Bloggers Essential to Mideast Democratization, Panelists Say

By Evan Moore | July 7, 2008 | 8:18pm EDT

Washington ( - In an event at the conservative American Enterprise Institute on Monday, a panel of bloggers from three Middle East nations told assembled officials, journalists, and activists that their trade was critical to liberalize and democratize the region, due to their unique role in debunking misinformation and propaganda from state-run media.

Mohammed Ali, who runs the award-winning Iraq the Model blog, noted that while the growth and development of Internet activity in the Arab world was "good so far," it still had a ways to go. Only one out of every 10 Arabs has Internet access, and of those on the Internet, only 30,000 blogs were being run, said Ali.

Because repressive regimes generally try to control all means for their citizens to express themselves, Ali reported that many of the bloggers in Middle Eastern countries use anonymous screen names to voice their opinions on the Web. In many instances, he said, it was their first time expressing any sentiment that deviated from official state doctrine.

In return, Ali said, bloggers often find themselves pressured by both official government agents and by radical elements within their nation.

Another panelist, Iranian journalist Arash Sigarchi, expanded on Ali's comments through an interpreter. He noted that, in Iran, more than 2 million people were blogging and the regime's efforts to curtail blogging were not working.

However, the Iranian government is successfully cracking down on print publications. Sigarchi noted that the Iranian judiciary, acting on explicit orders from higher levels in the government, had recently shut down more than 200 newspapers in Iran, killed two journalists, imprisoned 70, and interrogated hundreds.

Journalists and bloggers are also pressured by secret government agencies and radicals within the population itself.

The Iranian Ministry of Intelligence, Sigarchi reported, made it clear to journalists that they would face jail time if they did not adopt an editorial line that favored Tehran's theocracy. Unlike many of his colleagues, Sigarchi could not accept that and turned to blogging to publish stories online that he could not in print.

For his efforts, Sigarchi was sentenced to 14 years in jail. He was released before completion of his term by the Iranian regime when he was diagnosed with cancer.

In total, though, Sigarchi said that Iranians are living in an Orwellian-type of isolation. Though approximately 40 percent of Iranians have satellite television dishes, Sigarchi remarked that possession of such a device is reason enough for the regime's security services to invade people's homes and pressure them.

He added that when Iranian state-run media imply a pro-government rally is to occur, the population dutifully attends and participates.

"[Outside] information is hard to come by in Iran," Sigarchi said through his translator. "Though I do not have personal experience with this, I understand that drugs are easier to come by than outside information."

The panel's third speaker, a Lebanese blogger named Tony Badran, said that in Lebanon blogs tended to take on a different flavor than the oppressed-against-oppressor dynamic in Iraq and Iran. Rather, the blogging community was fairly reflective of the population's political views.

After the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, there was an explosion of bloggers to express their discontent against their Syrian occupiers and to organize rallies against the Damascus-backed government. They also served as a go-to-source by Western media to cover the Lebanese people's Cedar Revolution that year.

Since then, the Lebanese blogosphere has become a front for voices of all perspectives to engage in information warfare with each other, said Badran, while the government uses the Internet to express its official policy and deliver misinformation to the people.

The popular opposition uses blogs to debunk government propaganda, he said, adding that Hizballah, which holds considerable sway along the country's border with Israel, pressures secular and liberal bloggers with whom they disagree.

Blogs, Badran said, are needed to decode and deconstruct the Arab media, because what often starts out as propaganda and misinformation by the regime often gets picked up by other media in the region and in the West and is expressed as fact without any fact-checking or opposition perspective.

Ali speaks to Cybercast News Service

Half a year after Iraq was liberated in April 2003, Ali posted on his blog that those who opposed the overthrow of Saddam's regime "owe us an apology." Ali was referring to peace demonstrators, leftist intellectuals, and the governments who opposed the American and British efforts in the U.N. Security Council.

When asked by Cybercast News Service if he still maintained that opinion, given the events that have occurred in Iraq since 2003, Ali said there was no qualitative difference between radical Islamist terrorists and the dictators that rule certain countries in the Middle East.

The United States, and the rest of the free world, was obligated, therefore, to deal with them in the name of the human values that they cherish, said Ali.

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