With an estimated 18 million blogs chattering in cyberspace, some countries are putting up barriers to contain outspoken bloggers and curb political dissent.
Mojtaba Sainnejad's crime was simple. Last February, he criticized the Iranian government on his personal Internet journal, or “blog,” for arresting three fellow bloggers. He has since been sentenced to prison for insulting the country’s supreme leader.
According to the Committee to Protect Bloggers, Iran has arrested more than 20 bloggers during the past year for publicly criticizing the regime.
In Saudi Arabia, which routinely blocks more than 400,000 Internet sites, authorities only recently allowed access to some popular sites that host blogs and provide tools for would-be bloggers.
Fighting the Blogs
But Ethan Zuckerman, a research fellow at The Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, says blocking access to undesirable sites compares favorably to other practices employed by many restrictive governments. He adds, “This, in some ways, is much less scary than what happened in some other countries, including Iran and Tunisia, where people have been detained, arrested, held for days, weeks and longer for content that they had written on their blogs.”
In China, authorities recently introduced new regulations for Internet control, prohibiting what they call “material that goes against state security and public interest.”
According to Julien Paine, Director of the Internet Freedom Desk for the Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders, China is the worst offender in Internet censorship. But he notes that bloggers in many other countries are also struggling to keep their voices heard.
“We have problems in Vietnam. We have problems in Burma, North Korea. We have problems in Zimbabwe, Cuba. Wherever there’s no democracy, where there are repressive regimes, you can be sure they will try to monitor the Internet and censor it.”
The Hazards of Blogging
Ironically, the hazards of blogging under repressive regimes only encourage bloggers to do more. In Zimbabwe, for example, where Robert Mugabe has ruled for more than a quarter-century, bloggers openly discuss the prospects of rebellion.
Curt Hopkins, Director of the Committee to Protect Bloggers, says President Mugabe’s tight grip on the media has backfired. “Mugabe went to such incredible lengths to shut down all independent print media, to monopolize all broadcast media. And now he’s got 50-to-100 Zimbabweans who are blogging, some of whom are former journalists who no longer have jobs. So they bring all their training, their eye and their ability to be professional, and they put them on these blogs. And these blogs, instead of being passed around Harare, are being passed around the world.”
Incongnito in Cyberspace
Bloggers enjoy the option of writing anonymously, and need only be reliable and consistent to establish credibility. Most experts, including Kurt Opsahl of the Electronic Frontier Foundation in
San Francisco, urge bloggers not to reveal any personal information on their web sites. Mr. Opsahl goes on to say, “Blog anonymously. That’s their best protection. It’s to be able to put their voice into public debate, but not tie it to their identity so that they can reduce the risk of retaliation.”
Curt Hopkins of the Committee to Protect Bloggers adds that unless bloggers want to draw attention to themselves, they need to do some very basic things before criticizing their countries’ policies.
“Never use your real name. Never use identifying details. Always register anonymously for your blogs as well as for your e-mail accounts. And then investigate some of the more technical options for anonymity, such as the Circumventor Internet software program and various Internet proxy servers.”
Ironically, many of the same technologies that allow bloggers to hide in cyberspace also allow governments to block Internet sites and muzzle free speech. For example, the OpenNet Initiative, a partnership between Harvard, Cambridge, and Toronto universities notes that Iran has been using U-S technology to censor Internet content.
And Reporters Without Borders says China tends to share its censorship technology, including phone-tapping equipment, with like-minded regimes, such as Fidel Castro’s Cuba.
Blogging for Democracy
But most analysts agree that blogs tend to flourish in more restrictive countries. And Ethan Zuckerman of Harvard University says blogs ultimately further the cause of democracy.
“Democracy,” says Mr. Zuckerman, “is about deliberation. “We tend to think that it’s about voting. But voting is the last step in the process. What bloggers are fighting for is that little step of allowing people to deliberate and debate before they get to a point where they’re capable of voting. And even in societies where voting is not an option at this point, deliberation is critical and blogs are great for that process.”
Despite concerns over Internet censorship in repressive countries, democracy and human rights advocates warn that the safety of bloggers comes first, no matter how valuable their work. Most analysts say that even though outspoken bloggers may be more effective working for democracy in their own countries, some are ultimately forced to flee their homelands and the wrath of their own governments.
This story was first broadcast on the English news program, “VOA News Now.” For other “Focus” reports, Click Here.