Battle of the Brainwashed


During the Harvard University sponsored Global Voices Citizen Media Summit 2008 in Budapest last week, attended by around 200 bloggers, human rights activists, writers, journalists and IT geeks from every corner of the globe, one participant joked that it was worthwhile buying domain names for dissidents likely to be soon imprisoned. "Just get them with ‘Free (insert name here).com’," he said.

A University of Washington report this year found that 64 people have been arrested for blogging their political views since 2003. Three times as many people were arrested for blogging about political issues in 2007 than in 2006. More than half of the arrests since 2003 were made in China, Iran and Egypt. Internet censorship has become a concern of global significance.

I was invited to present a paper at the two-day event (see here) that covered the research for my forthcoming book, The Blogging Revolution, on the internet in repressive regimes, how Western multinationals are increasingly colluding with authoritarian governments, plans by the Rudd Government to institute filtering against child pornography and violence, and my work with Amnesty on its Uncensor campaign on Chinese censorship.

Initiated in 2004, Global Voices‘s brief is to provide insights into non-Western nations, through country-specific blogs, to Western audiences. Recent years have seen it expand to include a translation service for multiple languages, support for minorities in developing nations (the Rising Voices project) and Voices without Votes, the chance for global citizens to comment on the 2008 US Presidential election campaign.

The Budapest summit featured bloggers and activists from places as diverse as Madagascar, India, Belarus, Kenya, Pakistan, Singapore, Armenia, Egypt, Iran and China. Although the internet can’t bring democratic reform on its own – and it was constantly stressed that only citizens of a particular country should have the right to determine a political system, not outside forces – it is gradually allowing on-the-ground organisations to challenge corruption, fraudulent elections and police-led torture.

Although the people I met came from varied backgrounds, from the elites to indigenous communities using new technology to find a voice in a country like Bolivia, the sense of community was palpable. After all, what can an Australian journalist like myself really understand about democratic struggles in Iran and Bangladesh? By sharing stories, it soon became clear that many speakers related to others on the opposite side of the globe. Tools such as YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, blogs, email, FeedBurner and text messaging were common denominators by a minority online community challenging state-run media lies.

Numerous sessions revealed insights into societies all too easily categorised as oppressive. Iranian exile Hamid Tehrani revealed that the regime, now with one of the most effective web filtering systems outside of China, bans many anti-George W Bush sites such as Juan Cole and Huffington Post but allows a neo-con and pro-war site such as Pajamas Media to remain uncensored.

A number of prominent Kenyan bloggers, including Ory Okolloh and Daudi Were, discussed the role of new technology in the aftermath of the stolen election in late 2007. With only 7-10 per cent internet penetration in the country, bloggers woke up early on election day to film people waiting patiently in line to vote. Some were even embedded with foreign observers and could immediately report, via SMS and Twitter, irregularities in the counting process. International support in the diaspora was crucial to highlight the relatively stable nation outside of Africa.

Blogger Luis Carlos Diaz, from Venezuela, debunked many of the Western myths about President Hugo Chavez. "The problem is we have too much petroleum," Diaz lamented.

Although critical of many of his policies, Diaz said that Chavez was a democratically elected leader who wasn’t quashing freedom of speech. "Voting is a sport in Venezuela," he said. To relieve the boredom of Chavez’s weekly eight-hour diatribes on state television, bloggers were providing an alternative perspective on issues that matter to average citizens, such as poverty, housing and education. Diaz said he’d recently spoken to workers whose job is to transcribe Chavez’s speeches. They usually run for around 3000 pages every week.

Unsurprisingly, China featured prominently in the sessions. Rebecca MacKinnon, former CNN journalist and now academic in Hong Kong, stressed that the debate had to progress past the question of "who is more brainwashed?" – Western or Chinese audiences. One of the key translators of Chinese blog posts for Global Voices, John Kennedy, challenged his audience by asking whether the growing Western anger against the Chinese people was justified. Was nationalism as great an influence as claimed? Was self-determination for Tibet so unacceptable in the motherland? Are Chinese netizens any more thin-skinned than Westerners when attacked online for their opinions?

Despite these valid questions, one of China’s leading dissidents, Isaac Mao, wished that the Chinese mob mentality online on issues of national importance wasn’t so strong. He stressed that although the concept of freedom of speech is paramount in the West, many other societies place greater emphasis on the rule of law and fighting corruption.

Mao, who launched Digital Nomads to host hundreds of independent blogs away from prying authoritarian rule, feared that citizens in prosperous, Western countries rarely understood the "crimes of omission" in their own societies. "They don’t get why the non-Western world wants to talk about issues that the Western largely ignores," Mao said, "such as poverty and environmental degradation."

The role of blogs in China is therefore more than simply reacting to perceived Western slights. Many netizens may not be calling for the dissolution of the Communist Party or planning a revolution, but they’re given far more freedoms today than five years ago. Mirroring what I found during my research in China last year, very few Chinese bloggers appear upset with the excessive filtering regime.

A Western translator living in Japan, Chris Salzberg, posed one of the more provocative questions of the summit. During the recent mass-stabbing incident in Tokyo, two passers-by started filming the event, transmitting live murder around the web (discussion here and here). Only a few thousand viewers saw the video, but should such images be allowed broadcast? Should there be any limits on material posted on the internet? Japan, like Australia, is currently debating placing restrictions on online content and indicates a Western trend towards governmental regulations over the medium.

It was encouraging to hear from IT insiders that many employees of companies such as Google and Yahoo feel distinctly uncomfortable with the role their companies play in a countries such as China and regularly leak material about its actions anonymously and develop tools to allow an email program such as Gmail to be used securely, away from the prying eyes of censorious regimes.

The Budapest conference indicated yet again that the mainstream media remains woefully under-prepared and unwilling to provide coverage of vast swathes of the world. Blogging and citizen journalism therefore provides an essential alternative to the daily obsession in much of our media with reprinting government and corporate spin as news.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.