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Wednesday, February 22, 2006

In the Arab world, a blog can mean prison

In democratic countries, personal Web sites known as Weblogs have grown exponentially over the past few years. In the United States, for example, there are literally millions of "blogs."

Not yet in the Middle East, even though there are many parallels in the region with what has made the phenomenon explode in the United States. For example, blogging technology is available to anyone with access to the Internet, it is cheap, indeed free, and content can easily be created in Arabic, Hebrew, Persian and other languages. While home-computer ownership is still embryonic, the deep suspicion of government-owned mainstream media has almost certainly helped spur the growth in the region's Weblogs.

But there is at least one critical difference. In most of the countries of the Middle East, using a personal Weblog to express political dissent can land someone in jail as easily as taking part in an unauthorized political protest in a public square. For example, recently in Iran - one of the worst anti-blogger offenders - a blogger was jailed for 14 years for "spying and aiding foreign counterrevolutionaries," after using his site to criticize the arrest of other online journalists. Despite the risks, an estimated 75,000 Iranians among the country's five million Internet users maintain online blogs. Especially among middle class youth, they have become an important way of expressing dissatisfaction.

Mona al-Tahawy, a columnist at the London-based Saudi daily Ash-Sharq al-Awsat, writes that bloggers in Iran and Iraq "have inspired others in the Arab world." She also adds: "Despite working in an elite medium, requiring a computer and literacy, bloggers are the voice of the true Arab Street, especially the young."

Like Iran, most countries of the region impose varying degrees of restriction on Weblogs. Saudi Arabia, where authorities block some 400,000 Web sites, is among the most restrictive. It is unclear how many blogsites there are in the kingdom, but those that are accessible focus largely on political dissent.

Typical is a site called "The Religious Policeman." One recent posting asked:

"What reforms? There aren't any reforms! The government promised to set up a higher commission on women's affairs, guaranteed women participation in the recent National Dialogue Forum and in the National Human Rights Commission." It adds: "The National Dialogue Forum agreed to change nothing, the 'team photo' had no women in it, anyone with any sense left in tears."

In Iraq today, there are hundreds of blogsites, most of them run by Iraqis, but also some by American and other coalition soldiers. There are communist, monarchist, Kurdish, Assyrian, Islamist, Shiite, Sunni, nationalist and secularist blogs. Their political positions range from full support for the U.S. invasion and occupation to rabid calls for a jihad against the Americans.

For example, on the one-year commemoration of the start of the Iraq war, a 24-year-old female computer programmer wrote in her "Baghdad Burning" blog: "Occupation Day, April 9, 2003: The day we sensed that the struggle in Baghdad was over and the fear of war was nothing compared to the new fear we were currently facing. It was the day I saw my first American tank roll grotesquely down the streets of Baghdad - through a residential neighborhood. And that was April 9 for me and millions of others." She added: "The current Governing Council wants us to remember April 9 fondly and hail it as our 'National Day,' a day of victory." But, she asks, "whose victory?"

In Egypt, authorities have tightened their control of the country's 600,000 Web users. For example, the Web master of the English-language Al-Ahram Weekly was sentenced to a year in prison for posting a sexually explicit poem, and a 19-year-old student was sentenced to a month in jail for "putting out false information" after reporting that a serial killer was on the loose in Cairo.

In Syria, one blogger asked others to sign an online petition addressed to "The White House" and "The ElysŽes" [sic], the French presidential palace. "With the killing of [former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Lebanon," the site said, "Syrian Baathists are out of control. Who's next? Syria is inciting civil war in Lebanon." Another Syrian, calling himself "Kafka," wrote that a recent speech to the Syrian Parliament by President Bashar Assad "made the Syrian people forget that [he] never cared to give a damn about us since he came to power."

In Tunisia, President Zine al-Abidin ben Ali has been determined to stamp out all cyber-dissidence. The death just over a week ago of prominent cyber-dissident Zouhair Yahyaoui, who was sent to jail in 2002-03 for publishing an open letter by his uncle, a prominent magistrate, asking for an independent judiciary, provided a reminder of how harshly the regime had treated the young editor of Tunisia's most popular TuneZine Web site. But Yahyaoui was not alone. Recently, a well-known lawyer was arrested merely for posting an article online.

In Bahrain, two online-forum moderators were recently arrested. Nonetheless, a Bahraini blog called "Sabbah's Blog" was busy organizing a "Middle East Bloggers Meetup." Dozens of enthusiastic comments were posted by readers. Even in poverty-stricken Afghanistan, blogging is beginning to catch on. One Afghan blog reports: "During the Taliban we didn't have the Internet, but now there are about 25 net cafes in Kabul, and also some in Herat, Kandahar, and Balkh provinces. People are really interested to use the Internet but it's too expensive." It adds: "Only rich people can afford it."

There may well be an inverse relationship between the suppression of free expression and the proliferation of blogs in the Middle East. Maybe the lesson for heads of state in the region is this: It's far better to increase freedom of speech and reduce the challenge and expense of having to deal with this cyber uproar.

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