My following interview by Hamid Tehrani for Global Voices was published today:
Antony Loewenstein, a Sydney-based freelance journalist and blogger, has recently published his new book: The Blogging Revolution. This book talks about the impact of blogging on six countries: Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, China and Cuba.
I chose the six countries in the book because they are routinely referred to in the West as “enemies” or “allies” of Washington and we were rarely gaining true insights into life for average citizens, away from stories about “terrorism”. I wanted to talk to bloggers, writers, dissidents, politicians and citizens and hear their stories, removed from “official” perspectives.
Antony attended the Global Voices Summit 2008 in Budapest as a panelist. You can find several references to Global Voices in his book.
I interviewed him about the book:
Q: Before starting your trip to Iran, you wrote that you were skeptical that the internet on its own can bring real revolutionary change to this country. What do you mean by revolutionary change? And what do you think now?
The concept of revolution is a fluid term. I met few people in my travels that wanted great shifts in their country. My book profiles a number of dissidents and bloggers across the globe who are striving for political, social and moral change – including Saudi Arabia’s most famous blogger, Fouad Al-Farhan, recently released from prison for challenging his nation’s nepotistic rule – but they recognize that only a tiny minority of citizens would join them in massive upheavals.
The internet cannot on its own bring large change, but it can facilitate and empower people to find their voice and campaign openly. No technology has existed before the web to do this. I don’t idealise the internet, nor believe Western-style democracy is the goal of people in the countries I visited. Foreign meddling is largely resented, though opening up the lines of communication with Westerners is welcomed.
In Iran, after nearly thirty years of revolution, most young people I met were exhausted; what they don’t want is to be bombed by the US or Israel.
Q: You quoted an Iranian journalist who worked with international news agencies, and said that foreign media in Iran are only interested in nuclear issues and Al–Qaida. Don’t you think it is the same in other countries? After all, Iranians are more interested in the US elections than the American health care system. How do you see the role of blogs in covering the less “hot” issues in Iran?
Western media is currently in a massive crisis of confidence. Resources are declining, fewer journalists are being employed and localism is being celebrated. It’s therefore not surprising, though regrettable, that so many stories in our press about a place such as Iran is obsessed with Ahmadinejad, terrorism, Iraq or human rights. These are all vitally important issues, but they don’t define the place.
My book reveals a side of Iran that is rarely seen in our terrorism-obsessed media.
Living in Sydney, Australia, I see daily the obsession with the US election, as if we all have real influence over Barack Obama or John McCain’s campaigns.
Blogs in so-called repressive regimes cover issues that time-constrained and narrow Western journalists usually do not. For this reason alone, they should be discussed and promoted.
Q: Are there any real commonalities between the Iranian, Egyptian, Syrian and Saudi Arabian blogospheres, or any radical differences?
The Iranian and Egyptian blogospheres are large and growing, and influencing the political process. The regimes, recognizing this, are increasingly imprisoning bloggers and activists to try and silence them. International solidarity, from other bloggers and certain governments, is making the job of repressive regimes more difficult. Imprisoned bloggers won’t be forgotten.
I was impressed with the depth and diversity of the voices in both Egypt and Iran, something I feature extensively in the book, from the left to the right, women, activists and Islamists. Frankly, this scene is far more engaged than in many Western nations.
In Saudi Arabia, the blogosphere is less developed though still remains active. Censorship of “pornographic” sites is limited, though the regime is starting to fear the power of activists. Reading female bloggers – as a gender they’re actively marginalized in society – is refreshing if we want to understand this previously “silenced” group.
Q: What were the biggest challenges you faced writing this book and doing your research?
Gaining full access to some of the countries was challenging. Investigating the role of Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and other Western multinational firms and their collusion in web censorship in a state such as China. Protecting my sources was equally important. I took precautions before I contacted bloggers in most countries and when I arrived there.
A key aim of the book was to move away from the traditional role of Western journalist as a filter of quality. In every featured country, my perspective is unavoidable, of course, but I was determined to redefine my position in relation to the people I was interviewing. Their voices were far more important than mine.
Q: What do you think about the role of Global Voices in helping people learn about unheard voices? Any ideas for how to make Global Voices more efficient?
The strength of Global Voices is its ability to educate readers across the world about different countries and cultures, often issues and perspectives ignored by the myopic Western media. Language remains a key problem, however. More effort should be placed into finding connections between the West and the rest because the internet is currently a space where these two worlds rarely interact.