12 March marked the World Day against online censorship. Reporters Without Borders remained faithful to their habits and announced this year’s ‘Enemies of the Internet’. Repressive governments in the Middle East also remained faithful to their habits; they continued to crack down on free speech, both online and offline.
The Algerian government, for instance, marked this day in a special way: by taking Jordanian Noorsat satellite TV channel Al-Atlas completely off-air. Addressing each and every event of suppressed free speech is impossible. I believe, however, that the few examples below will suffice to highlight the unconditional disrespect for freedom of expression citizens encounter every day across the MENA region.
Over two million people have fled the havoc in Syria and sought refuge in bordering countries; at least one million of them are children, estimated the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) back in August 2013. Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt and Iraq are the top five countries where most have resettled. Over the past several months, however, the exodus has shifted to Europe. For the majority of Syrians searching for a safe EU haven, the journey starts in Turkey where refugee smuggling blossoms. Today, Bulgaria counts over 10,000 refugees, an atypical surge this European border country was unprepared for.
Despite financial help from the EU, the Bulgarian government has consistently preferred to engage in exacerbating the situation. Intensifying influx of refugees in the country prompted the opening of more camps to host the newcomers. These hellholes are in incredibly squalid conditions, but this is where the Bulgarian government welcomes asylum seekers. In October 2013, Interior Minister Tsvetlin Yovchev played the tough guy and sacked the head of Bulgaria’s Refugee Agency for “failing to handle the influx.” Yet, reception centres continue to be overcrowded, Syrians undergo an administrative hassle for weeks; food, clothing and medicine are largely funded by donations from ordinary citizens.
What do Bahrain and Bulgaria have in common? No, it’s not the B…
Bahraini entrepreuner and activist Esra’a Al-Shaffei launched Ahwaa.org back in 2011 as an online space for LGBTQ-related discussions in the Middle East. Today, Bulgarian Kilera.org kicked off.
Kilera.org is an online forum dedicated to the LGBTQ community in Bulgaria. It was built after Ahwaa.org, in conjunction with Bulgarian LGBTQ NGO Deystvie (‘action’). Kilera (‘closet’) in Bulgarian is the slang word used to describe the period of time when LGBTQ people hide their sexual orientations and/or identity: ‘locked in the closet’. Kilera.org thus comes at a very timely moment, and I am sure it’ll really make a difference.
The situation with the LGBTQ community in Bulgaria is worrisome as homophobia is rampant and hate speech is prevalent. Thus, a 25-year old medical student was beaten to death by other young people because “he looked gay” and the young men were trying to “clean up” a famous park in the capital city of Sofia from gays. Such dreadful crackdown is one of the manifest signs of homophobia in the country: in 2009 and 2011, Bulgaria was the most homophobic EU Member State as reported by dedicated studies from the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights.
The International Day Against Homophobia (May 17) was marked by new worrying studies showing that more than 1/4 of LGBTQ people have sufferred some type of physical violence in the last five years, attacks generally led by small groups of male aggressors and occurring in public places. Despite the high frequency of attacks, complaints are rarely filed as people don’t consider the police and the judiciary to be anyway willing to do something.
Although the situation seems to improve in 2012 — Bulgaria is “just” among the most homophobic EU states, not the most homophobic — 53% of the LGBTQ community members have undergone some kind of harassment or retaliation for their sexual orientation and/or identity in the last 12 months preceeding the study. Gay pride marches are also welcomed with obvious hostility.