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It's Out! Handbook for Bloggers & Cyber-Dissidents

Categories: Freedom of Speech, Literature

BlogGuide cover [1]
Reporters Without Borders [2] has given Global Voices a sneak peak at the Handbook For Bloggers and Cyber-Dissidents before its official Thursday release. Click here to download the full booklet. [3] Thanks to Julien Pain for his hard work on this project. It is a valuable gift to the world's bloggers.

Lately there has been a proliferation of blogging guides published in English, but almost all of them are aimed at Americans and Western Europeans. Or they're meant for companies and organizations who want to use blogging for smarter P.R., “knowledge management,” or internal communication purposes, or for people who want to turn their blogs into little commercial media enterprises. Then there are the articles about how you can improve your social and romantic life through blogging… or how to use your blog to make yourself notorious, get on TV and become famous…

The Reporters Without Borders [1] Handbook for Bloggers and Cyber-Dissidents is not for any of those purposes. It is the first truly useful book I've seen aimed at the kinds of bloggers featured here at Global Voices every day: People who have views and information that they want to share with the world beyond their own national borders. They are often people whose perspectives are not well represented in their own country's media, and certainly not well reported by the international media. Sometimes they are political dissidents, but usually not. Mainly, they are just ordinary citizens with a passion to communicate with the world – and no easier way to do so than by writing, podcasting, and posting pictures on their own blogs.

The Handbook for Bloggers is for people who want to be serious participants in the emergent online global conversation: How to set up a quality, credible blog. How to get it noticed. And.. if you're in a country where there government might not like what you're saying, how to avoid getting in trouble when you by-pass the information gatekeepers and talk directly to the world.

As Julien writes in his introduction to the booklet, blogging can be revolutionary in countries where freedom of speech is not respected:

Blogging is a powerful tool of freedom of expression that has enthused millions of ordinary people. Passive consumers of information have become energetic participants in a new kind of journalism – what US blog pioneer Dan Gillmor calls “grassroots journalism… by the people, for the people” (see chapter on “What ethics should bloggers have?”).

Bloggers are often the only real journalists in countries where the mainstream media is censored or under pressure. Only they provide independent news, at the risk of displeasing the government and sometimes courting arrest. Plenty of bloggers have been hounded or thrown in prison. One of the contributors to this handbook, Arash Sigarchi, was sentenced to 14 years in jail for posting several messages online that criticised the Iranian regime. His story illustrates how some bloggers see what they do as a duty and a necessity, not just a hobby. They feel they are the eyes and ears of thousands of other Internet users.

The Handbook for Bloggers is useful for beginners and veteran bloggers alike. It starts out with several introductory chapters, explaining how blogs differ from other kinds of websites, blogging terminology, how to select a blogging tool and web-host, and how to get started. The middle chapters focus on tips that even veteran bloggers will find useful. Journalist, blogger and We the Media [4] author Dan Gillmor [5] tackles the issue of journalistic credibility and standards. Journalist Mark Glaser [6] offers tips on how to “make your blog shine.” I learned a lot from the chapter on how to get your blog picked up by search engines, written by internet consultant Olivier Andrieu [7].

The most inspiring section is the “Personal Accounts,” short essays from bloggers around the world about why they blog and why blogging matters:

