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The Blogging Revolution: A Look at the Repression of Online Journalism Around the World

StoryDecember 05, 2008
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Antony Loewenstein

Sydney-based journalist, author and blogger. He is author of My Israel Question. His latest book is The Blogging Revolution.

A new report by the Committee to Protect Journalists says more internet journalists are jailed today than journalists in any other medium. We speak with journalist Antony Loewenstein, author of The Blogging Revolution. He traveled to Iran, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Cuba and China in 2007 to look at bloggers around the world who live and write under repressive regimes. [includes rush transcript]

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.


A new report by the Committee to Protect Journalists says more internet journalists are jailed today than journalists in any other medium. At least fifty-six online journalists are jailed worldwide, according to CPJ’s census, a tally that surpasses the number of print journalists for the first time. The number of imprisoned online journalists has steadily increased since CPJ recorded the first jailed internet writer in its 1997 census.


Our next guest traveled to Iran, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Cuba and China in 2007 to look at bloggers around the world. He is Antony Loewenstein. He wrote The Blogging Revolution.

Welcome. Talk about blogging in these countries, why people are ending up in jail.


The bottom line is that many, many people in these countries, of course, can’t rely on state-run media, which is propaganda. Bloggers and blogging is a way of trying to express different views. So in every country I went to, except for Cuba, where the internet is very underdeveloped, you have situations, people blogging about sex, about drugs, about gender issues, about politics. The majority of people in these countries don’t blog politically. They blog about their personal lives, about their boyfriends, their girlfriends. But there is increasingly, as that report states, many, many regimes who are fearful of the fact that you have independent voices, simply put.

In China, for example, I think it said there were thirty-five people who were imprisoned, many of those people — some of those people, I should add, with the assistance of Western multinationals like Yahoo!, who have actually given information to the regime to assist these people being put in jail. Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, Cisco, other security firms, internet firms, have sadly and shamefully been involved in these kind of complicity acts. And [inaudible] one of the things I discuss in the book is to actually have more transparency about how those guys actually operate in those kind of countries.

A place like Iran, say, the most part, the population is very, very young. So what you find is that despite like Ahmadinejad cracking down on dissent, which has undoubtedly happened in the last three years, you still find a very, very vibrant online community, far more vibrant than you get in most of the Western media. So there is, despite the crackdowns and despite the imprisonment, discussion about politics between reformists and liberals and, for that matter, conservatives. And one of the things that comes out, I think, very clearly is that many people in these countries resent how the Western media reports them, New York Times, those sort of papers.


Even in Iran, you noted that there’s an American company there, Secure Computing, that was providing a filter —


I did.


— for Iran to be able to filter out information on the internet?


The company denies it’s involved, so — but my understanding is that they actually are involved. This is what you find in country after country, that although Western multinationals often talk about human rights and democracy, we’ve seen in the last five years these companies actually operating to make a buck. China is, for example, the biggest internet market in the world, 250 million users, six million users going online every month. America’s got about 230 million people, roughly, online. So, surprise, surprise, they want to make a buck. And what you find increasingly is that companies like that are also moving into other nations.

And one of the things I discuss in the book is, we too much in the West think about these issues happening over there somewhere, China, Iran, somewhere, rather than happening here. And I think what we need to look at more closely is how these companies might operate when they behave in the West and, for that matter, are they exporting their oppression elsewhere, as well?


What about Saudi Arabia?


Saudi Arabia made Iran seem liberal in comparison. The online community in Saudi Arabia is not massive, but certainly growing. I spent some time with some prominent bloggers there who are relatively liberal in a Saudi sense. And one of the challenges they have, that censorship actually in Saudi is quite minimal, believe it or not. There are websites that are blocked by the kingdom, but most of them actually are relatively available. What you find there is a great discussion between so-called liberal reformers who actually want to try and make the possibility of a liberal, more open Islam a possibility. And there’s often a great deal of competition online between more hardliners than conservatives who believe in a more fundamentalist interpretation of Islam and more individuals who believe in a more liberal, open, relatively democratic Islam.




Egypt, again, arguably the most vibrant online community in the Middle East. There’s been a great deal of actually change there because of the internet, not least because of torture. Torture videos are increasingly now published on blogs. The government has been forced to respond. Torture still goes on, of course, but it’s becoming a lot less. And one of the things that strikes me is that a lot of social networking sites, Facebook, YouTube, actually are increasingly being used to organize dissent against the US-backed regime.


Well, Antony Loewenstein, I want to thank you for being with us and writing this book.


Thank you.


I know you head back to Australia tomorrow. The Blogging Revolution is the name of his book. He’ll be speaking at Blue Stockings in New York tonight.

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