Wanderlust…

The International Reporting (and Life) Adventures of Vivian Salama

Arab and Iranian Bloggers: Emerging Threat to Official Line

Posted by vmsalama on March 26, 2007

Arabs and Iranians are using blogs to exercise free speech — while governments work to stifle them.

By Vivian Salama
February 14, 2007
http://www.poynter.org/content/content_view.asp?id=118010

On a visit to Tehran in spring 2006, Iranian-Canadian blogger Hossein Derakhshan received a rather frosty sendoff from Iranian authorities. His blog, dedicated to discussions relating to Iranian politics, technology and pop culture, exposes a number of political and social issues that were once — or perhaps still are — unmentionables in Iran.

Citing a violation of Iran’s integrity, authorities interrogated Derakhshan, then forced him to sign an apology for his blogging activities before permitting him to leave, he describes in his blog.

Defiant of the warnings made by Iranian authorities, Derakhshan left his homeland and continued to blog. With some 20,000 subscribers, his site is one of the most widely read Persian-language blogs. After returning to Canada, his first order of business was to tell the world about his experience.

“The well-behaved official … warned me not to write anything about the incident in my blog or I’d be formally prosecuted next time I was in Iran. But I didn’t comply, since it was a silly and illogical demand,” he posted on his blog in September.

Over the past three years, blogging in the Middle East has functioned as a mechanism for free speech, but often at a high cost. In a land where oppression — political and social — is often the norm, citizens across Iran and the Arab world are frequently turning to blogs as a source for noncompliance — and many governments are not having it.

“[Internet] is a new threat just the way Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and BBC were a threat in the post World War II years,” says Nancy Beth Jackson, a journalist and professor at Columbia University’s School of International Affairs.

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Blogging is believed to have begun in the Middle East in 2003 when an Iraqi using the cyber-ego “Salam Pax” (“Salam” is Arabic and “pax” is Latin for “peace.”) gained notoriety when he began publishing a blog about his life during the invasion.

“One day, like in Afghanistan, those journalists will get bored and go write about Syria or Iran,” read a post by Salam on his site, titled “Where is Raed?” on May 30, 2003. “Iraq will be off your media radar. Out of sight, out of mind. Lucky you, you have that option. I have to live it.”

Since then, Middle Easterners are emerging as citizen journalists, attending rallies and protests, then posting articles, photographs and video on their sites and the sites of others.

But it’s been a slow crawl because of government interventions and social setbacks. Countries with larger populations, such as Egypt and Iran, have extremely low Internet user numbers, with only 7 percent and 11 percent, respectively. Even Internet usage in wealthier nations like the United Arab Emirates and Qatar remain low at 35 percent and 27 percent, respectively (especially when compared to Israel’s 51 percent, for example). There are some 32 million Internet users in the Arab world (and Iran), out of a combined population of 347 million. That accounts for about 3 percent of the total Internet community worldwide, according to data from Internet World Stats, an online research group.

Those numbers are an increase, however. In 2002, the Arab world (and Iran) had only about 9 million users, according to a study by Madar, another online research group, and Reporters Without Borders. That accounted for 1.6 percent of the total Internet community worldwide.

Blogging has given many in the Arab world and beyond the chance to delve into subjects their societies may frown upon. Iran and Syria are classic examples, as their regimes impose domineering ideologies on society.

Jad Najjar, a Lebanese-American who made his mark blogging under the cyber ego “Con Man” about the summer 2006 Lebanese-Israeli war from New York, explains that blogging lends a voice to those under the watchful eye of Arab despotism. “In the Arab world, the implication can’t be more extraordinary: Many of those societies are so closed and oppressed. Blogging can help speed up democratization or can help make the society more free or liberal.”

“Blogging anonymously helped many to criticize their society, culture, politicians, system, government, taboos, etc., something they never got the chance to do before,” Haitham Sabbah, host of Bahrain-based Sabbah’s Blog told me in an e-mail interview.

In a study conducted in 2005 by Reporters Without Borders, a number of countries in the region were dubbed “Enemies of the Internet.” Top offenders often implement crackdowns and censorship on independent news publications, as well as chat rooms and blogs. This is usually done in an attempt to stifle the spread of political dissidence or to prevent people from challenging Islamic authority via the preaching of other religions or by use of sexual content. Harassment and intimidation are common, and imprisonment of bloggers is a growing trend.