  • German blogger Markus Beckedahl of Netzpolitik [8], a blog defending civil and human rights online. (See his GV interview here [9].)
  • Bahrain-based anonymous blogger Chan'ad Bahraini [10] on how Bahraini bloggers have “broken the government's news monopoly”
  • Hong Kong's Yan Sham-Shackleton, aka Glutter [11], on blogging for Chinese human rights and free speech. (See the GV profile of her here [12].)
  • Jay Rosen [13] points out that even in the United States, blogs are a revolutionary new way for writers to circumvent various powerful “gatekeepers.”
  • Iran's Arash Sigarchi, who did some prison time for his blogging on the importance of blogs in Iran as an outlet for non-government-approved speech. (Arash was sentenced to 14 years in prison and is free pending an appeal.)
  • The anonymous Radio Free Nepal [14], on how blogs were used to get information out of the country after the military takeover by Nepal's King Gyanendra early this year.
  • The final set of chapters takes a hard-core technical look at how bloggers like Arash might avoid arrest, how bloggers like Chan'ad and RFN might avoid being “outed,” and how bloggers and blog-readers in countries like China where the internet is heavily censored can get around the political “firewalls.” Global Voices Co-Founder Ethan Zuckerman [15] has written a fabulous Guide to Anonymous Blogging. In a chapter aptly called “Technical Ways to Get Round Censorship,” the Citizenlab [16]‘s Nart Villneuve gives the most thorough guide I've seen to getting around internet censorship “firewalls” by using proxy servers and other fun tools. Ludovic Pierrat then tells us how to ensure that our email is “truly private.”

    Too bad that Chinese journalist Shi Tao [17] didn't have access to that information – if he had, he wouldn't now be serving a 10-year jail sentence after Yahoo! handed over his e-mail information to the Chinese police. Aptly, Juilen concludes with a final chapter entitled: “Internet Censor World Championship,” in which the Chinese government is the hands-down winner, followed by Vietnam, Tunisia, Iran, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, and Uzbekistan.

    All in all, an extremely important handbook and Julien Pain deserves great kudos for pulling it off. Global Voices will be hosting an online IRC chat [18] early next week with Julien and some of the other contributors. Stay tuned for details.

    Meanwhile, I've got a question and a few thoughts.

    I'd like to ask Julien (and maybe you would like to discuss in the comments section below): Will some bloggers by scared off by the use of “cyber-dissidents” in the title? Most bloggers – even while they may have a political “edge” to them and talk about things their own mainstream media avoids – still don't consider themselves “dissidents” and don't want to be called “dissidents” by others, as such a label is more likely to bring negative attention and get them in trouble. I know a number of people frequently featured on Global Voices who might be considered “dissdents” by outsiders, but who would never ever want to be labeled in the international media or on other blogs as such. I'd like to know what other bloggers out there think about this question.

    In the next edition, I'd love to see a couple more sections. In one, I'd like somebody to address the issue of what I call “consequence awareness.” I've discovered in my exploration of the international blogosphere that many bloggers start blogging – even anonymously on tools like Blogger – without really thinking through the consequences of what they're doing. Are they taking enough precautions to protect themselves from being discovered? Are they prepared to deal with the consequences of their own speech? Not only for speaking the truth on their blogs, but also if they unfairly or inaccurately accuse somebody of something nasty? I've observed that many bloggers start blogging without thinking these things through, because many people still harbor the impression that cyberspace is a free zone where anything is possible. As many are learning the hard way, that's not the case. In Singapore, two bloggers were recently charged with sedition [19] for racist comments online, and this is now sending waves of fear through the Malaysian blogosphere [20].

    I'd also love to see a thorough discussion for international bloggers on other legal issues like copyright and plagiarism. These are issues we have been wrestling with at Global Voices, especially as we discuss plans to do more with photos, audio, and possibly video. The only legal guidelines for bloggers I've seen anywhere are only applicable in the United States. These issues are important for those of us concerned with free speech because copyright violation charges are a great way for governments to shut down or discredit people they don't like.

    Finally, one small nitpick: In the chapter “Choosing the Best Tool,” the list of international blogging platforms only contains three different blog-hosting services: Blogger, Livejournal and MSN. The list for French-language ones is much longer. This is probably due to the fact that Reporters Without Borders is headquartered in France. Still, I think it would have been fair to include Typepad [21], which is widely used around the globe, as well as the free WordPress based service Blogsome [22], and Civiblog [23]‘s free blog service for “civil society bloggers.” I'm especially uncomfortable having MSN featured so prominently as one of only three recommended hosted blog services given its track record of censorship [24].

    But these are all small things. I raise them here because I think they're all departure-points for good follow-on discussion. Please read this excellent handbook, then hit the “comments section” and let us know what you think about it – as a blogger or as a blog-reader.