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Middle East and North Africa: Blogging flourishes; governments block and monitor content

November 6, 2009

Thousands of writers, journalists, activists, lawyers and others are expressing their dissent and reporting on social issues by blogging throughout the Middle East and North Africa, says a new report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Bloggers are free to write about issues that are not covered by traditional media due to intimidation and interference by the state.

The number of Internet users grew 13-fold, from 2000 to 2008, in this region, says the report, "Middle East Bloggers: The Street Leads Online." This cross-section of repression and Internet use has resulted in an estimated 35,000 active blogs in the Arabic language and a staggering 70,000 in Farsi.

However, the report goes on to say that a resulting vicious and severe crackdown on blogging region-wide reveals how much of a threat to power electronic communications can be. It adds that the tactics of authorities may vary but the goal is often the same: convince a blogger that the cost of challenging the state far outweighs any benefit.

Egyptian Wael Abbas started blogging in 2005 about domestic issues. But in 2006 he posted a video of police torture. There was a massive outcry as Egyptians were able to witness first-hand police torture that had largely been hidden. It led to the conviction of several police officers. Since then, Abbas has been detained, harassed and vilified on television and online, so that he is unable to find stable employment.

Regimes in the region are increasingly finding ways to monitor, intercept, alter or block online content. But Iran is at the forefront of surveillance and has started to develop technology that will seek out and block undesired websites, including blogs. In addition to this year's brutal crackdown, Iran jailed at least 23 bloggers and online journalists in 2004. Many have been tortured into giving false confessions, says CPJ.

Iran has also spearheaded a move toward laws or decrees that explicitly regulate online expression. Iran's Guardian Council has approved the Cyber Crime Penal Code, which went into effect in July. It requires Internet service providers to keep records of all client data for at least three months, which allows the government to monitor information about users and their online practices more efficiently.

In Syria, blogger Karim al-Arbaji, was detained in June 2007 and finally sentenced in September 2009 to three years in prison for "spreading false news that weakened the national sentiment," under the Syrian penal code. The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) reports that al-Arbaji's alleged confessions were extracted under torture. At least 11 Syrian bloggers have been convicted by an emergency law that gives authorities sweeping powers to shut down "all forms of expression," according to CPJ.

Pioneering Tunisian blogger Zouhair Yahyaoui was convicted of publishing false information and savagely tortured in prison, he told CPJ. He was hung from the ceiling and beaten; given rotten food and poor health care. Yahyaoui undertook many hunger strikes to demand better treatment during his 531 days of incarceration. Sixteen months after his release, Yahyaoui, 36, died of a heart attack.

Despite severe repression, a growing audience for blogs and the ease with which journalists become part of the blogosphere make it a challenge for governments to completely control online dissent. The report adds that there can be a backlash to government excess. Tunisian blogger Yahyaoui "was popular enough before he was sent to jail, but his jailing and premature death turned him into a martyr for Tunisian free expression," comments CPJ. Even though governments invest in considerable technical measures to suppress blogs, it can all be rendered obsolete by innovative programmers.

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