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Arab bloggers pay toll for truth

Stephen Franklin

Wael Abbas

CAIRO -- When Egyptian officials denied reports of a disturbance in downtown Cairo last year, Wael Abbas showed the truth: A political protest had turned ugly, and a group of young men had gone on a rampage.

Amid widespread allegations of police abuse, Abbas turned up a video of a police beating. He applied his sleuthing to stories about government-paid thugs beating up demonstrators.

Abbas regularly does what any good reporter does. He hunts down rumors, then spreads what he knows to be true. He strives to be as credible as possible.

"We are establishing a new school of journalism," he said.

But Abbas is not a conventional reporter. He is one of a small but uniquely influential group of Arab bloggers who have opened doors, raised questions never before asked and, in the process, unnerved officials across the Arab world.

In a region where freedom of information can be a mirage, people such as Wael Abbas are using the Internet to tell stories that the government media or even opposition media do not tell.

The Internet "opened the jar and let us out once and for good," Abbas once wrote for the BBC. "(It) gave us unlimited freedom of expression -- something we had never had."

Not all bloggers in the Arab world are so dedicated in their use of this new freedom. Not all make the extra effort to search out and verify the news. Extremists of all sorts have embraced the Internet to brag of their activities and recruit new members.

But a small number of online journalists are telling important truths, despite great obstacles, setbacks and flaws of their own.

Rather than hailing the Arab world's catch-up with the Internet revolution, however, some Arab regimes have done the opposite. They have blocked blogs, removed posts and arrested and detained bloggers or prohibited them from traveling, according to the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, a Cairo-based group.

After Yemeni officials arrested the editor of an online newspaper, the Britain-based advocacy group Article 19 lobbied for the editor's release. Officials, Article 19 wrote, failed to distinguish "between those who write about conflict and those who perpetrate it."

Since an Internet journalist was sent to prison in Tunisia seven years ago, the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based organization, has counted about a dozen others prosecuted by Arab governments.

"That doesn't include the threats and phone calls they receive," said Joel Campagna of the committee.

A Kurdish journalist, for example, was given 18 months in prison last year because his online writing criticized leaders of the Kurdish region in Iraq. A Saudi spent 13 days in jail for online writing that warned about the power of religious extremists in Saudi Arabia. And a Libyan journalist who wrote critical articles about Libyan officials for London-based Libyan opposition Web sites was mysteriously gunned down in 2005, activists said.

"The rule of thumb is that (governments) crack down on bloggers and Internet journalists when they become influential," said Marc Lynch, a George Washington University political scientist who tracks the Arab world on his own blog, www.abuaardvark.com.

Given the dangers they face, bloggers must be brave as well as determined.

A group of bloggers recently gathered in Cairo to talk about their work, about being attacked and abused, about the theft of their computers by those trying to keep them silent.

A muscular, T-shirted blogger who often can be found at the front of anti-government protests said that despite all those deterrents, he isn't worried about his safety. He has been beaten so many times at rallies that it no longer matters, he explained matter-of-factly.

Although Wael Abbas has not gone unscathed, he has not suffered the same level of abuse. He has, however, used the Internet to fight back. He recorded a threatening phone call, for example, and posted the audio file online (misrdigital.blogspot.com). And when false rumors were spread that he had committed a crime, Abbas obtained his record from Egyptian police and posted it to show he was clean.

Other bloggers have been silenced.

A 22-year-old law student, Abdel Kareem Suleiman, was given a 4-year prison term in February for insulting Islam and Egypt's president. On his blog, he had accused clerics at Al-Azhar University, a highly regarded Islamic institution, of stifling free thought and nurturing extremism. Writing under the blogger name Kareem Amer, he had asserted that the university was the "other face of the coin of al-Qaida."

Another well-known blogger linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, a banned organization in Egypt, was held for 45 days earlier this year. Among bloggers and human-rights activists, there was a strong suspicion that Abdel Monem Mahmoud, 27, the blogger, had been detained largely because of his popularity.

"We are the next level of journalism," a Syrian online journalist visiting Cairo proudly said. And when the day comes that Syrian journalists can write freely, online journalists like him will be ready to step up to that responsibility, he added confidently.

Some things you can't delete.


By Stephen Franklin

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

(Chicago Tribune correspondent Stephen Franklin recently completed a Knight fellowship in Cairo, where he helped train Egyptian journalists for the International Center for Journalists. His blog, stevebey.wordpress.com, follows the Arab news media.)




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