Hot on the heels of his last book, My Israel Question (a history of the Israeli occupation of Palestine from the perspective of an anti-Zionist Jewish Australian), freelance journalist Antony Loewenstein delves into the ‘Blogging Revolution’ with a book of the same title.
The greatest virtue of this book is that it is written not from the distant comforts of the West but on the ground in six fascinating and misunderstood countries. In Iran, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Cuba and China, the reader is taken on a journey through the lives of a variety of people, including but not limited to activists, seeking to engage their society in a social debate on a range of topics from sex to religion and popular culture.
It is a pioneering work on a topic that is rarely discussed by the mainstream media despite the now ubiquitous presence of every major news source on the World Wide Web. The Blogging Revolution should resonate well with us in Pakistan given our own experience with internet censorship. It was only a few years ago that former president Musharraf banned the popular youtube.com and blogger websites in an attempt to crack down on political dissent. One wonders how an independent observer like Loewenstein would view the state of our media.
Loewenstein catalogues the liberating features of the internet, such as the free access of information and perspectives not available from traditional media or the government. But he cautions against any easy conclusions that the web automatically creates a freer society.
He notes, for example, the astounding statistic from the Committee to Protect Journalists that 40 per cent of journalists jailed around the world are web-based reporters. And in China internet technology has been used to crack down on descent, often with the collusion of western multinationals like Google and Yahoo!. In the case of Yahoo! it included colluding with Chinese authorities in the arrest of a number of journalists critical of the government.
China has cracked down on internet dissent more systematically than any other country. Every new internet user has to register with the police within a month of opening an account while 40,000 bureaucrats monitor internet usage daily.
However the country’s response to the internet boom, and the free flow of information and opinions it promises, is far from monolithic. One out of every 30 Chinese is a blogger — internet-speak for one who keeps an online diary — and with close to 230 million internet users, many foreign news websites are available.
Often censorship is a process of negotiation, as is the case for Todou, China’s largest online video site. Authorities contact the company at least once a week to complain about content, but sometimes Todou manages to negotiate partial censorship. Even so, economic freedom has progressed inordinately faster than social ones. ‘Money is the new God,’ an advertising executive in Shanghai explains, ‘as long as political content was generally avoided.’
As one author tells him in Shanghai, for most Chinese internet censorship is not the most pressing concern. The internet, Loewenstein nevertheless concludes, has enabled an unprecedented level of democratisation in China.
There are a few surprises in the book. Contrary to what many may have guessed, Iran’s online communities are the most robust in the Middle East, even if restrictions on freedom of speech there also remain robust. But perhaps we ought not to be surprised. Literacy in Iran is 90 per cent and more than half of university graduates are women.
There are one million bloggers in Iran and Technorati, a popular search engine, lists Farsi as one of the top five languages on the internet. He meets bloggers and newspaper editors both secular and religious.
Even religious hardliners have created blogs. So too has former Iranian vice-president under Mohammad Khatamei, Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a noted reformist. He reminds the author, and the reader, that Iranians do not want ‘western-style’ reforms but change on their own terms even if leaves room for much inconsistency on social reforms, particularly with respect to the role of women in public life.
The recent conviction of an Iranian-American journalist for spying is a reminder of the existing risks to journalists in the country. The editor of the student magazine Chelcheragh, for example, explains that they receive a weekly fax from the ministry of culture noting what cannot be discussed — things like protests by teachers or women, or police brutality. Internet service providers also self-censor by filtering many words deemed subversive or pornographic.
Even so, Iranians continue to debate some of the more controversial and hence relevant topics in ‘code’. Revealingly, not one of the Iranians mentioned speak lovingly of the regime created following the 1979 revolution.
Political discourse in Syria is not as robust as in neighbouring Iran. Nor is the internet infrastructure, or filtering for that matter, although censorship and other government restrictions on criticism of the regime remain strong. That may have more to do with the government’s relative ignorance of the new technology — as evidenced by the story of a Syrian minister who asked if he needed to drive his car to a new government website.
There is an incredible lack of internet facility in Cuba. In no other country visited is internet usage and infrastructure as poor as it is here.
Bloggers, though few in number, give voice to a populace frustrated by a regime’s failure to address crippling poverty and unemployment.
The internet is one of the few outlets for Saudis to freely engage with one another and the opposite sex, the outside world, and politics. Twenty per cent of them are online. But social and political expression on the internet isn’t without its risks — Fould Al Farhan, for instance, whom Loewenstein meets in Jeddah, was jailed for five months for allegedly campaigning for the release of activists.
In Egypt, we learn that the Muslim Brotherhood has become a measure of the level and nature of discontent — contrary to what most western commentary asserts, political Islam in this country is a bulwark of the pro-democracy movement.
Ironically the repressive Mubarak regime, which routinely imprisons bloggers, journalists, and political activists, may well create the conditions for its violent overthrow by more radical religious activists.
Yet there are more progressive voices too, and their equally violent crackdown by the government belies the moderate tag given to the country.
There are several messages in this book. One of is that blogs and other independent sources of information and opinion on the internet cannot replace the mainstream media with their resources and global reach.
But, collectively, they can give unparalleled access to our increasingly globalised world. With virtual unanimity, the people featured in the book express the view that greater rule of law and freedom will come to their country in spite of the West rather than because of it.
Through the journeys described in the book one is left with a quiet sense of hope — that despite the barriers between peoples, aspirations remain largely the same everywhere. ‘Technology,’ the author concludes, ‘never brings true reform, only people ever do.’