How far is Adra from Zone9?

Dear Bassel, 

It’s been too long, and this is the first of what I hope to be more frequent letters, giving you updates on the world outside (there is a lot to report on). I’m writing you now about the Zone9 bloggers, a group of 10 journalists/bloggers (personally, I think the two terms should be seen as nearly synonymous) in Ethiopia who were arrested in April of this year under terrorism charges for their reporting and for taking a course on digital security. They were charged in accordance with the 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation which has been widely used to suppress critical voices and criminalize dissent, and stand accused of collaborating with opposition groups in the country who they were, in fact, criticizing in accordance with forming an honest, candid, and civic minded dialogue. 

I would imagine you would sympathize with their situation and would join in the call for their release, were you not in prison yourself, and cut off from communications about such topics. 

Their trial is beginning on the 4th of August, and today there is a global tweetathon in solidarity with the bloggers and to draw attention to their case. 

Here’s a screenshot from Twitter today in searching for the #freezone9bloggers hashtag:

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This tweetathon thing is an interesting concept - a similar endeavor was made for your birthday recently. And one would certainly be organized at the time of your trial, were it ever to take place (although for that you would need to be charged, which, like thousands of your fellow prisoners in Syria, has not happened, despite your being locked up for more than 860 days). 

In the interest of archives, here’s a screenshot of searching #freebassel on Twitter today:

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The name Zone9 is derived from the section in Kality Prison in Addis Ababa where journalists and human rights workers are held, which is called Zone8. Zone9 refers to the invisible prison that the bloggers describe as surrounding all the citizens of Ethiopia, who could be arrested at any time for speaking out. 

The bloggers of the group were arrested just 2 days after announcing that they would be returning to blogging after nearly 6 months of silence.

Similar to the Syrian government, the Ethiopian government is among the greatest violators to the right of free expression and has one of the largest and most sophisticated Internet monitoring and filtering systems in the world, as both countries use counterterroism laws as a means to stifle dissent. 

Syria has been named as the most dangerous country for journalists, while since 2001, Ethiopia has forced more journalists into exile than any other country

I’m curious how similar situations are in the prisons as well - does yours have different zones? Do you perceive an invisible prison beyond your walls as well? Given your experiences in prison over the last 2+ years, what would you do in response to the Zone9 bloggers if you were free now?

Like millions of others, I wish for all of these walls to come down - in all countries, and especially the walls inside ourselves, the ones we erect out of fear of retribution and punishment for speaking out, engaging rights we are given by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But who enforces these rights? How can we leverage the digital tools that enable us to come together and show solidarity in order to actually maintain and expand these rights to all people?

I have to end this letter now, but will come back to edit it and add more information, eventually creating a more conclusive conclusion — although, really, a conclusion is not appropriate since this is all ongoing, and will always be (could there ever be a global free press? Or must the press, by definition, always exist in opposition to a censoring body? In such a vision where global freedom of information and knowledge is possible, technologists like yourself in tandem with fearless writers like the Zone9 group are a necessary part of the equation). I will start a new letter with information on the trial, hoping that the solidarity and accountability efforts will have an impact on it. Perhaps from this we could learn about strategies to help you as well. 

until soon,
niki

Dear Bassel,

Happy Birthday to you. This video is a happy birthday song from Krokodil Gena from the Russian, Soviet era animated series Cheburashka. It’s a very special song to me, which my sister sings to me every year on my birthday. I know it might seem strange to be thinking of a Russian song for you, given the current relationship between the Russian and Syrian government - but to me this song, like all art, and especially that which is made for children, transcends the politics of nations states through its ability to appeal to imagination, wonder, and innocence in a way that is exceedingly more universal than it is divisive. We were all children once, no matter where we came from. And there is great hope there.

Obviously children’s literature and film is often used as a propaganda tool - so don’t get me wrong, it’s clearly much more complicated than I allude to above. But beyond that, this song is simply a song about being happy because it is one’s birthday, and it has a bit of a minor key to it which sounds sad at some moments. And in the animation, it is raining. But Krokodil Gena is happy, and playing his accordion. He is happy despite everything, because it is his birthday. 

An English translation of some of the lines illustrates this further:

I wish that a wizard
Would fly in, in a light blue helicopter,
And show a movie for free.
He would wish me a happy birthday
And probably, leave as a present
500 ice cream sandwiches.

But I’m playing the accordion
For all the passersby to see.
Unfortunately,
Birthdays

Only come once a year.

I wish that a wizard would fly in and do more than show a movie for free - I wish he would set you free! And as a present, give you as much junk food as you want

But more realistically I hope that, like Krokodil Gena, you find yourself happy today, because you know it is your birthday, and because somehow you are able to receive all the messages your friends, loved ones, and supporters are sending you today. And that you are playing your version of the accordion. 

There is indeed a lot of Internet buzz about you today - many people and organizations tweeting and blogging about you and your life and sending you birthday wishes. I made this short video for you as well. The common sentiment in all messages is that we hope this will be your last birthday in prison, and that by this time next year, you will be free with your family. 

One of my favorite lines that I have seen is from Larry the Free Software Guy, who says: “Let’s get Bassel back home to his loved ones, so he can resume his life and, once he’s ready, let’s get him coding again.”

I find it very touching that people are thinking of you coding again, but only in the context of you being ready. It’s true, many are eager to work with you and/or your code again, and it seems like you’re being away for so long will give you a fresh perspective that could usher in a whole new era of web technology. Or maybe you won’t want to code anymore - who knows? Maybe with all this time you’ve had away from computers - you’ve come up with ideas that are beyond computers… But to me, Krokodil Gena’s accordion is like your computer (the proverbial computer) - and I hope that somehow you’ve found a way to play it today. 

