Wednesday, July 11, 2012 | 10:10 AM
For more than a year, Google has been supporting the Hay Literary Festival, as it grew from its origins in Wales into an international organisation. The Hay brings together writers and thinkers, inspiring dialogue around freedom of expression. It recently came to Beirut, its first time ever in the Middle East and North Africa.
The timing was perfect. A new wave of freedom in the Arab world has opened the door for writers to explore new and exciting vistas - and this freedom dominated festival discussions.
One panel featured bloggers from around the region. Samir Elbahaie, Google’s Middle East and North Africa Policy and Government Affairs Manager, spoke with them about the internet and how it is changing people’s lives. Egyptian Sondos Shabayek who was at the forefront of the Egyptian revolution and Beirut-based Moe Ali Nayel discussed how an open and free web has empowered citizens. Citizens turned to the internet to verify the news when the state media on the ground failed to offer the full picture.
In another lively session , Google’s adviser on freedom of expression and long-time journalist John Kampfner moderated a debate around how to ensure respect for human rights. The eclectic panel included Óscar Guardiola-Rivera, International Professor of Law and International Affairs, and Nizar Saghieh, a leading Lebanese lawyer, legal researcher and human rights activist. Both speakers argued that freedom of expression and human rights were too often framed in Western terms. Saghieh suggested policy makers refer to local and regional cultural norms as much as universal ones, citing the Koran. Guardiola-Rivera said Western governments ignored the clamour for economic rights even though they were regarded as perhaps the most important in developing nations.
Other topics discussed in Beirut ranged from the serious – memories of postwar cities, and the role of writers in sectarian societies – to the more light-hearted and amusing, including a poetry slam contest.
It’s great to see the Arab world embrace free expression. The free flow of information spurs creativity and innovation. We believe people make better decisions in their lives when they have more information and look forward to contributing to work toward achieving this goal in the Middle East and North Africa.