Political repression against blogger in Israel

Fascinating and disturbing story by Haggai Matar in +972:

The Israeli blogger ‘Eishton‘ has been questioned by civilian and military police in an attempt to make him reveal a whistleblower who supplied him with unclassified military documents. His interrogation has attracted media attention to the anonymous blogger and his writing.

Eishton (a combination of the Hebrew words for “newspaper’ and “man”) was interrogated by police in an attempt to push him into giving up a source within the army or the Ministry of Defense, who helped him in his unique in-depth three-partresearch on army casualties.

Following the interrogation, Eishton published a warning on his blog, stating that he is not allowed to discuss details of the investigation, “the aim of which is to silence, hurt and extract private and protected information in an attempt to incriminate me and others.” The blogger also warns that should his site go offline, it is probably be because he was pressured to censor information or give up sources. In a recentFacebook post Eishton also states that investigative authorities convinced the court to give them warrants to force internet companies to reveal his identity, and which have enabled invasive searches in his and his relatives’ homes.

The research at the heart of the investigation was published last April, around Israel’s Memorial Day, and focused both on the lack of information regarding the circumstances of soldier deaths, and on the disproportionally large numbers of soldier suicides, as compared with civilian suicides. Eishton found out that while politicians and journalists were mourning the loss of 126 soldiers who had officially “died while protecting their country” between April 2011-2012 – the number of soldiers who had actually been killed in combat that year was no more than three. What about the rest? Eleven are actually civilians killed in terrorist attacks; 35 did not even pass during that year, but were retroactively recognized as “fallen soldiers”; and all the rest died from various other reasons, ranging from disease, to car crashes, to the number one cause of death in the army – suicide. Thanks to his source in the army or Ministry of Defense, Eishton discovered exactly how many soldiers had committed suicide, and how this was generally hidden by authorities. It is this source, who helped expose the real numbers and causes of death, who authorities are now trying to hunt down – and who Eishton is determined to protect.

 …

One of the amazing things about this story is that no one, aside from the police, has any idea who Eishton is. In fact, I am the only journalist known to have ever interviewed him, and I too don’t know who he his. His posts reveal a person of left-wing politics, but who is highly critical of his own political camp, as well as of mainstream media, which he blames for many of society’s illnesses.

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The Indian view of online revolutions

Here’s another (mostly) positive Indian review of my recently released edition of The Blogging Revolution (previous Indian reviews here). This one is by Anuradha Goyal:

An Australian Jew goes around five non-democratic countries, 3 in middle east – Iran, Syria, Egypt and two others: China & Cuba, talks to limited people connected on the internet there, double checks the facts and opinions stated by the western media and then meets his fellow Jews in each of these countries and writes about his experiences and observations. The title page of the book mentions India too, but the author did not visit India, at least not for this book or related research. I think that was included for the Indian edition of the book but in my honest opinion is misleading the Indian reader.

Author has tried to find the alternate voices in the countries he visited, equally from both the genders and from people on the fringes. He talks to people who have been blogging, especially on the political scene of the country. He looks at the way their blogs have been received, if they have been accepted as voices, if they have been ignored or if they have been seen as a threat. He quotes many cases where the bloggers voices were suppressed by law, but he also shows lot of action that the blogs have generated. Chapters are structured very well, beginning with the brief history of the country and its political scenario and its relationship with the west, then moving on the few bloggers whom the author met during his visits and then a bit of himself through his visits to Jews in each of these countries. This makes me think – can you really separate religion from your psyche? Do you not always bond with those who are connected to you through a common religious thread? Many authors time and again have re-iterated this even when they publicly claim to be atheist.

He talks about the blogs in local languages and the impact of it as English is not as widely spoken in most of these countries. He also analyzes the view of western media on the blogging in these countries as they only refer to English blogs that are just a small percentage of the total blogs and may be the ones not really creating the impact. A common observation that he has is that young people in all these countries want change, want democracy but not really in the way west thinks they should have. They want their country their way. They definitely want more freedom of expression and more participation within their own countries and more engagement with the world outside. They want change but are not really as unhappy as the western media claims them to be. They have found their own little world online and offline. They are doing their bit to bring in the changes that their society needs.

He also looks at the censorship of the Internet, especially in China. I was surprised by one of the comments in the book that says censorship of Internet is increasing in India. I have not felt it. They have been talking about it but I do not know of any sites that are banned in India or any keyword filters that have been placed. An interesting counter point though is that people always find ways to work around filtered key words, they will have pseudo words which everyone seems to know except the filtering agencies, they will use proxies to access the information that is filtered. Makes you think if Internet in its present form can really be tamed? They also mention a case of Yahoo where they leaked information to government from a private conversation and how this breach was handled.

Quite an informative read, especially for someone who may not know too much about these regions. As a blogger you suddenly realize how much the community is spread out and the potential of this medium to make an impact. Read it to know the offline impact of online revolutions.

