Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Blogging for Freedom in the Middle East

One of the tremendous things about blogs is the way in which they have enabled those living under repressive regimes to speak out. Nowhere is this more true than in the Middle East, as this recent article from the Christian Science Monitor makes clear:

The number of blogs worldwide has doubled in the past five months, and a new blog is created every second, according to a recent report by the blog-watchers Technorati. The Middle East is witnessing its share of that growth.

Many Arab bloggers are tackling sensitive political and human rights issues rarely broached by the state-controlled media. They are proving to be a powerful source of information, capable of reaching a few hundred like-minded activists, or of rallying international attention to a cherished cause.

After government supporters attacked and beat protesters in late May, Egypt's blogging community led the effort to publicize what had happened.

"I had never heard the word blogger until May 25," says Rabab al-Mahdi, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo, and an opposition activist. "But now I know them well because of all the amazing coverage they had of the protests. My friends overseas all followed what happened through the blogs, because they have more credibility than the mainstream media."

Activists in Egypt rely on blogs like Fattah's to find out the time and place of future demonstrations, to learn who has been arrested and where they have been taken, and to debate the effectiveness of opposition strategies. In short order, Egypt's bloggers have become a political force, capable of more than merely commenting from the sidelines.

Egypt is not the only Middle East country that has seen a blogging boom:

The new threat is only beginning to dawn on Middle Eastern regimes, long accustomed to tightly regulating the flow of information. Bloggers and online journalists have been imprisoned in Iran, Syria, Bahrain, and Tunisia. Several others closely monitor and restrict access to Web content. Media observers expect the region's bloggers to face growing intolerance from governments.

"In the Middle East, the mechanisms of oppression are already there, and the number of bloggers is growing," says Curt Hopkins, director of the eight-month-old Committee to Protect Bloggers. "There's going to be a convergence in the not too distant future with a lot of cracking down on bloggers."

In 2001, Hossein Derakhshan, an Iranian emigrant to Canada, published directions on how to make a blog in the Farsi language. Seven months later there were 1,200 blogs in Iran.

Today, there are an estimated 75,000 to 100,000 Iranians blogging, including former vice president Mohammad Ali Abtahi. During the 2003 student uprisings in Iran, Internet blogs and chat rooms allowed students to mobilize, organize, and communicate with one another, free of prying government eyes.

Iran has since adopted "one of the world's most substantial Internet censorship regimes," according to the Open Net Initiative, a partnership of researchers from Harvard, Cambridge University, and the University of Toronto.

Just as tape recorders and photocopiers helped enable dissidents to spread word of their cause in previous decades, so blogs and the web will hopefully play a similar role in helping rescue the Middle East from its seemingly endless cycle of tyranny.


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