Emerging Technologies/Emerging Democracies: Information Technology, Economic Growth and Governance in Iraq
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Against a backdrop of political stalemate, sectarian divides, and violence that dominate headlines, Iraqis are working everyday to build their vision of a more democratic, stable, and well-governed society. Increasingly the media, civil society, and the government are seeking to use new media, open source software, and social media tools to empower individuals, improve government interaction with and responsiveness to citizens, and improve the quality and distribution of news and information. While Iraq may lag behind many of its neighbors in terms of Internet and mobile phone penetration and the adoption of social and new media tools, the interest in and realization of the power of these tools is growing rapidly.
Seeking to stimulate an ongoing dialog on these issues between Iraqi government, civil society, and media, IREX and IWPR recently held a two day conference, “Emerging Technologies, Emerging Democracies: Information Technology, Economic Growth and Governance in Iraq” in Erbil. The conference brought together more than 150 journalists and civil society leaders to discuss these issues surrounding access to information and internet freedoms in an effort to support a sustainable information society and e-Governance plan which will help Iraq develop a stable, economically vibrant, and democratically-based society.
BBC journalist and presenter of the international news programme The Hub, Nik Gowing, opened the conference with a keynote speech entitled “Skyful of Lies and Black Swans.” In his address, Gowing described how “exponential technological changes are redefining, broadening, and fragmenting the media landscape in dramatic ways.” The media, he argued, is no longer the narrowly-defined institutional actor that it once was but has metamorphosed into millions and millions of individuals. Anyone with a mobile phone and a camera can bear witness to their version of the truth and transmit it to millions of other people, challenging old monopolies of information and power. Governments and large corporations must take this new reality into account because the old paradigms of information management, especially in a crisis, are no longer relevant and can even be destructive. Gowing showed examples from around the world to illustrate the fact that a failure to acknowledge the importance of new media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook and even email had forced governments and large corporations to the brink of a crisis.
Gowing’s speech was followed by a presentation from Adil Matloob, the Advisor to the Minister of Science and Technology on the “National Plan for E-Governance in Iraq.” Matloob noted that “the adoption of e-governance in the Iraq will constitute a process of change that will help expand the means of citizens and business to participate in a new knowledge-based economy.”
The national plan has been developed by an inter-ministerial committee with the support of the United Nations; the Erbil conference was the first occasion that civil society had been invited to comment on the proposal and ministerial officials were pleased to be inundated with many challenges and questions. So much so that they have asked IREX and IWPR to support a series of provincial “Town Hall” meetings to broaden and deepen citizens’ engagement with e-governance processes.
In a forthright speech to officials and citizens alike, Botan Osman, Head of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Department of Information Technology declared that, “The significance of ICT is no longer valid for debate. There is solid proof around the world that those who embrace it, progress and those who don’t, get left behind.” He went on to say, “Modernizing our government through the use of technology to better serve our people, enable government services, will make it easier to live, stay and do business in our region.”
In a bold move Osman declared that Iraq should make access to the internet a fundamental right for its citizens. This is in line with the goals of the UN World Summit on the Information Society and it is a right that has been recognized in Finland, France, Greece and Estonia. Citing the latter, Osman described how “internet helped put the ‘e’ in e-Estonia” as the country used ICT as a tool to achieve economic growth and governance.
Osman cautioned against internet censorship, saying that this was technically unworkable and simply held back countries and economies. The internet in the Kurdistan Region, he declared, would remain free from censorship and the government would empower families and communities to make informed choices about the sites and information that they wished to access.
The speeches were complemented by panel discussions on issues ranging from right to information law, libel, transparency and the potential of mobile phones to deliver content. International panelists were drawn from social media advocacy groups and cyber lawyers; some of these were from the region and described how countries as different as Lebanon and Egypt were tackling the complex issues of cultural identity and universal human rights in a globally connected digital world.
These issues were further discussed in small training sessions ranging from “How to set up and manage a blog” by renowned Iraqi blogger and political analyst Raed Jarrar, to a session by US-based NGO Digital Democracy on how the New York State Senate has used social media tools and applications to increase the transparency of legislative processes. Another session was hosted by Jordanian cyber lawyer Ziad Maraqa, who described the establishment of the Arab region’s first Creative Commons; IREX is currently in discussions with him and other stakeholders to establish an Iraqi chapter to encourage digital entrepreneurs.
Engaging the youth in the information economy is a key priority; Iraq is a young country and the majority of its people are under 24. The fact that the Iraq Telecoms and IT Industry Association (ITIA) had decided to move its second inaugural meeting from Baghdad to Erbil to allow private sector operators to attend the IREX/IWPR conference was an opportunity for two young digital entrepreneurs to give a presentation on incubating young IT talent. The ITIA has incorporated some of the suggestions made by Digital Democracy’s Mark Belinsky and Noel Hidaglo into their bylaws – these included provisions on transparency and on associate membership for software developers.
In the run-up to the conference IREX organized other training events for Iraqi media and civil society which were facilitated by American-Egyptian new media expert Moustafa Ayad, the Beirut-based Social Media Exchange and the Amman-based Tactical Technology Collective. These included online webinars with Egypt’s independent daily newspaper Al Masry al Youm (Egypt Today) during which editors of the Cairo-based news outlet identified the challenges to migrating traditional media online. Another session brought together young journalists from the far north of Iraq who learned for the first time how to set up a blog and use email.
The conference goals had been defined as stimulating demand-side pressure on the authorities to develop the technical, educational and physical infrastructure for internet freedoms and to pass a national right to information law; to bring together the different stakeholders from government, industry and civil society – including media – to discuss the obstacles to internet freedom and the right to information; and, most importantly, to raise questions about the way forward for Iraq.
In her closing comments to the conference IREX’s Iraq Country Director, Jacky Sutton, concluded that “I think that we have achieved what we set out to do. In two days we cannot hope to answer the incredibly complex questions that have arisen as technology outstrips law. But we have encouraged people to ask why, how and when Iraq – its government and its citizens - can explore ways to answer these questions. I hope that this event is the beginning of a very long conversation.”
Building on the momentum generated from the conference IREX and IWPR created an information portal (www.iraqemedia.net) which will contain copies of the conference presentations, open source software, and information provided during the two-day event.
Previous Articles on the Conference
More than 150 journalists and civil society leaders gathered in Erbil, Iraq for a ground-breaking two-day media conference, entitled “Emerging Technologies, Emerging Democracies,” held by IREX and the Institute for War & Peace Reporting (IWPR). The conference's first day featured panel discussions and training sessions on information access, new media and online advocacy as well as emerging Internet laws and libel. (more)
Building on the momentum from the first day of IREX and IWPR's “Emerging Technologies, Emerging Democracies” conference in Erbil, Dr. Dr Adil Matloob, Advisor to Minister of Science and Technology, announced the details of Iraq's groundbreaking e-governance plan, saying that Iraq needs to address critical areas "to bring to light the transformational impact of information, communication and technology tools." (more)