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Political Blogging is fast becoming the media's new frontier

“Blog Me If You Can is a working title of a book I am writing. The idea was born during a moment of clarity as I pondered about the troubled world we endure everyday. My frustration may have been inspired by the usual news bulletins featuring images of dead civilians and soldiers caught between the …

“Blog Me If You Can is a working title of a book I am writing. The idea was born during a moment of clarity as I pondered about the troubled world we endure everyday.

My frustration may have been inspired by the usual news bulletins featuring images of dead civilians and soldiers caught between the egos of greedy politicians or it could have been fumed by the negative reactions of governments to the outbursts of their citizens.

How harmful is it to vent your problems on a blog and allow others to share their input? Apparently, many governments including those which promote freedom of speech and democratic movements see it as a serious threat.

The modern blogosphere or media’s last frontier, as I like to call it, has become a weapon of choice for many “revolutionaries with a political voice. Journalists have a duty to report world issues truthfully, impartially and with neutrality. Veteran commentators enjoy the luxury of giving their opinion based on their views of the world.

Bloggers also known as “citizen journalists have eliminated the days of censorship, fact checking, or subediting context. A blog is a website containing personal entries in a journalistic style about various topics such as travel, sex, religion, and politics, among others.

As of November 2006, blog search engine Technorati was tracking nearly 60 million blogs.

But a number of bloggers have actually been arrested, tortured, and interrogated due to the political content of their blogs. Mr Julien Pain, the head of the internet freedom desk at Reporters Without Borders follows up on the status of those bloggers held behind bars.

He recommends bloggers read a manual for “safe blogging posted on his organization’s site called “The Handbook for Bloggers and Cyber Dissidents.

“We wanted to do something for bloggers who are really fighting for freedom of speech, the same way we do for journalists, said Julien Pain, on the goal of this handbook. One of the suggestions in the manual recommends bloggers use fake identities.

Many bloggers refuse to hide behind an anonymous name because that defies their initial attraction to the freedom offered by blogging. In support of these “freedom fighters Reporters Without Borders has organized a competition and short-listed blog sites that have brought updated reliable news not available in the mainstream media.

Alaa Abd El-Fatah is one of Egypt s most prominent bloggers and free speech advocates.

He has also been arrested for marching in anti-government protests in 2005. He and his wife, Manal, run the blog BitBucket, which won Best of the Blogs award in 2005 presented by Reporters Without Borders. His blog is also featured in the 2006 competition. For Abdul Kareem Suleiman, another prominent Egyptian activist, blogging remains the only way to express his disapproval of many issues in Egyptian society, especially the teachings of Islam and the alleged ill-treatment of women according to the Islamic Sharia (Islamic law).

He launched his blog in August 2005, but two months later he was arrested by the authorities for attacking Islam on a blog entry titled “The Naked Truth About Islam As I Saw it in Muharram Beik.

Born to a devout Muslim family was no fun for him. His family banned television, computers and photographs in the house. He watched his fundamentalist father force his two 10- year-old sisters to stop attending school and obliged them to cover up from head to toe.

On Oct. 26, 2005, plain-clothed Egyptian secret police stormed his apartment in Alexandria at dawn. Cuffed and blindfolded, he endured a marathon of interrogations facing no evidence but the print outs of his blog entries.

After spending 11 days in the infamous maximum security Tora prison in Cairo, he was released by decree from Minister of Interior Habib El Adly. Abdul Kareem continued to blog relentlessly after he renounced his religion and was expelled from Al-Azhar University and interrogated and arrested again early November. He is still in detention.

“If death is a must then it’s a sin to die a coward, he commented, stubbornly. Christophe Grébert from the city of Puteaux close to Paris was also arrested briefly on May 15, 2004 by the local authorities but he was immediately released when the National Police showed up on the scene.

On his blog, he relentlessly attacks the mayor and the way the city manages its finances. His blog has been widely received by the locals and the media.

He says the mayor reacted by leaving intimidating messages on his answer machine, threatening him to stop blogging. In retaliation, Christophe recorded and blogged the messages which embarrassed the mayor even more. Ironically, the city has allocated 29,000 euros of its budget to sue him.

He appeared in court on June 21, 2005. His fellow bloggers were able to donate close to $1000 to towards his defence fees. The Kingdom of Bahrain remains the smallest country in the oil-rich Arabian Gulf. It is known for its reputation as the off-shore banking centre of the Arabian Gulf and the base of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet in the Persian Gulf.

The country enjoys a fairly lenient level of democracy compared to its neighboring Gulf States but Ali Abd El Emam recently tested the government’s tolerance when he was arrested and jailed for insulting King Khalifa’s grandfather and mocking his speech on his blog.

On Feb. 2, 2005 the Bahraini police showed up at his home.

When they did not find him, they arrested his sister for questioning about her brother’s actions and ideologies until he arrived at the police station. His story became a national dilemma as hundreds of protestors marched the streets demanding his release. “Batelco, the local service provider had blocked and unblocked my blog three times in a year’s time, he said.

His blog draws in a significant average of four hundred hits a day. He also owns the famous BahrainOnline forum which has attracted over 40,000 members. Bahrain is ruled by a Sunni Muslim government which has been widely criticized for its oppression of the Shiite Muslims who make up the majority of the population.

Ali, who is also a Shiite Muslim, openly exposes the ill treatment of the Shiites on his blog.

Issues like banning Shiite’s from the army and the police force are on the top of his list. In his repeated interrogations, the government accused him of having ulterior motives for setting up a blog and speculated that he was being funded by foreign groups. The evidence used against him was nothing more than several entries printed off his blog.

Ali was charged with inciting hate toward the king. The support of international organizations like Amnesty International and others embarrassed his government which eventually released him after two weeks of incarceration.

He claims his phones are tapped and that he is being watched but that has not affected his political opposition. The psychological pressure has not changed his mission to spread his beliefs through his blog, which has become a national reference and has reshaped the views of many Bahrainis. The list of bloggers who have been jailed and interrogated goes on and contains names from South America all the way to China. Charles Le Blanc of Canada, Sina Motallebi of Iran, Hao Wu of China, and Mokhtar Yahyaoui of Tunisia are some of the bloggers who have shown great bravery in reporting the political convulsions of their nations.

Their courage has been encouraged by websites such Global Voices Online, which support free, interesting conversations from around the world.

“Blogs are being monitored by the same government authorities who monitor regular journalists to control the media and put a grip on it. It’s no surprise. I am not even sure blogging will exist ten years from now. It’s a tool for freedom of speech, but there will be better tools. Even if the blog disappears the internet will remain, commented Mr. Julien Pain.

Video blogging or “vlogging has also become more popular among video journalists. The website Guerrilla News Network has att
racted an “army of bloggers that are ranked and receive points according to the quality of their reporting.

The homepage of this site posts a banner that calls for the release of American blogger Josh Wolf who was arrested on Aug. 5, 2005 and remains jailed in a federal prison in Dublin, California after refusing to turn over to a federal jury footage he captured of clashes between the San Francisco police and anti-G8 protesters in July 2005. Josh continues to blog by writing letters to his friends and family who post them online.

In his letter of acceptance of the journalist of the year award granted by the Society of Professional Journalists on Nov. 9, 2006, he commented: “The US government is engaged in a war on journalism and I am a POW.

Mohamed Fadel Fahmy is an independent investigative journalist and author. He is currently researching and writing his second book “Blog Me If You Can.

Topics: Wael Ghonim

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