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 firstname.lastname@example.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.