i-9f12f32a87206def63049c54960b478e-jdheere_bio_pic.jpg
Jessica Dheere

BEIRUT — A quick look at the Regions sidebar on DigiActive, a nine-month old blog that catalogs how activists use digital tools, reveals something unexpected. The site details case studies of online activists from around the world, but by far the largest number of stories involve bloggers from the Middle East and North Africa — 39 — compared with 30 for both Americas, 19 for Sub-Saharan Africa, 18 for all of Asia, and 11 for Europe.

There’s certainly nothing scientific about the numbers. Nevertheless, it reinforces a trend that emerged as I listened to Arab bloggers talk about their experiences at the recent closed First Arab Bloggers Meeting in Beirut: Despite the fact that they live under repressive regimes — or perhaps because of it — these individuals may be the next iconic defenders of free speech, not just in the Arab world but around the globe. Their ideas may land them in prison, but the lessons they teach have no borders thanks to the fluidity of the Web. Through websites like Digiactive and Global Voices, they can still inspire people around the world.

Sponsored by the German Heinrich Boll Foundation, the weekend conference brought together about 30 men and women in their 20s and 30s — most of whom also consider themselves to be free speech and human rights activists — from Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Tunisia. Participants shared fascinating country reports: Morocco has 30,000 bloggers; Facebook is blocked in Tunisia; photojournalists help Egyptian bloggers by passing along outtakes. The sessions covered a variety of tools, like tagging and map mash-ups, as well as tactics for avoiding filtering and censorship.

Building Solidarity

The main theme cutting across all the conference panels, however, was the question of how Arab bloggers, who span 22 countries but share a common written language, can develop a sense of solidarity — beyond hosting websites like Free Kareem in Egypt and Free Tariq for imprisoned colleagues. And how can they connect with other important actors, such as non-government organizations and journalists?

No matter the approach, the question always seemed to rest at a crossroads between the responsiveness of human rights organizations when bloggers are detained (which is typically slower than when journalists are detained) and bloggers’ need to push the boundaries of free speech and to support their compatriots.

In short, some human rights organizations tend to think that if bloggers behaved more like journalists they would be easier to protect. Bloggers on the other hand don’t want to be victims or prisoners any longer than they have to be and emphasize that it shouldn’t matter what they say, only that they be allowed to say it. The bloggers expressed a general distaste for any imposed system of media ethics or regulations that may compromise the blogosphere’s “ nonconforming, independent character and particular spirit,” said Dina Fakoussa, the conference organizer.

They even largely rejected the idea of adopting a code of ethics instituted to combat hate speech, as some bloggers and journalists have joined forces to do in Bahrain.

Being Activists Instead of Journalists

Another reason bloggers reject the journalist label, while still acting as journalists in some ways, is because they often see themselves as taking a more active role in the news than simply reporting it. They are often instigators of change in the first place. A female blogger from Egypt, the name of whose blog translates to One Egyptian Woman, pointed out that larger role for bloggers.

“Most of the Egyptian bloggers are political activists and most of the bloggers use the common language of the streets, citizen media,” she said. “For example, when they say we want to have an initiative for organizing a demonstration, they were actually behind the launching of these initiatives, which is why their role is bigger, more responsive. When you see people saying ‘we’re here because we heard about this,’ it was because it was actually published in a blog.”

Several recent stories from the Arab media further illustrate her point:

In Egypt, where it is illegal for more than five people to assemble, legislation has been proposed that would give the president total control over all media in the country, including the Internet. The measure was put forward after some innovative activists used Facebook to organize protests against rising food prices in April.

In Tunisia, online video sites YouTube and Daily Motion have been blocked, after so-called cyber-activists used them to besiege the Tunisian presidential palace by linking video testimony of former political prisoners and human rights activists to the Carthage Presidential Palace on Google Maps. Just last week, Facebook was also added to the prohibited list.

This week in Morocco, blogger Mohammed Erraji was arrested, convicted and sentenced to two years in prison for allegedly “criticizing the king’s policy of free gifts to citizens,” according to a Facebook group set up to advocate for his release. Erraji is currently on provisional release.

King Abdullah of Jordan seems to favor keeping online media open, but his stance is still not entirely clear. He recently posted comments online to clarify remarks made during an interview. He encouraged people to post their comments, and their names, without fear “so long as they are not personally offending others, attempting character assassination or undermining the nation’s interest.” He also recently blocked a government motion, opposed by the Jordanian press corps, to incorporate online media into the state’s Press and Publication department.

These activists are blazing the way not only for blogging in their countries but also for increased press freedoms. Many balk at adopting the same centralized codes and standards that traditional journalists follow, believing that such codes would strip them of the main advantages of blogging — being able to advocate, exploit inefficiencies in bloated bureaucratic systems (whose officials often don’t know how to use the media they are trying to control), and use anonymous sources.

No matter what they’re called or what code they follow, they keep blogging. The more they write, challenge, and get around the official clampdown on using blogs and other social media tools, the more sites like DigiActive can document and distribute their acts of speaking truth to power.

Jessica Dheere is a freelance journalist and media consultant in Beirut. She directs the Social Media Exchange, which provides training to civil society actors in the strategic use of social media for social change, and also teaches workshops in online and citizen journalism in the Journalism Training Program at the American University of Beirut.