During the Global Voices Citizen Media Summit 2008–sponsored by Harvard University and Google in Budapest, Hungary, in late June, and attended by over 200 bloggers, human rights activists, writers, journalists, hackers and IT experts from every corner of the globe–one participant joked that it was worthwhile buying domain names for dissidents likely to be imprisoned. “Just get them with ‘Free (insert name here).com,’ ” he said.
A recent University of Washington report found that 64 people have been arrested for blogging their political views since 2003. Three times as many people were arrested for blogging about political issues in 2007 than in 2006. More than half of the arrests since 2003 were made in Iran, China and Egypt. Internet censorship has become a cause with global relevance.
I was invited to present a paper at the two-day event that covered the research for my forthcoming book, The Blogging Revolution, on the Internet in repressive regimes, plans by Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to combat Internet child pornography, and my work with Amnesty International Australia on its campaign against Chinese web filtering, Uncensor.
The goal of Global Voices, started in late 2004, is to provide insights into non-Western nations to Western audiences through country-specific blogs. The last years have seen its agenda expand to include a translation service for multiple languages, Global Voices Lingua , support for minorities in developing nations (the Rising Voices project) and Voices without Votes, the chance for global citizens to comment on the 2008 US presidential election campaign in every country except America.
The Budapest summit featured bloggers and activists from places as diverse as Madagascar, India, Belarus, Kenya, Pakistan, Singapore, Bangladesh, Armenia, Egypt, Iran and China. It was constantly stressed that although the Internet can’t bring democratic reform on its own– only citizens of a country have the right to determine a political system, not outside forces–it is allowing on-the-ground organizations to challenge corruption, fraudulent elections and police-led torture. Populations are being empowered.
Although everybody I met came from varied backgrounds, from the elites to indigenous communities using new technology to find a voice in a country like Bolivia, the sense of community was palpable. What can an Australian journalist like myself really understand about democratic struggles in Iran and Bangladesh? By sharing stories, it soon became clear that many speakers related to others on the opposite side of the globe. Tools such as YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, blogs, e-mail, FeedBurner and text messaging were common denominators used by a minority online community to challenge state-run, media lies.
Nobody talked about revolution or massive social change, but rather the ability to become engaged in a process usually reserved for an unelected class. In Morocco, for example, bloggers filmed corrupt policemen taking bribes and posted them on YouTube. “Targuist Sniper” inspired many others to act similarly, and the short videos have been watched millions of times. One female Egyptian blogger posted photos of police torture by tagging her entries with the names of the accused officials. Some of this evidence was used in a court of law. Two close US allies were forced to publicly respond to internal pressure.
Numerous sessions revealed insights into societies all too easily categorized as oppressive. Iranian exile Hamid Tehrani revealed that the regime, now with one of the most effective web-filtering systems outside of China, bans many anti-George W. Bush sites such as Juan Cole’s Informed Comment and The Huffington Post but allows a neocon and prowar site such as Pajamas Media to remain uncensored. It was a typically illogical move.
Only last week Iranian members of parliament announced a draft bill that aims to “toughen punishment for disturbing mental security in society.” The text of the bill would add “establishing websites and weblogs promoting corruption, prostitution and apostasy” to the list of crimes punishable by execution.
The perception of the Internet in various countries remains troubling. Singaporean blogger Au Wai Pang said that the tool is “free” in his country, “but people behave like it is not.” Self-censorship is a key barrier to open debate. Au reminded the Budapest audience that technology isn’t always the answer to censorship issues. “How do you change people’s minds,” he asked, “[for] many who don’t believe in a society with free speech?” Nothing beats face-to-face interaction, but the web has become a space where citizens can voice their opinions and have them respected often for the first time.
A number of prominent Kenyan bloggers, including Ory Okolloh and Daudi Were, discussed the role of new technology in the aftermath of the stolen election in late 2007. With only 7-10 percent web penetration in the country, bloggers on election day woke up early to film people waiting patiently in line to vote. Some were even embedded with foreign observers and could immediately report, via SMS and Twitter, irregularities in the counting process. International support in the Diaspora was crucial to highlight this relatively stable nation descend into ethnic chaos.
Blogger Luis Carlos Diaz, from Venezuela, debunked many of the Western myths about President Hugo Chávez. “The problem is we have too much petroleum,” Diaz lamented. Although critical of many of his policies, Diaz said that Chávez was a democratically elected leader who wasn’t quashing freedom of speech. “Voting is a sport in Venezuela,” he said. To remain awake during the weekly eight-hour diatribes by Chávez on state television, bloggers were providing an alternative perspective on issues that matter to average citizens, such as poverty, housing and education. Diaz said he’d recently spoken to workers whose job is to transcribe Chávez’s speeches. They usually last around 3,000 pages every week.
Unsurprisingly, China featured prominently in the sessions. Rebecca MacKinnon, former CNN journalist and now academic in Hong Kong, stressed that debate had to progress past who is more “brainwashed,” Western or Chinese audiences. One of the key translators of Chinese blog posts for Global Voices, John Kennedy, challenged his audience by asking whether the growing Western anger against the Chinese people was justified. Was nationalism as great an influence as claimed? Was self-determination for Tibet so unacceptable in the motherland? Are Chinese netizens any more thin-skinned than Westerners when attacked online for their opinions?
Despite these valid questions, one of China’s leading dissidents, Isaac Mao, wished that the Chinese mob mentality online on issues of national importance wasn’t so strong. He stressed that although the concept of freedom of speech is paramount in the West, many other societies place greater emphasis on the rule of law and fighting corruption.
Mao, who launched Digital Nomads to host hundreds of independent blogs away from prying authoritarian rule, feared citizens in prosperous, Western citizens rarely understood the “crimes of omission” in their own societies. “They don’t get why the non-Western world wants to talk about issues that the Western largely ignores,” Mao said, “such as poverty and environmental degradation.” A major theme of the event was highlighted. Too few bloggers in the West were bridging the information gap between different societies and preferred to preach rather than listen.
The role of blogs in China is more than simply reacting to perceived Western slights. Instead, many netizens may not be calling for the dissolution of the Communist Party or planning a revolution, but they’re been given far more freedoms today than five years ago. Mirroring what I found during my research in China last year, very few Chinese bloggers appear upset with the excessive filtering (though some are unaware what they’re missing out on.) This doesn’t mean, however, that the apparent blocking of parts of Facebook isn’t annoying for many users or the creeping Olympic crackdown.
It was encouraging to hear from IT insiders that many employees of companies such as Google and Yahoo feel distinctly uncomfortable with the role their companies play in a country such as China and regularly leak material about their actions anonymously and develop tools to allow an e-mail program such as Gmail to be used securely, away from the prying eyes of censorious regimes.
The Budapest conference showed yet again that the mainstream media remains woefully under-prepared and unwilling to cover vast swaths of the world. Blogging and citizen journalism therefore provides an essential alternative to the daily obsession in much of our media with re-printing government and corporate spin as news.