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Indian embrace of The Blogging Revolution

My book The Blogging Revolution was released recently in an Indian edition. It’s been receiving positive reviews (including this one in Calcutta’s Telegraph). Here’s another one in The Tribune by Abhishek Joshi:

The Blogging Revolution by Australian freelance journalist Antony Loewenstein is a striking account of the writer’s investigation of the web’s role in repressive regimes which brought him face-to-face with bloggers risking torture, imprisonment and even death.

Antony’s travels to Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Cuba and China get him talking to a vibrant universe of bloggers struggling to be heard under difficult conditions. For them, everyday is a struggle, pitted as they are against the random tide of authoritarian regimes, in stark contrast to the scenario elsewhere on the global map where freedom is taken for granted as an everyday commodity.

The work gets the reader to experience what citizens themselves feel about their situation. This is in contrast to journalistic accounts where quoting official sources or being close to power is a priority.

To put things in perspective, he gets talking about Arab Spring: “Revolutions thundered across the Muslim world in 2011. Regimes fell and leaders fled into exile. Millions of citizens rose up to oust and challenge largely western-backed dictators.”

And about Tunisia, the spark: “Frustrated street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight in the city of Sidi Bouzid on 17 December 2010 after constant harassment by local authorities… on Facebook… soon viewed across the Arab world by millions. Protesters took to the streets…. With roughly a third of the Tunisian population having access to the internet, Facebook became an essential tool in spreading the word… despite authorities shutting down power supplies… within weeks the president and his family fled the country.”

The phenomenon runs wide. The author cites a Twitter enthusiast saying: “Saudis cannot go out to demonstrate, so they retweet!”

Shortly before the disputed 2009 elections that brought Ahmadinejad back to power in Iran, one woman, Neda Agha Soltan, shot by a sniper’s bullet in Tehran, became a symbol of resistance, the video of her death being watched by millions on YouTube.

Internet censorship is the state’s weapon: “Russia, China and Iran, far more seriously monitor and infiltrate online spaces to root out any possible dissent.” Even then, as an Iranian blogger told Antony: “They block and we evade the blocks. It goes on everyday. They code, we decode.”

Iran’s burgeoning online community has fundamentally changed the national conversation and forced the ruling mullahs to at least recognise the necessity of reaching the massive youth population. This in a country where in some remote towns, stoning of allegedly adulterous women still takes place.

The complicity of Western technology and security firms with autocratic states has only worsened of late. Chinese dissidents pursued legal action in the US in June 2011 against Cisco Systems for knowingly assisting Beijing in its Golden Shield. Google, McAfee, Yahoo, Microsoft… the list goes on, up to a point where human rights take a backseat to profit-making.

And a reminder: “Google is a commercial organisation, that has offices in India and advertising space to sell. Monitoring censorship and privacy issues are not just concerns in repressive states.”

Antony met an Egyptian woman blogger who started blogging to promote human rights and to campaign against ‘female circumcision’ (female genital mutilation). Her blog has made her distinctly unpopular with large segments of the Islamist population.

A blogger in Saudi Arabia explained to the author that it would take long before the internet could truly challenge decades-old practices. (King Abdullah directed the country’s newspapers in May 2006 to stop publishing pictures of women because it was supposedly leading young men astray.)

China’s state news service Xinhua claims there are more than 3 lakh government employees who spend their days monitoring the web for dissent and removing suspect comments. Even mild criticism of the regime has led to arrest, physical abuse and imprisonment.

Alternative media and the blogosphere are providing an outlet to hear the hopes and fears of a generation that wants to be heard. The candour and courage of these bloggers, which, one of them tells Antony, is simply a necessity shine through in plain language.

The reader gets an understanding of lives and dilemma of citizens in repressive regimes, and rather than eulogising the merits of online activism, it is a telling account of the challenges bloggers are up against.

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Blogging our way to freedom isn’t so easy in 21st century

The following interview appears in the Australian online legal and human rights journal Right Now:

Samaya Chanthaphavong spoke to Antony Loewenstein, author of The Blogging Revolution about the use of the internet, in particular blogging, as a communicative tool to promote self-representation, democracy and human rights in areas where excessive regimes impose strict censorship over most forms of communication.

RN: We know that as part of your book The Blogging Revolution that you have travelled to Iran, Cuba, China, Saudi Arabia and Egypt to look at how these societies blog under excessive regimes. How important do you think blogging and self-representation is for people from those countries, and also for people that are interested in getting news as to what’s going on in those countries?

[Antony Loewenstein]: There has been no doubt in the last five years all those countries except Cuba have had a vastly important and growing internet culture-I will put Cuba aside and explain why in a second.  We shouldn’t forget that in those countries most people didn’t use the internet and were not online, whereas obviously in the West we are. So the voices that we often have and hear are only the elite and not the majority.

So the voices that we often have and hear are only the elite and not the majority.

Most people online aren’t engaged in politics. In China, which is the biggest internet community in the world with roughly 450 million internet users out of a population of roughly 1.4 billion, the vast majority of those people are not engaging in politics. They are downloading music, films, meeting guys and girls. What most people on the internet do.