“[The government] is pre-empting against the Internet because it is an expansion of the public sphere which breaks their monopoly or influence over public opinion,” Derakhshan, the Iranian-Canadian blogger, suggested to me in a live chat conversation.

In Saudi Arabia, aggressive tactics are increasingly being used to cap the spread of online pornography, drug use, conversion of Muslims by other religious groups and gambling via blogs or chat rooms, according to a study [PDF] conducted by the OpenNet Initiative, an online research group. The study adds that lesser actions are taken on blogs promoting homosexuality, women’s rights, alcohol use and religious extremism, and there was a noticeable decrease in the filtering of human rights Web sites in Saudi Arabia between 2002 and 2004.

Since Tunisia’s President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali has a solid monopoly on Internet access in his country, the government has a tight grip on virtually all online activity. All Internet cafés are state-run. According to the OpenNet Initiative and Human Rights Watch, Internet cafés are required by Tunisian law to have on-site monitors to prohibit the access of sites that are either sexually — or politically — explicit.

Blogs relating to Tunisia do exist, but any blog coming from within its borders generally discusses travel — blogs from outside Tunisia are filtered. As described in a study released by OpenNet Initiative in 2005, the state’s Internet service providers purchase access from Tunisia’s Internet agency, which combs through the sites and blocks those deemed deviant by government standards.

In Egypt, award-winning blogger and opposition activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah made international headlines in 2006 following his arrest at a pro-democracy demo after he managed to smuggle handwritten blogs out of prison with his wife. Traditionally, the arrest of political dissidents in Egypt often meant the temporary disappearance of the detainee.

Abdel-Fattah’s entries from behind bars offered people both in his political movement and around the world a window into this secret underworld — and almost in real time. The blog even featured illustrations detailing the prison layout, sketched by another imprisoned activist and passed along to Abdel-Fattah’s wife during visiting hours.

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“Information is power,” notes Jackson, the journalist and professor at Columbia University. “That’s why Arab regimes — any government — have to be worried about the Internet. More information of all kinds and all degrees of ‘truth’ are now available.”

Gone are the days when the closest thing to free speech was the hushed banter of men (and only men) at qahwas (cafés). Now, anyone with access to a computer has access to a world of ideas — and their own thoughts are part of that ever-growing arena.

Blogs now serve as a platform for issues once considered taboo, or which encourage dialogue in the way of political opposition; they educate and they tear down stereotypes through discourse.

In fact, many governments realize this and are jumping on the bandwagon. In August, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad joined the budding international cyber community by starting his own blog.

Ahmadinejad’s first post consisted of his life story, Iran’s Islamic revolution and the Iran-Iraq War. The blog included a poll questioning whether Israel and the United States were trying to start a new world war, plus a forum for visitors of the site to post comments. The site was dubbed a political stunt by some of his critics since Iran exercises some of the strictest censorship practices.

Blogs that function as a form of “citizen journalism” usually lack the degree of credibility that the mainstream media has for the simple reason that it is often extremely difficult to verify the blog’s sources of information. This is augmented by the strong tendency of Internet users in the region to maintain their anonymity, whether for the sake of privacy, or in fear of government or societal retribution.

Illiteracy and language barriers will continue to hinder a full-on Internet boom. According to the United Nations, some 65 million people in the Arab World are illiterate. Many of the regionally based blogs cater to those who write in any number of languages, though with 250 million Arabic speakers worldwide, the Arabic Web sites have a strong following.

Government surveillance continues, meanwhile, particularly with regard to blogs that host independently produced video clips. Blogs are an alluring forum for religious extremist groups looking to spread their propaganda to a broader audience given the expansive outreach of the Internet. This is a legitimate concern for many Arab and Muslim countries that continue to face their own domestic wars against religious extremism.

Regardless of exhaustive efforts by governments in the Middle East and North Africa to crack down on illicit Internet usage, their efforts are no match for the infectiousness of the World Wide Web.

“Blogging is just one aspect of the vastly expanded access to information brought by the Internet and satellite television,” explains Cairo-based journalist and blogger Issandr El-Amrani in an e-mail interview. “The security services are fighting a losing battle, and I think for the most part they know it.”

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