The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says five Middle Eastern and North African countries are among the world's "worst online oppressors", intimidating and imprisoning journalists and bloggers.
|The CPJ says more web-based writers than print journalists were arrested in 2009 [GALLO/GETTY]
In its report - The ten worst countries to be a blogger - released in May ahead of a World Press Freedom conference organised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Social Organisation (Unesco) in Doha, Qatar, CPJ said bloggers were at most risk in Egypt, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia.
Burma topped the list for its severe restrictions on internet use and censorship. China was named as the country with the most comprehensive online censorship policies.
Iran was listed as the Middle East's worst offender for its continued harassment and intimidation of bloggers. Omidreza Mirsayafi, an Iran-based blogger, was cited by the CPJ report as having died in prison "under circumstances that have not been fully explained".
Targeting the web
According to an earlier study by the CPJ, 45 per cent of all imprisoned media workers world wide are bloggers, web-based reporters, or online editors.
Of the 125 journalists currently imprisoned around the world,some 56 are web-based journalists and writers. The organisation says 2009 marks the first time the number of jailed online writers surpasses the number of detained print journalists.
Nora Younis, an Egyptian blogger and journalist, explains the trend by saying that "bloggers are nowadays taken seriously by authorities as well as Arab media", a significant change from a few years ago when she said bloggers used to be ignored.
Bloggers in countries like Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia say they have become instrumental in exposing human rights issues like police brutality, torture, and sexual harassment which has made regional governments undertake increasingly aggressive means to curb cyber-dissidence.
Naila Hamdy, a professor of journalism at the American University in Cairo, says that the political and cultural challenges posed by new media have taken Arab governments by surprise.
"So far, unregulated satellite has brought fuelling of sectarian wars, political dissent and opposing views," she told Al Jazeera in a previous interview.
"With the possibility of thousands more stations and other technologies catching on in a second ... I think that those in government responsible for information regulation have realised that they are a decade behind. They are now trying to address this new era."
The voiceless speak
Nevertheless, bloggers in the Middle East are making their voices heard. In Egypt, they took an active part in organising widespread anti-government activities, rallying pro-Hariri protesters in Lebanon, mounting anti-corruption campaigns in Libya and electioneering in Kuwaiti elections.
|In 2007, Kareem Amer was given a four-year sentence for 'insulting' Egypt's president
They have exposed the grim realities of everyday life in war-torn Iraq. In the Gulf, female bloggers are increasingly going online calling for change in a display of growing assertiveness.
More broadly, Arab bloggers continue to break cultural and religious taboos: discussing the social and political malaise afflicting the Arab world, exploring sexual identities and challenging the dominant institutions of religion, state and family.
Ahmed Al Omran, the owner of Saudi Jeans, a Saudi Arabian blog, is one of the most influential in the Gulf region; he hopes to "be a part of the change that is taking place in Saudi Arabia".
Arguing that much of the media in the region does not reflect realities on the ground, he uses his blog as an "agent of change" to push for social justice and greater citizen involvement in the country's affairs.
For him, "human rights, freedom of expression and women's rights are all important issues that our nation will need to tackle on the way to change".
But persecution of cyber-dissidents has became a reality in Saudi Arabia, which has detained bloggers for "violating the kingdom's regulations".
Thirty-two-year-old Fouad al-Farhan was arrested in December 2007 and his computers seized for criticising the pace of reforms in the kingdom.
He was held in solitary confinement at Dahban prison in Jeddah until his release in late April 2008.
But some countries have also in recent years imposed travel bans on bloggers and journalists as a means of applying pressure.
Said Essoulami, the executive director of the Morocco-based Centre for Media Freedom in the Middle East and North Africa, believes the bans are designed to control dissident writers and activists.
"Retaliations such as assassination and imprisonment of writers have been reduced because there are new ways of controlling journalists," he said.
Essoulami said several journalists and bloggers have been barred from participating in international media conferences.
He pointed to the Third Arab Free Press Forum held in Beirut in December 2008 and said many key dissident writers such as Saudi Arabian blogger Fouad Al-Farhan, Mazen Darwish, the director of the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression, and Tunisian journalist Litfi Hidouri had been prevented from participating.
"In fact, every journalist invited from Syria could not come," Essoulami said.
Bloggers have been detained in many countries -including Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, Tunisia - for the views they expressed on their blogs.
Authorities in these countries are stepping up their efforts to filter such websites. Saudi Arabia blocks thousands of websites and Bahrain is trying to register bloggers, in further signs of a clampdown.
In 2007, Egyptian writer Kareem Amer was imprisoned for "insulting Islam and President Hosni Mubarak" on his blog. He is currently serving a four-year sentence at Borg Al-Arab prison outside Alexandria.
In Syria, blogger Tariq Baissi was sentenced to three years in prison for "weakening the national feeling and the national ethos". Biassi had posted a six word long comment in a web forum in which he criticised the Syrian security services. Numerous other cyber dissidents remain behind bars in Syria.
In Tunis, Nazira Rijba, a Tunisian writer and activist, was in late 2008 charged over an article she wrote in support of the Tunisian news website Kalima which has been subject to censorship by the Tunisian authorities.
She says she is regularly harassed over the Interphone at her house and on the street by the authorities for her work and activism.
"Do not think of us as victims," she said. "We are militants who are being harassed by the government. We are paying the price of freedom, but freedom is the door for change."
Fadi Zaghmout, a Jordanian web developer, uses The Arab Observer blog to write about personal freedoms and tolerance in the Middle East.
His blog sometimes courts controversy because it discusses topics such as sexual freedoms, women's issues, homosexuality and gender equality.
He says he has also been cataloguing underreported cases of sexual harassment of women in the Arab street, honour crimes, and the social pressures on young Arabs - particularly women - to get married.
Koukha Mansour, a media analyst based in Syria, says journalists and bloggers in the Middle East are likely to continue to face excessive censorship and the fear of being threatened, harassed, or imprisoned in the years to come.
"Middle East media should unify their efforts and establish a liberated journalists union that reinforces the freedom of press and work independently from any governmental or 'lobby' interests," she said.
"Journalists are using bloggers as sources more and more, quoting reports, videos, and photos," Rachid Jankari, a Moroccan journalist, told Al Jazeera.
Many internet activists believe the jailing of web writers will increase in the future, especially as more and more print journalists are said to be migrating to web-based work for various reasons, including censorship circumvention.
"It will increase, I'm sure, as more and more people are tasting the power of the internet and the usage of the web is spreading," said Sami Ben Gharbia, the Tunisia advocacy director of Global Voices, told Al Jazeera.
"We will see more of this detainment of online journalists in the future."
With additional reporting by Julian Madsen and David Stanford.