#FreedomHack: From the Ground in Mexico City

August 22, 2013

Kathryn Striffolino (center) at #Freedomhack in Mexico City (Photo Credit: Amnesty International).
Kathryn Striffolino (center) at #Freedomhack in Mexico City (Photo Credit: Amnesty International).

This is the first post of a series: “Technology for Human Rights Protection” with new entries being published every week or so. We will be discussing the latest innovations for human rights protection and how the human rights community writ large is or can be utilizing science, technology and open innovation for human rights defense. Posts primarily by @katiestriff and @tanyaocarroll, who work in the intersection between technology, science and human rights defense for @Amnesty and @amnestyonline, with the occasional colleague and guest contributor.

The weekend of August 11 and 12 was unprecedented. Technology start-ups, NGOs, journalists, human rights defenders and technologists joined forces for good at the #Freedomhack. We connected to one another digitally; one group located in Washington, D.C. and the other in Mexico City and we collaboratively worked on identifying and developing secure digital reporting methods for journalists and human rights. In Mexico as you may know, it is a very complicated and extremely deadly environment for reporters of any sort.

The D.C. portion of the event received some excellent write-ups from Cont3nt.com and CommunityRed – Amnesty International’s #Freedomhack collaborating partners, so check those out for a full read on what happened in Washington, D.C.

I was, however, in Mexico City coordinating that component of #Freedomhack alongside my colleagues in the Mexican section of Amnesty International, so here’s a read out from south of the border and how open innovation and collaboration amongst seemingly unusual partners, is rapidly becoming a vital component in the toolkit of the “good guys and gals” because at this point, we have no choice but to work together.

Mexico is plagued with a deadly culture of self-censorship.

Amnesty International has issued 10 Urgent Actions on behalf of activists, human rights defenders and journalists who have been targets of threats, attacks and murder since January of this year alone.

This deadly environment has created a culture of self-censorship amongst the press and human rights reporters - not only for self-preservation but for the preservation of their families and friends.
For decades, however, Mexico has been a deadly place for journalists and human rights defenders – a country too frequently ranked in the top tier of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) Impunity Index. In 2013, for example, CPJ ranked Mexico as the seventh worst nation in combating deadly anti-press violence, where journalists are murdered regularly and the killers go free. Mexico has a 99% impunity rate for all crimes, which indicates this is part of a much larger, more systemic challenge the not-so-new-anymore Mexican administration must tackle – and has at least rhetorically, committed to doing so.

This deadly environment has created a culture of self-censorship amongst the press and human rights reporters – not only for self-preservation but for the preservation of their families and friends.

I heard first-hand about some of the kidnappings, threats and attacks perpetrated against journalists and defenders while I was in Mexico, ranging from detailed threatening notes left at doorsteps and unidentified armed men knocking on doors and threatening to kill a journalist’s family if they continued to report on the violence penetrating the country, to the beheading of a journalist with her computer left beside her with all of her items of value remaining on her person.

Compounding the situation in Mexico are the incredibly blurry lines between belligerent parties, which have resulted in acts of violence and the ability to distinguish between armed groups, cartel members and members of Mexico’s security apparatus nearly impossible. Hence, during the conduct of hostilities, civilians – including journalists and human rights defenders – are either caught smack in the cross-hairs or in fact targeted specifically for their work attempting to shine a light on a situation which would otherwise go unnoticed. The perpetrators then escape in a dark cloak of near total impunity.

What is a hackathon and why turn to it for some solutions?

#Freedomhack is a hackathon, also known as an event which brings together technologists and content specialists to intensely collaborate on the identification and development of software, and is increasingly being utilized as a means to address entrenched human rights challenges.

Given the identified need for more secure reporting means for journalists and human rights defenders in Mexico and elsewhere around the world, Amnesty International joined forces with Cont3nt, CommunityRed, Reporters Without Borders and Mexican and international partners around the world to put together #Freedomhack in an effort to help remedy the deadly environment for reporters that has permeated almost all of Mexico.

We knew going into the hackathon that we were not going to develop a super application – a panacea of sorts – which would cure the culture of self-censorship in Mexico in less than 24 hours – in fact, our motto in Mexico was “no expectations.”

What we did know, however, was that we could bring together journalists, human rights defenders and technologists regardless of organization or affiliation, and encourage thinking creatively “outside of the box,” collectively – also coined “open innovation” – to see what sort of ideas could be generated, prototypes developed and what pre-existing open source applications could be further catered to the Mexican environment such as Amnesty International’s Panic Button application to better secure free expression and help protect those who wish to exercise this fundamental human right.

Now, just imagine the possibilities here for a moment: unlikely collaborators, all with specific and complementary skills and expertise, open minds, and an appetite for good… then check out some of the projects generated by #Freedomhack.

We have got to win this race.

I left Mexico City not as I came – timid, concerned and worried, rather I left inspired – with hope that we can all, collectively come together to develop more secure methods of reporting for, and tools to protect, journalists and human rights defenders.

Because at this point, it’s not about organizational priorities or individual agendas; it’s about collectively joining forces for good – because we truly are involved in a digital arms race, a race between the perpetrators and the defenders, and we have no choice but to win, so let’s do it together.

Tune in next week for a post on Panic Button – an application under development by Amnesty International, and join the discussion in the comments section below or on Twitter.