However in all those countries, with the exception of Cuba, there is a growing space that is repressed to have political discussion and political debate. The reason why I said Cuba was an exception is that it has the lowest internet penetration in that part of the world roughly equating to two to four per cent due to two main reasons: firstly with the US embargo on Cuba it is very difficult to get reliable technology for the regime to use for access to the web.  But more importantly in my view, it’s because the Castro brothers are fearful of free speech. So few Cubans have access to the internet so the blogging reach is very small. There is a lack of free speech culture in the public arena which has been a disaster for that country. There are however Cuban political bloggers. Often they are unable to leave the country to get awards that they have won overseas, however their reach within Cuba is miniscule because most people don’t access the web there.

I am saying all of this not to argue that the internet has no influence anywhere – it has massive influence. But I do think that many in the West, particularly since the Arab Spring that started in late 2010, have exaggerated the influence of the internet. For instance, websites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube etc have been spoken of almost as a way to explain what’s happening as opposed to arguing that the internet is an important part of challenging state power and state repression.

But it’s not the only way. In countries where internet usage is either very much censored or repressed, like in Iran, people often have other ways of communicating. Mobile phones, for example, were far more important to talk with and get information. This was seen particularly during the Arab Spring.

Do you think it’s up to the Western media to provide a spotlight on issues such as repression, censorship and free speech or do you think it is something that will gain momentum from within these countries?

The Western press is not homogenous but part of the problem that the Western media has – and this has come out since the Arab Spring – is how little it understands what is happening in those parts of the world.

Far too often, in places like Egypt or others, the Western press has a responsibility to speak honestly about the Western role in maintaining regimes for so long. I am not suggesting the endurance of repressive regimes is solely the West’s fault or responsibility but if you, as a Western country – I am talking particularly about the US of course but not just America – fund, arm, train and support dictatorships and for that matter allow Western security firms, many of whom are based in the States, to provide and support internet censorship in these countries, it will not end well.

The evidence of that was clear before the Arab Spring but since the Arab Spring public documents have emerged from Egypt, Libya and elsewhere of Western (American and European) so called “internet censorship” companies who of course don’t advertise themselves publically as helping dictatorships. They advertise their tools as helping schools censor information from young kids or helping libraries, but the evidence suggests that these corporations have assisted regimes in censorship.

In my view, this has been talked about for years and I discuss it in my book The Blogging Revolution, that there needs to be far more aggressive regulatory legislation in the United States and elsewhere to prosecute corporations that are based in the US or other Western countries that collude with dictatorships in repressing free speech. This doesn’t occur at the moment despite talk about it, and I think it should.

Obama has in fact deepened and worsened that situation rather than making it better.

Do you think from a grassroots level, taking into consideration global internet activism, that people could get momentum going for pressuring governments to introduce legislative measures on companies that provide censorship measures to support regimes?

Yes I do, I think unfortunately to some extent that people are still in shock from eight years of the Bush administration, the last three and a half years of Obama and the election this year, on many of these kinds of issues. Obama has in fact deepened and worsened that situation rather than making it better.

There is an idea somehow that the Bush administration was the worst that it could get; this is a complete myth. The Obama Administration has nationally expanded the monitoring of US citizens. There was a talk from a whistle-blower at the National Security Agency (NSA) about this to media program Democracy Now which is saying that in the last few years the US has collected 20 trillion emails, phone calls etc. This data is not necessarily being actively used but the US is collecting every single email or phone call that everyone makes in that country.

Now that’s happening undeniably illegally, though of course the Patriot Act exists which is a piece of legislation that the Bush Administration initiated post-2001 and the Obama Administration deepened. Many of these companies that are assisting regimes overseas, such as Egypt, Libya and Iran, generally speaking feel protected, though occasionally Hillary Clinton speaks about internet censorship because other Americans believe that America is doing hideous things to their own people and therefore don’t care about what happens in other countries. It is rhetoric that they use when speaking out about censorship.

Telecommunication companies in the United States have been co-opted willingly by the US Government to essentially be involved in monitoring American businesses. Some of these have also been active in countries overseas and colluding with repressive regimes to censor the internet but also to monitor mobile phone calls and text messages. This has become clear in the Arab countries in the last 18 months.

If you speak to many people from those places – and I have and continue to do – they do think solidarity matters.

If we consider all of the censorship and monitoring issues do you think that there is a future in blogging to make a difference to what is presented in Western media? Do you think that there is any point to blogging if (a) no one is really listening or (b) people are pretending to listen or (c) everything is under surveillance? Where is blogging headed?

I don’t want to give the impression that people shouldn’t bother so let’s further explain my points on censorship. There is no doubt that in the last 18 months in many countries there has been a profound shift in the power of citizens to be able to effect change – obviously in the Arab world, though these countries are still in flux – it’s almost like the revolution has happened but they are still in progress. Egypt is in a very difficult situation, Libya is as well, and these countries haven’t come through a dictatorship into a democracy.

It’s all very much a work in progress but I see the role of Western activists who are interested in raising a voice, or giving a voice to the voiceless individuals who don’t get much press or coverage in the West, should continue to reach out and build connections and relationships with people in those countries.

