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Activists Join Senators in Call for State Department Action on Internet Freedom

Senator Brownback promises a hold on nominations until State Department acts on appropriations

Washington, D.C. — Surrounded by front-line activists from Iran, China, Cuba, Syria, Tibet, and the Uyghur Region of East Turkestan, Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) promised to put State Department nominations on hold until the Department follows Secretary Clinton’s January 21st Internet Freedom speech with decisive action.

(photo from left to right:  Alim Seytoff, Uyghur American Association: Tod Stein, International Campaign for Tibet: Sarah Stern, Endowment for Middle East Truth; Unidentified; Frank Calzon, Free Cuba; Ammar Abdulhamid, Tharwa Project (Syria); Ambassador Mark Palmer (at podium); Senator Sam Brownback; Mariam Memarsadeghi, Iranian activist; Yang Kuanxing, Chinese writer and editor, Yibao China E Weekly;  Clothilde le Coz, Reporters Without Borders)

“Those who have gathered here agree on one incredible fact:  That we have it within our power to tear down the firewalls of oppression, right now, by supporting technology that shatters the censorship apparatus of regimes worldwide,” Senator Brownback said at a March 18 press conference in the Capitol Visitors Center.

“The gateway for achieving success or failure on shattering the firewall is the State Department.  Since 2008, Congress has given the State Department more than $45 million dollars for this very purpose, to help people around the world living in closed societies circumvent the Internet repression.  But during that time we have watched the State Department delay, procrastinate, and misspend these funds contrary to the spirit of the law and without any sensible explanation,” said  Brownback.

Noted Chinese writer, editor,  and original signatory to Charter 08, the manifesto calling for political reform in China, Yang Kuanxing, gave personal testimony about the power of Freegate software to help him spread Charter 08 to millions of people in China, despite government firewalls.  “Please, by any means, do not underestimate the value of censorship circumvention technologies in promoting the free flow of information in Chinese society.”

Iranian activist, Mariam Memarsadeghi, spoke eloquently of the power of the Internet to transmit pictures and videos of the brutality of the Iranian regime during the recent unrest over disputed election results.

Mark Palmer, the former ambassador to Hungary during the fall of the Iron Curtain in Europe, Mark Palmer, expressed his dismay over the State Department’s failure to seize the moment to bring freedom to these repressed societies.

In his concluding remarks, Senator Brownback promised that he “will not hesitate to place holds on future State Department nominations for as long as it takes to move the Department away from policies that will keep Iran’s firewalls in business for year.”  “We must act now,” he said. Senator Brownback was joined by Senate Minority Leader, Jon Kyl (R-Arizona) in calling for State Department action.

The complete text of Senator Brownback’s statement follows below.  Click here for Senators’ letter to Secretary Clinton

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Statement of U.S. Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS)

Global Internet Freedom Press Conference

March 18, 2010

I am honored today to be joined by true heroes from around the world.

Standing with me are the brave people who fight on the front lines of the battle against tyranny and oppression.  They represent many different countries and groups who live under the crushing weight of censorship and authoritarianism.

These people understand that their fellow citizens are being stifled and intimidated into silence.  They also understand one clear principle of today’s world:

While physical brutality will always be the tool of oppressors, today’s oppression is defined by the lengths to which tyrants will go to limit access to information.

[Introduce Participants]

Initiatives for China: Jim Geheran representing Yang Jianli

Iranian Human Rights Representatives: Mariam and Akbar Memarsadeghi,

Ahmded Batebi

Charter 08 China Movement — Yang Kuanxing

China Aid (house church movement) –Jenny McLoy

Free Burma Federation — Aung Kyaw Oo

Tharwa Project (Syria)  — Ammar Abdulhamid

Uyghur Human Rights and Democracy Foundation — Omer Kanat

Center for a Free Cuba — Frank Calzon

Amnesty International — T. Kumar

International Campaign for Tibet — Todd Stein

Southern Baptist Convention — Barrett Duke

Reporters Without Borders — Clothilde le Coz

Concerned Women for America – Janice Crouse

Today we come together for a single, simple purpose.

We have come here to call on the United States Government to tear down the firewalls of oppression.

We call on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to follow her January Internet freedom speech with clear, decisive, and effective action.

Those who have gathered here agree on one incredible fact:  That we have it within our power to tear down the firewalls of oppression, right now, by supporting technology that shatters the censorship apparatus of regimes worldwide.

The gateway for achieving success or failure on shattering the firewall is the State Department.  Since 2008, Congress has given the State Department more than $45 million dollars for this very purpose, to help people around the world living in closed societies circumvent the Internet repression.

But during that time we have watched the State Department delay, procrastinate, and misspend these funds contrary to the spirit of the law and without any sensible explanation.

I and many colleagues have asked questions, sent letters, held briefings, all to no avail.  And recently we have been told by the State Department to expect even more delay, and have heard more excuses in supporting censorship circumvention technology, ensuring that oppressed citizens around the world will continue to live in fear of learning the truth and communicating with each other.

At the same time, we watch the opposition movement inside Iran cry out for support, and beg for access to Internet communication.  On February 11 of this year, the Iranian regime successfully killed a massive effort by the Green movement, by using its control of telecommunications technology to learn and anticipate and prevent.

The stakes are too high for bureaucracy and excuses.  If we hold the key to freedom, we cannot keep them locked in prison through inaction and indifference.

Last week, I placed holds on State nominees in response to the Department’s refusal to utilize the Internet freedom funds in the manner intended by Congress and described several times in correspondence with the Department from myself and several other Members of Congress.

We believe that the status quo in this critical national security policy would leave the Internet firewalls of Iran, China, Cuba, Burma and other closed societies unchallenged for years, choking off what brave pro-democracy leaders on the streets of Tehran, Beijing and elsewhere describe as their “lifelines.”

Such a policy would convert Secretary Clinton’s stirring call for Internet freedom into empty rhetoric undermined by the inaction of her Department.

It would ignore the calls to action set forth in the February 22 letters sent to Secretary Clinton by a remarkable coalition of pro-democracy leaders — many of them present in this room.

The United States can and must do better than that in tearing down the 21st century walls of oppression by which dictatorships isolate and control their subjects, and my colleagues and I are determined to see that we do.

In the past week, the State Department has demonstrated renewed interest in this issue, and for that reason I will release the holds on this group of Departmental nominees to encourage good faith efforts to work together to fulfill congressional intent regarding these vital funds.

Let me say though that the objective is clear, and delay is the chief ingredient of the problem.  The funds must be rapidly dispersed to groups that possess the current capability of immediately opening access to the Internet for millions of new users.

One such group is the Global Internet Freedom Consortium, which operates the Freegate circumvention system relied upon by millions around the world.  If there are others that can fulfill these criteria, then the State Department should come forward with clear and convincing evidence and we should support those groups as well.

But we must act now.  If we do not achieve a breakthrough in the next week, I will not hesitate to place holds on future State Department nominations for as long as it takes to move the Department away from policies that will keep Iran’s firewalls in business for year.

We owe nothing less to the heroes of the Green Movemnment, to Cuba’s beseiged bloggers, to China’s Charter 08 founders and to others seeking to use the power of the Internet to achieve peaceful change.

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