In his first book, My Israel Question, Sydney author, journalist and blogger Antony Loewenstein grapple-tackled his way through the minefields of Zionism and the Jewish diaspora.
In his second, The Blogging Revolution, he parachutes into six of the world’s more repressive societies to observe if and how the internet is being used to challenge what were once formidable barriers to free expression. Travelling to Iran, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Cuba and China, Loewenstein tells his story through the diverse cast of dissidents, academics, journalists and bloggers he meets along the way.
If it wasn’t obvious before, it is now: blogging – and all online interaction, for that matter – is changing the way the world learns, communicates and argues. But it has also become a risky pursuit in many places around the world. And bloggers are being routinely harassed, roughed up, jailed and sometimes even killed.
Take the case of Reza Valizadeh, an Iranian journalist and blogger who was reportedly incarcerated last year after he reported that the Iranian president’s security staff had imported four dogs from Germany at a cost of $US150,000 ($230,000) each. The purchase was revealed at a time when authorities were cracking down on what was deemed as the “impure” practice of keeping dogs as pets.
Grittier still is the tale of Mohammed al-Sharqwai, an activist and blogger the author meets in Cairo. After being arrested at a demonstration in 2006 – ironically, at a protest against police violence against journalists – al-Sharqwai is beaten and sodomised. Despite that experience,al-Sharqwai returns to blogging after his release and continues to campaign against torture.
“I want people to know they can’t hurt me any more,” he tells Loewenstein.
The Blogging Revolution is a meticulously researched exploration of the dilemmas facing the modern dissident in an age of globalised, porous communications. It gets off to a flying start in the first two chapters, on Iran and Egypt. The local blogging communities there are diverse, active and there’s no shortage of local talent to draw upon.
In Saudi Arabia, Syria and Cuba, the community of bloggers is small, more discreet and largely irrelevant as a voice of local dissent or discourse because of the nascent state of the internet in those countries. As a result, the focus drifts.
In Cuba, the only reference to Yoani Sanchez – widely regarded as Cuba’s most popular blogger (and she doesn’t have a lot of competition) – is to quote from an article published in Britain’s Observer newspaper. Loewenstein does catch up with other Cuban dissidents but they are the pre-internet, old-school-type dissidents: an academic, a chain-smoking journalist and a former apparatchik.
The uptake of the internet is so minuscule there – 2 per cent of the population, according to a figure quoted in the book – that Cuba seems an odd choice to include in a book titled The Blogging Revolution.
Loewenstein‘s criticism of the Western mainstream press, which he blames for failing to “engage individuals from across the political spectrum who believe in open debate and listen to their wants and desires”, ends up being the most unconvincing part of his argument.
At the same time, his copious footnotes – and there are 61 pages of them – are liberally sprinkled with references to articles from the same mainstream press that the author attacks for being myopic.