The dangers of blogging for democracy

My following article appeared in yesterday’s edition of Crikey:

64 people have been arrested for blogging their views since 2003, according to… a recent… University of Washington report. Three times as many people were arrested for blogging about political issues in 2007 than the year before. More than half of all the arrests since 2003 were made in China, Egypt and Iran. Internet censorship has become a key global concern.

These issues — and more –… were discussed at the recent Global Voices Citizen Media Summit 2008, held in Budapest. The aim of the two-day event, sponsored in part by Harvard University and Google, was to bring 200 writers, dissidents, bloggers, human rights activists and citizen journalists from across the world to discuss the role of Western multinationals in web filtering — and how bloggers are increasingly challenging the narrow focus of the mainstream media and creating alternative, online spaces for minorities (in, say, Bolivia and Syria) to transmit their messages to the world.

Representatives from various countries, including Madagascar, Venezuela, Kenya, China and Egypt, gave the event a wonderfully diverse flavour but common themes emerged. Everybody wants to be heard. And using YouTube, Twitter, Flickr, FeedBurner, blogs, mobile phones, Facebook and LiveMotion in countries such as Pakistan, Armenia, Belarus and Singapore is one way to circumvent the authoritarian impulse of often US-backed dictatorships.

It was constantly stressed that the internet can’t bring real democratic reform on its own but the web has become an invaluable organising tool to generate political change. Of course, some bloggers just want to write about food, fashion and fast cars.

One session, “The Wired Electorate in Emerging Democracies”, featured Iranian-exile Hamid Tehrani (whose report on the country’s anti-Semitic bloggers… offers a sobering perspective on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s pernicious influence). Tehrani argued that Iran’s reformist bloggers, often seen in the West as moderates, have become relatively unpopular and disorganised. They are “serial losers” who are unlikely to regain power any time soon.

Armenian journalist Onnik Krikorian in his country saw the use of YouTube to highlight irregularities such as vote stuffing which forced the regime to defend its actions to the world. Activists also posted YouTube footage of police shooting demonstrators.

Another session, “When Biases Meet Biases”, discussed the ways in which the troubles over Tibet and the Beijing Games have left Chinese netizens and Western audiences more distant than ever. Leading US-based dissident Xiao Qiang said that the internet, rather than finding rational voices over sensitive issues, actually pushed ideologies and opinions to extremes. Calls were made for greater understanding of opposing positions. For example, are most Chinese really opposed to Tibetan self-determination, or are only the loudest nationalists being heard?

Antony Loewenstein was invited to present a paper on the importance of NGOs in assisting on-the-ground activists, the proposed Rudd-government plan to censor the web and his work with Amnesty International Australia on its Uncensor campaign about internet repression in China in this Olympic year. His speech can be found here.