Antony Funnell: What do Iran, Cuba and Egypt all have in common? Well, they all have governments which suppress dissent and they all have bloggers, people using the social power of the internet to communicate with their own and the outside world.
Now the popular Western perception of the blogger in a country with a repressive regime is of a person trying quietly to bring about change, using the power of modern technology to bring about a liberal, or at least democratic, transformation.
Well that’s one story. But as journalist and author Antony Loewenstein discovered, there are many more. His new book is called ‘The Blogging Revolution’ and it’s a collection of his experiences in six countries, the three I’ve just mentioned, as well as Saudi Arabia, Syria and China.
Now Lowenstein challenges us to take a more realistic and complex view of the power and value of blogging.
Antony Loewenstein: We perceive in the West mistakenly, that many Chinese people are craving some kind of open democratic system. Now there’s no doubt that many people in China want some kind of democracy and would like maybe greater freedom of speech. But the simple fact is that study after study after study proves, or suggests at least, that the majority of Chinese people are happy with their lives, are happy with the one-party state, they’re happy with the fact of their current direction in life. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t issues, and there are, and the web of course in China, one of the great things it’s done, is allowed people to actually articulate issues that were previously unheard of, such as, say, corruption. So for example in the last sort of few years, there have been thousands upon thousands of protests in small towns across China, about corruption.
Now this is not challenging the one-party state and the government itself, the regime in Beijing generally speaking tolerates that as we saw after the earthquake in Sichuan as well, where there were public protests against builders who allegedly were involved in building constructions that collapsed after the earthquake. So it’s a far more nuanced picture than much of our media allows, and I guess that’s even often frustrated me. Which led me to write the book, in a way, was how narrow these interpretations of so-called enemies or allies of the West are in so much of our media, and it’s far easier for Western journalists to go to country X and simply report everything through his or her filter. Now I’m a Western journalist too of course, but it was very important for me to actually allow these people in these countries to actually have a voice and be heard themselves, rather than always filtered through my own perceptions and biases.
Antony Funnell: Now you travelled to six countries for your book, and as you’ve said, you’ve found encouraging signs as well as the bad and the frustrating things about the way in which the internet is used, the way blogging occurs in those countries, or doesn’t occur in those countries. But it seems to me from reading the book that your experiences in Cuba were very different from your experiences elsewhere. Tell us about Cuba.
Antony Loewenstein: Cuba, of all the places I went to, Cuba’s internet is the least developed, and the reasons for that really are twofold: firstly the US embargo, which has been going on since the early ’60s is insanely criminal and if nothing else actually restricts much material and infrastructure to actually arrive in Cuba. The other reason of course is the fact that the Castro regime, (although now Raoul has allegedly taken over and Fidel’s kind of in the background just penning his diatribes every few days) they have a profound fear of dissent. And so I’m someone who very much defends some elements of what’s going on in Cuba, but the simple fact is that it is a one-party state, it doesn’t allow freedom of speech association or freedom of the press. And the internet of course is seen like in many other countries, as a threat to that. The internet does exist, and some people do blog, and generally speaking it’s a fairly privileged middle-class, who are able to access that.
Antony Funnell: There’s only a small percentage of population though that have internet access.
Antony Loewenstein: A few percent, indeed, and it’s basically one of the lowest figures. In fact it is the lowest figure in Latin America as a whole. So I think it’s a different mentality. In Egypt, for example, years ago, the Mubarak regime realised the internet was going to be great to build the economy of the country. It wasn’t seen initially as a threat to its rule, and Iran was the same. So they actually through massive government support, allow the internet to exist in even the poorest communities, as a way to try and build economic development. What of course they realised very soon, as we see in Iran and elsewhere around the world, is the fact that now there are dissidents and activists who are challenging a one-party state. Cuba I think has also realised that, and its policy was the opposite. They would cut off at the knees from the beginning. Inevitably of course, if a country wants to develop these days, it’s impossible to avoid the web itself, and that’s what’s happening in Cuba. There is a shift and the web is becoming more known. I mean I found it surreal to meet a number of students in Havana who were learning Information Technology and the internet, but actually weren’t allowed to access the internet, if that make sense. So therefore they could access the ‘intranet’ and you meet many people in Cuba who are allowed to access an ‘intranet’, which is really only a number of websites that were approved by the regime itself.
Antony Funnell: It’s not a real internet.
Antony Loewenstein: Indeed, it’s basically websites there which are approved by the authorities, and clearly they’re going to be very limited in nature. So I think it’s a different policy I suppose. I think also the perceived threat, and the real threat from the US in Cuba, gave justification of the regime to block any kind of outside influences, and the internet was one of those things. That is starting to change, and we might, might see a difference with a new President in the US towards the policies with Cuba. But I think what’s important to know is that most countries around the world, the internet initially was not seen as a threat, it was not seen as a threat. Now it’s regarded as that because you have countless numbers of bloggers and writers, even though they’re a minority, actually writing and dissenting and actually challenging one party rule.
Antony Funnell: Now you make the point, as you did earlier, that blogging and the internet is a great democratiser, and that’s a point that’s been made by many people before. But is that really valid in the sense that it seems even from your book, that most people you encountered who blogged, were middle-class; we’re not talking about a broad scope of society. In all of these countries it seems to be the middle-class who are undertaking this activity.
