Blogging Their Way to Freedom

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With the Beijing Olympics now a distant memory — and commentators wondering whether the event will herald greater openness in the Communist nation — local internet users are already reporting increased online censorship. As lawyer and legal blogger Liu Xiaoyuan recounted last week:

"Yesterday, I was interviewed by some foreign media; they wanted me to talk about issues of press freedom and freedom of speech during the Olympics. During the Olympics, authorities stopped blocking foreign media websites, and we were free to browse them, this is definitely a big step forward. But, controls on internet speech are tighter than they were before, and many things cannot be talked about; even posts like this one will be deleted. What I didn’t expect is that now that the Olympics are over, internet speech still hasn’t [been]let go."

There has also been extensive online chatter about China’s medal haul in Beijing and the inevitable comparison with the US, including a pithy challenge to America’s obesity culture. Despite China now having the world’s largest online community — 250 million and growing at around six million new users per month — the Communist Party has started to recognise the potential health dangers of new technology (and not just the increased weight of users): late last week a leading Chinese legislator announced that about four million Chinese youngsters were addicted to the internet, attracted by "unhealthy" online games.

Meanwhile, the recent war between Georgia and Russia — in many ways a proxy battle between the Russia and the West — proved the effectiveness of bloggers in deconstructing the realities behind the headlines. Russian bloggers regularly use LiveJournal, a social networking blogging tool, and during the conflict we were treated to a relatively unfiltered perspective, radically different to the pro-Kremlin line in the Russian state media.

All sides issued exaggerated propaganda, but some Russians, despite the vast majority of the country supporting President Dimitri Medvedev’s offensive, were more considered. Journalist Michael Idov wrote, "Russia is a society of conspiracy theorists. In fact, the notion that politics is mere theatre and policy is determined via backroom collusion is so central to the Russian worldview that ‘theorist’ is perhaps too weak a word. Russia is a society of conspiracy axiomists." Georgian bloggers were desperate to be heard, too.

In Turkey, over 450 websites recently joined in solidarity to protest the state’s increasing censorship of mainstream sites, such as YouTube (again available after being temporarily banned for allegedly insulting Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the modern Turkish state).

A public prosecution’s office in Egypt announced in late August () that a blogger held in Cairo’s Tora prison for a month should be released immediately. Police accused the blogger, 21-year-old mass communications student Mohamed Refaat Bayyoumy, of being a member of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, and charged him with possession of literature promoting the organisation. In a separate case, a blogger imprisoned for four years for allegedly insulting the prophet Mohammed and President Hosni Mubarak is facing increased harassment.

There is no co-ordinated worldwide campaign against web filtering and oppression but bloggers and activists in various countries are starting to realise the power of organising locally and globally.

The proliferation of blogs giving air to indigenous voices in countries deemed "enemies" or "allies" is a challenge to the Western-centric media attitudes we are familiar with. As I argue in my new book, it is essential to hear alternative voices from a place such as Iran, where the latest reports suggest that a US military strike is imminent. During my visit to Iran last year, there was constant fear of an aggressive move by Washington or Israel.

What most dissidents, bloggers and journalists couldn’t understand — and these were people who mostly opposed the regime — was how the political planners expected a bombing run to lessen the control of the state. If anything, it would only increase it. And as I argued on the Lowy Institute blog last week, the current Western posturing is actually more about protecting the Jewish state’s supremacy than worrying about Iran’s supposed nuclear capabilities.

While the challenges new media presents for old media may be a key issue in the Western media context, in the vast majority of other countries, the presence of a technology which can express ideas usually kept between friends and family is an inherently liberating force. Ultimately, in much of the non-Western world, the blogosphere is the only source of reliable information, as state run media is guaranteed to be shameless propaganda.

In surveying the activities of bloggers and online activists, however, it’s essential to note the largely silent influence of Western multinationals. The role of companies such as Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, Cisco, Adidas, Coke and McDonald’s, among many others, has been to complicity assist some of the worst authoritarian regimes on the planet, such as China’s. Internet firms, many of whom we rely on every day for our information needs, are actively involved in the restriction of freedom for others in non-democratic nations.

Days before the start of the Beijing Olympics, Canadian writer Naomi Klein argued that "Police State 2.0" was being born:

"The games have been billed as China’s ‘coming out party’ to the world. They are far more significant than that. These Olympics are the coming out party for a disturbingly efficient way of organising society, one that China has perfected over the past three decades, and is finally ready to show off. It is a potent hybrid of the most powerful political tools of authoritarianism communism — central planning, merciless repression, constant surveillance — harnessed to advance the goals of global capitalism. Some call it ‘authoritarian capitalism’, others ‘market Stalinism’ — personally I prefer ‘McCommunism’."

It isn’t hard to imagine a dystopian future in which the skills learned by Western firms in a place like China may be transported back to our own societies, or simply used in other countries desperate to control the online flow of information.

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