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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Raging Against Rising Internet Repression

July 10, 2008

Antony Loewenstein
The Nation (USA)
July 8, 2008

During the Harvard University and Google sponsored Global Voices
Citizen Media Summit 2008 in Budapest, Hungary in late June, attended
by over 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
insights into non-Western nations, through country-specific blogs, to
Western audiences. 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
organizations 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, email, 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 of China, bans many anti-George W. Bush sites such as Juan
Cole's Informed Comment and The Huffington Post but allows a neo-con
and pro-war 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 percent 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 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 remain awake during the weekly eight-hour
diatribes by Chavez 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 last 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 debate had to progress past, "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 citizens in
prosperous, Western citizens 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." A major
theme of the event was highlighted. Too few bloggers in the West were
bridging the information gap between different societies and
preferred to preach rather than listen.

The role of blogs in China is more than simply reacting to perceived
Western slights. Instead, many netizens may not be calling for the
dissolution of the Communist Party or planning a revolution, but
they're been 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
(though some are unaware what they're missing out on.) This doesn't
mean, however, that the apparent blocking of parts of Facebook isn't
annoying for many users or the creeping Olympic crackdown.

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 country 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 showed yet again that the mainstream media
remains woefully under-prepared and unwilling to cover vast swathes
of the world. Blogging and citizen journalism therefore provides an
essential alternative to the daily obsession in much of our media
with re-printing government and corporate spin as news.
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