent. So, these things are rather ambitious on the surface, and they can be used positively to make things much fairer and have people get what they expect without it, say, meddling or intervention by third parties. But they can equally lead to unpredictable things, for example, to the shrinking of the labour market for regular jobs that end up being useless because everything can be done automatically through code.
Technology is evolving, so if I were to explain the process of censorship moving from extreme rigid blocking to surveillance. This in itself is a story, autocracy or authoritarianism has braced or evolved its ways to control. That’s one thing. And equally, technologists and activists need to also evolve in ways so that they can catch up and blockchain is one way in which they can experiment, because it has this possibility of escaping centralised rule.
So, there is a lot to digest.
We’ll wait and see how things evolve.
ESRA’A AL SHAFEI
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My name is Esra’a Al Shafei. I’m from Bahrain, where I still currently live, and I’m the founder and director of Majal.org. Majal is the Arabic and Persian word for ‘giving away’ or ‘creating an opportunity’, it’s MAJAL.org. For the last 30 years, Majal has served as a network of digital platforms that amplify marginalized and underrepresented voices.
HOW IT STARTED
I first started it as Mideast Youth and that was in 2006. I started it because I really felt that there was a major gap in how young people in the Middle East, how we communicated with each other. How often times you saw in the blogosphere, Arabs were writing primarily for Arab audiences, Kurds were writing primarily for Kurdish audiences, and we were all really still very separated and isolated from one another.
So, the idea behind Mideast Youth is that we were going to have a group community, where we have all kinds of ethnic and religious minorities; people with all kinds of political and social beliefs and sharing the platform to talk about our everyday lives.
It was at the very beginning, very difficult to attract an audience. We started working for it was on a monthly basis. We had to go from one community to another, asking if this is something that they would like to be a part of. And most people were really excited about that they liked the idea of sharing an environment sharing a platform, rather than having a personal site because for a lot of people they also were having an issue creating an audience for one specific blog. So, when we combined all of these voices in one place, we started seeing that the traffic was tremendous, the opportunity to create podcast, videos, campaigns together were a lot more effective than if we were working very individually.
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What it Mideast Youth was
It was really just a WordPress blog. At the time, we didn’t have many developers that we were working with but even the blogging format itself was very restricted. So, I had to learn how to develop WordPress themes how to develop plug ins. And I started creating a very interactive format, because we didn’t want people to feel bored by words. A lot of people felt that there were a lot of long articles. There wasn’t a lot of interactivity going on. So, we had to incorporate video.
We started working on animations. We started doing satirical videos. We started actually doing comics. And the comics were very popular. We were doing it in Arabic, Farsi and English. It was very satirical, and people liked that — they liked that humour.
They just were really excited to be a part of something different at the time. And that’s exactly how we started attracting a bigger audience, it was because it was very unique, it was very home-grown. It was very easy to get along with other authors, because everybody wanted to get their word out.
If somebody wanted to appear in a podcast, and they didn’t know how to do it. there were always people available to help with production. This was during a time in 2006 before Twitter, before Facebook was really huge. Before there were a lot of you know interactive ways for people to communicate. Because to be interactive, you really needed to be a developer, to understand how to integrate them, and how to use them.
The funding was hard. Myself, and another partner of mine, that was sort of volunteering his time, we got together, and we started doing development work for our clients.
All the money that we got we put back into the website. That’s really how I got the hosting funded. That’s really how I started getting more support with design and development for myself, to make sure that we weren’t doing just everything, but there were a lot of things that I wanted to do that I was not capable of developing because I simply didn’t know.
So, I was able with that money to hire more people to help me build out this platform to something a lot more robust, a lot more accessible.
Yeah, that’s really how it took off.
All the users were co-creators I was really managing the platform itself. I was also blogging actively, but I wasn’t the main blogger. There were a lot more authors that were far more active than them myself. We then had editors. We had availability in three languages; English, Arabic and Farsi. English and Arabic were the ones that were most used for the region because a lot we had at least 30 percent of our authors were Kurdish. And we had maybe 10 percent Turkish. Then we had maybe 20 percent Iranian, and 40 percent Arab.
