Social media and online activism is changing global politics, holding governments and their leaders accountable in ways unthinkable before the Internet existed, activists said Friday.
Speaking on the sidelines of a conference on Internet freedom in The Hague, two well-known activists from Syria and Thailand said by using social media, ordinary people could now hold political leaders responsible for their actions.
During Syria's violent crackdown on dissidents over the last eight months, "there have been thousands of [pieces of] evidence thanks to social media, not only to show the world, but also Syrians, of the crimes," said Amjad Baiazy of Amnesty International.
Due to face trial in Damascus on charges of "weakening the national resolve" with his online comments, Baiazy, 30, said the main benefit of social media was it gave everybody the chance to be a journalist.
"It has turned every citizen into a journalist. Every citizen can use Twitter to broadcast," said Baiazy, adding that he was tortured following his arrest on May 21 for comments he made on Facebook and Twitter.
"In that way, it's not just those in the outside world who can see what's going on since the revolt started. People on the ground also started to really know. They can see the crimes, they can see the corruption," he told AFP.
For Chiranuch Premchaiporn, editor of a news website in Thailand, "social media is changing the power relation between ordinary people, government and politics," she said.
"This means that a normal person, for instance, can send a politician a Tweet [on Twitter] and ask him a question," she said, adding "this is real democracy."
The 44-year-old editor of the popular Prachatai site is currently on trial in Bangkok where she faces a possible 20-year sentence for not removing quickly enough online posts perceived as critical of the monarchy in 2008.
Chiranuch, who is expecting a ruling in her case in March or April, said she believed the growth of social media and the Internet would bring changes within Thailand.
She said she hoped it could lead to an easing of the Asian country's controversial royal insult and computer laws.
"It is important for those people who have to protect the Thai monarchy to understand that sometimes discussion and debate can be healthy. No debate cannot be good for the institution," she said.
The monarchy is a highly sensitive topic in politically turbulent Thailand. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world's longest reigning monarch and revered as a demi-god by many Thais, has been hospitalised since September 2009.
Chiranuch pointed out that the Thai government had an opportunity to embrace online freedom, rather than opposing it, and not to punish those who voice their opinions by sending them to jail.
"There should be a clear message to politicians. The consequences for [voicing an opinion] should not be a jail term. No-one should be detained because they expressed a point of view," she said.
In a speech earlier to delegates to the Internet conference from more than 20 countries, businesses and non-governmental organisations, Syria's Baiazy called on governments around the world to step up the fight for Internet freedom.
He also called on IT businesses not to sell technology to countries using it to repress Internet freedom, echoing a statement by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the conference's opening on Thursday.
Clinton urged companies not to sell products and services to regimes where they could be used as "tools of oppression."