|Some governments, including Vietnam, Egypt and Bahrain, consider blogging to be a threat [GALLO/GETTY]|
In 2009, Iranian blogger Omidreza Mirsayafi became the first blogger ever to die in prison. That year alone, a year referred to by a senior US State Department official as “the worst year in the history of the internet as it related to internet freedom”, no fewer than 35 bloggers around the world languished in prison.
While by no means a new phenomenon – Tunisia arrested its first blogger back in 2000 – the events of 2009 escalated risk for netizens across the world, as governments quickly awakened to the “threat” posed by bloggers and social media users. This year, as an increasing number of citizens have taken up cyber-arms, protesting online as well as on the street, governments have broadened their attacks on netizens. No longer content to simply censor content, countries like Syria and Bahrain have upped the ante, employing online propagandists and intimidating those who dare speak out online.
Still others – such as Thailand -utilise draconian laws to hold online publishers responsible for comments, a practice which has chilling effects for all internet users. There is no single organisation that tracks every blogger arrest around the world; indeed, doing so would be a full-time job.
Nevertheless, statistics compiled by tireless groups such as Global Voices, Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists suggest 2011 to be among the worst years yet for online free expression, marred by the persecution of bloggers and social media users in a number of states. Below are five of the worst.
Egypt’s vast blogosphere has always felt comfortable wielding a certain level of criticism, but its members have also been acutely aware of red lines ever since the country arrested its first blogger in 2005. In November 2010, blogger Kareem Amer was released after spending more than four years behind bars, solely for insulting Islam on his blog. Given the events that shortly followed, many Egyptian bloggers started the year off hopeful for greater freedoms, but were quickly disappointed: In March, outspoken blogger Maikel Nabil was arrested for accusing the military of conducting virginity tests on female protesters, a charge that later proved to be true. He was charged with “insulting the military institution and publishing false news about it” and “disturbing public security”, and after a long ordeal, sentenced to two years in prison.
Lest Nabil’s case be considered an anomaly, Asmaa Mahfouz’s arrest in August for insulting Egypt’s Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) exposed the military regime’s intentions. Though charges against Mahfouz were later dropped, Ayman Youssef Mansour – charged under the same statute as Kareem Amer before him – wasn’t so lucky, receiving a sentence of three years for a comment he made on Facebook in October.
The tiny Gulf country’s blogosphere has always been lively, with a sense of openness and national pride. But in early 2011, as government crackdowns left protesters reeling and national monuments tumbling down, bloggers were amid the government’s targets. On March 30 and April 5, respectively, authorities briefly detained two of the country’s most prominent bloggers, Mahmood Al-Yousif and Mohamed El-Maskati.
Lawyer of jailed blogger speaks to Al Jazeera
And tragically, blogger Zakariya Rashid Hassan Al-Ashiri became the second blogger to die in prison, just weeks after his initial arrest. Authorities claimed his death to be a result of complications of a pre-existing condition, but photographs released by his family show evidence of serious recent abuse.
Throughout the year, the social media landscape in the country has become increasingly polarised, with some bloggers reporting the practice of self-censorship, rather than risking arrest. In July, many bloggers’ fears were reflected in the sentencing of prominent bloggers Ali Abdulemam (who was previously jailed in 2005 for insulting the regime on his site, BahrainOnline.org) and Abduljalil Alsingace to 15 years in prison. Abdulemam, who was sentenced in absentia, remains in hiding.
More recently, blogger Zainab Al-Khawaja, who tweets prolifically as @angryarabiya, was beaten and arrested after taking part in a protest. Al-Khawaja’s father, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, is a prominent opposition figure sentenced in June to life imprisonment.
The Southeast Asian country, one of just a few where Facebook is blocked by the government, currently jails at least half a dozen bloggers for their online writing, typically under the auspices of other crimes, such as tax fraud. On August 2, a seven-year sentence was upheld in the appeal of blogger Cu Huy Ha Vu, who was initially charged with disseminating anti-government propaganda.
Just eight days later, blogger and university lecturer Pham Minh Hoang was sentenced to three years in prison, plus an additional three years under house arrest for “activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s government”; namely, blogging his criticism of the bauxite mining industry and of the government.
As protests have raged throughout the country for the better part of a year, Syria – where at least a dozen bloggers languish in jail, some for more than five years – has increased its restrictions on speech, unleashing a torrent of pro-government hackers and social media accounts and arresting and threatening bloggers.
While several have fled the country, others have not been so lucky: In February, the regime kicked off 2011 by sentencing teenage blogger Tal Al-Mallouhi to five years in prison. In July, Anas Maarawi, a prominent tech blogger who attended Al Jazeera’s 2011 blogger forum, was arrested and put in prison for 59 days.
Most bloggers arrested in Syria have been met with loud international campaigns, which some have reported earn them better treatment in prison. Rarely, however, do they result in ultimate freedom. Hussein Ghrer and Razan Ghazzawi, imprisoned in October and December respectively, and released recently on bail, currently face trial. Ghazzawi, who also works as a media officer for the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression, faces up to 15 years in prison.
Iran continues to live up to its reputation as one of the most restrictive nations in the world in terms of free expression. In addition to its proposition this year of a ‘halal internet’ (essentially a Cuba-style intranet, barring citizens from outside websites), Iran – a country which has been known to dole out 15-year sentences for ‘crimes’ such as acting against the interest of the state -jailed several bloggers this year.
That list includes Rojin Mohammedi, a medical student in the Philippines and blogger who, upon returning to her native Iran, was arrested at the airport and remains in detention without charge.
No more silence
Though the five aforementioned states have lead the pack in blogger persecution this year, some 20 countries – among them Azerbaijan, China, Pakistan, Turkey and Thailand – arrested or sentenced bloggers this year. Though the motivation of each country differs, all have something in common: the desire to silence those they find threatening. It’s no coincidence that, in China, Syria, and everywhere in between, the most common charge is some variation of “disturbing national sentiment.”
In this, the year of the protester, the world has become increasingly aware of the value of citizen reporting. From Tahrir to Wall Street, news has been sustained by tweets and amateur video, and creators of that media held in regard by both producers and consumers of mainstream media. The “who is a journalist?” conversations of five years ago seem suddenly quaint in light of the brave citizen reporting, emerging from Syria and Egypt.
Nevertheless, governments have wizened to this newfound appreciation, cracking down on bloggers with a vengeance. What five years ago was an anomaly has now become commonplace, with new blogger arrests regularly making headlines and often scaring other bloggers into silence or self-censorship.
Though some countries, such as Vietnam, have gotten away with levying irrelevant charges at netizens, as the lines between journalist and blogger continue to blur, such games will cease to be possible, and authorities will be exposed for what they are: Scared.
Jillian C York is director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. She writes a regular column for Al Jazeera focusing on free expression and Internet freedom. She also writes for and is on the Board of Directors of Global Voices Online.
Follow her on Twitter: @jilliancyork
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.