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Reporters Without Borders: How They Protect Bloggers & How You Can Help

Last month, Global Voices launched its Help These Bloggers page, signaling the organization's entry into blogger advocacy. (Find out how to add our advocacy badge to your website here.) Although always part of Global Voices mission, support for jailed bloggers became particularly pressing in the past six months due to the arrests of two bloggers close to the Global Voices community. Global Voices’ Northeast Asia Editor, Hao Wu, was detained without charge in China in February. He has still not been granted access to his family or to a lawyer. The second blogger arrested was Alaa Abd el Fatah, co-creator of the Egyptian blog Alaa and Manal's Bit Bucket. Fortunately, this blogger's story ends happily. Alaa's release was announced this week, after six weeks in prison, and he returned home after a horrific night in a police cell.

Nevertheless, as the influence of political bloggers increases so does the persecution they endure from governments who wish to silence all voices of criticism. In fact, 50% of all people arrested for statements made online are blogger. It was in order to learn more about this phenomenon that I visited the international headquarters of Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans Frontières), a Paris-based organization dedicated to defending press freedom around the world. I was there to talk to Julien Pain, head of RSF's Internet Freedom Desk. I was interested in how Julien and his colleagues protect bloggers.

RSF was founded in 1985 by four French journalists who wanted to defend imprisoned journalists and protect freedom of the press around the world. The Internet Freedom Desk was a natural outgrowth of this goal. It was founded in 2001 as a direct reaction to the perceived crack-down on media after September 11th. Explained Julien, “Governments used the fight against terrorism as a pretext for controlling the internet and invading privacy. This worried us.” The Internet Freedom Desk at first focused on protecting privacy on the internet. However, when Julien took over the desk in 2003 he changed the focus to advocating on behalf of people who are jailed or persecuted because of what they write online.

In the beginning, bloggers were not the focus. The people most often targeted by authoritarian governments were “cyber dissidents,” traditional political dissidents who “went cyber” and started publishing critical material on the internet. They were not writing in blogs, but rather on traditional websites like Boxun.com, a US-based site advocating for human rights in China. Even in September 2005, when the Handbook for Bloggers and Cyber Dissidents was published, it was cyber dissidents and not bloggers who were most often targeted by repressive governments. This was because, according to Julien, political blogging was still in its infancy in most of the world and thus bloggers did not pose much of a threat. Bloggers made up only 7% of all people arrested for statements made online, compared with 50% today.

In the future, Julien expects the situation of bloggers to become more dangerous. The number of enemies of the internet is increasing. “There was a time,” he recounted, “when some governments, such as those in Sub-Saharan Africa, did not try to control cyberspace. That isn't true anymore. Governments around the world are realizing that they need to get their hands on the internet.” This new awareness by repressive governments of the power of cyberspeech does not bode well for people who blog.

So, how does the Internet Freedom Desk protect bloggers? Every morning, Julien checks to see where blogs are being blocked or bloggers arrested. He doesn't get his information from traditional media, but rather from a global network of 120 paid correspondents whose job it is to keep an eye on the internet in their respective countries and fact-check reports of blocked sites. Once a story of a blocked site has been confirmed, Julien's next task is to write a press release describing the situation. These press releases are sent to members of the traditional media (television, radio, the press) who have an ongoing relationship with RSF and use the press release as a basis on which to write a news story. Stories in the traditional media further raise awareness of the blogger's situation. In addition, the Internet Freedom Desk lobbies on behalf of bloggers and for greater internet freedom in general. Lobbying might take the form of contacting a foreign embassy, asking an official of the European Union to press a foreign government to release a blogger, or trying to influence internet legislation. Finally, RSF gives money to the families of jailed bloggers so the family can survive financially even though their prime breadwinner is in prison.

You can help the Internet Freedom Desk protect bloggers. If you become aware of a blog that is being blocked or a blogger that has been arrested, e-mail Julien at internet@rsf.org. In the case of a blocked blog, you can even go one step further and help RSF confirm the story. It is highly unlikely that a government will admit to blocking a website, so the blockage will probably never be officially confirmed. For this reason it is necessary to collect evidence from multiple sources to collaborate the story. First, have people living in the country where the site is blocked try to access the site from different ISP's (internet service providers). If people from several ISP's can't access the site, that rules out the possibility that there is a technical problem with one of the ISP's and indicates that the site is being blocked centrally. Second, try to contact the site's owner. It is always possible the owner is updating or has taken her site off-line intentionally for some reason. If the owner believes that her site is blocked, that will also strengthen the argument that a blockage has in fact occurred. Global Voices’ international network of bloggers and blog-readers can be a powerful force for freedom of internet expression by making themselves the eyes and hears of organizations like RSF.

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8 comments

  • Bloggers, cyber dissidents – making such a distinction is unnecessary since at the time cyber dissidents were writing online, blogging was either non-existent or was a new medium. As blogging has grown many of those “cyber dissidents” are now using blogs as oppossed to websites – governments started to target bloggers not because they were bloggers but because they were people using the internet to express opinions against their respective governments. Why has Global Voices not supported the Committee to Protect Bloggers? Since that organisation already exists would it not have been appropriate for GV to use its resources to suppport the CPB in the same way as RSF and for RSF to work with the CPB? Would GV have taken this route if one of its own had not been detained in China? I wonder how many bloggers are on the list of CPB now? Will GV be adding them all to its campaign?

