Authoritarian regimes around the world are dealing with troublesome citizen bloggers by arresting them, and they’re doing it more often, according to researchers at the University of Washington.
“Last year, 2007, was a record year for blogger arrests, with three times as many as in 2006. Egypt, Iran and China are the most dangerous places to blog about political life, accounting for more than half of all arrests since blogging became big,” said Phil Howard, an assistant professor of communication. With his students, Howard prepared the World Information Access Report, which documents sources and consequences of social inequality in the information age.
In response to harassment, a significant number of political bloggers are going underground. They are blogging anonymously, and using other online tools such as MySpace and YouTube to post critical commentary.
Since 2003, 64 citizens unaffiliated with news organizations have been arrested for their blogging. Topics of these blog posts vary, as do the kinds of criminal charges and punishments.
But these arrests are probably just the tip of the iceberg, Howard said. “The real number of arrested bloggers is probably much higher, since many arrests in China, Zimbabwe, and Iran go unreported in the international media.”
Altogether around the world, bloggers have served 940 months of jail time in the last five years, the researchers found. During those years, the average prison term for citizen journalists was 15 months. “Many countries have political bloggers, and many persecute journalists,” Howard said. “More and more citizens are expressing themselves online, and being punished for it.”
Jail sentences varied from blogger to blogger, the least amount a few hours and the longest eight years. Nine of Egypt’s 14 known blogger arrests occurred in 2007, an election year. In 2005, Iranian blogger Mojtaba Saminejad was arrested for writing about the arrests of other bloggers. “Some people blog about their arrests as soon as they get out of jail,” Howard said.
This information likely reflects the growing number of citizens who blog, but also growing recognition among authoritarian governments that citizen bloggers cause problems, Howard said. By targeting nonprofessional journalists who express themselves online, authoritarian governments can promote fear among their Internet users, Howard said.
These bloggers expose bureaucratic corruption or human rights abuses, and express opinions about political figures and public policy. They post reports and photos from social protests. They write about political art or share images and writing that according to their governments violate cultural norms.
In democratic countries such as England and the U.S., blogger arrests often involve people accused of posting pornography or inciting racial hatred online. But even the most democratic countries have cases where bloggers were arrested for activities many would consider free speech. For example, Canadian Charles Leblanc was arrested for photographing a protest for his blog.
Howard’s team studied news reports in major print, television, radio and online media outlets. Some arrests were reported only online in specialized news sources, and these were double- checked for accuracy. The compiled list of incident reports was then coded for variables such as length of arrest or amount of fine, official charges (if any) and the type of blogging for which the offender had been arrested.
Researchers looked for incidents involving people unaffiliated with a news organization who were arrested for posting content to their blogs.
The World Information Access team also reviewed trends in the global digital divide. They downloaded Web sites for 356 political parties in the Muslim world, and found ideological content to be surprisingly mainstream: Traditional liberal and conservative political parties have the largest volume of gigabytes of content, and the most Web pages.