Dictators in the Arab world could crush uprisings against their iron-fisted rule using the same social media that have been credited with boosting the revolts, Amnesty International warned in a new report yesterday.
In its annual analysis of the world’s human rights, Amnesty praised the role of Web sites such as Twitter and Facebook in fomenting the biggest revolt against repressive regimes since the end of the Cold War.
However, Amnesty cautioned that social networking sites that had helped cyberactivists outmaneuver the authorities in successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt were a double-edged sword.
“There is no question that social media played a very important role in allowing people to get together,” Amnesty International secretary-general Salil Shetty said. “There is no doubt that there is a massive opening up of space through the Internet — but we have to remember all the time that this also gives an opportunity for governments to crack down on people.”
Amnesty said in the report that “governments are scrambling to regain the initiative or to use this technology against activists.”
The Arab Spring, as the wave of revolts has become known, started with a popular uprising that ended the 23-year-rule of Tunisian president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in January. This “Jasmine revolution” inspired an uprising in Egypt that put an end to president Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year reign and revolts have since spread across North Africa and the Middle East.
However, Shetty warned there was a “serious fightback from the forces of repression” in countries where revolts had started but as yet failed to oust repressive rulers, such as Libya and Syria.
In Libya, where rebels have met with stiff resistance in their fight to overthrow Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, the regime had been “very systematically using the Internet and quite sophisticated social media stuff to repress people,” he said.
Amnesty also warned that companies that provide Internet and mobile phone services risked becoming accomplices of oppressive regimes if they interfered with access or spied on activists at the request of regimes.
“They must not become the pawns or accomplices of repressive governments who want to stifle expression and spy on their people,” said the group, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
Amnesty said that in China, the crackdown on Internet use had intensified in recent months amid fears that activists had been inspired by events in the Arab world.
“In an attempt to pre-empt a Middle East-style uprising, the government widened its crackdown on activists,” the rights group said.
More than 100 activists, many of them active online, went missing following an Internet call in February for people to stage a “Jasmine Revolution,” it said.
Amnesty’s 403-page report breaks down the recent human rights record in 157 countries, ranging from violence against women in Papua New Guinea to reports of widespread police torture in Moldova.
The report this year draws particular attention to restrictions on free speech in 89 countries, as well as torture and ill-treatment in 98 countries and unfair trials in 54.