Arab and Iranian Bloggers: Emerging Threat to Official Line

On a visit to Tehran in spring 2006, Iranian-Canadian
blogger Hossein Derakhshan received a rather frosty sendoff from Iranian
authorities. His blog, dedicated to
discussions relating to Iranian politics, technology and pop culture, exposes a
number of political and social issues that were once — or perhaps still are –
unmentionables in Iran.

Citing a violation of Iran’s integrity, authorities
interrogated Derakhshan, then forced him to sign an apology for his blogging
activities before permitting him to leave, he describes in his blog.

Defiant of the warnings made by
Iranian authorities, Derakhshan left his homeland and continued to blog. With some 20,000 subscribers, his site is one
of the most widely read Persian-language blogs. After returning to Canada,
his first order of business was to tell the world about his experience.

“The well-behaved official … warned
me not to write anything about the incident in my blog or I’d be formally
prosecuted next time I was in Iran.
But I didn’t comply, since it was a silly and illogical demand,” he posted on his blog in September.

Over the past three years, blogging
in the Middle East has functioned as a
mechanism for free speech, but often at a high cost. In a land where oppression — political and
social — is often the norm, citizens across Iran and the Arab world are
frequently turning to blogs as a source for noncompliance — and many
governments are not having it.

“[Internet] is a new threat just
the way Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and BBC were a threat in the post World
War II years,” says Nancy Beth Jackson, a journalist and professor at Columbia
University’s School of International Affairs.

Blogging is believed to have begun
in the Middle East in 2003 when an Iraqi
using the cyber-ego “Salam Pax” (“Salam” is Arabic and “pax” is Latin for “peace.”) gained notoriety when he began publishing a blog about his life
during the invasion.

“One day, like in Afghanistan, those journalists will get bored
and go write about Syria or Iran,” read a
post by Salam on his site, titled “Where is Raed?” on
May 30, 2003. “Iraq will be
off your media radar. Out of sight, out of mind. Lucky you, you have that
option. I have to live it.”

Since then, Middle Easterners are
emerging as citizen journalists, attending rallies and protests, then posting
articles, photographs and video on their sites and the sites of others.

But it’s been a slow crawl because
of government interventions and social setbacks. Countries with larger
populations, such as Egypt
and Iran,
have extremely low Internet user numbers, with only 7 percent and 11 percent,
respectively. Even Internet usage in
wealthier nations like the United Arab Emirates
and Qatar remain low at 35
percent and 27 percent,
respectively (especially when compared to Israel’s 51 percent, for
example). There are some 32 million Internet users in the
Arab world (and Iran),
out of a combined population of 347 million. That accounts for about 3 percent of the
total Internet community worldwide, according to data from Internet World Stats, an
online research group.

Those numbers are an increase, however. In 2002, the Arab world (and Iran) had only about
9 million users,
according to a study by Madar, another online research group, and Reporters Without Borders. That accounted for 1.6 percent of the total Internet
community worldwide.

Blogging has given many in the Arab
world and beyond the chance to delve into subjects their societies may frown
upon. Iran
and Syria
are classic examples, as their regimes impose domineering ideologies on
society.

Jad Najjar, a Lebanese-American who
made his mark blogging under the cyber ego “Con Man”

about the summer 2006 Lebanese-Israeli war from New York, explains that blogging lends a
voice to those under the watchful eye of Arab despotism. “In the Arab world,
the implication can’t be more extraordinary: Many of those societies are so
closed and oppressed. Blogging can help speed up democratization or can help
make the society more free or liberal.”

“Blogging anonymously helped many
to criticize their society, culture, politicians, system, government, taboos,
etc., something they never got the chance to do before,” Haitham Sabbah, host
of Bahrain-based Sabbah’s Blog
told me in an e-mail interview.

In a study conducted in 2005 by Reporters
Without Borders, a number of countries in the region were dubbed “Enemies of
the Internet.”

Top offenders often implement crackdowns
and censorship on independent news publications, as well as chat rooms and
blogs. This is usually done in an
attempt to stifle the spread of political dissidence or to prevent people from
challenging Islamic authority via the preaching of other religions or by use of
sexual content. Harassment and
intimidation are common, and imprisonment of bloggers is a growing trend.