For them to really communicate effectively the common language was English. Although there were also a lot of Arabs and Kurds who spoke either Farsi or Arabic, as well or Kurdish, and they were able to kind of move from one platform to the other.
And we did a lot of translations as well, because sometimes there would be an beautiful article written in Farsi that we wanted to make accessible around the world, because it was also not just a way for all of us to communicate with each other, but also a way for the world to understand what young people in the Middle East, in their diversity, how they were thinking.
We were battling so many different stereotypes, not just from within, especially with government propaganda which was really pitting us against each other in a very political and strategic way. We had to fight that, by owning our own voices, by making sure that nobody was going to hijack our narrative, and really being forceful in making sure that everybody equally had a voice, regardless of your race, ethnicity, your religion.
This was really important for us. We just were fighting a tremendous amount of propaganda, where they say members of the Baha’i faith are spies, members of the Kurdish community are militants and terrorists. It was very important for us to understand where this hostility was coming from and making sure that as young people, we didn’t replicate it in each other and in our communities.
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It was maybe 60 percent women and 40 percent men. We always naturally attracted more women for some reason. The entire team is women now. I think women always felt the responsibility to speak up, the need to speak up. There is a lot of strength and courage in women, that I think is sometimes underestimated.
I think we had more to prove in a way, because we were always disregarded. I, for example always applied for jobs in the technology industry, and they said “we only wanted male developers to apply” and this really was hurtful obviously, but that’s really what made me want to pursue web development.
I had I felt I had things to prove for myself, but also things to prove to society. It was very difficult at the time for women founders to get any funding for a Start-Up for example, because a lot of the funding was going for male owned businesses. Back then it was the discrimination was very clear amongst investors. They will give away a million spread around 40 different women. Whereas, it’s very easy for a male founder to raise 50 for one Start-Up. So, there’s still a huge disproportion when it comes to the way capital is being spent.
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One of the projects I’m currently working on is called MidEastunes, Mideast Tunes. M I D E A S T U N E S dot com. which has now become the largest web and mobile application for independent musicians in the Middle East and North Africa, who use music as a tool for self-expression and social justice advocacy.
We have over 2050 artists, we have shared more than 12000 individually produced songs and tracks — all originals. It’s the largest platform for its kind in the independent space, but it still is incredibly difficult to find for it and no one really takes it seriously as a Start-Up. And I think one of the reasons is it is very much a women run.
We get a lot of requests because on our about page we don’t say who the founders are. We don’t say it’s women run. The focus is really on the artists themselves. The majority of which are women. As soon as we speak with potential investors, in the region or donors, they get discouraged by the fact that it’s founded in Bahrain, rather than a place like Dubai, and run by women, rather than the typical you know male founders that you would usually find.
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The other thing is that we’re very vocal about the fact that we are here, to ensure self-expression. We don’t want to be the next Spotify. We don’t want to compete in the music industry. We want to make sure that music is accessible and not censored, because right now for example for Spotify, for Apple Music for all of them to be present in the region they have to censor content.
That means that you don’t hear many songs that are about LGBT youth. You don’t hear many songs about religious freedom, about gender identity. This is something that is available very prominently, on MidEastunes, and something that we’re proud of hosting, where they get rejected on other music platforms because they’re too political, because they’re too controversial, so they don’t get hosted. But for us that’s exactly where we want to make sure that their voices are heard. Because this is a way for us to bypass censorship or surveillance through creative means.
We have maybe 400,000 or so across the region. But that’s only people who’ve signed up. That’s not including people just come in stream for free because it’s 100 percent accessible. A lot of free users are in places like Iraq, are at places like Libya, where they can’t afford, you know, to pay a subscription fee. So, there’s a lot of models that are applied by music platforms that are actually completely irrelevant because then it’s only the privileged people with access to a credit card that can actually listen to music.
