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Iraqi Bloggers Revel In Free Speech

There are new voices in Iraq, bursting with opinions that once were only whispered in private. They are the voices of private citizens who have discovered the Internet as a means of global communication. These people are writing personal Internet "blog" journals that are read and reacted to both inside Iraq and around the world.

One Iraqi blogger told VOA "It offers you an opportunity to communicate with people. There are no censors." Another said "The right of the people to express their discontent is great! That is freedom that wasn't available before." A third commented "This is a great opportunity to be like the bridge between two cultures."

Rebecca McKinnon at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society says these bloggers provide their readers with an alternative Iraqi perspective. "We feel that these web logs provide a human perspective from the ground that is unique and different from what you are going to get reading a newspaper article or watching a TV report about what's happening," she says.

A Baghdad resident named "Omar" says he wants the world to know that the situation in his country is in some ways better than what is often portrayed by the conventional media. "The news outlets bring bad news always: murders, a poor economy, mistakes," he says, adding "We wanted to tell the other part of the story. It's not all black and it's not all white. We want people to get the right picture!"

Another Baghdad blogger, "Khalid," says he tries to give Americans and other westerners a view of Iraq that is unfiltered. "When I watch CNN or listen to any Western media, it's like another reality," he says. "So I want those people everywhere to know that they're not being told the truth. And most bloggers who write in English have started writing because they don't feel that the media is doing their job right."

"Raed" is an Iraqi living in Jordan who blogs about the situation back home. He says one of his main purposes in writing is to tell others, especially in the West, that Iraqis don't want or need outside "management" in rebuilding their country. "We want to prove more and more that Iraqis are capable of administrating their country by themselves," he told VOA, adding "They can handle the reconstruction of the country and they have very good experience in managing their country by themselves and solving all of the problems. This is one of the most important messages when they read our blog."

For people writing blogs in Iraq, the freedom to express themselves about political and social matters can come with a price. Because of the ongoing turmoil in the country, putting one's full name on an Internet or opinion page can bring on violent reprisals. That's why it is customary for Iraqi writers like "Omar" to use only a first name. "I need to be anonymous. I need to keep myself safe and secure. And I should not reveal my name because I could be targeted by the terrorists," he says.

But another Baghdad blogger named "Ali" says that while he is careful about revealing his full identity, he feels that hiding too much goes against the sense of freedom he gets as a blog writer. "They're afraid, and they have the right to be afraid. I am afraid too," he says. "But, I think that if I keep doing this without showing my real identity I will be losing my freedoms to those people [terrorists]. I don't want my fears to limit my freedoms again because we had a lot of that in the past [under Saddam Hussein]."

Much of the blogging in Iraq is directed toward people outside the country. Because of that, English-language blogs outnumber those in Arabic by ten-to-one. Analyst Eric Larson at the Rand Corporation in California says it is not easy for these writers to reach fellow Iraqis via the Internet. "Most of the statistics that come out of Iraq suggest that something like only one percent of the population actually have access to the Internet, although there is growth in the number of Internet cafes," he says. While one percent seems small, it's still a tenfold increase since last year, according to some observers.

Because Internet access is still limited, Baghdad blogger "Najeeb" does not believe these writings are presently molding and shaping public opinion there. "To think that it is having a major influence on the thinking of the people or on the trends taking place in the country or the direction of politics, I wouldn't say so. I wouldn't think it is."

But as Internet use in Iraq grows, the influence of bloggers within the country is also expected to increase and bolster an open, democratic society. Professor Tom Lansner of New York's Columbia University agrees. "It's broadening the conversation," he says. "And that's very, very important in any open society, that many voices are heard. And I think that we will be learning much more from people who typically do not have access to modern communications. And we'll be having a much more two-way conversation."

According to Friends of Democracy, a non-profit organization training Iraqi bloggers and registering hundreds of new websites, a newly developed Arabic software is opening doors across the Middle East. Judging by the requests Friends of Democracy is receiving from the region, the strategy of promoting democracy through the Internet appears to be working.

This report originally aired on VOA's News Now's Focus program. For other Focus reports, click here

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    Jeffrey Young

    Jeffrey Young is a Senior Analyst in VOA’s Global English TV.  He has spent years covering global strategic issues, corruption, the Middle East, and Africa. During most of 2013, he was on special assignment in Baghdad and elsewhere with the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR).  Previous VOA activities include video journalism and the “Focus” news analysis unit. He also does journalist training overseas for VOA.