Kenyan worker’s arrest shows power, and peril, of online advocacy.

With perfect prose, sizzling sarcasm and a host of anonymous accounts, Malcolm Bidali has waged a one-man social media campaign to improve working conditions for migrant labourers in Qatar for nearly a year.

“It kind of makes me feel like Batman or Superman. You can say the things you want to say, with your own voice and your own style,” said Bidali (28), speaking to the Thomson Reuters Foundation from Doha.

The Kenyan security guard had been using Facebook, Instagram and Twitter under the pen name “Noah Articulates” to complain about cramped living quarters, low wages and working outside in summer, when temperatures can reach 50 degrees.

His most recent project was a series of 26 photographs, each marked with an English letter and a migrant worker’s account of his or her working conditions, and tagging their employers. “It was all self-taught. Gotta love YouTube, ” Bidali said with a chuckle.

He never finished posting the series. Three days after his interview, and just hours after his most recent post, Bidali was arrested by Qatari authorities and put into solitary confinement.

He was released on June 2nd, but Qatar has upheld the charges against him, according to a statement from the advocacy group Migrant-Rights.org.

His case highlights both the growing power of social media when wielded by migrant worker activists in the Gulf and the risk of backlash in countries criticised for poor labour conditions and little freedom of expression.

No evidence

The Qatari government did not respond to a request for comment. In a public statement on May 29th, it said Bidali had been “formally charged with offences related to payments received by a foreign agent for the creation and distribution of disinformation within the State of Qatar”.

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Migrant-Rights.org, and other advocacy groups fear his detention is connected to his online activism.

“There is no evidence that he is being detained for anything other than his legitimate human rights work – for exercising his freedom of expression, and for shining a spotlight on Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers,” they said in a joint statement on May 28th.

There are 1.7 million migrant workers in Qatar, according to Amnesty International, and more than 23 million across the entire Arab world, according to figures from the International Labour Organization.

During the coronavirus pandemic, domestic workers in the Gulf took to TikTok to creatively protest long hours, low wages, the confiscation of their passports and phones, and little to no choice in their employers.

Others used Twitter to demand overdue end-of-service wages from a UAE-based engineering company.

“It’s very personal, which is why it’s powerful. It’s storytelling that isn’t directed or curated,” said Vani Saraswathi of migrant-rights.org , one of the main groups advocating for Bidali’s release and where he wrote several anonymous blogposts.

Still others use social media to link up with advocacy groups, like the Sandigan Kuwait Domestic Workers Association, whose Facebook page has more than 53,000 likes.

“We receive up to 400 messages a day on Facebook, and have people trained as ‘gate officers’ to handle them,” said Sandigan co-founder Chito Neri.

Migrant workers who don’t have internet access but need urgent help use a hybrid approach, throwing an SOS note to a neighbour who then contacts Sandigan through Facebook or Whatsapp.

Sandigan took many of its community-organising events virtual during the pandemic, holding Zoom seminars on passport confiscation and forced labour.

Bidali was adamant that online activism was “more effective” than direct complaints. All but one of his formal complaints – made through anonymous email addresses – went unheard, he said. But after tweeting about cramped living conditions or lack of water for security guards working outside, he would notice improvements.

“Once you’ve seen the power of social media, you’ve seen people who want to change things, that your words and imagination and art have the ability to cause this reaction,” he said.

It appeared to carry on even after he was detained. On May 26th, Qatar’s ministry of labour expanded a ban on working outside during summer months and introduced a threshold temperature above which outdoor work was not allowed - an issue Bidali had been particularly vocal about.

But the online posts have real-life consequences.

Surveillance trend

Sandigan said it had documented 90 cases of migrant workers in Kuwait facing legal complaints because of an online post. Of these, 40 had been deported.

In one case, Neri said, an employer filed a complaint against a domestic worker who had posted a video of herself dancing in the family’s prayer room, citing a violation of Kuwait’s privacy law.

“Using social media is a growing trend – but another growing trend is surveillance of these spaces,” said Mustafa Qadri, executive director of labour rights consultancy Equidem.

Bidali may have been identified and tracked through a phishing link in a tweet that tagged his anonymous account, the advocacy groups said in their May 28 statement.

His arrest has already had a “chilling effect” on free expression, they said.

“His colleagues are scared to speak to each other because they don’t want to be associated with him, and they haven’t even spoken up because there is an environment of total fear,” Saraswathi said.

Before his arrest, Bidali said online anonymity had given him courage to report abuses, but it could not eliminate all the risk.

“If the government wants to get rid of you, that’s something they can easily do.”– Thomson Reuters Foundation

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