Arab Bloggers Still Face Harassment, Persecution
Photo: Protesters gather under a poster showing Alaa Abd El Fattah, a blogger arrested by the military, during a demonstration at Tahrir Square in Cairo, Nov. 18, 2011. (photo by REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany)
The Yemeni blogger’s family appealed to civil society organizations that defend freedom and human rights. The family asked them to do their humanitarian duty and put an end to the rights violations against Saeedi.
The death of blogger Beheshti resulted in the dismissal of the Internet police chief in Tehran, according to the Iranian police’s website.
The website said that Iran’s police chief Gen. Ismail Ahmadi-Moghaddam sacked the Internet police chief in Tehran, Col. Saeed Shokrian, for negligence, weakness and not properly controlling his staff. A few days ago, Prosecutor General Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Eje’i announced that 35-year-old Beheshti, who was arrested on Oct. 30, was found dead in his prison cell on Nov. 3.
Deputy Mahdi Dotgari, a member of the investigative commission formed after Beheshti’s death, accused the Internet police of the crime and called for the ouster of its chief. Last week, Tehran’s prosecution office said that Beheshti’s death was probably caused by blows on sensitive body parts and psychological pressure, and that the investigation is ongoing. Amnesty International said that he may have died under torture after he filed a complaint for the injustices he suffered. Experts from the UN and several Western countries called on the Iranian government to shed light on the incident.
Another case of blogger persecution was when Syrian authorities charged 19-year-old student Tal Malouhi with spying for a foreign country and arrested her in December 2009.
Blogger harassment is not limited to Iran and Syria, but bloggers in Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia also face similar problems.
Even the French government passed legislation restricting public freedoms. The French law requires bloggers to reveal their identities. The government said that the law was necessary to fight terrorist groups. But those groups have rarely used blogs to communicate or plan terrorist operations.
Intellectuals and bloggers, especially those in countries that claim to be democratic and that respect freedom of expression, denounced that law and called on intellectual bodies to do the same.
Blogs, Facebook and Twitter have become very popular and are now a vital tool in confronting violations of human rights and freedom of expression.
One social network
The New York Times said that if Facebook were a country it would be the world’s fourth largest and ruled by someone who is 25. Facebook has 12 million profiles in the Arab world, where blogs occupy a leading position in the popular and alternative media. Given the importance of blogging in the Arab world, the Arabic Network For Human Rights Information issued a special report on the role of the Internet in supporting human rights issues in the Arab world. The title of the report was “One Social Network With A Rebellious Message” and has a special chapter on blogging. The report compared the Internet in the Arab world to a democratic snowball that no one can stop, despite attempts by some Arab countries to control it. The report examined the role played by Arab blogs in defending human rights and freedom of expression, demanding reform, and increasing political awareness, especially among the younger generation.
The report said that Arabic blogs emerged in 2004 and grew rapidly in 2005, especially in Egypt, Syria and Tunisia. Egyptian bloggers were pioneers in that area. They raised the margin of freedom of expression in Egypt despite the regime and its repressive tools. The spread of the blogging phenomenon eventually broke the fear barrier among many Internet users. Experts say that ever since the fear barrier collapsed, blogging has been effectively feeding the Arab Spring revolutions.
According to the Egyptian government’s Information Decision Support Center, there were 490,000 Arabic blogs in mid-2008. The most important website hosting Arabic blogs is maktoobblog.com, which in mid-2009 hosted 91,000 blogs from the Arab countries.
According to the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, which specializes in freedom of expression in the media and the Internet, there are about 600,000 Arabic blogs, of which only 25% are active.
One third of Arabic blogs are in Egypt, which has the largest number of blogs in the Arab world. This is followed by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Morocco. Egyptian bloggers are renowned for their bitter criticism of the government in spite of the latter’s repression. In Syria and Saudi Arabia, blogging mostly focuses on personal matters. Moroccan blogs are a mix of personal and political blogs. The most active bloggers belong to the 25-35 age group, which represents 45% of the Arab population; 9% of Arab bloggers are older than 35.
Like Arab society, the Arab blogosphere is male-dominated, with females at 34%. The highest female/male ratio of bloggers is in Egypt at 47%, followed by Saudi Arabia at 46%. More female bloggers write under pseudonyms than do male bloggers.
