Vibewire is one of Australia’s finest online youth portals (I used to write a regular column for them years ago.)
I was recently interviewed by one of their writers, Jacqui Dent, about my book, The Blogging Revolution:
Blogging is being used increasingly to speak out against oppression in authoritarian regimes and speak up amidst mainstream media bias in the west. But are we listening? JACQUI DENT talks with author Antony Loewenstein to find out.
“I’m not saying Kevin Rudd should have a blog [but] why doesn’t he? Why doesn’t he want to engage with people? I understand that he’s a busy guy…”
It sounds like he’s having a joke but writer, blogger and journalist Antony Loewenstein is not being completely facetious. We’re chatting about his latest book The Blogging Revolution and the question that has prompted this statement is about his interview with Mohammad Ali Abtahi, the former vice-president of Iran. Just one of dozens of politicians, bloggers and journalists Loewenstein met whilst researching his book, what’s interesting about Abtahi is that he maintained a blog throughout his term and still has one today.
Unlike most of the bloggers Loewenstein met, Abtahi wrote from a position of power yet his motives matched those of many dissidents. He wrote out of frustration with the mainstream media. It’s a frustration Loewenstein shares, citing the events of 9/11 and the Iraq war as the wake-up call that for him flagged astonishing media bias in much of the west. Five years and over one million Iraqi casualties after the war in Iraq, the media still refuses to offer Iraqi voices. “Western journalists go to Iraq and they interview Iraqis: one or two lines, that’s it.”
“It’s clearly a belief that unless we report it and see it and explain it in our own words [you haven’t got legitimacy],” says Loewenstein. “If you go to much of the non-western world it’s that kind of bias…that pisses people off.”
Yet with the advent of the internet and blogging, for the first time those people are being given a way to speak up. We all remember the story of Salam Pax, the Baghdad blogger who emerged during the Iraq war. “He showed up most of the western media because he had far more access and information and insight because he was Iraqi.” Blogging offers a chance for those who were previously unheard to bypass the mainstream media and offer their own perspective on events in their own countries and overseas, and increasingly we are hearing through the web the voices of those living under authoritarian regimes. And some of it is having an effect.
Loewenstein gives the example of a disturbing tendency for torture activists in Egypt to be arrested and raped by police officers. The horrendous acts were routinely filmed by the police and then distributed in order to frighten and intimidate other activists. In the past couple of years bloggers and dissidents have been able to disseminate the videos on YouTube and elsewhere, ultimately causing the jailing of two guilty police officers. However, Loewenstein is careful not to overestimate the effects of this new medium. “I’m not saying police torture has stopped,” he says. But the story is a good example of, “a relatively small online community… put[tting] on the agenda an issue that was only really whispered about rather than talked about.”
Yet the risks bloggers face for bringing these issues onto the public agenda in some countries can be extreme. Since 2003 sixty-four bloggers worldwide have been arrested and gaoled and many of those Loewenstein met felt they might be endangered simply by speaking to a western journalist. Such examples are not as isolated as you may think. Loewenstein mentions one situation a few years ago when an Iranian blogger was interviewed for a Foreign Correspondent documentary. The blogger “ended up being arrested after that show was aired and was gaoled,” Loewenstein says.
Dissident bloggers in countries like Iran and China also have to contend with increasing internet censorship by the government, blocking websites dealing with undesirable content and excluding certain key words from search engines like Google. Yet it’s the complacency Loewenstein discovered that seems particularly frightening. Loewenstein says most of the people he spoke to were unbothered by the censorship, or unaware of just how many sites were being blocked. Whilst in the meantime the practise of censorship is speading.
It sounds like the kind of thing that would only happen overseas but internet censorship is already being suggested both here in Australia and in other western nations. Multinational corporations such as Google and Yahoo, who collaborate with the Chinese and other authoritarian governments to enforce censorship laws already have the skills and means to import internet filtering into western countries.
“I do not see,” says Loewenstein, with feeling, “how it’s unlikely that …[censorship] could be used in western states.” The Rudd government is already talking about blocking child pornography websites and whilst Loewenstein stresses he does not support child pornography, the question must be asked: once you introduce censorship, where will it end?
“Do we get into a situation where the government says ‘we’re going to start blocking sites that support terrorism’?” The problem with this is that, as we’ve learned from cases such as that of Dr Haneef, ‘supporting terrorism’ is not such a straightforward thing to define. Loewenstein gives the example of Hamas, the elected government in Palestine: “it’s regarded as a terrorist organization by much of the western world, in my view mistakenly. So are we going to have a situation where the Australian government or the US government says ‘well, if you’re accessing the Hamas website you’re breaking the law’.”
It is in such environments that the voices of bloggers become so important. But how to go about finding these voices? Loewenstein seems slightly weary of the question. “People often ask me how do you know which blogs to look at…there’s no simple answer, over time you discover which sites you like, which sites you trust.” After some probing however, Loewenstein does recommend, a website which provides commentary and translations on various political blogs of many nationalities. A full list of Loewenstein’s recommended blogs can be found at the back of his book, The Blogging Revolution.
Loewenstein also recommends alternative media sites like Crikey!, Salon.com and Slate Magazine for those to wish to read what people not part of what Loewenstein refers to as the ‘old men with beards’ have to say about world events. Loewenstein now has a beard himself, he is quick to point out, but he also has good things to say about Vibewire, which the 33-year-old used to write for, so we won’t hold it against him. “I like what [Vibewire] stands for…getting people who are deemed by the mainstream media to not be interested in the world of politics…to actually engage with issues.”
Of course, it’s easy to take Loewenstein’s views on blogging as a prediction of the future of the media, yet Loewenstein does not intend for blogging to overtake mainstream journalism. “If we’re looking for good investigative journalism, the vast majority of it is still, with exceptions…being done by print media… I’m not going to sit here and say that blogging is about to replace that.” But the point is that with the advent of the web and the opportunities it brings, the media is no longer the only source of information.
It was the writer Douglas Adams who once said that the internet is like being in a room where every door is one of those science fiction devices that transports you to any place in the world. If those doors were blogs, they’d plonk you down into the living room of any man or woman on the planet with an internet connection and something to say. It’s the first time in human history that communication of this sort has been so readily available. We’ve been using it to talk, but now some of us are starting to recognise that we can also use it to listen.