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.

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 .

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.

"The greatest gift"

Young Persian intellectual bloggers routinely criticize their government's concept of democracy and strict moral code. "We are Iran," says Nasrin Alavi, a regime critic and former university lecturer who now works for a Tehran non-governmental organization. This is also the title of her book, recently published in numerous countries including Germany, Britain and the United States, in which she describes the many Iranian voices of protest appearing on the Web.

"Atash3" derides his country, which is believed to be developing nuclear weapons, as a "sick society in which it is easier to buy drugs than chewing gum." "Can someone please tell me where our current chauvinistic culture comes from?" asks "borderline." "Islam is incompatible with democracy -- and is subject to all its obligations," writes "ksajadi."

This is not exactly the kind of criticism authoritarian regimes like to hear, and this is especially true when surfing and chatting takes the form of a new cultural revolution, as is the case in China with its roughly 111 million regular Internet users and estimated 4 million bloggers. Granted, most of those bloggers, like their counterparts throughout the world, are motivated more by vanity or a harmless urge to convey their thoughts to others. Nevertheless, an undaunted minority consistently and resolutely tests the limits of tolerance.

The "Lost Sparrow," for example, poses nude on her site, covered with nothing but a magazine. The blogger is 31-year-old Liu Mangyan from the Chinese city of Wuhan. In her diary, she focuses mainly on sex, an especially touchy subject in prudish China. On some days she muses at length on the question of what makes a woman attractive: curves or brain cells? On others she ponders the attractions of anonymous sex and masturbation. "My only earthly possessions," she writes provocatively, "are my two vibrators."

A popular blog with the misleading title "Massage Crème" pokes fun at the prim hosts on state-controlled television. "Why is there no good entertainment?" asks the author of a blog called "Wear Three Watches," a spoof on the party doctrine of "triple representation."

Sitting at his Lenovo desktop computer in his apartment in the northeastern port city of Dalian, professional blogger Li Jian calls the Internet "the greatest gift to us, because in a civil society individuals should be citizens, not subjects."

Li, 43, is constantly at odds with the state security apparatus. He lives from his savings and donations, and from his wife's earnings at her job in a supermarket. For the past two years this opponent of the Beijing regime has used his Web site, which is produced in the United States, to challenge the Communist Party. The site's motto is: "Protect the rights of citizens." In one of his reports, he described a rally last year in Dongzhou where the police fired into the crowd, and even included photos of the scene on his blog. "I went there myself to find out what was going on."

So why isn't his site being completely blocked, like that of the BBC, for example? Li conjectures that it could be because "there are people in the administration who want information about the real situation in the country." On the other hand, he is acutely aware of the fact "that the police could knock at my door an any time. But I am not afraid. I know the risks."

Beijing cracks down

The Chinese government employs a staff of about 30,000 Internet nannies to search for subversive content on China's Web sites. Even seemingly harmless phrases like "environmental case" or "sons of high-ranking officials" are likely to arouse their suspicions.

Chen Hua, who heads the country's Internet Propaganda Management department, gives the country's webmasters weekly lectures on what the government considers inappropriate topics. Blogs, says Hua, must "serve the people" and socialism, and they may not disseminate any unpopular "reports and commentaries about politics, the economy, the military, foreign policy and other social matters." But despite the efforts of censors, clever bloggers continue to find ways to report on environmental scandals, civil protests and police action.

Foreign companies, on the other hand, cooperate with Beijing to avoid trouble. Yahoo disclosed the names of at least two of its customers , including journalist Shi Tao, who uncovered a classified edict with instructions for the media on how to deal with the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. The disclosure brought Shi a 10-year prison sentence for revealing state secrets.

Beijing is now considering imposing a requirement that would force every citizen to use his real name online. But this sort of legislation would be almost impossible to enforce, even in tightly controlled China, and internationally it would be a completely pointless attempt to force an unbridled genie back into the bottle.