Western media should talk about censorship on the web but they should also try to highlight stories outside the West, not just about support by the US of oppressive practices which happen throughout the Arab world. But also to let people feel that they are not alone.

If you speak to many people from those places – and I have and continue to do – they do think solidarity matters. It matters because you feel like you are not alone, and that people outside your country are listening. We also shouldn’t forget that in many of these places in the last 18 months, since Tunisia had their revolution in late 2010, there are numerous examples of repressive states that are desperate to not show the West their censoring behaviour. They are embarrassed and ashamed and would rather keep those practices hidden.

It’s the rule of independent media to highlight that. This is something that I speak about in The Blogging Revolution. A lot of the Western press reporting on repressive states far too often – and there are many exceptions to this – but far too often echo the perspectives of the US State Department. So in one sense the media agrees that torturing is terrible but have excuses like “it’s a difficult part of the world, America needs to have reliable allies” etc. This is echoed countless times throughout Western press likeWashington Post and The New York Times. It is not just the concept of embedding journalists with the US military in Iraq or Afghanistan that is concerning, it is the mindset that is concerning when dealing with embedding, as they feel the desire and need to be close to power and have access to power.

After all these years since 9/11 and the changes that have occurred across the Muslim world we still rarely, if ever, hear an Arab person in their own voice in the media. Of course you sometimes hear them being interviewed but let’s talk about Iraq for a moment. You rarely see Iraqis in the press, you may hear them for five seconds but we do routinely hear Western analysts talking about Iraq in Washington, London or Canberra. I think the role here of Western activists, bloggers, tweeters, Facebookers, YouTubers etc is to try to bypass that blindness that exists in most parts of the Western corporate press and simply connect with people in these countries and give them a voice because ultimately that’s what media democracy should be.

We still rarely, if ever, hear an Arab person in their own voice in the media.

Where does human rights blogging sit in Australia?

Clearly being in a county like Australia which nominally is a democracy and not a repressive state the role of blogging on the internet is very different to places like Iran and China.

There is a growing push by private companies here in Australia and much of the West – particularly coming out of the US – towards a surveillance state to monitor and collect all electronic communication that you have.

This could be as simple as a phone call made on a mobile to booking travel; everything that you could possibly do online would be collected and stored.

I am not suggesting that Australia is becoming like North Korea but what I am saying is that there is a growing desire by security agents and private companies to do that and is something, in my view, that should be strongly resisted.

What role can Australian bloggers have in spreading Human Rights awareness or activism within Australia?

The role of the Australian blogger can be made up of two things: one, to show the degree of solidarity with people in repressive states because we have a relatively open internet to be able to build some kind of support network for people in rather difficult circumstances and two, to raise awareness of issues in Australia.

Australia clearly has a range of issues and one example that comes to mind is Indigenous Australians being able to be represented in their own voice. There are of course a handful of Aboriginal activists and academics that you hear all the time but you can pretty much count them on the one hand and the image we get otherwise is of drunken guys or women somewhere. Those images, though not untrue, are related to wider issues such as alcoholism etc in Aboriginal communities.

I believe that activism should start at home so these kinds of issues and questions should be spoken about here.

Antony Loewenstein will be speaking about “Freedom of Expression in a Time of Complacency” at PEN Free Voices at 6:30 on 20 June at Trades Hall, Melbourne.

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The Blogging Revolution gets endorsement in Calcutta

The Indian edition of my book The Blogging Revolution was recently released. Here’s a just published review in The Telegraph from Calcutta:

The Blogging Revolution: How the newest media is changing politics, business and culture in India, China, Iran, Syria, Egypt, Cuba and Saudi Arabia By Antony Loewenstein, Jaico, Rs 350

Antony Loewenstein’s book is an intelligent examination of the dichotomous character of the internet, a force that can be both “liberating and restrictive”. Political analysts have often excitedly pointed at the arms of the new media — Facebook, Twitter, blogs — as catalysts for the Arab Spring that toppled several autocratic regimes in the Muslim world. As proof, they refer to the spark that was lit in Tunisia. When a street vendor immolated himself to protest against harassment by authorities, irate local people posted the video of his death on Facebook. Al-Jazeera distributed the video on its network, starting a fire that singed despotic regimes in the region. Loewenstein’s journeys across Iran, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Cuba and China and his interactions with online dissenters have given him the leverage to posit a caveat in this respect. The internet, he argues, has crystallized into a critical platform for disseminating information among dissidents. But it remains only one of the many arrows in the quiver in the battle for democracy.

Loewenstein bolsters his argument by citing the failure of the ‘Green Revolution’ in Iran. All the factors needed for yet another revolution inspired by the ‘web’ was in place: a repressive regime, tech-savvy youth, YouTube videos of State violence, and so on. Yet Ahmadinejad could not be dislodged from his throne. If anything, the tables have been turned on anonymous dissidents by regimes in China, Russia and Iran that are covertly colluding with technology companies to root out online dissent. Loewenstein’s research reveals that Google, Yahoo and Microsoft are competing to design effective deterrents to curb freedom in cyberspace. Significantly, the institutional backlash against online dissidence has borrowed heavily from the rule-book of dissenters. Iran, for instance, has assisted in the formation of individual religious blogs to counter ‘revolutionary propaganda’.