  • Although there was no official announcement, CPB ceased to exist in its orginal form several months ago because Curt Hopkins, the Director, felt that the workload it posed was overwhelming (imagine running a GV-scale operation with almost by yourself). GV writer Farid and I were working with CPB at the time and we were really sad to see it go under, but we couldn’t find a new home for CPB. So, that is why GV does not work directly with CPB I assume. However, I do think it would be nice if GV and RSF worked together more formally. GV has an unbeatable blogger network of sources and RSF has valuable experience in lobbying governments and spreading news within the MSM.

  • Thats fine but GV had the option to support CPB which was an excellent project and one that would have benifted from GV support as would other projects ongoing right at this momment. However clearly at the time they were not interested in doing so – lets be honest it has been the detention of Hao Wu that has led GV to this point – at least acknowledge that. RSF is also an excellent project whose main focus is journalists – why not support a project whose main focus is bloggers – the two can exist side by side and work together but GV chooses the Reuters and the RSF over grassroots ventures created by the very people who make GV work. I think GV needs to think about that.

  • CPB didn’t so much need “support” as it needed writers and regional editors and that is not something GV could provide as it is up to individuals as to how they volunteer their time. Curt was part of the GV group e-mail list and did use it to promote the project (that’s how he hooked Farid and I)…. As for RSF, it is not some large-scale posh NGO (they don’t even have the luxury of air-conditioning!). They have a skeleton staff who work passionately to protect freedom of speech. As for being “grassroots,” they are as grassroots as their network. If bloggers from around the world give them tips then bloggers would constitute their grassroot… As for charging that GV became more interested in blogger human rights cases because of Hao Wu, I see no shame in that. We often become connected to causes when they effect us personally because a single tangible event that hits close to home can make an intangible problem like freedom of speech compelling. I am using a network created around the Free Alaa campaign to help put together a website for digital activists, but I don’t see the project as less valid because it was inspired by a single case of abuse. We are human and we are most effected when those close to us are endangered.

  • So GV had no way of supporting CPB? but it can support this particular campaign? But then that was Curt’s doing rather than GV was not interested in that kind of campaign at that time – now that it is the story is different. GV was and is in a position to support whoever and whatever it chooses to support!

    Of course RSF isnt some “posh” NGO as you put it but it was created at a different time primarily for freedom of the press and journalists world wide – that is my point. As for air conditioning – there are thousands of organisations and people out there putting themselves on the line everyday without air conditioning – surprise some people dont even have computers or internet – please! I certainly do not need a lecture on the hardships facing RSF or any other group/organisation.

    Now you are creating an activist group which is getting GV’s support. So like I said, therefore GV supports who it chooses to support. No there is no shame in choosing to support HR because a GV Regional Editor was detained – its just unfortuante that it took that for them to think about human rights and other bloggers who have been detained – I mean did they not know that this was happening? It was pointed out at some time that GV isnt an “activist” organisation – Now I guess it is!

  • Well, you’re both right. I did need writers and regional editors. Mary and Farid did help out, as did Luke of Olivebranch and many others. I’ve had people over the life of the project who lent a hand. I always appreciated that. But for whatever reason, I could not attract a core of people willing to work steadily. That may be my fault. I’m probably no angel to work with. By the time CPB’s tax exempt status was approved–it took the better part of a year–I was insanely burnt out.

    I’m not certain if the fact that at the time GVO was set up (for lack of a better word) psychologically as more of a journalistic undertaking meant that the ‘activist’ aspect of CPB was unappealing or not. But I would have liked to have seen GVO at least republish all of the dozens of posts I made about people prior to Wu who were interrogated, tortured, removed from jobs and imprisoned. For goodness sake, Omid Sheikhan, a 110-pound teenager was sentenced to 124 lashes and a year and a half in an Iranian criminal jail and I believe that it got no attention from GVO at all.

    At most it could have asked the editors to keep an eye out for arrested bloggers and funnel the information our way. I always got a bit of the red-headed step-child feeling when I dealt with GVO in the past. The fact that we were ‘only’ bloggers, not part of the ‘community’ of credentialled activist organizations seemed to make some at GVO uneasy.

    But, as I’ve communicated via other avenues, that is in fact the past. I wish the best to everyone involved in the GVO project, as well as RSF which has done its bit to keep the profile of bloggers up. I would very much suggest, though, that, as I said in my departing post on my personal blog, you all “stay alert to the tendency of all large organizations to drift toward self-justification, turf wars and political expediency and continue to pay attention to the rights of the people (you) exist to defend.” We are all, as Mary suggests, human. And that means we are as petty in the everyday as we can be brave in the clutch.

  • I don’t mean to imply that editors at GVO never mentioned the issues we dealt with. Just that there was no effort to systematically communicate that information. That in itself would have been a help. Anyway, take care.

  • Great interview Mary. Wish to see more.It was an honour for me to work with u & Curt on CPB. Both of you are very passionate & rational people.

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