San Francisco, CA – Each time I log in to Facebook, I am presented with the option of visiting the profiles of friends currently in prison. These friends are not incarcerated in my country, the United States, nor are their “crimes” violent or drug-related. All are, rather, victims of political repression, imprisoned in Tehran and Damascus, or in hiding somewhere in Bahrain.
When Hossein Derakhshan (or “Hoder” as he is known to friends) was arrested back in 2009, he was the first blogger I’d met in person to fall victim to such a fate. We’d met the previous summer, at a Global Voices conference in Budapest, to the sound of dance music on a rooftop well past midnight. He was charismatic, and as I learned from many of his friends, conflicted. Just one year later, shortly after his ill-fated return to Iran, he would be arrested and sentenced to 19 years in prison.
Although our meeting had been brief, Hoder’s arrest impacted me pretty intensely. Seeing him largely ignored in the US press – despite previous praise as the “Blogfather” of the Iranian blogosphere – spurred me to speak up; I haven’t been silent since.
It was only a month after Hoder’s arrest that, along with some of the Arab world’s most prominent and respected bloggers, I was welcomed to Beirut for the second “Arabloggers” workshop for my work with Global Voices. It was there that, for the second time, I met Ali Abdulemam, the Bahraini blogger who by that point was well-known – at least in our blogger circles – for the online platform he had founded, Bahrain Online.
Like Hoder, perhaps Ali didn’t realise how brave his actions were. It was only a few months later that Bahrain began to crack down on dissidents. In August, Ali’s home was raided, he and his team arrested and charged with “inciting hatred of the government”. Though they were released not long after, Ali was arrested again the next month and charged with “spreading false information”. While in detention, he was fired from his job, tortured and reportedly denied legal counsel. He was free long enough to see the beginning of Bahrain’s uprising, but by the time the government once again began to crack down on bloggers and activists, he had disappeared.
In June 2011, Ali was tried by a military court in absentia and sentenced to 15 years in prison for allegedly plotting an anti-government coup. He remains in hiding. More recently, my good friend Razan Ghazzawi spent time in prison for her brave work with the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, along with a number of her colleagues. Though she has since been released, Razan still faces a trial; her fate remains unknown.
Ali, Razan and Hoder are but three examples illustrating the repression that bloggers face throughout the Middle East and, increasingly, many countries across the globe. From Iran to China, Vietnam and back to Tunisia, the year following the “Arab Spring” and a series of global popular movements has resulted in crackdowns on expression, showing just how terrified governments have become of the voice accorded their citizens via the internet.
And indeed, they have: Nearly halfway through 2012, online repression remains on the rise. In post-dictatorship Tunisia and Egypt, the face of the threats may have changed, but their implications remain all too real. Social media users still run the risk of blasphemy charges in the former, while in the latter, military detentions continue. In the Gulf countries – where authorities fight to maintain stability in a rapidly changing region – bloggers are detained in increasing numbers, while new regulations are debated, such as Kuwait’s proposed death sentence for insulting the prophet. Elsewhere, new systems are being put into place to filter and surveil citizens, such as one recently discovered in Ethiopia.
Globally, the average sentence meted out to bloggers who run afoul of speech restrictions also appears to be on the rise, which shows just how desperate some of these regimes have become.
A glimmer of hope
In light of such repression, hopelessness is all too easy. But for every story of an Ali or a Hoder, there is a glimmer of light: Razan Ghazzawi’s recent receipt of Front Line Defenders’ human rights defenders at risk award or Iranian authorities responding to the hunger strike of blogger Hossein Ronaghi Maleki (though, it should be noted, both Ghazzawi and Ronaghi Maleki continue to face grave threats from authorities).
“For those already imprisoned, or in hiding, or awaiting trial, all we can do is ensure that their plight is treated no differently from that of other political prisoners.“
There is also hope in the increased attention being paid to these bloggers’ plight. It was only a few short years ago that traditional human rights and free speech organisations struggled with how to draw attention to online repression, many viewing bloggers as a separate breed. Now, thanks to the efforts of numerous groups, from Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists to PEN International to a global repertoire of more specific rights groups, the threats to online activists and writers are well known and receive ever more attention.
This is a problem to which there are no easy solutions. Although the work of NGOs and even governments to promote online security tools goes a long way toward protecting individuals from governments, for every networked, tech-savvy activist there are undoubtedly ten more “accidental activists”, those for whom blogging was never meant to be an act of dissidence. For them, there is little to be done proactively; only by raising awareness of security threats and enveloping them into existing movements can their speech begin to be protected.
But for those already imprisoned, or in hiding, or awaiting trial, all we can do is ensure that their plight is treated no differently from that of other political prisoners. We must continue to help raise their voices to ensure they are not forgotten.
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