By William Fisher
In democracies throughout the world, ‘blogging’ – setting up personal websites, known as weblogs, able to receive comments from readers – has grown exponentially over the past few years.
In the United States, there are literally millions of ‘blogs’. Their growth has been accelerated by five main factors. First, the number of home computers has grown enormously. Some 61% of adults in the U.S. have Internet access at home and 71% have computers. Second, access to the online technology for creating a blog has become easier and simpler. Third, the U.S. has a relatively high literacy rate. Fourth, for the past decade – but particularly after the historic and controversial presidential election of 2000 –Americans have become increasingly cynical about reporting by newspapers, radio, and broadcast, cable and satellite television controlled by giant corporations. Finally, America has become a deeply divided nation politically and socially. Citizens with widely divergent points of view have found blogging a way to express their ideas and join or create communities of like-minded bloggers.
When satellite television arrived, it was hailed by journalism watchers as the ‘the new media’. But, predictably, its novelty was short-lived. Now, there are indications that, over the next decade, the Internet generally, and blogging in particular, may become the ‘new new media’ – America’s primary source of news.
However, it’s not there yet – a recent survey Gallup for CNN showed that only one in four Americans are either very familiar or somewhat familiar with blogs. So the jury is still out on whether virtual reality will replace Gutenberg. However, trends point in that direction.
Not yet in the Greater Middle East, though there are many parallels. For example, blogging technology is available to anyone with access to the Internet, and content can easily be created in Arabic, Hebrew, Persian and other languages. While home computer ownership is still embryonic, there is pretty solid anecdotal evidence of deep suspicion of government-owned ‘mainstream media’ that spurred growth in the ‘blogosphere’ elsewhere.
But there is at least one critical difference. In most of the countries in the Greater Middle East, using a personal weblog to express political dissent can land you in jail as easily as taking part in an unauthorized political protest in the public square.
Iran is one of the worst offenders. Recently, an Iranian weblogger was jailed for 14 years for ‘spying and aiding foreign counter-revolutionaries’ after using his blog to criticize the arrest of other online journalists.
Despite the risks, an estimated 75,000 Iranians among its five million Internet users maintain online ‘blogs’. Especially among middle class youth, they have become an important way for Iranians to express dissatisfaction.
As in Iran, most countries of the region impose varying degrees of restriction on weblogs.
Saudi Arabia, where authorities block some 400,000 websites, is among the most restrictive. It is unclear how many blogsites there are in the Kingdom, but those that are accessible focus largely on political dissent.
Typical is a site called “The Religious Policeman”. One recent posting said,
“What Reforms? There aren't any Reforms! The government promised to set up a higher commission on women’s affairs, guaranteed women participation in the recent National Dialogue Forum….and in the National Human Rights Commission…the National Dialogue Forum… agreed to change nothing, the ‘team photo’ had no women in it, anyone with any sense left in tears.”
In Iraq today, there are hundreds of blogsites, most run by Iraqis, some by American and other coalition soldiers. They are communist, monarchist, Kurdish, Assyrian, Islamist, Shiite, Sunni, nationalist and secularist. Their political positions range from full support for the U.S. invasion and occupation to rabid calls for jihad against the Americans.
For example, on the one-year commemoration of the start of the Iraq war, a 24-year-old woman computer programmer wrote in her "Baghdad Burning" blog, "Occupation Day, April 9, 2003: The day we sensed that the struggle in Baghdad was over and the fear of war was nothing compared to the new fear we were currently facing. It was the day I saw my first American tank roll grotesquely down the streets of Baghdad - through a residential neighborhood. And that was April 9 for me and millions of others...and the current Governing Council want us to remember April 9 fondly and hail it our 'National Day' ... a day of victory ... but whose victory?"
Mona El Tahawy, a columnist at the daily Asharq Al Awsat, writes that bloggers in Iran and Iraq “have inspired others in the Arab world…Despite working in an elite medium, requiring a computer and literacy”, she said, “bloggers are the voice of the true Arab street, especially the young.”
But free expression comes at a price.
In Egypt, authorities have tightened their control of the country’s 600,000 web users. The webmaster of the English-language Al Ahram Weekly was sentenced to a year in prison for posting a sexually-explicit poem, and a 19-year-old student was sentenced to a month in jail for "putting out false information" after reporting a serial killer on the loose in Cairo.
In Syria, one blogger asked others to sign an online petition addressed to “The White House” and “The Elysées” (palace). “With the killing of Hariri in Lebanon” it said, “Syrian Ba'athists are out of control. Who's next? Syria is inciting civil war in Lebanon.”
Another Syrian, calling himself “Kafka”, wrote that President Assad’s speech “made the Syrian people forget that (he) “never cared to give a damn about us since he came to power….”
In Tunisia, President Zine el-Abidine ben Ali has been determined to stamp out all cyber-dissidence. Among many others, a prominent lawyer was arrested for posting an article online. In Bahrain, two online forum moderators were arrested. Nonetheless, a Bahraini blogsite, called “Sabbah's Blog” was busy organizing a “Middle East Bloggers Meetup”. Dozens of enthusiastic comments were posted by readers.
Even in Afghanistan, poorest of the poor, blogging is beginning to catch on. One Afghan blog reports, “During the Taliban we didn’t have the Internet, but now there are about 25 net cafes in Kabul, and also some in Herat, Kandahar, and Balkh provinces. People are really interested to use the Internet but it’s too expensive…only rich people can afford it.”
If political dissent via blogging has not yet risen to the level of “new, new media” in the western democracies, it is at least not yet constrained by government regulation (though Congress and the Justice Department have floated various proposals to do just that). In fact, there may be a bizarre inverse relationship between the suppression of free expression and the proliferation of blogs. In the U.S., the number of blogs has increased significantly during the Bush Administration, when millions of Americans feel passionately that their civil liberties are being eroded by the ‘war on terror’. That outcry has generated equally passionate response from bloggers on the right. Maybe the lesson for heads of state in the Middle East is: Increase freedom of speech and reduce the challenge and expense of having to deal with this cyber uproar.