Human Rights Conference Brings Advocates Together

February 21, 2010 Updated: February 21, 2010

WASHINGTON—The rights of individuals to associate with whom they wish and to express their opinions in media, on the Internet, and at meetings are under assault in many countries in the world, according to human rights organizations. They say repressive governments are devising an array of legal and extrajudicial mechanisms as well as using violence to silence their critics.

Human rights advocates are not taking the increasing attacks on basic freedoms lying down. At the 2010 Washington Human Rights Summit in Washington, D.C. Feb. 17-19, many leaders from countries around the globe on the frontline of the battle for freedom gathered.

The several sessions included one about freedom of expression under fire. The session brought together a panel of human rights advocates from Malaysia, Egypt, China, Belarus, and Iran who discussed their response to the intolerance toward exercising fundamental rights of assembly and speech. The panelists noted that the repression is creating increasingly hostile conditions for human rights defenders and democracy activists everywhere.

In many cases, the perspectives of the panelists came from personal experience.

Among the panelists was Canadian-Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari, who was famously imprisoned in Iran for 118 days until released on bail last October. Bahari was held in solitary confinement in the notorious Evin Prison in Iran where he was interrogated daily.

“More than 65 journalists and bloggers are in jail, before demonstrations, the bandwidth is narrowed, and many social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook are shut down,” said Mr. Bahari.

The Iranian government is becoming more paranoid very day, and is much weaker than outsiders realize, according to Bahari. The Internet and satellite television are also helping the democratic process, as youth become educated about democracy, a measure which Bahari says will bear fruit soon.

He said he would like to see the U.S. become more active in facilitating the free flow of information on the Internet.

Dr. Hamidah Marican, executive director of Sisters in Islam, did not know why a particular book was being banned in Malaysia. Later, her group was told that the book would “confuse” Muslims. They appealed the decision and managed to get it overturned last month.

Malaysia’s Constitution guarantees the basic freedoms of assembly and speech, but on the ground, Dr. Marican said, it is a different matter. The 1984 Printing Presses and Publishers Act was invoked to close down a particular printing press after the 2008 elections there, because, as they were told, “It gave a lot of publicity to the opposition,” according to Dr. Marican.

Lately, the government has been using the 1948 Internal Security Act to silence bloggers, she added. The act has been used to detain persons indefinitely without trial. Dr. Marican said that she is being investigated and that she and other human rights advocates fear for their own safety and their families.