The Blogging Revolution dismantles several other half-truths. In mainstream media, dissidence is often glorified, but journalists seldom pay attention to the forlornness of the enterprise. Here, we come across an Egyptian dissident who confides that his battle against the State has left him terribly lonely. He seems to echo the pain of the Cuban woman activist who confesses her estrangement from her son on account of her opposition to Castro.

Loewenstein also punctures the claim that cyber dissent has helped forge a pan-Arab nationalism. He unearths the ethnic tensions that continue to brew in Syria over the question of Iraqi refugees, thereby exposing new faultliness that are eroding old ties based on identity.

Online campaigns are not only about democracy. For the women respondents, the war is also against regressive norms and their proponents. An Iranian artist complains that she cannot exhibit her work in Iran; an Egyptian blogger reveals that she finds the views of the Muslim Brotherhood extreme. It is heartening to see Loewenstein address the question of women’s empowerment to suggest that the battle against tyranny is complex and layered, and that political change is meaningless without social transition.

Loewenstein should also be thanked for his attempt to democratize information. He is aware that the debased culture of contemporary reportage often prioritizes Western hegemony and interests. His unembedded travels help liberate voices that are seldom accommodated in the mainstream Western media. A Saudi blogger insists that change can never be imposed from the outside on the Muslim world. He could have been speaking for nearly every other dissident. Their views offer compelling evidence for the West to temper its campaign to project the new media as a tool to engineer revolution in the Muslim world.

Loewenstein’s book would also be of use to Indian readers and journalists. The latter, who often succumb to the lure of sensationalism, will find in it a template for objective reporting. Loewenstein’s sympathies may lie with the oppressed but he does not allow his sentiments to cloud his broader objectives. His prose thus remains dispassionate, economical, and nearly always enquiring. As for Indian readers, this book will perhaps make them value their freedom of expression and remind them not to take that right for granted. It will also make them wary of seemingly innocuous developments such as the minister for human resources directing social networking sites to remove ‘objectionable’ content or the judiciary mulling over guidelines for the media in India.

But what of the future, both in the real and cyber world? Even after revolutions — whether or not aided by the social media— things may remain unchanged. In Egypt, recently freed from the shadow of Mubarak, a blogger was imprisoned for criticizing the military. Loewenstein reminds us that it is imperative for dissident bloggers to remain engaged with the injustices that are perpetrated not just in repressive states but also in the free world.

An Iranian blogger had once written that every light that remains switched on in Teheran at night showed that “somebody is sitting behind [sic] a computer, driving through [sic] information road; and that is in fact a storehouse of gun powder that, if ignited, will start a great firework in the capital of the revolutionary Islam”. That light, Loewenstein urges, should never be turned off.

UDDALAK MUKHERJEE

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Beijing as world leader in pursuing surveillance state

Since the release of my book The Blogging Revolution (latest edition just out in India) the use by China of Western and local security firms to monitor citizens has only grown. This piece in the New York Times signals the depth of the problem:

Chinese cities are rushing to construct their own surveillance systems. Chongqing, in Sichuan Province, is spending $4.2 billion on a network of 500,000 cameras, according to the state news media. Guangdong Province, the manufacturing powerhouse adjacent to Hong Kong, is mounting one million cameras. In Beijing, the municipal government is seeking to place cameras in all entertainment venues, adding to the skein of 300,000 cameras that were installed here for the 2008 Olympics.

By marrying Internet, cellphone and video surveillance, the government is seeking to create an omniscient monitoring system, said Nicholas Bequelin, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong. “When it comes to surveillance, China is pretty upfront about its totalitarian ambitions,” he said.

For the legion of Chinese intellectuals, democracy advocates and religious figures who have tangled with the government, surveillance cameras have become inescapable.

Yang Weidong, a politically active filmmaker, said a phalanx of 13 cameras were installed in and around his apartment building last year after he submitted an interview request to President Hu Jintao, drawing the ire of domestic security agents. In January, Ai Weiwei, the artist and public critic, was questioned by the police after he threw stones at cameras trained on his front gate.

Li Tiantian, 45, a human rights lawyer in Shanghai, said the police used footage recorded outside a hotel in an effort to manipulate her during the three months she was illegally detained last year. The video, she said, showed her entering the hotel in the company of men other than her boyfriend.

During interrogations, Ms. Li said, the police taunted her about her sex life and threatened to show the video to her boyfriend. The boyfriend, however, refused to watch, she said.

“The scale of intrusion into people’s private lives is unprecedented,” she said in a phone interview. “Now when I walk on the street, I feel so vulnerable, like the police are watching me all the time.”

