“The Internet is freedom.” Julie Owono

Julie Owono, lawyerate, internet advoc and human rights activist at the bar

A notification springs up on my Facebook feed. Julie Owono has posted a new picture. She and three colleagues are on top of the world. Perched somewhere on the Eiffel Tower, the stylish foursome is ready to pound Paris with advocacy. I smile. It’s hard to forget my cozy chat with this creative baker, polyglot, piano player and internet loving lawyer. I bet you won’t either.

Words by Ngum Ngafor

You champion freedom of expression on the internet. So, in the spirit of your very cool digital footprint, let’s start with some hashtags that describe you: #baking #piano #internet #writing #humanrights. What do these mean to Julie Owono?

[Laughs]. I’ll start with human rights. I would say studying and practising human rights law helped me understand the meaning of equality between people; this was not so obvious in the country I come from (Cameroon). I also learned that everybody is entitled to dignity. Writing has helped me stand up for the idea that Africans, in particular, are entitled to respect and equal to all other citizens in the world. It has allowed me to speak my truth about the continent and its people. The internet, to me, equals freedom. It helped me escape the destiny that was ‘supposed’ to be mine as a black, immigrant, African woman in Europe. Baking is my way to show those whom I love how I feel about them. I create new recipes or even rediscover some of the dishes our ancestors used to cook. For me, it’s a proof of love. Oh, and the piano! I played it as a teenager. Back then, it was an instrument of torture [laughs]. But now I am rediscovering it. I play it to relax, and train my brain. Of course, living with a pianist has also enabled me to see the instrument with new eyes.

Let’s go back a little to what you said about your destiny. How would your life be without the world wide web?

I’d probably be in a job that I didn’t like, just to get by, or even thrown out of the country. Before I passed the Bar exam, I had made two unsuccessful attempts. After my second result, I received a deportation notice from the Prefecture (immigration service). French law allows for three tries, so I appealed the decision and won. By that time, I was already blogging and had access to platforms like Al Jazeera. Such exposure and my own sense of self-worth gave me the courage to defend myself in court. It seemed strange to me that I was being treated more harshly than others, who were my equals.

Campaign for human rights and internet rights In Paris

Image courtesy of Internet Sans Frontieres

Well, you certainly made it! Tell me about your typical day as Executive Director at Internet Sans Frontières (ISF)?

Apart from Internet Sans Frontierès, I have a law firm. Both are equally important to me. When I wake up, I take my son to school and either go to work in Paris or do what I need to do from home. Usually, I’ll focus on my law stuff [first]; I help people get their papers or defend themselves when they face deportation. Noon is lunchtime. I then dedicate the rest of my day is to ISF. This usually involves checking website posts, organising press coverage of our stories or dealing with emergencies. Work may continue until very late as we have partners are in places like the US, Latin America and Brazil

What does the internet mean to Africa?

Freedom and openness. Openness, because it has given the continent access to the rest of the world in ways that haven’t been seen for a long time. I will give you one example. Until recently, it was very difficult to be in Cameroon and know what was happening in Kenya. You had to go through a news channel like The BBC or its francophone equivalent. And the information usually flowed from one direction only. The continent has basically passed from that state of things to a situation where you don’t need a third party to be able to interact with a friend or journalist in Nairobi or South Africa. This hadn’t been the case since the 16th or 17th century when pre-colonial trade routes linking different parts of Africa were destroyed. Thanks to the internet, these connections are being rebuilt. My experience as part of a network of bloggers at Global Voices Online opened my eyes to this new reality. I was talking to people from Tanzania, Cote D’Ivoire etc and learning that despite the nuances, we had similar challenges and hopes. I would say the internet also offers an opportunity for freedom because it gives us the power to tell our own stories.

Speaking of stories, *FranceAfrique has written a rather grim one for Francophone countries. What’s it like to experience this policy from the ‘belly of the beast’?