We have an offline listening model as well, where you don’t have to be connected to the Internet. You go in and once it loads up, that’s it, you can listen offline for as many times as you want. And this helps for people who are in places like Gaza for example.
It was very important for us to find models about ‘how do we make this as accessible as possible?’ and as inviting as possible for young artists who are not quite production masters, but they’re starting out and they’re using music as a way to share their stories and their personal experiences. And a lot of musicians talk about trauma. For example, created bands in refugee camps. They created bands and situations where they’re facing warfare, they’re in conflict zones where they’re facing complete and utter destruction of their properties and their homes and their livelihoods, and they turn to music as a way to cope, in places like the Middle East and other situations where they’re constantly faced with political and environmental instability, music becomes a way for them to reconnect. With their past with their present, to ensure that they have a hopeful future and many of the songs are very uplifting.
They are there to tell people don’t give up and we have the right to be happy. We have the right to live with dignity. And change will come and happiness will come, and a lot of young people listen to this and they’re very excited by that, because every day we’re faced with bad news, with news of destruction, with news of poverty, dealing with these situations and these economic disasters where people are losing their homes, they’re losing their lives, they’re being imprisoned for expressing themselves.
Music has really lifted a lot of people from that kind of hopelessness.
SOUND: 6. TAMTAM WONT GIVE UP
On documentary film
So, we created a short documentary film about the intersection of music and social change in Palestine, and it basically follows five musicians in their everyday journeys, and why they turn to music as a way to cope with their everyday lives.
The film is called ‘From Beneath the Earth’ and right now we have showed it at several festivals especially those that are dedicated to Palestinian cinema and film making and it’s going to be available online pretty soon. But right now, it’s mostly just a trailer that’s available. One of the reasons we didn’t create it online is because we’re also looking for a funder or a sponsor to help us develop the page to put this all into context to do more production work so that this can actually become a series. The next ones we hope to have is in Saudi Arabia. and Jordan. So, we don’t want just to end it there in Palestine. but we want to go country to country and really show the world what young independent musicians are doing,
We get so upset when we see that other people have the right to vote in a genuine election and not use that right. Because that’s what you when you end up with a situation for example. People said don’t worry about Trump. It doesn’t concern you. Of course, it concerns us. We’re thinking now about a potential war in Iran.
We think when people elect a president in the U.S. they’re not just electing a president for the US, they’re electing a an individual that has the capability to override Congress. to override any other decision and create a war.
The weapons industry is massive. And so, you see a war in Yemen, then you see a war again in Iraq. And then you see a continued war. I mean it just constantly going on and on and all these proxy wars. And in Syria. Who’s paying the price for all of this? Innocent civilians. And so, it’s very upsetting for us when people abroad don’t take the right to vote seriously or abstain from voting because they should really understand the foreign policy. How is this going to impact not just people in that country but the entire world, because security is not the same thing from one place to the other.
I don’t think future generations can ever forgive what happened because they would be the ones mostly paying the price. But we are in some way. but I really fear for what’s about to come. We will leave the next generation with absolutely nothing.
On Environmental issues
Young and young people in the Middle East are becoming more and more aware of climate change; of environmental issues. Now we see a lot of young people really advocate for things like plastic waste or for things like water and air pollution.
The unfortunate thing is that young people also have a lot of fear and anxiety speaking about these issues because of the large powerful corporations often receive funding and support directly from the government.
So, censorship is not only for political content or political expression or political debates or religious debates but really a lot of it is also about the environment. You can’t challenge any corporation or factory that is run by the government because it is seen as you’re threatening their authority and it is seen that you’re criticising the government; criticising any government for not doing enough to protect people.
For them that is threatening enough. And it makes it very difficult for people to be encouraged to talk about these things.