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Anyone can make a revolution (but the web won’t be enough)

Last last year I was invited to chair a panel at the Sydney Opera House’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas called, “Anyone Can Make A Revolution”. It was an attempt to understand the reality of the Arab revolutions and the influence (or not) of the internet:

In Egypt and Tunisia we have seen ordinary people come together to claim democracy and human rights in the face of oppressive regimes, with twitter and Facebook the other heroes of the revolution. Are social media and Al Jazeera instrumental in what happened, or are they just the latest communication tools? Can anyone with a mobile phone foment revolution or do the punitive regimes in Syria, Bahrain and Libya show that it takes a whole lot more?

Join our panel: Mona Eltahawy, columnist; Simon Sheikh, international public speaker and national director of the community advocacy group GetUp!; and Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International.

Salil Shetty appears with the support of Amnesty International.

Chaired by Antony Loewenstein

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What the internet can (and cannot) do to hasten revolutions

My book The Blogging Revolution was recently released in India in an updated edition. 

Here’s a pretty good review of it by J Jagannath in a leading Indian newspaper, Business Standard:

The little spark that the Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi ignited in December 2010 to torch himself in retaliation against corruption has engulfed the Arab region ever since. It brought the power back into people’s hands and the jitters were felt by the tyrants in Yemen, Syria, Egypt, Libya and, to an extent, Bahrain (apart from Tunisia, of course). That begs the question: would all this have been possible without the World Wide Web? Yes it was the dispossessed and disenchanted who first raised their arms against the totalitarianism, but it’s a stretch to deny the blogs played their part by sowing the seeds of discontent.

You may call Australian journalist Antony Loewenstein a Nouriel Roubini of geopolitics for predicting an Arab Spring sort of thing after his visits to Damascus and Cairo, which are chronicled in a lively manner in this book. The book is a collection of dispatches from Loewenstein’s visits to Cuba, Egypt, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and China in 2007 to make sense of the nascent blogging craze in these repressive countries.

In Iran, Loewenstein brings the blogging scene to life in an almost Hunter S Thompson way. He visits nooks and crannies of Tehran to meet the handful of dissenters and brings to life the doings of the Ahmadinejad regime. It surely doesn’t augur well for the argumentative nature of any country if a blogger is detained for revealing that Iran’s presidential staff bought dogs from Germany for $150,000. Even though he touches upon the familiar issues, female and homosexual repression, Loewenstein has many original points to make. He’s spot on about the underground rave party scene, where demure women let their hair down. This is something that was portrayed last year in the gritty Iranian film Circumstance.

Equally illuminating is his reportage from Cairo, the solar plexus of the Arab Spring. Loewenstein chats with quite a few bloggers who raised their voices against the corrupt regime of Hosni Mubarak. Over the course of his trip, Loewenstein unearths blogs and websites that convey the Egyptians’ anguish in a more nuanced manner than the Western corporate media stationed there. Loewenstein’s trip to Syria is also as revealing and it confirms theories that the Arab Spring was in the making for a long time; all it needed was one small push, which Bouazizi provided.

The Blogging Revolution will be remembered for its prescience. A blogger tells Loewenstein in 2008, “If Mubarak lost power, the Islamists would take over and cause trouble.” This is exactly what looks like is happening in Egypt following Mubarak’s ouster. The book lays bare how misguided the perception of blogs being “echo chambers” and “information cocoons” is. This book is a perfect riposte to what Forbes once said blogs are all about: “the prized platform of an online lynch mob spouting liberty but spewing lies, libel and invective.” The Arab Spring showed how the Goliaths had to surrender before the Davids whose only “weapon” is the Internet.

What pulls back The Blogging Revolution a notch or two is that Loewenstein doesn’t make much headway in Cuba and Saudi Arabia. He’s either seen dithering or the authorities never let him near the actual troublemakers. He builds his reportage more or less on an assortment of articles from various sources. Although it’s laudable that he chose to brave the odds and travelled to Saudi Arabia and Cuba, the author appears as hapless as an upended turtle. In China, Loewenstein casts a wider net and tries to ask the Chinese if freedom of speech means anything to them as long as everything’s hunky dory with their personal lives.

Contrary to what Western media reports, Loewenstein finds out that most people prefer to be insouciant about the Tiananmen massacre. “People just want to get on with their lives. It’s in the past,” tells a source to Loewenstein. Here’s how Loewenstein summarises the attitude of Chinese bloggers, “On their wish lists, a Nintendo Wii comes far ahead of democracy. Free pirated films, television shows and music are their primary concern.” However, at the end of his dispatch he concludes that the Chinese politburo cannot anaesthetise the revolutionary streak among Chinese bloggers.

Another setback for The Blogging Revolution is the way Internet revolution zeitgeist has shifted from blogging to social networking and micro-blogging. The Arab Spring really exploded when people started tweeting about the atrocities being committed by Mubarak during his last-ditch efforts to cling on to power. During the disputed elections in Iran in 2009 when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tried to clamp down on protests and Twitter quelled his efforts, Economist carried a headline “Twitter: 1, CNN: 0”. These minor gripes aside, The Blogging Revolution is a nice throwback to whatever monstrosities the Arab Spring managed to undo and what blogging can achieve, with its heart in the right place, in the future.