“[The government] is pre-empting against the
Internet because it is an expansion of the public sphere which breaks their
monopoly or influence over public opinion,” Derakhshan, the Iranian-Canadian
blogger, suggested to me in a live chat conversation.

In Saudi Arabia,
aggressive tactics are increasingly being used to cap the spread of online
pornography, drug use, conversion of Muslims by other religious groups and
gambling via blogs or chat rooms, according to a study [PDF] conducted by the OpenNet
Initiative
, an online research group.
The study adds that lesser actions are taken on blogs promoting
homosexuality, women’s rights, alcohol use and religious extremism, and there
was a noticeable decrease in the filtering of human rights Web sites in Saudi
Arabia between 2002 and 2004.

Since Tunisia’s President Zine El-Abidine
Ben Ali has a solid monopoly on Internet access in his country, the government
has a tight grip on virtually all online activity. All Internet cafés are state-run. According to the OpenNet Initiative and Human
Rights Watch
, Internet cafés are required by Tunisian law to have on-site
monitors to prohibit the access of sites that are either sexually — or
politically — explicit.

Blogs relating to Tunisia do exist, but any blog coming from
within its borders generally discusses travel — blogs from outside Tunisia are
filtered. As described in a study
released by OpenNet Initiative
in 2005, the state’s Internet service providers purchase access from Tunisia’s Internet agency, which combs through the
sites and blocks those deemed deviant by government standards.

In Egypt, award-winning blogger and opposition activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah made international
headlines in 2006 following his arrest at a pro-democracy demo after he managed to
smuggle handwritten blogs out of prison with his wife. Traditionally, the arrest of political
dissidents in Egypt
often meant the temporary disappearance of the detainee.

Abdel-Fattah’s entries from behind
bars offered people both in his political movement and around the world a
window into this secret underworld — and almost in real time. The blog even featured illustrations detailing
the prison layout
, sketched by another imprisoned activist and passed along to
Abdel-Fattah’s wife during visiting hours.

“Information
is power,” notes Jackson, the journalist and professor at Columbia University. “That’s why Arab regimes — any government — have
to be worried about the Internet. More
information of all kinds and all degrees of ‘truth’ are now available.”

Gone are the days when the closest
thing to free speech was the hushed banter of men (and only men) at qahwas (cafés). Now, anyone with access to a computer
has access to a world of ideas — and their own thoughts are part of that
ever-growing arena.

Blogs now serve as a platform for
issues once considered taboo, or which encourage dialogue in the way of
political opposition; they educate and they tear down stereotypes through
discourse.

In fact, many governments realize
this and are jumping on the bandwagon.
In August, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad joined the budding
international cyber community by starting his own blog.

Ahmadinejad’s first post consisted
of his life story, Iran’s
Islamic revolution and the Iran-Iraq War.
The blog included a poll questioning whether Israel
and the United States
were trying to start a new world war, plus a forum for visitors of the site to
post comments. The site was dubbed a
political stunt by some of his critics since Iran exercises some of the
strictest censorship practices.

Blogs that function as a form of “citizen
journalism” usually lack the degree of credibility that the mainstream media
has for the simple reason that it is often extremely difficult to verify the
blog’s sources of information. This is
augmented by the strong tendency of Internet users in the region to maintain
their anonymity, whether for the sake of privacy, or in fear of government or
societal retribution.

Illiteracy and language barriers
will continue to hinder a full-on Internet boom. According to the United Nations, some 65
million people in the Arab World are illiterate. Many of the regionally based blogs cater to
those who write in any number of languages, though with 250 million Arabic speakers
worldwide, the Arabic Web sites have a strong following.

Government surveillance continues,
meanwhile, particularly with regard to blogs that host independently produced
video clips. Blogs are an alluring forum
for religious extremist groups looking to spread their propaganda to a broader
audience given the expansive outreach of the Internet. This is a legitimate
concern for many Arab and Muslim countries that continue to face their own domestic
wars against religious extremism.

Regardless of exhaustive efforts by
governments in the Middle East and North Africa
to crack down on illicit Internet usage, their efforts are no match for the infectiousness
of the World Wide Web.

“Blogging is just
one aspect of the vastly expanded access to information brought by the Internet
and satellite television,” explains Cairo-based journalist and blogger Issandr El-Amrani
in an e-mail interview. “The security
services are fighting a losing battle, and I think for the most part they know
it.”

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