It is deeply disappointing that a sad state of affairs at SEEDIG, as described in the blog post and in communication with SEEDIG’s supporting organisations, has been proven true once again. The observations have been shown to be true by all involved, especially those who orchestrated an unprecedented action for the petition and its support, based on false and malicious allegations. The petition was launched after the integrity of the election process was questioned. Members of the community were contacted to support the petition, and many responded, even without knowing what it is all about and without understanding the SEEDIG Terms of Reference (the SEEDIG bylaws).
Well-orchestrated defamation campaign
It would not be surprising if some emails sent to the list in support of the SEEDIG executive committee chair and of the petition were orchestrated and prepared by others. In fact, there were clear indications in emails — from coloured copy-pasting to stylistic similarities — indicating that those emails could have been written or coordinated by others. There were other “obvious” indications as well, and it was very likely — based on previous observations not only on the mailing list but also in certain groups and online calls — that emails were sent to the list in a well-orchestrated fashion.
It is truly sad to see how young SEEDIG fellows — namely the interns, youth school participants, fellowship participants, ambassadors, and monthly summary editors — and members of the community who work as researchers or human rights advocates, or others whose job is simply to take a look at issues from all perspectives, are so easily manipulated and persuaded to participate in disgraceful defamatory actions.
One could wonder how come such an unresponsive mailing list received such a number of feedbacks in the span of an hour? When was the last time that many emails arrived to “any” subject? When was the last time one could see there were that many members on the list?
The majority of the supporters of the petition come from Serbia, Romania, Moldova, Ukraine, and Albania. Several supporters have not been seen contributing to any SEEDIG community work during the last two years. Moreover, one-third of the supporters have never written to the mailing list before and more than half have rarely communicated — mostly for formal reasons. Over three-quarters of the supporters belong to the so-called inner circle described in reflections on SEEDIG, and only a few from all supporters do not have tight connections with this circle.
The remaining members of the executive committee — after two members resigned — have actively supported the petition, even though not a single decision of the executive committee provided any grounds for the allegations in the petition. Besides, they themselves manipulated the truth or provided additional false allegations in their emails sent to the mailing list.
Culture of fear
Under the current chair of the executive committee, SEEDIG has turned into a manipulative entity, where perfect loyalty and no criticism was expected, where freedom of speech was suppressed, even with brutal ad-hominem attacks whose aim was to discredit an argument by attacking the qualities of the arguer, rather than the merits of the argument. Well-orchestrated actions in relation to the petition have only confirmed all previous observations in this regard.
Several members of the SEEDIG community have contacted me, telling their traumatic experiences at SEEDIG. Without exception, all have mentioned fear of expressing their opinion on the mailing list, where they would always be attacked by the same people. Some were even directly threatened, so I was told, to be attacked ad-hominem if they would write to the mailing list. The so-called “killing the mockingbird” game has been played for years by the very few and same members of the SEEDIG community, and many were just manipulated to be active players in the game.
Moreover, members have expressed fear of losing the financial support of the supporting organisations for themselves or for their national (internet governance) initiatives — especially from ICANN — if they publicly expressed their disagreement with the way SEEDIG has been led. This unfortunately leads to another important question: what are the values SEEDIG’s supporting organisations — ICANN, RIPE NCC, the Internet Society, the Council of Europe, the DiploFoundation, EuroDIG, etc., — and their representatives being involved with SEEDIG are promoting and supporting?
It should also be mentioned that (some) members of the executive committee have felt uncomfortable as the SEEDIG executive committee chair was invited to meeting(s) with the national intelligence service. During the SEEDIG 5 meeting in Bucharest, members of the executive committee were wondering who in the audience were from the intelligence service and what was their role. Frankly speaking, it was extremely uncomfortable. These circumstances have never been openly discussed but the sense of unease has been trickling into our relationships.
Suppression of criticism and free speech
In recent months, there have been several ad-hominem attacks towards me as well — in relation to my proposals regarding the legal entity, expressing concerns about SEEDIG’s governance, lack of transparency and accountability, the way its operations have been conducted, and in relation to writing to the mailing list. The worst attacks followed after I questioned the integrity of the election process (see below).
Ad-hominem attacks always tell you more about the attacker than the attacked. I do not want to speculate about the motives and personalities of those involved. However, I decided, following a professional advice, to write a blog post and bring this matter to the attention of SEEDIG’s supporting organisations. I called upon them to help in stopping targeted character assassinations and “community members cleansing” that have been destroying SEEDIG’s core principles, such as openness, inclusiveness and transparency. They could also be used as a mechanism for establishing a personality cult.