I think it’s only recently that we, as African immigrants or Francophone Africans realised the extent to which the FranceAfrique network was bad for the continent. We suspected it, of course, but we didn’t have the elements to help us understand it. When archives were opened and made accessible to the public (with the help of the internet), we were horrified by the things they revealed! One deals with FranceAfrique in stages. Firstly, there is resentment. The second phase is about understanding; being able to differentiate between the French as citizens who profited from a system and the state apparatus which kept them ignorant of it. An example of such control is how the war (of independence) in Cameroon was handled. Despite ongoing massacres, there was just a small article in Le Monde, which trivialised what was effectively a genocide! The third stage, I would say, is to make peace with this past and try to find a way forward. I think that’s where we are now. It is the reason why people like (activist) Rokhaya Diallo can be heard now in the public sphere in France.

 Being an asylum seeker in France today is like being less human.

You were a leading voice in the #BringBackOurInternet Twitter protest against a government led cyber black out in North and South West Cameroon. Tell me about the impact of this campaign.

I think it’s one of the first continental examples of African citizens pressuring [their government] with success. Although the situation today is terrible, I still believe the campaign achieved something because, for the first time, Cameroonians came together and rallied fellow Africans, who in turn got international supporters such as Ed Snowden on board! When we first discussed the idea, we couldn’t have imagined how big it would become. This campaign also showed that Africans can organise themselves and strategically target important organisations like the UN and AU. Having the press talking about Cameroon for 3 months non-stop was amazing! It’s also worth noting that today, whenever there is an internet shut down in Africa – like in Togo – people use #BringBackOurInternet. So, in that sense, it made a difference.

Let’s talk about the scale of internet shut downs by African governments. How big is this problem?

It has become a habit for many governments to block off the net or restrict access to social networks and messaging apps which can help people organise during political crises. The silence of other nations, especially the US and European influences has made this behaviour possible. Dictators feel even more confident now because the president of the United States has previously supported the idea of shutting down the web in certain situations. So, although #BringBackOurInternet helped demonstrate to the world that cyber black outs are wrong, there is work to be done at a diplomatic level. We need to make sure UN member states, which voted to endorse internet access as a human right act to defend that notion. When rights are violated, it is normal practice for the UN to sanction the offending country. Why can’t internet access be protected in a similar manner?

 If things worsen in Cameroon, its neighbours could suffer

You held a post at the International Organisation for Migration so I imagine President Donald Trump’s recent comments about migrants interest you. What’s the situation for people in France?

Things are complicated for asylum seekers. This is unfortunate because France signed the Geneva Convention which states that refugees are to be protected, as they are fleeing danger. For regular immigrants, I would say that there is a bit less pressure. When Sarkozy left power, there was a sigh of relief. I was very happy that Hollande was elected because I knew  his government wouldn’t prioritise arresting immigrants, as Sarkozy’s did. Macron got into office he managed to seduce right wing audiences. So, he will have to prove to them that he was worthy of their votes. Historically, this means hostility towards immigrants. And this is already playing out in Calais. You should see images of the police destroying people’s tents and food! In fact, being an asylum seeker in France today is like being less human.

Your alma mater is the prestigious Sorbonne Law School. Many black people who attended Ivy League universities or places like Oxford and Cambridge, often complain of struggling to fit into the elite culture of these institutions. How was student life for you?

Being in a place where knowledge was important gave me a sense of pride but I didn’t feel like an elite at all! In France, prominent universities are open to everyone until a certain point. So, if you have the [required] grades and diplomas, you can go to The Sorbonne. There’s not much to pay either. My fees were about €1000 per year. However, things become more complicated at graduate level. You are selected on the basis of your grades, professional ambitions or thesis project. Most importantly, that is the time when your social and economic capital matter. They test your knowledge of things like the opera and impressionist painters. People usually don’t know about such things unless they learn them from the right connections. I was one of just a few black students during my graduate studies. Things definitely felt different.

The Gulf of Guinea is an area of interest to you. Tell me something to watch out for, from this region, in 2018.

We need to be very vigilant. There are truly risks for things to go bad. With what’s happening in the Central African Republic and Cameroon, I would say this is not a good time for the Region. It’s going to be a period of instability.  And if things worsen in Cameroon, neighbouring countries will suffer too, because they rely on Cameroon politically and economically.