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Messages From Behind Bars and Beyond the Grave

BY Jessica McKenzie | Monday, November 4 2013

Screenshot of Rodrigo Rosenberg accusing Guatemalan President Colom of murder from beyond the grave

Before flying back to his home country, Vietnam, last week, Nguyen Lan Thang took a few minutes to record a video, just in case he was arrested or detained at the airport. As a pro-democracy blogger in a country that punishes online speech that criticizes the Communist government, Thang had good reason to be worried. Sure enough, upon arriving at the airport after a three month long stint abroad, during which Thang met with human rights groups and international organizations, Thang was picked up by Vietnam's security forces.

Shortly after, fellow activists posted a video on Facebook in which Thang declares, “When you see this video, it’s certain that I have been arrested by security forces.”

Vietnam's newest draconian Internet censorship law, Decree 72, went into effect September 1. The “alarmingly vague” language can be used to target anyone who speaks out against the government online. In light of the new law and the rise in blogger arrests—Human Rights Watch reports that 61 activists have been convicted for nonviolent dissent this year, often online, up from 40 convictions in 2012—it is no wonder Thang suspected he was in danger and planned accordingly.

Thang announced his release on Thursday on Facebook as well.

“Too much taxpayer’s money has been spent on me since yesterday,” he wrote. “My apologies to all of you.”

This story recalls an even more bizarre episode that took place in Guatemala in 2009, in which a man foretold his death in a video that spread like wildfire on YouTube [English subtitles]. The man, Rodrigo Rosenberg, was a lawyer investigating the murders of a legal client and the client's daughter, with whom Rosenberg had been having an intense affair. Absolutely convinced that their deaths had been orchestrated by President Álvaro Colom and his wife Sandra, among other corrupt political players, Rosenberg recorded a video accusing them of planning his assassination as well. When he did die at the hands of an assassin and his accusation was broadcasted and uploaded to YouTube, it tipped off huge protests in what Prensa Libre, one of Guatemala's most widely-circulated newspapers, deemed "the greatest political crisis" since the country transitioned to democracy (even if that democracy is considered a "Trojan horse").

Nevermind that the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) found that Rosenberg orchestrated his own assassination in order to frame those he believed responsible for his client and lover's deaths. That is a different story (fully explored in this New Yorker piece), one about a man who “democratized the art of political murder.”

The reality is that there is a considerable need by activists, journalists or revolutionaries for communication tools to kick in even when the worst has happened. Legal persecution of bloggers in Vietnam is on the rise. Guatemala has been plagued for years by forced disappearances. According to The Center for Justice and Accountability, more than 200,000 Guatemalans forcibly disappeared or were killed between the years 1960 – 1996, during the violent and protracted civil war. Vulnerable populations need a way to alert their loved ones if the worst, or even the next-to-worst, has happened.

One team at Amnesty International has been working on a solution to that problem. They have developed a mobile app for Android called Panic Button, which turns a mobile phone into an emergency alert system. Their stated goal was to ensure “that hundreds of thousands of individuals at daily risk of being seized, detained – or ‘disappeared’ by their own governments – can get out that vital first alert to those who can act to protect them.”

Tanya O'Carroll, Amnesty’s Technology and Human Rights Project Officer, imagines Panic Button is only the start of what they can do with similar technology. She writes in a blog post:

Imagine one day if every mobile phone – not just a smartphone – could serve as a personal alert device for those who defend human rights. Imagine if, at the touch of a button, the alert could transmit not just location but a live video recording of what is happening. Imagine if it could ‘shut down’ email and social media accounts, helping to protect an individual’s wider communications and network from being compromised.

It's the hope that a panic button will make it easier for activists and bloggers like Nguyen Lan Thang to alert their communities if they have been detained or abducted - no eerie foretelling or pre-recording necessary.

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