Even though the “Free Kareem” campaign has not yet achieved its primary goal of getting the 22-old blogger Kareem Nabel Sulaiman released from the prison where he is sentenced to spend the next four years for insulting Islam and the Egyptian president Hosni Moubarek, support for the case is growing rapidly, both online and offline. Even those who may not agree with the things he wrote on his personal blog — or the manner in which he wrote them — are expressing solidarity with Kareem by signing petitions, demonstrating in the streets, blogging about the case and adding his banner to their sites and blogs. Worldwide rallies designed to help “Free Kareem” have taken place in front of several Egyptian embassies around the globe and the case has caught the attention of both mainstream and citizen media.
The role that Global Voices has played in covering, supporting and amplifying Kareem’s case is obvious. Since the beginning, our team of editors and authors have been continuously translating and reporting what their respective blogspheres are saying about the case. As you can see from the next animation, Global Voices has served as source of information for many who couldn’t find sufficient background knowledge and, given the existing cultural constraints and communication barriers across countries, offered a better picture of the situation than many other sources.
A few hard questions
The success of the “Free Kareem” campaign in attracting attention and winning sympathy for the young blogger's case should give new impetus to the exploration of an efficient strategy for supporting all persecuted bloggers and online writers, especially those who, for various reasons, have not succeeded in gaining the attention of the media or the blogsphere. The success of the campaign also makes it difficult to avoid answering some hard questions about the reasons for the overwhelming support it has gained.
Why is Kareem Amer is getting such attention, not just from the media, but also from politicians and people in the street? In a region where the Western media, armed with its familiar stereotypes and clichés, are used to focusing on Islam and religion as the most critical ingredients in any situation, people are asking legitimate question about the motives behind the support given to the campaign. Is it possibly related to the fact that Kareem was criticizing Islam? Responding to the question, “Why Kareem? What About the Others?”, the activists running the “Free Kareem” blog have given an excellent answer to a question on many people's minds:
There are many people who are going through horrific and unimaginable experiences in prison. Many of these people don’t deserve what they are going through. We do realize this unfortunate fact, we never denied it nor do we consider Kareem more important than the many others in similar positions (…) As for the claim that the Western media is paying particular attention to Kareem and are treating him as a “special figure” because of his anti-Islam stance, this is hardly the case.
The Tunisian blogger Malek, who supported Kareem from the beginning and took part in demonstrations on his behalf in Paris, has tried to understand the support given to the Kareem case as “selective compassion”, and makes the comparison between the coverage given to the Kareem case and that given to the case of lawyer, internet writer and human rights defender Mohammed Abbou, who – charged with writing online articles criticizing the Tunisian penitentiary system – marked his second year in jail on March 1st, 2007:
Le phénomène de la compassion sélective n'est pas nouveau. Faut-il certainement y voir la prédominance des médias de masses qui ont formaté l'information en la réduisant à des symboles qui ont pour but de susciter de l'émotion. Selon le pays, la culture et l'histoire du consommateur de l'information, sa réaction face à l'information n'est pas la même. C'est donc tout naturellement que pour les médias occidentaux, un blogueur égyptien incarcéré pour avoir sévèrement « critiquer » l'Islam, est beaucoup plus accrocheur médiatiquement qu'un avocat père de deux enfants, époux d'une femme remarquable, torturer et jeter en prison pour un texte qui dénonce l'état des prisons tunisiennes et les exactions qui s'y pratiquent. Les médias alternatifs qui ont émergé avec les nouvelles technologies de l'Internet, avaient initialement pour objectif de se soustraire à cette information du symbole et de l'émotion. Mais semblent en fin de compte succomber aux même tentations simplificatrices et stéréotypées.
Selective compassion is not a new phenomenon. At work here one can see the hand of the mass media, which manipulated information by reducing it to symbols in order to raise emotion. News consumers’ reaction vary widely according to country of residence, culture and his or her personal history. It is thus quite natural for Western media to consider an Egyptian blogger, imprisoned for his criticism of Islam, a much more attractive media-bait than a Tunisian lawyer, father of two children, husband of a remarkable woman, tortured and thrown in jail for a text which denounces the state of Tunisian prisons and the exactions which go on there. Alternative media that emerged with information technology and the Internet were initially intent on freeing information from symbols and emotion. It seems that, ultimately, they are caving in to the same temptation: over-simplification and stereotypes.
