"If we don't stop these attacks, we run the risk of being left without a voice": Interview with Sandra Castañeda Martínez of RSMLAC
The attack on the Health Network of Latin American and Caribbean Women (RSMLAC: Red Salud de las Mujeres Latinoamericanas y del Caribe) website confirms that we need to constantly defend the rights of women. Here, in a special interview for GenderIT.org, we talk with Sandra Castañeda Martínez, general coordinator of the RSMLAC, who helps us visualize the scale of violence on the internet today.
One of the points of the Declaration of the Forum of Feminist Organizations held during the XII Regional Conference on Women in Latin America and the Caribbean (1) states that it is necessary to: “Ensure that new technologies serve as tools to facilitate access to information and accountability through transparency laws and the use and promotion of open data.” And also to “combat the control of information and electronic spying so that it can in no way be used to criminalize human rights defenders and social movements.”
The attack on the website of the Health Network of Latin American and Caribbean Women confirms that we need to constantly defend the rights of women.
Here, in a special interview for GenderIT.org, we talk to Sandra Castañeda Martínez (2), general coordinator of the RSMLAC, who helps us visualize the scale of violence on the internet today.
Florencia Flores Iborra: How do you as RSMLAC analyze or explain the attack on your website?
Sandra Castañeda Martínez: Honestly, this situation took us by surprise. We had no previous experience with our site being hacked, or of being blocked on social networks. But we do not think that it is a casual attack. During this year RSMLAC has developed a very important communication strategy, appealing to different alternative media.
We decided to have an active presence in social networks. We work hard on our accounts on Facebook and Twitter, which have constant, intense activity. We are devoting a lot of time to tweeting messages, because we want to position the current issues in the region. As a network we aim to spread the word and disseminate the state of affairs of the status of women’s human rights in different countries, particularly of sexual and reproductive rights.
In that regard, the harassment we have suffered as an organization has been building and become increasingly aggressive. We were denounced at least three times for disseminating “inappropriate topics”, so we were blocked on Facebook for three days (April 25, May 14, and May 19).
Our account was also blocked because of allegations of false identity on May 9, and our Facebook page was closed. We decided to reopen another account in June, which was again blocked and definitively closed by Facebook because of allegations of questionable identity.
This pattern of harassment continued on September 19th and 20th. In our social networks we proposed a photo album as part of the # 28SAbortoLegal September 28th social media campaign for legal abortion, as well as posters for use during the campaign with our partner networks. We received comments on Twitter in response to our proposal, attacking it on moral grounds.
This digital persecution continued on September 21st, when our website was hacked. As a result it remains currently inactive.
I want to emphasize that the content we publish on our website, Facebook, and Twitter, is intended solely for the promotion of activities that we do at an institutional level, as well as disseminating information about actions by our affiliated organizations.
Fortunately we were working on a site redesign, and so as a backup we had redirected all of the files to a blog and from there we update all of the information. Thanks to this we did not lose much data, but it is always a difficult to have to start from scratch. These types of attacks complicate our work. It truly is an obstacle for continuing our work.
FFI: After the attack on the site, what challenges did you face as an organization?
SCM: After the hacking we have had to prioritize the security of the information we publish.
It is no coincidence that each of these attacks was carried out on a symbolic date, precisely when we were taking action, such as May 28 (International day for women’s health), or October 28 (International day for the decriminalization of abortion).
The fact that they want to sanction and make these issues invisible is not only premeditated, but is also a violation of the rights of women, including the right to freedom of expression, and the right to demonstrate.
The problem is deeper, and is based on the dynamic that, for organizations like ours that work on issues that generate controversy and difficulties with more conservative sectors, the traditional media are not valid interlocutors. We need to gain ground in alternative media, and the web is a strategic place for us to express ourselves.
Denouncing this situation was a key action for the Health Network. In fact, and thanks to the support of the organizations that work with us, we have been able to make the problem visible.
Likewise, through our networks we learned that around those dates there was a congress of hackers, and it seems to be a common practice of theirs to select pages of vulnerable populations, to steal their information and/or block their sites.
We have a lot of uncertainties about who was responsible for the hacking and where the attack came from, but we have unfortunately confirmed that the violence that we suffer as women in the real world also transfers to the web.
Unlike other attacks, in our case it was an assault on an institutional level. We know of the experiences of colleagues who have been intimidated on their personal accounts, on both Facebook and Twitter.
We have detected that each network has a different way of exercising violence. In the case of Facebook, we have received messages directly from the account management system. On Twitter on the other hand, the attacks are carried out in a different and more direct way. On that platform one is more exposed, and often the insults come from users.
Unfortunately those of us who work on these issues are used to this sort of violence. Nevertheless, it is important not to naturalize this type of attack, and to be aware that it is a violation of our rights.
FFI: Based on this experience, what is your reflection as an organization?
SCM: I think that the analysis that needs to be done is around the question of what access to communication is necessary for feminist organizations.
For this type of organization, communication raises many problems. In most cases, using social networks and appropriating technologies is the only way to express ourselves, to promote and position our agenda without filters being put on us, without being edited, and without our information being manipulated.
If we do not stop these attacks, if we do not fight to keep these spaces, we run the risk of being left voiceless. This is a concern for us in RSMLAC, and we understand that working through networks enables a greater impact for denunciations of the problem. It is essential to be united in this struggle.
One lesson that this situation left us with was how both social media and communication products can be vulnerable, and so we are working on strengthening their security.
Moreover, we recently had the opportunity to participate in XII Regional Conference on Women in Latin America and the Caribbean (3), which focused on gender equality, empowerment of women, and information and communication technologies.
It allowed us to see the importance of analyzing the role of ICTs in the work we do as women’s organizations in general, and particularly for those who promote sexual and reproductive rights.
As a network it was very important for us to participate in that discussion. Once the debate started we understood that it is essential to analyze the contribution of ICTs to our work. Inevitably, the specificity and priorities of the agendas of each organization have divided us. We need to join up our proposals, and link the issues of different groups. This dialogue will help us strengthen our priorities and create a cross-cutting agenda.
Today there are several forms of activism, and it is important to leverage the experience and expertise that we have. We must transcend the specifics and call for a more integrated perspective.
We still have many issues to address, and we need to continue gaining ground. These attacks show that we need to continue to fight to defend our rights and demonstrate freely.
(1) The Health Network of Latin American and Caribbean Women (RSMLAC: Red de Salud de las Mujeres Latinoamericanas y del Caribe) is a third-level feminist organization, that seeks to promote the health conditions and comprehensive well-being of women in the region through research, advocacy, and popular education. On September 21 the RSMLAC website was attacked and disabled.
(2) Sandra Castañeda Martínez is the General Coordinator of the Health Network of Latin American and Caribbean Women.
(3) The XII Regional Conference on Women in Latin America and the Caribbean was held in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic from October 15 - 18, 2013. More information at: http://www.eclac.cl/12conferenciamujer.