After the recent events, one could ask if SEEDIG is a community which attacks people for speaking or writing publicly, or it is the community which defends the right to freedom of speech? Unfortunately, it seems it is the former. The majority in the executive committee that split along the gender line was not willing to openly and honestly discuss leadership, governance and other challenges put forward by the minority members of the committee, coming from the government and private sector stakeholder groups. All important and critical issues would be disregarded or silenced. All attempts to discuss these issues on the mailing list would be subject to immediate coordinated attacks from the inner circle.
In such circumstances, using the blog was one of the rare options where members of the SEEDIG community could enjoy their right to know what was happening behind their backs, and what they and the supporting organisations — ICANN, RIPE NCC, the Internet Society, the Council of Europe, the DiploFoundation, EuroDIG, and others — were endorsing without basic knowledge and understanding of how things really were at SEEDIG. Members of the SEEDIG community should admit to themselves, as harsh as it sounded, that many have been heavily manipulated.
Flawed and failed elections — tip of the iceberg
The partial elections for the executive committee were the most prominent example of the flawed and compromised SEEDIG process — at several stages.
- Firstly, the executive committee did not make any decision regarding the election process, but it should. It was simply bypassed by its chair.
- Secondly, the executive committee did not appoint any of its members to assist the election committee in its operational tasks. So the question is, who from the executive committee and how did assist the election committee? This question is important for the integrity of the whole election process, as well as for the impartiality of the election committee.
- Thirdly, the election committee should act neutrally, impartially, and independently from any member of the executive committee (especially from its chair), and from any observer. If these principles are not safeguarded, there is perhaps no need to have a separate election committee — the process can be simplified and all tasks carried out by the SEEDIG executive committee chair in cooperation with the supporting organisation(s) with the highest stake(s) at SEEDIG.
- Fourthly, in accordance with the Terms of Reference, the election committee has no discretion to surpass the electoral votes, if other conditions are met, yet the election committee this time did so and provided an explanation, which allegedly was not in accordance with the Terms of Reference as claimed by the rejected candidate in its objections. The question is does the election committee has a right and under which conditions to surpass the electoral vote?
- Fifthly, the chair of the executive committee published information, still in the midst of the election process, in favour of one candidate running for the position of a member of the executive committee, exactly the one selected by the election committee. The election committee did not express any concern in this regard, which of course raises questions of its impartiality.
- Sixthly, the election committee failed to provide appropriate replies to comprehensive objections filed by a rejected candidate which stated that the decision of the election committee was not in accordance with the Terms of Reference. Moreover, the election committee did not provide any substantive reply to the second objection at all.
- Seventhly, there were several other issues that should also be considered, such as candidate’s affiliation, the role of observers (which should not interfere with the election process), or the next SEEDIG host membership in the executive committee. Although the latter is not regulated by the Terms of Reference, it seems that there has been a clear intention to continue with this practice, although it is neither sustainable nor a good practice. Besides, there is no procedural foundation for this approach, which is pursued, so it seems, non-transparently and behind closed doors.
I openly expressed concerns and expectations that the election committee should — as part of its and SEEDIG’s accountability — submit a report, which would be used to improve the election process. If the Terms of Reference do not specifically regulate reporting this does not mean that there is no need to provide any report. On the contrary!
After expressing expectations with regard to the election committee report — which is just a common accountability measure — and by indicating that the integrity of the election process could be questioned, I was immediately attacked ad-hominem by a series of defamatory emails, which were followed by the petition — as no one at SEEDIG, so it seems, is allowed to ask questions. The attacks were well-orchestrated by those with high personal stakes at SEEDIG who want to make sure that no one gets in their way. They not only had to set an example for other inner circle fellows, but it was also easier to attack the person asking questions, then to act accountably and start a discussion on the challenges and issues raised.
The petition process was launched fast, not in line with the Terms of Reference, with absurdly short deadlines set by the remaining executive committee (with a member whose term has expired and has not been legitimately extended, which undermines the legitimacy of the entire executive committee as well as the legitimacy of its decisions), not even mentioning good governance practices, in order to re-initiate the election process as soon as possible, to avoid the disclosure of any complaints or comments received during the election process, and to evade any consideration of the election process improvements, or misconduct in the executive committee or the election committee, respectively.