Antony Loewenstein: There’s an element of truth in that. As I talk about in my book, there’s no doubt that in many countries the people who have the greatest access to this technology, are people of course who have some kind of a greater income.
Antony Funnell: And literacy as well, I would say.
Antony Loewenstein: And literacy, undoubtedly so. But of course what you do see in many countries, and this includes China, for example. Now China has 1.3-billion people, and about 250-million of those are online now, which means that the majority are not. But what you do find is in the last few years, that many of the greatest increasing penetration of the web in China actually are in rural areas. People who are generally not literate enough to use the web granted, but not people who are necessarily in the cities. So there is a sense that for example, there’s many farming communities in China, which are using the web in terms of getting access to greater markets throughout their country. Now this sort of stuff is not known that much in the West, but it exists, and it’s not a tiny minority, it’s a growing number of people who are using the web for those purposes.
These people in China aren’t using it to challenge the government necessarily, but what they are doing is often to challenge corruption or challenge shoddy building, as we saw with the recent earthquake. So – and in Saudi Arabia again, there was a sense very much that the people, 20% of the population use the web, it’s the minority, true, but it’s growing, very, very quickly. And I think there’s also a belief with many activists in these countries (and this is what I talk about in my book too) to actually try and involve people who don’t have as easy access to the web, in other words a belief that Yes, we don’t want a situation where the web in itself is a supposed democratiser, but are we only actually hearing middle-class voices? Why aren’t we hearing voices for example of, as I talk about, sex workers in India, or people who actually are often disenfranchised within their own society. The web in itself gives them a voice, and I think many people in my book who I talk to, were aware of the fact that they don’t want to come across as being part of the elite, although in some ways they are, but it’s important for them to acknowledge the fact that Let’s get other people engaged who are less privileged than they are.
Antony Funnell: Sure, look I take on what you’re saying there, but I mean, given that we are talking predominantly about one section of society’s engaging in this internet activity, how good a gauge is it of the mood of a country?
Antony Loewenstein: I think it’s one good gauge. Is it the only gauge? No, it’s not. But I think there is a sense in every country that I went to, the internet in itself, not just the middle-class, actually has changed things. Now my point is not simply to say that the web by definition democratises, therefore makes the country more open, therefore makes it more Western-friendly; it’s far from the case at all, as you know, having read the book. And I think one of the key things in a country like Iran, say, is that many people I met, many of whom support Ahmadinejad I might add, and support the idea of Islamism and the idea of a kind of quite hardline religious state, their idea about what Iran should be is ,even the reformists, and I spent time with the former Vice President of the country, Mohammad Aliabadi, who is a reformist, and supposedly a liberal. When you hear him speak though, his views about Iran and the world are still very hardline. He believes in Islamism and he believes in shunning Israel, he believes very much in the idea of a religious state.
Now these people are part of the elite, that’s true, but what you find in Iran also as a good example, is that the majority of the population supposedly, according to many studies, away from the internet I might add, want an Islamic state. In other words, the idea that the web in itself and activists in Iran are moving towards some kind of greater liberal state is simply not borne out by the facts. So yes, you’re right to the extent to say that it’s one gauge, and it’s an important gauge, and also I think in countries like that, it’s very hard to gauge how people think. There’s not regular polling as we have in the West about certain issues and ideas, so the web is one way, only one way, to gauge how people actually view both their own countries and the world.
Antony Funnell: And look, just finally, it seems to me that one of the other things that you challenge is the idea that oppressive regimes are good at closing down this type of freedom of speech, if you like, on the web. We have a notion in the West I guess, that regimes in places like Saudi Arabia and Egypt and Iran, that they must be very good because we know in the past they’ve been very good at putting down dissent. But that doesn’t seem to be the case with the internet, they don’t seem to be all that sophisticated in the approach they take to filtering, say.
Antony Loewenstein: Well it’s incredibly random, I mean to the point where there are thousands upon thousands of key words that often are blocked, in places like China and Iran. And of course one of the things that it’s also important to remember is that in countries like China, companies like Google, Yahoo and Microsoft are actively involved in actually assisting the regime in censorship programs. So whereas in the West we view those companies as kind of these benevolent forces that help us find information, the fact is China has become like a laboratory for Western internet companies and security firms to improve and work on their security infrastructure so to speak, which can then be exported back to the West or other authoritarian states. So the filtering process in a place like China is sophisticated to the point where a lot of websites are blocked. People can always find a way around it, and I suppose one of the things that amazed me in the writing of the book was that regimes in some ways are fighting a battle they can never win. You can block websites, you can put people in jail, you can do all that kind of thing, as they are doing in every country I went to, but ultimately, as clichéd as it might sound, people’s freedom will actually speak out in the end, despite all the restrictions that may happen. And I think what’s happening increasingly is that many people in the West are realising that to support individuals in countries like this who have got something to say, who may well be, I might add, critical of the West, I mean many people in Saudi Arabia are hardline Islamists who are critical of the regime and critical of the US. And to me it seems a shame that many Western human rights organisations often feel uncomfortable I think, supporting Islamists, particularly in the post 9/11 world, because they’re seen as being critical of the West, and to me, if we believe in human rights, it should be human rights for all.
Antony Funnell: Well the book is called ‘The Blogging Revolution’ and the author is Antony Loewenstein. Antony, thank you very much for joining us on The Media Report.
Antony Loewenstein: Thanks so much for having me.
Antony Funnell: And Antony’s book is published by Melbourne University Press.