Governments in the Middle East are cracking down on bloggers
Oct 21st 2010
A MONTH ago a court in Iran sentenced Hossein Derakhshan, an Iranian-Canadian, to almost 20 years in jail, the longest sentence ever handed down to a blogger. The charges were murky. He was convicted of co-operating with hostile states and insulting Islam. Often hailed as Iran’s “blogfather”, he published a do-it-yourself guide to blogging in Persian earlier this decade that helped to prompt an explosion of activity. Today there may be as many as 75,000 Persian blogs.
A harsh critic of Iran’s rulers for many years, Mr Derakhshan boasted on his blog of making a trip to Israel, probably the source of the charge of collaborating with Iran’s enemies. But more recently he had begun to defend the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He brushed off concerns that he could be arrested because of his earlier views. But on his return to Iran in November 2008 the authorities nabbed him.
Iran is far from alone in locking up bloggers. Governments across the Middle East are increasingly twitchy about their citizens’ online activities. As internet use in the region has soared—up 19-fold since 2000, compared with a fivefold rise in the rest of the world, according to Internet World Stats, which monitors global internet usage—so the number jailed for what they do on the web has shot up too.
According to Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based watchdog, at least 17 “netizens” are in jail across the Middle East: eight in Iran and the rest in Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Syria and the United Arab Emirates. China may be the biggest online represser, but the Middle East is not far behind.
Earlier this month, Syrian officials confirmed that in December 2009 Tal al-Mallohi, a 19-year-old student, was arrested, accused of spying. She has been held without charge for nine months. Many believe her blog is to blame. Earlier this year a Lebanese blogger, Khodor Salameh, was interrogated after writing a post lampooning Michel Suleiman, the country’s president.
Egypt is little better. Two of its policemen are accused of beating to death a young man, Muhammad Khaled Said, outside an internet café in Alexandria in June after he posted an online video incriminating the police in a drug deal. The incident provoked angry protests online and in the streets. Another Egyptian blogger, Abdel Kareem Nabil Suleiman, was arrested in November 2006 for blog posts criticising senior clerics and the government. He has been in detention ever since. Bahrain is getting edgy too. Ali Abdulemam, the monarchy’s best-known blogger, was jailed last month, accused of disseminating false information on his internet forum.
Governments are not only applying existing laws fiercely but also trying to come up with new ones. A new electronic media law in Saudi Arabia will require all online news sites to register. Bloggers will be encouraged to do so as well. A rare bit of good news for bloggers is that Jordan’s government has withdrawn some repressive elements of a proposed temporary law on cyber crimes that would have allowed the government to punish those whose posts upset the authorities. The change of stance came after a flurry of online protests.
The authorities are getting better at exploiting the internet themselves. After the big demonstrations in Iran last year, they circulated pictures of protesters online for members of the public to identify. In May this year, Ebrahim Jabari, a Revolutionary Guard commander, confirmed that the regime had set up a “cyber-army” to crack down on “destructive” online networks. His unit has since hacked into dozens of sites and is thought to be responsible for the arrests of hundreds of Iranians.
Western governments as well as human-rights campaigners are watching the fate of bloggers closely. In January Hillary Clinton, the American secretary of state, expressed support for internet freedom. More recently Bernard Kouchner, France’s foreign minister, said: “We must support cyber-dissidents in the same way that we supported political dissidents.”