The other issue is grants. Young people do not receive grants because donors don’t want to support controversial things, which is so unfortunate that the environment can be seen as controversial. It’s not nothing to do with regime change, it’s nothing to do with dictatorship. That is for no matter what we do no matter what form of government we have. The environment is the only constant we have and it’s not being respected at all.
And for this reason, it does become harder for young people to take it upon themselves to take action. But more and more they are trying to figure out a way to collaborate with the government, so that they are not seen as dissidents, so they’re not seen as revolutionaries or rebellious, because they would have to pay the price for that depending on how vocal they are.
So, we also have a lot of different challenges and obstacles when it comes to who can sign up to become a legal entity. A lot of environmental entities every year are rejected by the government because they’re not seen as necessary or they’re seen as they would be a threat or contrary to what the government wants you to do. So I have many friends and colleagues who have started environmental entities and even consulting firms and trying to do so much around this topic who have been rejected and their bank accounts frozen. Oftentimes they’re not able to accept any grants and they’re not able to have any sort of partnerships. So the road is blocked there and I think a lot of people don’t sometimes understand the challenges that come with speaking up. It’s not that young people are not aware the awareness is there and it’s becoming more and more apparent. But the issue is whether or not they have the permission to be able to do all of this.
And a lot of young people don’t want to do it with a risk. They want to do it properly. They want to do it lawfully. They want to do it with the assistance of local schools. They want the assistance of government officials to make sure that they’re that their speech is protected that we’re able to criticise a factory for polluting our seas and it doesn’t matter who owns this factory if it’s government or not that we have the right to criticise because it’s impacting our water we have the cancer rates are very huge in the Gulf region in particular the waste is enormous. We see it in our sea. We see it in our drinking water, the lack of filtered water where everybody just imports water bottles and increases the toll on our plastic waste.
So, I mean it’s a disaster really.
I have to be optimistic, because optimism is what keeps you going at the end. It’s if you have the huge responsibility to speak up for injustice you can’t be pessimistic because otherwise, you’re not doing this work. I’m optimistic because I knew from the very beginning that this work was always going to come with a huge amount of challenges. This is a lot of hard work and it’s a lot of resources. It takes an emotional toll, it takes a financial toll because oftentimes we end up funding this work ourselves due to lack of resources. It’s very taxing.
Internet Voices – LGBTQ
I would argue that we have slightly less homophobia in the region because we have access to platforms and tools that enable us to hear the voices of the LGBTQ communities where they are coming out and to and telling their stories about how they were abused about how they’re persecuted and judged simply for who they are. And it makes it very hard for people to hate something that they don’t understand, just because the government said this is a western phenomenon and it’s disgusting and it’s unIslamic and it’s all of these different things.
Well now you have a lot of people who are very active Muslims and they’re also identify as being part of the queer community. And that was very important for a lot of people to truly understand what this community was all about.
SOUND: 7. TAMTAM Solidarity Sample
We have a significant amount of migrant workers in the Gulf who are literally enslaved, not just abused but really enslaved on a daily basis, due to something called the sponsorship system, or the Kafala system, which gives their employers ownership over them. This is a completely legal thing that is still active in our societies and this is something that we have to document and fight.
The migrant community, the majority of them are from Southeast Asia, primarily India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. But where the domestic workers a lot of them also come from Indonesia from the Philippines and more and more we are seeing it from Uganda from Kenya. So it’s very diverse, but they all share very similar challenges, and some Embassies are more active than others, but a lot of the time unfortunately they are left to their own devices. A lot of migrant workers come out of desperation and after being recruited by a lot of rogue recruiters who are taking advantage of them, and it’s really difficult for them to fight for their rights when they’re being abused in this way and what they’re taking advantage of.
And we see a lot of reluctance now for people to just accept things as they are because when we go and write their stories, when people see these videos of workers talking about how they were stuck for 20 years without their families how they’re starving how they’re constantly living in poverty how they’re unable to get access to their documentation. Raped, beaten, sexually harassed abused forgotten or even sometimes their very own embassies abandoned them, and they were just there, living on the streets with nothing with no access to their family, with no way for them to ever go back home.
