The following is published today as the lead piece by ABC’s The Drum:
The two-hour drive from Islamabad to Peshawar is along a surprisingly smooth road. Mud-brick homes sit amongst lush, green fields. Police checkpoints are set up routinely to stop unwanted visitors.
I am asked why I want to see the troubled Pakistani town near the border with Afghanistan. I say I’m a reporter, flash my International Federation of Journalists press card, which I’m sure the officer can’t read, and am quickly waved through.
Islamabad is a relatively liberal city in one of the most volatile nations on earth. Peshawar is geographically close but a world away. Women, if they’re seen at all in public, walk in shapeless burkas and men have thick beards and wear the traditional salwar kameez. Suicide bombers regularly attack government buildings, police and army in a continuing war against the Pakistani state and its Western backers. I arrive feeling uneasy.
A once stable town has been torn apart in the last decade as militants seek to overthrow both a corrupt central government and expel a Washington-led campaign against the resistance that is seen as illegitimate and lacking public support.
When I visit in March this year, I am surprised by the vibrancy of the Pakistani media. Multiple outlets joust for dominance, routinely publishing scandalous information about politicians and celebrities. But as I have seen first-hand in Iran, Palestine, Syria, Cuba and Egypt and a range of other countries, magical “red lines” exist that must not be crossed. If they are, journalists can pay an extremely high price.
I meet independent journalist Hayat in Peshawar. He’s 35 with a wife and two young children. He wears a pink-striped shirt and grey suit. Pockmarked face. His office is on the third floor of a non-descript building. His knowledge about the FATA (Federal Administered Tribal Areas) is immense, having spent time in the various regions. He talks about the different Taliban groups, how they relate to each other and the government.
Peshawar is on the edge of this abyss, the entry point to a tribal land that remains impossible for Westerners and most Pakistanis to visit. Since 9/11, it has been occupied by the Pakistani army and militants and often remains lawless.
It is where US president Obama, far more than his predecessor George W Bush, has unleashed an unprecedented number of drone strikes, killing hundreds of civilians since 2009, according to a recent study by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. These men, women and children are rarely given names by the Western media. Instead our media class are happy to simply repeat official Pakistani and American government claims of killing “terrorists”.
We degrade our profession by mindlessly rehashing White House press releases with no evidence to support the thesis. Sadly it has become a regular occurrence in both the tabloid and so-called quality press, including the ABC, Fairfax and News Limited. “10 militants killed”; “7 Al-Qaeda terrorists killed”. No evidence. Rarely any photographs or video. This isn’t journalism; it’s stenography.
Hayat’s voice is invisible in the West, despite speaking fluent English. Here’s a man with unique access to one of the most challenging areas on the planet and yet most Western news outlets seemingly prefer to rely on familiar faces and voices. When was the last time you read an article about Iraq or Afghanistan by an Afghan or Iraqi actually based in their respective countries?
During research for my book, The Blogging Revolution, on the internet in repressive regimes, a work that took me to Cuba, Egypt, Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia and China, it became clear that many in the Western media are reluctant to hear voices that don’t conform to their idea of what a foreigner should sound like or think. It is the only explanation for the near-complete exclusion of indigenous voices from conflict zones in our mainstream press.
Their freedom of speech is ignored because of the inherent, Western-centric nature of our leading journalists and media practitioners. Let me be blunt; our white-skin dominated media often doesn’t trust brown, yellow or black skin. The result is a wilful myopia that ignores both the nuance of a nation and the reasons post 9/11 that so little is understood about the reality of the rapacious “war on terror” and its reach in dozens of countries worldwide.
Why do “they” hate us? Because we occupy and kill “them”.
A recent story by independent journalist Matthieu Aikins in the Columbia Journalism Review should be a wake-up call to anybody who believes that advocating free speech in a globalised world hasn’t changed in the last decade. It has, hugely. Aikins details a recent story by a filmmaker from Britain’s Channel 4 who worked with Syrian dissidents in the capital Damascus. The Syrian was providing secure communications expertise to the resistance and the Western filmmaker interviewed him about his work. But the dissident worried that the documentarian wasn’t taking appropriate security precautions to protect his identity and work. For example, he was using a mobile phone and SMS without protections.