Online rants in countries of the former Soviet Union

In neighboring Russia, only about five percent of citizens currently have access to the Internet, and less then one percent read blogs regularly. Most Internet users under 35 and live outside metropolitan areas, in places where governors or shady businesspeople control the media. Nevertheless, their forums are monitored, because they are popular and pose an alternative to dismal state-run television with its mix of government-controlled news and entertainment so trivial that even Defense Minister Sergey Ivanov calls it "debilitating."

Russians fervently discuss their national identity on the Internet. The soul of a Russian, writes "Nokiaman" in his blog, is "five times as large as that of an American." But other blogs are more critical. Illegal immigrants write about police tyranny and take Moscow police -- such as those who demand bribes at passport checkpoints -- to task by posting their names, stations and ranks. Not to be outdone, the "cops" are blogging right back at their critics. Indeed, the diary of a transit police officer ("Stories from the Underground") became one of the country's most popular online soap operas.

In the blog, young policeman Sergey T. described his daily run-ins with drunken passengers, hysterical people, helpless immigrants, stubborn dogs and hooligans. He has since shut down the blog and revealed his true purpose: "Perhaps some have changed their opinions about the police. If so, then this hasn't been an entirely meaningless effort."

It is sometimes difficult to distinguish between bloggers and bluffers, between political activists and provocateurs, especially in the Central Asian police states.

In Uzbekistan, for example, only the foreign employees of companies and aid organizations are able to blog without fear of consequences. They were even left alone when, in May 2005, they reported on a massacre perpetrated by state security forces in Andijan, where about 700 people lost their lives. The locals, on the other hand, can expect repression and prison terms for voicing their opinions on the Internet.

The situation is even more ominous in the neighboring desert state of Turkmenistan, where dictator Saparmurat Niyazov  responds to all opposing views with brutal suppression. Only the Russians who have remained in the country are confident enough to poke fun on the Internet at the "exceptional and inimitable" president, who took his Hitler-like cult of the leader to extremes by erecting a giant golden statue of himself in the capital. Blogs originating in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat not only demonstrate a willingness to rebel, but also highlight the new medium's potential. A Web site called , for example, proclaims: "A spark can turn into a flame."

The spreading flame of Internet democracy

And that flame could very well turn into a raging blaze, which explains why the number of committed bloggers is growing so relentlessly, despite the many risks involved. It takes less than five minutes to set up a blog. It's free at Google's service, and on Lycos a simple click is all it takes to automatically install a form. The power of the blogosphere is growing daily, much to the chagrin of those who view freedom of opinion as a threat to government authority.

Vietnamese authorities, for example, must contend with the fact that one in six of the country's 84 million Vietnamese has access to the internet, and 2 million of them already have a hard-wired Internet connection at home or at work. Although all communication is funneled through a government server in Hanoi, many news editors who work for the state-controlled propaganda machine have long been publishing material on the Internet that would be banned in other media.

The state finds itself somewhat powerless, attempting to retain control by applying its tried-and-true methods of intimidation. For example, a delegation of bloggers who had planned to attend a conference in Manila called "Freedom of Opinion in Asian Cyberspace" was arrested. Chi Dang, a doctor who also runs an interest group for Internet journalists and bloggers, was only permitted to travel to Manila after promising to return with a full report for the Vietnamese secret police.

The Burmese junta rigorously requires anyone who owns a computer to register with the Ministry of Post and Telecommunication or face up to 15 years in prison. The monthly Internet usage fee is about $40, which is close to the average monthly salary. The $1,300 connection fee is practically unaffordable for private citizens, which explains why most bloggers are journalists who operate primarily from neighboring, and less volatile, Thailand -- where the treatment of bloggers, however, is equally crude.

When Thai journalist Amnat Jongyotying wrote about corrupt deals between politicians and drug barons in his blog, unknown assailants fired four bullets into his body. Although he survived the attack, he now wears a bulletproof vest whenever he leaves his office in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai. He also keeps a .38-caliber pistol on his desk.


Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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