During the Global Voices Citizen Media Summit 2008 - sponsored by Harvard University and Google in Budapest, Hungary, in late June, and attended by more than 200 bloggers, human rights activists, writers, journalists, hackers and IT experts from every corner of the globe - one participant joked that it was worthwhile buying domain names for dissidents likely to be imprisoned. “Just get them with ‘Free (insert name here) .com’” he said.
A recent University of Washington report 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 Iran, China and Egypt. Internet censorship has become a cause with global relevance.
I was invited to present a paper at the two-day event that covered the research for my forthcoming book, The Blogging Revolution, on the Internet in repressive regimes, plans by Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to combat Internet child pornography, and my work with Amnesty International Australia on its campaign against Chinese web filtering, Uncensor.
The goal of Global Voices, started in late 2004, is to provide Western audiences with insights into non-Western nations through country-specific blogs. The last years have seen its agenda expand to include a translation service for multiple languages, Global Voices Lingua, 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 in every country except America.
The Budapest summit featured bloggers and activists from places as diverse as Madagascar, India, Belarus, Kenya, Pakistan, Singapore, Bangladesh, Armenia, Egypt, Iran and China. It was constantly stressed that although the Internet can't bring democratic reform on its own - only citizens of a country have the right to determine a political system, not outside forces - it is allowing on-the-ground organisations to challenge corruption, fraudulent elections and police-led torture. Populations are being empowered.
Although everybody 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. 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, e-mail, FeedBurner and text messaging were common denominators used by a minority online community to challenge state-run, media lies.
Nobody talked about revolution or massive social change, but rather the ability to become engaged in a process usually reserved for an unelected class. In Morocco, for example, bloggers filmed corrupt policemen taking bribes and posted them on YouTube. "Targuist Sniper" inspired many others to act similarly, and the short videos have been watched millions of times. One female Egyptian blogger posted photos of police torture by tagging her entries with the names of the accused officials. Some of this evidence was used in a court of law. Two close US allies were forced to publicly respond to internal pressure.
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 China, bans many anti-George W. Bush sites such as Juan Cole's Informed Comment and The Huffington Post but allows a neocon and prowar site such as Pajamas Media to remain uncensored. It was a typically illogical move.
Only last week Iranian members of parliament announced a draft bill that aims to "toughen punishment for disturbing mental security in society". The text of the bill would add "establishing websites and weblogs promoting corruption, prostitution and apostasy" to the list of crimes punishable by execution.
The perception of the Internet in various countries remains troubling. Singaporean blogger Au Wai Pang said that the tool is "free" in his country, "but people behave like it is not". Self-censorship is a key barrier to open debate. Au reminded the Budapest audience that technology isn't always the answer to censorship issues. "How do you change people's minds," he asked, "[for] many who don't believe in a society with free speech?" Nothing beats face-to-face interaction, but the web has become a space where citizens can voice their opinions and have them respected often for the first time.
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 web penetration in the country, bloggers on election day woke up early 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 this relatively stable nation descend into ethnic chaos.
Blogger Luis Carlos Diaz, from Venezuela, debunked many of the Western myths about President Hugo Chávez. "The problem is we have too much petroleum," Diaz lamented. Although critical of many of his policies, Diaz said that Chávez was a democratically elected leader who wasn't quashing freedom of speech. "Voting is a sport in Venezuela," he said. To remain awake during the weekly eight-hour diatribes by Chávez 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 Chávez's speeches. They usually last for about 3,000 pages every week.