 

THE BLOGGING REVOLUTION
Antony Loewenstein
Jaico Books
294 pages; Rs 350

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#Occupy, Arab Spring and uprisings are here to stay

2011 was a year unlike many others. Change was in the air. Revolutions, protests and demands for equality. In the West. In the East. In the Arab world. It’s something I examine in the updated edition of my book The Blogging Revolution (recently released in India).

A new book by Paul Mason, Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions, continues the investigation and asks why the collision globally between technology and discontent is a heady brew:

If the Arab spring had happened in isolation, it might have been categorised as a belated aftershock of 1989; if the student unrest had been part of the normal cycle of youth revolt, it could have been quickly forgotten. But the momentum gathered, from Iran to Santa Cruz, to London, Athens and Cairo.

The media began a frantic search for parallels. Nigel Inkster, former director of operations for Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, told me: “It’s a revolutionary wave, like 1848.” Others found analogies with 1968 or the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. In late January 2011, I sat with veteran reporters in a TV newsroom and discussed whether this was Egypt’s 1905 or its 1917.

But there is something in the air that defies historical parallels: something new to do with technology, behaviour and popular culture. As well as a flowering of collective action in defence of democracy, and a resurgence of the struggles of the poor and oppressed, what’s going on is also about the expanded power of the individual.

For the first time in decades, people are using methods of protest that do not seem archaic or at odds with the contemporary world; the protesters seem more in tune with modernity than the methods of their rulers. Sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris calls what we’re seeing the “movement without a name”: a trend, a direction, an idea-virus, a meme, a source of energy that can be traced through a large number of spaces and projects. It is also a way of thinking and acting: an agility, an adaptability, a refusal to accept the world as it is, a refusal to get stuck into fixed patterns of thought. Why is it happening now? Ultimately, the explanation lies in three big social changes: in the demographics of revolt, in technology and in human behaviour itself.

At the centre of all the protest movements is a new sociological type: the graduate with no future. In North Africa there is a demographic bulge of young people, including graduates and students, who are unable to get a decent job – or indeed any job. By 2011, there was 20% youth unemployment across the region, where two-thirds of the population is under the age of 30. In Libya, despite high GDP growth, youth unemployment stood at 30%. But youth unemployment is not a factor confined to North Africa. In Spain, in 2011 youth unemployment was running at 46%, a figure partially ameliorated by the tendency for young Spaniards to live off their extended families. In Britain, on the eve of the student riots of 2010, youth unemployment stood at 20%.

The financial crisis of 2008 created a generation of twentysomethings whose projected life-arc had switched, quite suddenly, from an upward curve to a downward one. The promise was: “Get a degree, get a job in the corporate system and eventually you’ll achieve a better living standard than your parents.” This abruptly turned into: “Tough, you’ll be poorer than your parents.” The revolts of 2010–11 have shown, quite simply, what this workforce looks like when it becomes collectively disillusioned, when it realises that the whole offer of self-betterment has been withdrawn.

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Name and shame Western firms helping autocrats monitor own citizens

When I wrote The Blogging Revolution in 2007 and 2008, I couldn’t imagine the ever-increasing focus on Western “security” firms working alongside repressive states to censor and spy on their people. I investigated this in the book (and the latest 2011 edition, just published in India, examines the reality during the Arab revolutions).

Bloomberg has released a wonderful series on this very subject, Wired for Repression:

Bloomberg’s series “Wired for Repression” reveals how Western companies provide surveillance systems to authoritarian countries that claim some of the world’s worst human rights records including Iran, Syria, Bahrain and Tunisia. The newest artillery for repressive regimes, the gear allows authorities to intercept their citizens’ e-mails and text messages, monitor Internet activity and locate political targets through cell phone technology. Brandishing transcripts of personal communications and records of whereabouts, officials now routinely use such information to confront, arrest and torture dissidents.

Here’s one striking story:

The intelligence operative sits in a leather club chair, laptop open, one floor below the Hilton Kuala Lumpur’s convention rooms, scanning the airwaves for spies.

In the salons above him, merchants of electronic interception demonstrate their gear to government agents who have descended on the Malaysian capital in early December for the Wiretapper’s Ball, as this surveillance industry trade show is called.

As he tries to detect hacker threats lurking in the wireless networks, the man who helps manage a Southeast Asian country’s Internet security says there’s reason for paranoia. The wares on offer include products that secretly access your Web cam, turn your cell phone into a location-tracking device, recognize your voice, mine your e-mail for anti-government sentiment and listen to supposedly secure Skype calls.

He isn’t alone watching his back at this cyber-arms bazaar, whose real name is ISS World.

For three days, attendees digging into dim sum fret about losing trade secrets to hackers, or falling prey to phone interception by rival spies. They also get a tiny taste of what they’ve unleashed on the outside world, where their products have become weapons in the hands of regimes that use the gear to track and torture dissidents.

“I’m concerned about my calls or Internet being monitored, because that’s what they sell,” says Meling Mudin, 35, a Kuala Lumpur-based information-technology security consultant who takes defensive measures as he roams the exhibits. “When I make phone calls, I step out of the hotel, I don’t use my computer and I also don’t use the wireless services provided.”

