Friday, November 06, 2009

Most Happy Fella!

By William Fisher

My friends will probably be surprised to hear me say, “I’m a really lucky guy. I’m happy!” They’ll think I’ve developed a marshmallow brain.

Well, maybe so. But here it is: “I’m a really lucky guy!” And happy about it!

And the source of these newfound feelgoods? No, I didn’t win the lottery. And, no, I didn’t win a Pulitzer either.

So why?

I wake up at five every morning and read six or seven papers online. And they are always full of depressing stuff. Serial killers. Child rapists. Parents murdering their children. Unmanned drones dropping bombs on innocent villagers. Demagogic rants from people too stupid or too craven to get elected to Congress, but elected anyway (by us). Health care prescriptions from folks not shamed by the idea of making a profit off someone else’s poor health. And authoritative nostrums for mending all our foreign policy ailments from fulltime professional critics who never had the responsibility of mending anything.

So this makes me happy?

No. The thing that makes me happy is that I am able to read six or seven newspapers. I’m happy that these newspapers – or, these days, blogs – give people with whom I may disagree profoundly a platform from which to broadcast their ideas. And I’m happy that in the country I live in there’s no government censor, no invisible hand guiding me toward safe self-censorship, and no knock at the door at two in the morning.

The Gestapo didn’t come to deliver your milk. Neither did the Stasi. Or the KGB. Or the apparatchiks of the Middle East despots we continue to fawn over and look the other way because they still have the black gold we need to run our country.

How easy it is for us Americans to forget that in most of the rest of the world those who scribble their way to a living aren’t so lucky. The world’s jails are full of men and women who never dreamed it could be a crime to voice an opinion, no matter how controversial. Or others who knew all too well that there might be a price to be paid, but voiced the opinion anyway.

So this morning I read that Omid Mir Sayafi, a 29-year-old blogger who had been jailed for 30 months for insulting Iran’s ruling clerics, died in Tehran's main prison. The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, which advocates for activists in the country, reports that Sayafi suffered from severe depression and had taken extra doses of medication. The group blames Iran's government for unsafe conditions in its prisons.

Then I read that the Committee to Protect Journalists is calling on the Iranian authorities to release the many journalists detained in the aftermath of the disputed presidential election and to lift the onerous press restrictions that are choking information at a time when the country and the world most need it.

Then authorities instruct the BBC's bureau chief to leave the country. The signals of the BBC and U.S.-government backed radio and televisions stations remain jammed. The government shuts the Tehran offices of a major Arab satellite station -- the Dubai-based satellite channel Al-Arabiya – indefinitely. Newspaper censorship is widespread, an Iranian journalism group says..

But the repression is not limited to Iran. It’s happening wherever journalists feel constrained to speak the truth. In the Middle East, the jails of Egypt and many other countries with authoritarian regimes are filled with journalists and bloggers who strayed off the government-dictated path. And it’s not just Egypt; Saudi Arabia has one of the most extensive – and expensive technological systems for selectively blocking Internet access, perhaps second only to the setup in China, which is among the world’s major Internet censors. And in Russia, outspoken journalists just get murdered.

But I confess to being drawn toward the outrages in Egypt, because I used to live and work there. I am struck by the blogger who is sentenced to a four-year jail sentence for calling President Hosni Mubarak a “symbol of dictatorship,” and Al-Azhar University a “university of terror.”

“If we let people like him off without punishment, a wildfire will blaze up that consumes everything in its path,” prosecutor Mohammed Dawud warns. He adds, ”Exactly that is what civil rights activists dream of, many of whom pin their hopes on a grass-roots digital democratization initiated by the country’s bloggers.”

And in Alexandria, blogger Abdel Karim Nabil Suleiman is taken from his home and detained by State Security agents, Bloggers who visited his family report that the family believes Abdel Karim’s political opinions and writings for several outlets, including Copts United, are behind the arrest. Suleiman is a 21-year-old law student at al-Azhar University

(Al-Azhar University is the center of Arabic literature and Sunni Islamic learning in the world and the world's second oldest surviving degree granting university. Its mission includes the propagation of Islamic religion and culture and its Islamic scholars (ulemas) render edicts (fatwas) on disputes submitted to them from all over the Sunni Islamic world regarding proper conduct for Muslim individuals or societies. Al-Azhar also trains Egyptian government appointed preachers in proselytization (da'wa).)

Exactly three years ago, the newly-elected president of the Union of Egyptian Journalists proclaimed that President Hosni Mubarak had promised to abolish prison sentences for journalists in connection with their work. Three years later, nothing has changed.

Despite all the recent rhetoric to the contrary, thirty-five offences, including defamation and insulting President Mubarak or a foreign head of state, continue to be punishable by imprisonment. The ceiling for certain fines has been doubled. In cases of very large fines, journalists can be imprisoned as debtors if they are not in a position to pay the fine immediately.

Prominent journalists are currently being prosecuted for articles they have written and are facing imprisonment. They have been sentenced to a year in prison and fines of 10,000 Egyptian pounds (1,400 euros) for insulting President Mubarak.

Egyptian journalists working for foreign news media have also not been spared. An Al-Jazeera reporter was prosecuted on a charge of “endangering the national interest and the country’s reputation” in connection with a documentary she was making about torture in Egyptian prisons.

Nor has much changed elsewhere in the world’s truth-repression zones. There is no Get Out of Jail Free card for journalists – citizen and otherwise – who happen to have been born in one of these zones. And, sadly to say, they are increasing.

We are not in such a zone. Our newspaper industry may be disappearing, but we’re in the process of reinventing the information business. And ranting and raving – misinformation, disinformation -- is simply a part of that process. Exasperating as that may be!

OK, I acknowledge that I would be happier if those I disagree with at least expressed themselves rationally. And, yes, maybe I could live without the Glenn Becks and Michele Bachmanns of the world.

But, then, where would I go for belly laughs?

Well, I guess there’s always Rush Limbaugh.

But I’m happy enough just knowing I’m one of the lucky ones who doesn’t have to worry about the door knock at 2 A.M. And happy Glenn Beck doesn’t have to worry either.