Blogging Towards Democracy: From China to Iran, Web Diarists Are Challenging Censors

Authoritarian states like China, Iran and Egypt are having trouble dealing with the burgeoning number of critical online diaries. These blogs, which multiply by the second, expose news about incidents that many regimes would prefer to keep hushed up. In many countries, blogs are giving people their first real taste of democracy.

It is well after midnight when Abdel Kareem Sulaiman, 22, gets some uninvited company. Suddenly the door to his apartment bursts open and a squad of Egyptian security police officers storms into the room and arrests the drowsy Sulaiman on the spot.

Egyptian Web log with photos of a sexist attack: Blogs are a way for people to bring news to countries with rampant censorship.

Egyptian Web log with photos of a sexist attack: Blogs are a way for people to bring news to countries with rampant censorship.

Sulaiman is neither a hardened criminal nor a terrorist. He even attended the world's largest Koran school at Cairo's renowned Al-Azhar University. But what has the Egyptian officials so upset is not his resume but the fact that, under the pseudonym "Kareem Amer," he writes an online diary, or blog, in which he routinely expresses vocal criticism of politicians and imams alike. Sulaiman is a blogger, and a political blogger at that, a circumstance that doesn't bode well for him in Egypt.

He has been harassed by the authorities for more than a year now, after having rebelliously expressed opinions on his Web site about religious excesses in Alexandria. He was expelled from the university in March for allegedly making anti-Islamic statements, and he has been in jail since Nov. 6. He could remain behind bars for years, given the lengthy and serious list of accusations he faces. Amnesty International claims that Kareem has been charged with an "array of offenses" that include "spreading information disruptive of public order, incitement to hate Muslisms and defaming the president of the republic (Hosni Mubarak)." All in all, his is a textbook case of treason on the Internet -- at least in Egypt.

His blogger friends have already launched a protest in his support. A short film about Sulaiman can be viewed on the YouTube video site, and a petition for his release appears on a site called www.freekareem.org.

The rise of a new resistance: the bloggers

The incident casts a bright light on a new form of resistance: the constantly growing online criticism of seemingly omnipotent regimes and authorities charged with upholding morals. An odd crescendo is building on the Internet, one that resembles a fast-growing series of vibrations, at times as dissonant as its many voices, but also powerful and influential when similar interests converge.

In essence, says Dutch Internet theorist Geert Lovink, blogs are simply "relatively frequent and chronologically ordered public expressions of personal thoughts that include links to other Web sites." But in some parts of the world they serve a loftier and sometimes emancipating purpose. In societies where official censorship is rampant and freedom of speech often curbed, they transport forbidden opinions and knowledge considered taboo to people who wouldn't otherwise get access to such information. Indeed, by connecting and encouraging individual dissidents, they also become a tool of revolution.

It is this power of information that has made bloggers as feared as they are vulnerable in many countries.

Blogs are generally seen as a part of the "vague media." Since their inception in the mid-1990s, they have multiplied exponentially. Nowadays a new Internet diary is launched every second, and the number of blogs doubles every five months. Forty-one percent are in Japanese, 28 percent in English and 14 percent in Chinese. The German contribution to a many-faceted "blogosphere" uninhibited by convention lies at a mere 1 percent, leading the German blogger community to ironically and self-desparagingly refer to itself as a kind of blogging backwater.

Blogs are often used to challenge the official interpretation of events, especially in China, the Arab world, Southeast Asia and the former states of the Soviet Union. Every bit of news, every article and every television program is fair game for bloggers' critical eyes. Nor is the Web exclusively the domain of know-it-alls and crackpots: Indeed, blogging also offers the well-informed a forum in which to package and present their expertise.

The first true democratic platform

Many bloggers see the Internet as the first true democratic platform, one that enables every individual to exert far more influence than by simply checking a box on an election ballot. All it takes is a computer for any thought, from mundane musings to critical ideas, to be replicated and to garner support, all at little or no cost to the blogger.

Bloggers are able to react with lightning speed to events as they unfold. A case in point is a scene that unfolded in Cairo four weeks ago at the end of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting. Hundreds of men ran through the city's downtown and harassed women -- young and old, veiled and unveiled, alone and accompanied. The victims were groped, and the mob even tore the clothes off some women. While the police stood idly by, bloggers took pictures and promptly posted them on the Internet. Newspapers took five days to report on the scandal, while the government-controlled papers ignored it entirely.

The Egyptian Interior Ministry continues to deny the excesses to this day, calling the bloggers liars. Cairo's high court for administrative matters bolstered the government's position when it recently made it legal to censor Web sites.

While the Egyptian authorities have only 3,000 critical bloggers to contend with, the roughly 70,000 blogs appearing in Iran in the national language, Farsi, as well as English, represent a far greater potential for subversion.

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