ISS, which convenes every few months in cities from Dubai to Brasilia, is the hub of the surveillance trade. In recent years, countries such as Syria, Iran and Tunisia bulked up their monitoring by turning to some of ISS’s corporate sponsors, such as Italy’s Area SpA and Germany’sUtimaco Safeware AG (USA) and Trovicor GmbH, a Bloomberg Newsinvestigation showed.

Business is booming, with annual revenue of $3 billion to $5 billion growing as much as 20 percent a year, ISS organizer Jerry Lucas estimates.

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Egypt, where is your revolution?

As the US and Israeli backed Egyptian regime escalates its rhetoric and violent actions against those pushing for democracy (something deeply feared by Washington and Tel Aviv), local blogger Sand Monkey unleashes on those who helped spark the revolution:

One of the biggest mistakes of this revolution, and there are plenty to go around, was that we allowed its political aspects to overshadow the cultural and social aspects. We have unleashed a torrent of art, music and creativity, and we don’t celebrate or enjoy it, or even promote it. We have brought the people to a point where they were ready to change. To change who they are and how they act, and we ignored that and instead focused all of our energies in a mismanaged battle over the political direction of this country. We clashed with the military, and we forgot the people, and we let that small window that shows up maybe every 100 years where a nation is willing to change, to evolve, to go to waste. Even the work that was being done, it focused on teaching them their political rights, or superficial behavioral things like “don’t litter” or “don’t break traffic laws”, and nothing regarding respecting the women or the people from other faiths that share this cursed land. Wasn’t a priority back then, because in our arrogance and hubris we assumed that people will change by themselves. That they will act right, despite the fact that throughout the history of humanity, there wasn’t a single proof that people, by themselves, will act right. Sorry everyone, we were arrogant and idealistic. Forgive us.

There is a disconnect between the revolutionaries and the people, and that disconnect exists in regards of priorities. Our priorities are a civilian government, the end of corruption, the reform of the police, judiciary, state media and the military, while their priorities are living in peace and putting food on the table. And we ignore that, or belittle it, telling them that if they want this they should support what we want, and deriding their economic fears by telling them that things will be rough for the next 3 to 5 years, but afterwards things will get better on the long run. Newsflash, the majority of people can’t afford having it even rougher for 3 to 5 years. Hell, they can’t afford to have it rough for one more month. We tell them to vote for us for a vague guarantee and to not to sell their votes or allow someone to buy their loyalty, while their priorities are making sure there is food on the table for their families tonight. You sell them hope in the future, and someone else gives them money and food to survive the present. Who, do you think, they will side with?

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Inside the Syrian uprisings and why regime change should be challenged

Events in Syria are notoriously murky and these days reliable information is scarce.

I’m often asked about my views on the uprisings against President Assad and what kind of Syria I would like to see. My book The Blogging Revolutionjust released in an updated format in India – examines the role of the internet inside Syria and how the regime is increasingly using monitoring tools to target activists and critics.

It’s hard to have much sympathy for Assad himself, a seemingly calm man on television who in fact controls a brutal police state. There’s no doubt that many Western powers, including NATO, would like to see Assad go and a more Western-friendly and pliant person installed. Personally speaking, I wouldn’t shed too many tears if Assad fell – though the views of the Syrian population as a whole are notoriously hard to hear – but we should be very wary of any intervention to unseat Assad. Foreign powers (mostly) don’t have the Syrian people’s interests at heart.

This stunning piece by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad in the Guardian features him crossing the border with the smugglers supplying weapons to Syria‘s fighters:

After eight months of vicious crackdowns by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s revolution is sliding towards civil war. Many in the opposition who have seen their friends and family members disappeared, tortured or shot by the Syrian security forces are looking for ways to fight back.

The smugglers, sensing a business opportunity, have been quick to respond. In the south the weapons come from Lebanon. Here in the north, they are flowing in from Turkey and Iraq.

“We used to smuggle cigarettes coming from Lebanon via Syria,” a portly man told me the night before in Turkey as he channel-hopped between Egyptian chatshows. Since the Syrian uprising began new business opportunities had opened up. “Now we only do weapons,” he said. “Three shipments per day.”

After crossing the border into the north Syrian province of Idlib, we travelled to meet the revolutionary command council with Muhyo, a fighter, and Abu Salim. Abu Salim had made it his job to find weapons and ammunition for the rebels after running out of bullets during a firefight with the regime. .

“When the army came to [the town of] Benish last time, we ambushed a bus filled with security people,” he said. “I had a pistol and eight bullets, but after a few minutes of shooting I had run out. I stood there watching those dogs but had no ammunition. That’s when I decided I would arm every man in my town.”

Now he spends his days driving through villages and deserts, meeting smugglers and weapon dealers, scavenging bullets and old rifles. Each day he comes back with a gun or two and few bags of ammunition. “The last time the army attacked Benish there were 30 Kalashnikovs in the town,” he said. “Now we have more than 600.”

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