The bitterness and disappointment with which Malek has expressed the problem may raise a few eyebrows, although it pales in comparison with what is being said and written on blogs and in commentaries on what some are calling a double-standard in defending bloggers and internet writers.
Lessons from Kareem
With such a complex mix of agendas and interpretations, however, it is perhaps more constructive to inquire about the “how” of this success. The lessons we can learn from this experience and from previous initiatives adopted by the highly organized and thriving Egyptian blogsphere are many. Here are a few of them:
- Setting up a standalone site or blog for each case is essential for a successful campaign. It serves as the public online face of the campaign; a space for providing information, updates, breaking news and links to other initiatives supporting the persecuted blogger or online writer.
- Showing photos of the individual and posting examples of his or her work (writings etc) helps personalize the case and puts a human face on the story. The person being persecuted or harassed is no longer just a name, but a human being and a focus for the public's support and sympathy.
- In the era of Web 2.0, targeting blogging communities like Global Voices also helps guarantee success, since they help amplify the news and make it available to mainstream media and NGO’s who otherwise wouldn’t find them.
- Writing in English is crucial to reaching a wider community. Despite the existence of massive communities of bloggers writing in languages like Chinese, Persian, Russian, Spanish, Portuguese, etc., English remains a dominant an influential language in the blogosphere. To quote the Iranian blogger Hossein Derakhshan: “If a news item isn't written or printed in English…it has never happened.” *.
A comparison with Tunisia
In the light of these considerations, and in order to understand the logic behind the success or the failure of campaigning, let’s take a critical look at the Tunisian cyber-activism experience over the past six years, (a situation with which I’m very familiar). There is no doubt that the Tunisian activists’ failure to gain the attention of the global blogsphere has partly to do with the fact that they were seldom active on blogs, in spite of the pioneering role some of them played in the Arab blogosphere.
Instead, they concentrated their activism efforts on dissident websites, newsletters and forums, which prevented them from making connections with blogger communities around the world. These factors, combined with 1) the success of the Tunisian regime in creating an atmosphere of fear – which is too deeply rooted in the Tunisian blogsphere – and in isolating the most outspoken bloggers by censoring them and 2) the apolitical approach adopted by the Tunisian blogs aggregator, which excludes, censors and filters political blogs, don't help the Tunisian activists’ efforts to make themselves heard on the Internet and even within their local blogsphere. All this despite the sweeping crackdowns on the freedom of expression and the human rights abuses in the country.
The most successful episodes of the Tunisian cyber-activism were those conducted in English. It was interesting to see that the Yezzi Fock! – “Enough is enough”- campaign and The Tunisian Prison Map gained more support from English-speaking bloggers and activists than from the French-speaking online community. Moreover, numerous Tunisian bloggers and activists were disappointed to see that the censorship of the yezzi.org web site, was overlooked by the French media and even by the prominent French NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF). This caused a few Tunisian activists to reconsider the use of French in their initiatives as English online communities have proven to be more supportive, especially after Global Voices Online had spread the word. As Global Voices co-founder Ethan Zuckerman put it in his “Talk about advocacy and citizen journalism”:
At our best, we’re an amplifier for voices that might not otherwise be heard. Tunisian free speech activists start a site called Yezzi Fock – which means “We’ve had enough”, expressing their frustration with the Ben Ali government. We call attention to the site on Global Voices. Sometimes, we do a good enough job that other bloggers grab the story, like Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit. Other times, we help the mainstream media find stories they otherwise wouldn’t encounter.
Consequently, in spite of the motivations which may have influenced the media coverage of Kareem's case and galvanized worldwide support, and apart from any conspiracy theories one might imagine, an objective examination of the situations shows that the campaign's success was due to several key elements. And above all other considerations, Kareem, like all those who are paying the price of exercising their right to free speech, do deserve support and do need help.
In a future article we shall draw attention to under-covered campaigns and point to specific cases of bloggers and internet writers who need our support. A few of them have been in prison for years, and a few other are being sued or harassed because of what they are writing online.
*We are Iran, The Persian Blogs, by Nasrin Alavi, Portobello Books, London, 2005, p. 344.