Bassel Khartabil's Story Proves Online Activism Is Still Powerful
Recently I learned, along with the rest of the world, the heartbreaking news that my friend and colleague Bassel Khartabil was dead—and in fact had been dead for two years. He was secretly executed by the Syrian government after having been imprisoned since 2012. While those of us in Bassel’s global community of friends held out hope that the free culture advocate would eventually return home safely, his covert murder at the hands of the Assad regime was a scenario many of us had long feared.
We kept these thoughts to ourselves, though, as if sharing them might make the worst-case possibility more possible. Instead, we focused on doing what we could to honor Bassel, motivated by the faint hope that by creating attention, we might free our friend. Or, if we didn’t, at least we could further the causes he so dearly believed in.
Bassel wasn’t particularly radical, but he believed the Syrian people should have a basic understanding of the technology and tools that many of us take for granted. “Authoritarian regimes feel the dangers of technology on their continuity,” Bassel wrote to a friend in a letter from prison. “And they should be afraid of that, as code is much more than tools. It’s an education that opens youthful minds, and moves nations forward.”
Although the protests and revolts of the Arab Spring revealed the power of such digital tools, the citizenry in Syria was far from empowered. So Bassel dedicated his life to promoting freedom and openness on the web and technology education in the Arab world. He joined Creative Commons, the culture nonprofit I’m a part of, as our Syrian project lead. He became an active contributor to Wikipedia and to open source projects like Linux and Firefox. He founded Syria’s first hacker space; working out of a small room in Damascus, he taught locals to become more digitally literate.
Merely showing people how to use a smartphone, though, made Bassel a threat in the eyes of the state, and he was jailed in March 2012. He did his best to continue his quest to spread freedom from behind bars, creating the first-ever Arabic translations of seminal books on open source software. Then, in October 2015, he was abruptly transferred to an undisclosed location, and all contact with him ceased. Like tens of thousands of other Syrian prisoners, Bassel was “disappeared,” a torturous scenario for his wife, Noura, who was left in emotional limbo with only questions about the fate of her beloved. Finally, this past August, we learned the awful news that he had been executed shortly after his transfer.
Around the time Bassel was first imprisoned, a group of his friends launched an online campaign, #freebassel, to raise awareness of his plight. By putting a name and a face to an issue that is just an abstraction to most of the world, we hoped to underscore that citizens like Bassel are real people with dreams and talents and passions. It felt like what Bassel would have wanted.
As the campaign grew, hundreds of us tweeted photos and facts about our friend. We used Facebook to organize synchronous parties for him in cities across the globe. We printed posters of the hashtag and displayed them in public places. We celebrated Bassel by sharing and expanding on the work he did before being detained. His final project, an effort to digitally preserve Syrian archaeology, was kept alive by friends who created and exhibited 3-D-printed replicas of structures that existed in the ancient city of Palmyra—before they were systematically destroyed by ISIS.
Admittedly, these efforts sometimes felt fruitless. Could drumming up attention on social media ever amount to anything tangible, especially when the world’s energy was focused elsewhere? We persevered not because we were so naive as to believe our campaign would actually persuade the Assad regime to release Bassel, but because it was the best thing we could think of to do.
Ultimately, the story came to the most tragic end possible. But there’s hope that #freebassel will have far-reaching consequences. When Bassel’s execution was finally discovered, the news was covered by the world’s major media networks, and Amnesty International issued a public condemnation. A man who could have been an anonymous casualty instead became an avatar of the fight he so believed in.
It also led to the creation of a $50,000 annual fellowship that will support individuals working, as he so bravely did, to promote openness in oppressed regions. While Bassel himself no longer has a voice, there are many in his community who are ready to build upon his work.
Bassel used to tell me about Syria’s thriving hip hop scene, and how outsiders were always astonished to hear that anything like it existed. My hope is that the same thing happens with the open culture movement in the Middle East. By turning Bassel into a hero, #freebassel will help other activists receive the funding they need to become leaders in their own right. Our friend’s work will live on through those it inspires and enables—and who will continue to try to bring his dream to the Middle East, and the rest of the world.
Eric Steuer (@ericsteuer) is creative director of Creative Commons and a frequent contributor to WIRED.
This article appears in the October issue. Subscribe now.