Last October the filmmaker was arrested in Syria, held for days in prison and had has laptop, mobile phone, camera and footage taken by the regime. As soon as he discovered this, the dissident fled Damascus, stayed with relatives in another town and then escaped to Lebanon. The dissident and his colleagues were scared that Syrian intelligence now had access to names, faces and information about opponents of president Assad.
Aikins rightly says that it’s easy to condemn the filmmaker for not taking adequate digital precautions of his material but it’s really systematic of a wider problem.
We are all failing to encrypt our work when reporting from conflict zones and nations where intelligence services are ubiquitous. I have been guilty of this myself. When off-the-shelf surveillance equipment is now so easily available - WikiLeaks’ Spy Files revealed the vast number of Western security firms selling technology to repressive and democratic states, making the monitoring of email, Skype and mobile phone calls – it is the responsibility of journalists, human rights activists and NGOs to learn how to protect information that could mean the difference between life and death for the people we claim to represent and protect.
But we are foolish to believe these threats only exist in the non-Western world. The Obama administration has accelerated the development of a surveillance state apparatus that now listens and records every phone call and email every day in the US. Some estimate up to 20 trillion calls and emails have been stored in the last years. Salon’s Glenn Greenwald has written extensively about Obama’s unprecedented war on whistle-blowers.
In Pakistan and Afghanistan recently, working on a book and film about disaster capitalism, I heard countless reporters talking about self-censorship, a daily need to assess what to write and what to avoid.
During a recent episode of Julian Assange’s The World Tomorrow – an outstanding weekly TV program that interviews some of the key thinkers and players in our world, individuals largely ignored by the corporate media – he spoke to Alaa Abd El-Fattah from Egypt and Nabeel Rajab from Bahrain. Both men have been imprisoned, tortured, held without charge. Both men remain outspoken. Both men refuse to be silenced and curtail their own free speech. Both men should be heard in our media on a regular basis but they are not. I believe it is because they are ferociously opposed to US-backed repression. They are unapologetic. Passionate. Necessarily unbalanced in their views towards Washington’s love of reliable autocrats. And yet their biggest recent audience is on the WikiLeaks founder’s current affairs show.
An inquisitive media would be intrigued with a book such as Poetry of the Taliban, a just-released tome that outlines without romanticising the love, adventure and fears of a group both pre and post September 11 that has beaten the world’s greatest super-power.
Supporting freedom of speech in its entirety, not merely claiming to appreciate all views but actually meaning it, as far too many liberals only endorse points of view with which they agree, means hearing the positions of groups or individuals with whom you may vehemently oppose. Truly free speech should make us uncomfortable, confronted and offended.
The internet has brought knowledge and information to more people than at any time in history. There are close to one billion Facebook accounts. Countless people use YouTube and Google every day.
But none of these tools provide human rights protections or ensure free speech. They merely give officials more opportunities to monitor and document a user’s online footprint. Although they allow activists much easier access to friends and colleagues around the world – and using online proxies to communicate and surf freely are essential in both repressive and democratic states – the reach of Western security companies is far greater than most people realise. It is no longer paranoid to presume that we are being watched and monitored by the state.
Wired magazine recently revealed that the National Security Agency in the US is building a $2 billion centre that aims to:
“intercept, decipher, analyse, and store vast swaths of the world’s communications as they zap down from satellites and zip through the underground and undersea cables of international, foreign, and domestic networks… Flowing through its servers and routers and stored in near-bottomless databases will be all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails—parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital ‘pocket litter.’”
The threat to freedom of speech globally isn’t just in the obvious places – Afghanistan, Iraq, Mexico or China – but in our own backyard, instituted by our democratically elected leaders.
