Gagging the bloggers

Filed as News on May 2, 2003 10:36 pm

by Duncan

You cannot move online these days without falling over a weblog or 10.

All the people who, five years ago, were proudly showing off the shiny new e-mail address on their business cards, are now polishing up their weblogs and hoping they have something interesting to say to the world.

In principle blogging promises us something close to Tim Berners-Lee’s original vision of a writeable web because anyone can create their own constantly-updated site.

Reaching out

Linking to other sites, tracking links made to one’s own entries and posting comments or opinions creates a seamless and rich web of information, accessible to all – or at least, to everyone with a net connection.

Of course, the reality is somewhat different, with the complex thread of interconnected diary entries, reviews, comments and cross-references making it incredibly difficult to get a real sense of what is happening.

But sometimes it works, and generally anything which allows more people to share their points of view, record their experiences and reach out to other people is to be welcomed.

While I have never managed to get into the habit of daily blogging myself, I can see why it appeals. And new tools for weblogging will make things easier and better.

We might eventually get tools which create usable social spaces online, along with ways of organising and structuring the vast amount of content being thrown daily onto the Web that do not rely on the search engines that dominate today’s network navigation.

Even though the number of bloggers is relatively small compared to the overall net population, with perhaps a million active blogs, this is going to grow, especially if AOL delivers on its promise to offer a free blogging service to its 35 million users.

Freedom of expression

There are, of course, many different sorts of blog.

I am interested in technology and how it is developing, so I spend a lot of time looking at sites dealing with new ways of using the net, and the whole self-referential area where blogs, culture, the network and programming intersect.

Others see the tools as dull and boring, and are more concerned with using this new web-based publishing medium to make a difference in the real world.

And some of these people are now getting into trouble with their governments, especially if they live in countries which do not respect the basic right to freedom of expression.

Lui Di, a Chinese psychology student who posted regularly to bulletin boards and chat rooms, was arrested in November 2002 for criticising the government’s restrictions on net use.

She is still being held.

And last month the Iranian police detained Sina Motallebi, a prominent blogger, marking a significant and worrying shift in what had previously been a tolerant approach to the large number of Iranian blogs.

Casualties of blogging

Sina is still in prison after his arrest on 20 April. The authorities have given no indication of what he is accused of or whether he will be released soon, creating an atmosphere of fear and worry among Iran’s estimated 10,000 other bloggers.

His Persian website, www.rooznegar.com, has been taken offline by his family, worried that criticism of the Iranian Government posted there by supporters will harm his case.

An online petition organised by another Iranian blogger, Pedram Moallemian, has attracted over 2,000 e-signatures calling on human rights organisations to press for Sina’s release.

Sina’s arrest, publicised online by his wife and fellow blogger Farnaz Ghazizadeh, is just the latest of many attempts by the Iranian Government to control the media.

Press freedom campaign group Reporters Sans Frontieres describes Iran as “the biggest prison for journalists in the Middle East”, with 10 journalists imprisoned at the end of 2002, and continuing closures of newspapers whose editorial views go against government policy.

Now it has become one of the first governments to take direct action against blogs.

One prominent Persian blog is run by Hossein Derskahan, an Iranian living in Toronto.

He argues that blogging is important in Iran because it provides a way for people to write freely about a wide range of topics, and to do so relatively anonymously.

Crucial role

Because many of the blogs are hosted outside Iran, it is difficult for the authorities to trace people, and this gives them more freedom.

Sina’s blog was published under his own name and that in part made him a target.

In open societies we are used to being able to say what we feel, whether about personal matters like attitudes to sex, or more public issues like our views on the invasion of Iraq.

There are limits to free speech, but they seem far enough from our ordinary topics of conversation to be disregarded.

This is not true in closed countries like Iran, China and Saudi Arabia.

As Hossein Derskahan says, “individuality, self-expression, tolerance are new values which are quite obvious through a quick study of the content of Persian weblogs”.

These values are not endorsed or promoted by the authorities, so it is not surprising that blogs are now being closed down and their authors arrested.

It will discourage others from the sort of self-expression that will, in the long term, do just as much damage to a repressive and authoritarian regime as overt political opposition.

When we campaign for net freedom we should not forget that the freedom to speak one’s own truth is just as important as the freedom to read what we in the West have to say.

Being able to publish a weblog may in fact be more important than being able to read BBC News Online, although our arrogance may sometimes prevent us from seeing this.

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