Arab bloggers have raised several matters that later became major public issues, such as torture in Egyptian police stations and the sexual harassment of girls in downtown Cairo. Egyptians bloggers filmed those violations and disseminated the videos on their blogs, which turned those blogs into bona fide news sources.
In 2007, a blogger in Morocco who goes by the pseudonym “Targuist Sniper” filmed police officers taking bribes from drivers. It became a major news story and the blogger was then harassed by the police.
The importance of bloggers in the Arab world and their role in raising public awareness has made them targets of government harassment.
In another context, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information listed on its website the Arab countries that block certain websites. Syria was at the top of the list.
WordPress is considered to be one of the best blogging technologies. According to the WordPress Organization, their software runs about 32 million blogs, 16 million of which are hosted on wordpress.com and 16.7 million are hosted elsewhere.
The WordPress Organization says that wordpress.com gets 260 million visits per month, and every day 500,000 blog entries and 400,000 comments are added.
About 66% of WordPress blogs are in English followed by Spanish at 8.7%. Only 0.3% are in Arabic because in the Arab world blogging is not widespread and Internet users are few compared to America and Europe. But blogs play a bigger role in the Arab world than they do in the West because the press is not free in the Middle East and the Arab Maghreb, according to L’Orient-Le Jour editor-in-chief Michel Thomas. He said that in the Arab world blogs enjoy more freedom than the press.
Even though the Internet is monitored in some Arab countries, where some websites are even blocked, journalists and intellectuals can still create blogs and enjoy a bigger margin of freedom than they do through traditional media. Thomas says that blogs complement the traditional press. Blogs cannot compete with the printed press because they cannot match the press on experience in certain areas and in its ability to cover certain issues. Moreover, the printed press provides an overall perspective while blogs are limited. For example, if you’re reading a blog on a particular subject you have to read linearly, from top to bottom, which does not give you an overall picture. But a newspaper or a magazine gives you an overall perspective.
Thomas says that blogs, in addition to providing an expression medium, also allow the linking of information, which cannot be done in newspapers. In other words, a newspaper report is not interactive while a blog post can provide links to related information, which opens a full range of opportunities. According to Thomas, Internet blogs technically allow a bigger reach than printed newspapers, whose copies are limited in numbers. If we compare blogs to online newspapers, we notice that visitor numbers are similar.
A newspaper’s website is owned by the newspaper and thus the website is subject to monitoring by the authorities just like the printed newspaper is. Bloggers do not have that problem. But in spite of that, there are examples in Syria and Egypt where the authorities have imprisoned bloggers. In some countries, blogging itself is a target of repression. In Lebanon, that is not the case because the press law there does not apply to blogging. In Lebanon, blogging is not governed by any law. So all in all blogging enjoys more freedom than the print media.
The Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University did a study on the Arabic language blogosphere to understand the views of Arab bloggers in the Middle East with regard to media, politics, religion, culture and international issues. The study is titled “Mapping the Arabic Blogosphere: Politics, Culture and Dissent” (published June 16, 2009). It analyzes the views of thousands of bloggers on a variety of topics and important issues. The study identified a base network of approximately 35,000 active Arabic language blogs, then created a network map of the 6,000 most connected blogs, of which 4,000 were hand-coded by a team of Arabic speakers.
The study showed that Arab bloggers are predominantly young and male. The study also found that the writing of most bloggers is centered on personal, diary-style observations. Those that write about politics tend to focus on issues within their own country and are often critical of domestic political leaders. Foreign political leaders are discussed less often and most commonly in terms more negative than positive. Domestic news is more popular than international news. But the one political issue that commands the most attention of bloggers across the Arab world is Palestine.
With respect to content, the study divided Arab bloggers into subgroups.
Egypt had the most bloggers in the Arab world. Egypt’s bloggers belong to several distinct sub-clusters, one of which is characterized by secular reformist bloggers, and another by members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt also has the highest number of women bloggers, although they tend to write anonymously. The number of Internet users in Egypt over the past year went from 10.92 million to 13 million. Egyptian bloggers played an important role in covering issues that were ignored by Egypt’s traditional media, such as police violence, sexual harassment and torture.
Saudi Arabia had the second highest number of bloggers, but they tended to discuss technological issues more than political ones.
There was a subgroup that the researchers called the “Levantine/English Bridge.” It is composed of bloggers located mainly in the Levant, which covers Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, and most bloggers in Iraq. Bloggers in that group frequently used English.