We have been warned.
This is an extract from the 2012 PEN Free Voices lecture, first delivered at the Sydney Writers Festival in May.
Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist and author, co-editor with Jeff Sparrow, of the just released Left Turn, the upcoming After Zionism and a 2013 book and film about disaster capitalism. Follow him on Twitter. View his full profile here.
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.
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.
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.
Opinions of the U.S. and President Obama continue to be overwhelmingly unfavorable. Even American financial assistance is viewed negatively: about six-in-ten Egyptians say both U.S. military and economic aid is having a detrimental impact on their country.
Despite these decidedly negative attitudes, most Egyptians want their country’s relationship with the U.S. to stay about as close as it is currently or become even closer. About four-in-ten (38%) would like to see a more distant relationship between the two countries.
While the conflict over American NGOs’ democracy-promotion efforts in Egypt severely strained bilateral relations with the U.S., few Egyptians believe that Western powers are behind the country’s ongoing protests.
The tremendous political changes that have taken place in Egypt since the end of the Mubarak era have not led to a major shift in perceptions of the U.S. Roughly eight-in-ten Egyptians (79%) express unfavorable attitudes toward the U.S., with just 19% saying favorable. This is essentially unchanged from 2011, when 79% were unfavorable and 20% were favorable.
President Obama also receives low marks from most Egyptians. About seven-in-ten (69%) say they do not have confidence in him to do the right thing in world affairs; just 29% have a lot or some confidence in his actions. There has been a steady decrease in confidence in Obama since 2009, when Egyptian opinions about the new American leader were nearly split, with 42% expressing confidence and 47% saying not much or none at all.
Views toward President Obama have become considerably more negative over the last year among younger Egyptians. In 2011, 44% of 18-29 year-olds had a lot or some confidence in President Obama. Today, just 24% say the same. Attitudes toward the U.S. leader have remained constant among other age groups since 2011.
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.
The World Tomorrow is becoming essential weekly viewing (here’s past episodes). The latest edition features Alaa Abd El-Fattah from Egypt and Nabeel Rajab from Bahrain, two remarkable men who show dedication to free their countries from internal and external (read US) tyranny:
How grubby (via the New York Times):
An intense debate within the Obama administration over resuming military assistance to Egypt, which in the end was approved Friday by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, turned in part on a question that had nothing to do with democratic progress in Egypt but rather with American jobs at home.
A delay or a cut in $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt risked breaking existing contracts with American arms manufacturers that could have shut down production lines in the middle of President Obama’s re-election campaign and involved significant financial penalties, according to officials involved in the debate.
Since the Pentagon buys weapons for foreign armed forces like Egypt’s, the cost of those penalties — which one senior official said could have reached $2 billion if all sales had been halted — would have been borne by the American taxpayer, not Egypt’s ruling generals.
The companies involved include Lockheed Martin, which is scheduled to ship the first of a batch of 20 new F-16 fighter jets next month, and General Dynamics, which last year signed a $395 million contract to deliver component parts for 125 Abrams M1A1 tanks that are being assembled at a plant in Egypt.
“In large part, there are U.S. jobs that are reliant on the U.S.-Egypt strong military-to-military relationship,” a senior State Department official said, speaking on condition of anonymity under rules set by the department. In deciding how to proceed, the official said, Mrs. Clinton and her colleagues “were looking at our overall national security goals, as well as any domestic issues.”
Mrs. Clinton’s decision to resume military assistance, which has been a foundation of United States-Egyptian relations for over three decades, sidestepped a new Congressional requirement that for the first time directly links arms sales to Egypt’s protection of basic freedoms. No new military aid had been delivered since the fiscal year began last October, and Egypt’s military has all but exhausted funds approved in previous years.
Mrs. Clinton’s decision provoked sharp criticism from lawmakers across the political spectrum, as well as human rights organizations. Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, criticized it as “beyond the pale.”
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
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
294 pages; Rs 350