From the Baghdad Blogger to Twittering the Chinese Earthquake, plenty has been written about the potential of blogs to allow Western readers access to foreign voices: the ‘Parachute Journalism’ of ‘Our Man in Tehran’ is appearing increasingly anachronistic and paternalistic next to the experiences and thoughts of those caught in the crossfire.
Despite this, mainstream media portrayals of countries like Iran, Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Cuba and China remains largely superficial.
This is the problem that Antony Loewenstein seeks to address with The Blogging Revolution (Amazon US) – a book which is as much about bloggers as it is a demonstration of what blogging has made possible.
Through contacts made in the blogosphere, Antony visits each of the six countries named above in turn, speaking to local bloggers, ex pat bloggers, and experts, in an attempt to reveal a richer, more detailed picture of living under one party rule.
In this he is largely successful, and in the Afterword you get a key insight into why:
“I never viewed my interview subjects as merely a journalistic project; rather, they represented an opportunity to develop ongoing relationships with people who could continually broaden my knowledge of the Middle East, China and Cuba.”
Rarely is the difference between career journalism and blogging so well illustrated.
The reader is introduced to bloggers across the political spectrum (although not the most powerful blogger of them all, Iranian President Ahmadinejad), and in doing so, illustrates how reality doesn’t quite fit into the pro- or anti-American boxes the Western media so often talk of.
Time and time again Loewenstein encounters people who like many aspects of America (one sees it as having many “Islamic” qualities), but would rather shape their own political future and structure, thank you very much.
It is fascinating to learn the degree to which blogging has been adopted and indeed co-opted in many of the countries: Iran has around a million bloggers, with 10% regularly updated; and Farsi is listed by Technorati as among the top five languages on the internet; one in 30 Chinese people writes a blog.
There is a Muslim Bloggers Association and an Office for Religious Blogs Development, as the government helps every religious student to start a blog.
In Egypt bloggers succeeded in forcing the state to the “extremely unusual” move of putting a police captain on trial for torture. They set up email lists for journalists and human rights workers during the state violence of 2006.
Egyptian blogger Wael Abbas was the first blogger in 2007 to be awarded the Knight International Award for Excellent in Journalism.
But for their efforts bloggers have been detained for months without trial, convicted and jailed. The Arab Bloggers’ Union has campaigned for the release of Ahmed Mohsen in particular.
In Syria, where Islamist bloggers are not as ubiquitous “for the simple reason that the government views them as a threat to its rule”, Tariq Baiasi was “abducted” for posting a comment on a website criticising the state’s security apparatus. He disappeared in July 2007, and was recently sentenced to three years in prison.
In Saudi Arabia the SaudiJeans blogger says that the state rarely imprisons bloggers or tortured journalists, preferring instead to simply ban them. Almost half of bloggers here are women, but Loewenstein is unable to meet with any due to the almost segregated society.
In Cuba he comes up against a lack of bloggers – not surprisingly: only 2% of the population have web access due to a combination of the US embargo, poverty, and state restrictions:
“Of over 3000 journalists who work openly for the government … only 150 regularly used the web … Some sites were inaccessible and an internal intranet was widely used.”
(Recently there have been signs that this is changing)
Because it was illegal for blogger Yoani Sanchez – who was awarded the Ortega and Gasset prize in Journalism by El Pais – to use internet access at Western hotels, and the hourly fee is prohibitively expensive, she “has to write fast and avoid being caught. Some island bloggers are forced to dress as tourists, feign accents and covertly enter hotels to get online.”
Then there is China, the world’s biggest jailer of journalists. According to a study by Middlebury College, blogs in China are far more likely to carry criticism than Chinese newspapers, with successes including exposing the assault of street sellers by local police (a story local TV journalists had refused to cover).
Censorship is well covered throughout the book – key here are Western companies including Cisco, Microsoft, Google and Yahoo! But readers find ways around the censorship, ‘reading in code’: if a blogger in China talks about ‘river crab’, for instance, they’re talking about censorship.
This is a worthy, complicated book that reveals a richer understanding of other lives in other countries. The hope expressed here is that the voices now being heard on the blogosphere will help spread that understanding across borders. The question, as Loewenstein asks of journalists, is “Are we listening?”