All important issues were simply swept under the carpet by failing to provide the election committee report, and starting a new election cycle without even considering any of the issues. The business as usual now continues with new loyal advocates of SEEDIG bad practices who create only an illusion of SEEDIG’s openness and inclusiveness.
The failed elections were just the tip of the iceberg. In recent events, electoral integrity was seriously undermined. Moreover, without neutrality and impartiality of the election committee, and by the misuse of administrative resources, every voting at SEEDIG was, is and will be illegitimate. It is surprising that no one in the SEEDIG community has objected to the abuse of power and trust in relation to the petition process — the same tactics can be used for influencing or attempting to influence any voting at SEEDIG. This is telling and indicative of the personality cult, and of the absence of democratic values and principles at SEEDIG.
The failed elections also indicated that the most loyal members volunteer first, only minutes after a call for volunteers is published on the mailing list. On the other hand it became obvious, that all those asking questions or expressing their own views are attacked and silenced.
Despite a heavy crisis in SEEDIG’s leadership, the remaining members of the executive committee pretend as if nothing has happened and just continue their business as usual, with the support of the most loyal members of the inner circle.
Destroyed democratic values and principles
Internet governance in South-Eastern Europe is not only a matter of the SEEDIG inner circle. The issues should be discussed as broadly as possible. Therefore, SEEDIG as an internet governance initiative should promote principles of openness, inclusiveness, transparency, and accountability. More importantly, however, it should promote human rights and human dignity, both internally and externally.
Unfortunately, freedom of speech — one of the most important human rights — sadly seems to have no place at SEEDIG. Instead of freedom of speech, many members of the community have openly promoted the current chair’s personality cult, which is truly regrettable, especially in the region that used to be oppressed by totalitarian régimes.
As one of the SEEDIG community members said (before quitting its membership) one could honestly wonder which executive committee members and why were not able to lead by example and withstand open and honest dialogue when it came to the values and the future of SEEDIG, and why they were not able to discuss and overcome the differences? Why some executive committee members have been afraid of open and honest dialogue and have resorted to such extensive manipulations and ad-hominem attacks?
He further interpreted the whole sad story as an attempt to use the SEEDIG community for particular, even personal purposes. Furthermore, these purposes are not at all compatible with democratic values and principles, nor with the values and principles of the internet community, such as for example openness, transparency, participation, integrity, and multistakeholderism.
Need for change
The SEEDIG core team has been contaminated for six years now. Moreover, the very same people who caused the leadership crisis in 2017 have been involved in the same manipulations and attacks two years later. In 2017, Aida Mahmutović left and has never been seen on the mailing list nor on SEEDIG events. Iliya Bazlyankov left the executive committee earlier as well.
SEEDIG is no longer a space where community really decides, even on relevant subjects to be discussed. These are smartly being rejected. SEEDIG is now a space of stolen democratic values, manipulative interpretations, and imposed fear of losing “benefits” if not done as told. The same goes with working bodies and discourse on the mailing list, all well orchestrated. Now even more so!
Things at SEEDIG have gone terribly wrong, the executive committee has been bypassed and the Terms of References have been neglected even regarding important provisions, for example on:
- equality, rights and duties of members of the executive committee (Art. 3.3);
- election of the chair (Art. 3.4);
- cooperation with supporting organisations (Art. 3.5(e));
- core principles of SEEDIG processes, including inclusiveness and transparency (Art. 4.1 (h));
- accountability of members of the executive committee (Art. 5.1 (a));
- the ‘four eyes’ principle (Art. 5.1 (d));
- internal rules of operation (Art.5.3); and
- elections (Art. 6.10).
Sasho Dimitrijoski and I were the only members of the executive committee that strived for more transparency, accountability, and better governance. We warned back in January 2019 that the way SEEDIG has been functioning for the past years was not sustainable. We proposed several steps to:
- improve the operation of the executive committee and reconsider the governance model as defined by the Terms of Reference;
- avoid over-dependence on any member of the leadership team;
- broaden the stakeholder involvement and reduce over-dependence on (a few) international stakeholders; and
- improve financial sustainability.
We also warned that the current voting rules allow the inner circle to manipulate the election and voting processes. We were ignored by the rest of the executive committee, but the time showed that we were entirely right — also with regard to the election and voting processes.