Happy Birthday, dear Bassel. 

Thinking of you,
niki

If you don’t know what democracy is, you can’t ask for it

Interview with Bassel’s friend Dino, conducted in Paris (originally in French) in early 2014. 

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How do you know Bassel?

I worked at Al-Aous, so he was in charge of programming there. Al-Aous is a publishing house, but they also have a website, Discover Syria, where they give information, also about the city of Palmyra for instance. Bassel was in charge of developing technology as well. I started working there when I was an assistant teacher at the University of Fine Arts. After a few years I received a fellowship to continue my education in France. So I moved, and it was the first day of the Syrian revolution.

Describe the impression the Bassel gave you. Why is his freedom important?

He is a very active person, he does not sleep much. He often works for no money. He likes to help people, by teaching them how to use new technologies, new ways of thinking. He is the first person who launched the Creative Commons in Syria, he organized the first symposium with Joi Ito. So I used to work with him to make the posters, flyers for the symposium. It was good because usually creative workers like me work on their own and we don’t often share our work, we are afraid someone would steal it; but Bassel showed us that it is not like that, you can’t stay on your own, the world has changed. You have to give your work, and someone else with share it, and another person will share their own work, and in this way you will create a network and everyone will know your work. And that’s how we started to know Creative Commons. Also, Bassel created the Aiki Lab, he rented a big apartment, it was a place opened for everyone. Which means you could arrive at anytime, and choose yourself a space on a table with your computer and work. There was free wifi, a kitchen, a bathroom, everything you need. It was a collective space, a collective mood to work. Everything was free of charge, but had had to bring your own material. You could also use some meeting spaces to organize workshops or lectures…Personally, I used the space for a photography workshop with 15 students from the University, we made collages, we printed photos and made a little exhibition. We also had an exhibition made in partnership with Libyan artists. This did not exist before, you couldn’t find a place to initiate projects and express yourself.  Bassel is very dynamic and does a lot of projects for no money. For this I think he tried to find cultural funding, not political funding from parties or so.

When did you leave Syria and why?

As I said I was awarded a fellowship from the Syrian government to come study in France. About a year ago, they stopped my funding, because of my political activities, because I am against the regime and I participated in demonstrations, and made some posters. Some friends in my program reported my activities and those of others to the Syrian regime. It was a bilateral fellowship between France and Syria, we were twenty-three people benefiting from the funding in the program, in Grenoble.

How can creativity be useful against violence or be an alternative to violence?

First of all, personally I don’t have any other means of action. But the question is always to know if what I do has some effect or not in reality, in society. I think that in a way, yes. Maybe the effects are very small, but they exist. When you address someone about the Syrian war, you need to speak to them in their own language, so I can’t use any traditional imagery from Syria in Paris. I have to adapt to the language here. I think some people understand the message; I receive a lot of feedback on Facebook for example, comments from foreigners (Europeans). I think each person has their own way of expressing things and mine is creativity, not to be a politician or a social worker.

About my work, I have already been interviewed on French television (channel France 24), I participated in a radio show on France Culture, there was a book published by Le Monde called “Syria, art is armed” (L’art en armes). For me, all this social networking is for the public, it makes a lot of people look at my work and more aware of what is happening. At least, some people can see, even though they are not convinced, they see.

If you don’t see the conflict, it is as if it didn’t exist?

Exactly. I don’t want to have strong effects on people, I can’t change their life or the world, it is impossible. But I want them to see what is happening and at least to know about it. Here, in the media, everyone thinks the revolution is now radically Islamic. But there is only one view, and someone told me one day, when all the media say the same thing, you know there is a problem. But for us, the Syrians, we could also relay information; we have family and friends there, even though sometimes they are scared and don’t say anything.

How can artistic activities be seen as a threat to an authoritarian regime or to a democratic regime?

I always to make works that are not direct. Why? Because I don’t want to lose people that are one the side of the regime, or the ones that don’t know yet what they think; I want to make them think about the human side. But even if you don’t use direct symbols, they can think about it and understand, think for themselves to make up their own mind: what is happening? Who is doing what ? And from the regime’s point of view, what I do is against the government. After the demonstrations in Grenoble the regime published a list of all our names of the Facebook Page called The New Syria, calling us traitors and declaring we would ask for the occupation of Syria by NATO. The comments were very violent against us. So for them, yes what we do is a crime. If you’re not with us, you’re against us they say, but it is not like this. Sometimes I even disagree with some political opponents here. In Syria, we grew up with stories we didn’t know were false. If you don’t know what democracy is, you can’t ask for it. Does it exist somewhere? Is it possible? It is only when some people went outside of Syria that they saw it was different in other places of the world. The most important is to change people’s brains, to show them that yes, some people live differently, and it is also their right to live differently. That is definitely a threat for the regime. The most dangerous thing one can do is to encourage people to think.

Letter* to Bassel from his wife Noura, on the occasion of the first anniversary of their marriage (6 January 2014). 

One year of marriage where they have only been able to hold hands through the bars of his cell. 

#freebassel so that he and Noura can embrace, for the first time as husband and wife. 

*please help with English translation - send to love@freebassel.org

Letter* to Bassel from his wife Noura from 1 January 2014, wishes to him about their relationship and the New Year. 

*please help with English translation - send to love@freebassel.org