This is very important for us because well when we brought these stories two to life when we started documenting them and we haven’t done this for 13 years. It took 10 years for people to listen you know– only 10 years. So sometimes people don’t understand the need for persistence, because when you’re that persistent when you’re that consistent, also, in the work that you do, people eventually have to listen to you.
And have to listen to the cause and have to listen to these voices that have been ignored for so long. So, a lot of the times people tend to think especially nowadays with new media is oh well if the campaign doesn’t succeed in three months we just move on or we move on to a different theme or move on to a different topic. But that’s not how change really happens at the core. We might change one or two stories we might save one or two lives but at the end of the day are we challenging the system the status quo that enables this in the first place for that to happen. We need a decade would be two decades.
We need a lot of consistency, consistency and a lot of persistence and this type of work which is exhausting.
I’m not saying that all of us should go on the frontline and fight and risk our life but there are many ways to do that while remaining within the limits.
SOUND: 8. TAMTAM SOLIDARITY SAMPLE
In the context of human rights resilience means supporting all communities equitably. That includes the
sharing of resources and technology needed to bring communities sustainably out of poverty, and to effectively
recover from a crisis. And to do so not on their behalf, but rather in an inclusive manner to ensure that their needs and voices are not hijacked in the process.
Middle Eastern youth have developed a different identity than what it was before. Whereas before we actually embraced anonymity and now you see a lot of young people actually embrace their connectivity you know showing their faces to the world. Video blogging is really massive in the region. Podcasting, snapchatting is really huge. And so, you see a lot of interaction. More so than it was before.
But the interesting thing is that there’s also kind of two separate identities as well. There is an identity that they would take on in public and there would be an identity they take on in private, where they’re more expressive and more political. And you see a lot of people sharing political thoughts back and forth all the time and the main thing about that is that you actually see people be arrested for private discussions; for discussions they’ve had on Facebook messages, or WhatsApp, and that only shows the power of surveillance and the power of censorship. Oftentimes you don’t need to use the Internet to be publicly present, and to be very vocal but sometimes, just having that one on one conversation is enough to land you behind bars. So it’s very difficult for people to draw the line.
I think people are speaking up. I think access to the Internet is encouraging and enabling people to speak up and have a voice and have a really strong presence and to be able to control their stories and their narratives and that gives me hope because it means that we can no longer allow propaganda to get away with lies to get away with abuse to get away with persecution because we are actively calling it out. We are documenting it, and we are hoping to correct it. And the most important thing that comes out of all of this is solidarity.
There is a lot of hopefulness because now people understand.
SOUND: 9. TAMTAM SOLIDARITY OUTRO.wav
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SOUND: TANYA SUMMER GARDEN
Thank you for listening to this episode of Nordic By Nature, ON CONNECTED VOICES.
You can find more info on our guests and a transcript of this podcast on imaginarylife.net/podcast
Nordic by Nature is an Imaginary Life production.
The music and sound have been arranged by Diego Losa. You can find Diego on diegolosa.blogspot.com
Many thanks to the Singer songwriter TamTam for letting us use her music for this podcast.
Tamtam was born in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, but she relocated to school in California at the age of 13. With her soulful voice and love of indie-pop and blues, Tamtam sings about love, identity, equality and solidarity.
Many thanks also to Esra’a Al Shafei and Walid Al Saqaf. You can contact Esra’a via mideastunes.com and Walid via Södertörn university in Sweden. TamTam is on mideastunes.com, as well as Spotify and Apple Music.
Please help us by sharing a link to this episode with the hashtag #tracesofnorth and follow us on Instagram @nordicbynaturepodcast
We are also fundraising on panteon.com/nordicbynature.
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We’d love to hear your thoughts on our podcast. Please email me, Tanya, on firstname.lastname@example.org