The Battle for Cyberspace: Blogging and Dissidence in the Middle East
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Blogs in the Middle East have proliferated in response to staid state-run media and censorship. While blogging remains a relatively small phenomenon in terms of the sheer number of bloggers, the blogosphere has served as a force multiplier Listen to Audio


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for dissidents and democracy activists chafing under autocratic rule.

But as blogs assume a more overt political tone, governments in the region have taken notice. Cyberspace has become the latest battleground for regimes seeking to preserve their hold on power and deprive their citizens of a peaceful outlet for dissent. As authorities ratchet up pressure, questions about the blogosphere’s relevance remain. Is it simply a release valve for public discontent, or can the surge in cyber-activism across the region actually induce much-needed reforms? Will bloggers ultimately succumb to self-censorship? Are blogs an accurate barometer of public opinion? Do they even enjoy a wide readership?

These and other questions will be discussed at an AEI panel discussion with Mohammed Ali, author of the blog Iraq the Model; Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies; Hassan Mneimneh, the executive director of the Iraq Memory Foundation; and Arash Sigarchi, an Iranian freelance journalist and blogger and the former editor of the Iranian daily Gilan Emrooz. AEI resident scholar Michael Rubin will moderate.

Agenda
10:15 a.m.
Registration
10:30
Presenters:
Mohammed Ali, Iraq the Model
Tony Badran, Foundation for the Defense of Democracies
Arash Sigarchi, Panjereh Eltehab
Discussant:
Hassan Mneimneh, Iraq Memory Foundation
Moderator:
Michael Rubin, AEI
12:00 p.m.
Adjournment
Event Summary

February 2008

The Battle for Cyberspace: Blogging and Dissidence in the Middle East 

Blogs in the Middle East have proliferated in response to staid state-run media and censorship. While blogging remains a relatively small phenomenon in terms of the sheer number of bloggers, the blogosphere has served as a force multiplier for dissidents and democracy activists chafing under autocratic rule.

But as blogs assume a more overt political tone, governments in the region have taken notice. Cyberspace has become the latest battleground for regimes seeking to preserve their hold on power and deprive their citizens of a peaceful outlet for dissent. As authorities ratchet up pressure, questions about the blogosphere's relevance remain. Is it simply a release valve for public discontent, or can the surge in cyber-activism across the region actually induce much-needed reforms? Will bloggers ultimately succumb to self-censorship? Are blogs an accurate barometer of public opinion? Do they even enjoy a wide readership?

These and other questions were the focus of a February 4, 2008, AEI panel discussion.
 
Mohammed Ali
Iraq the Model

The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a watershed for bloggers in the Arab world. Since the invasion, the blogosphere has served as a new window for expression, but governments across the region have sought to curtail its influence. Yet, there are other impediments to blogging besides state intervention. Intimidation by religious extremists, limited access to the Internet--out of 300 million Arabs, only an estimated 30 million are able to surf the Web--and insufficient bandwidth technology all hinder the blogosphere's development. Nevertheless, blogs have become a virtual homeland for dissidents in the Arab world, and while these websites may not serve as a weathervane of mass opinion, they do represent the future of the region.

Arash Sigarchi
Panjereh Eltehab

In general, censorship in Iran takes two forms--internal and external. Of the latter, the regime employs six types of mechanisms to silence journalists and bloggers. The first is the Islamic Republic's Supreme National Security Council, which ostensibly exists to defend Iran from external threats, but in reality is also used to neutralize domestic threats. Indeed, the council informs Iranian journalists of new censorship laws on a weekly basis. The second mechanism is the judiciary, which, acting upon direct orders from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has shut down around two hundred newspapers in the last five years. The third are pressure groups, often referred to as "Hezbollahi" groups. They are attached to the Revolutionary Guard Corps and Basij Resistance Force. The fourth is the state security apparatus; for example, with the advent of the Ahmadinejad presidency, the Ministry of Intelligence summoned all Iranian journalists to "cooperate" with the regime or face summary imprisonment. The fifth are representatives from the Office of Friday Prayers, apparatchiks installed by Khamenei in every province and city to enforce censorship laws on his behalf. Finally, economic actors linked to the regime also play a role in muzzling nonstate media.

In addition to external mechanisms of control, there are also internal means of censorship. For example, newspaper editors do not retain final say over publication; executives appointed by the government do. This problem is compounded by self-censorship among journalists. Fortunately, while the Ahmadinejad regime has done everything in its power to undercut the blogosphere, it has not succeeded. Ultimately, bloggers appear to be the only group inside Iran capable of countering the government's demagoguery.

Tony Badran
Foundation for the Defense of Democracies

Unlike in much of the Middle East, where the blogging dynamic is often that of the dissident versus the regime, in Lebanon, blogs primarily have served as a window into Lebanese society. At least this was the case until 2005, when the assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri unleashed a torrent of protests and political blogging. The assassination was a seminal turning point for the Lebanese blogosphere, as blogs, which had previously focused their attention on the Iraq war, became more imbued with debates about internal Lebanese affairs.

While Lebanese blogs often display the same sectarian diversity that exists on the ground in Lebanon, they do serve several important functions. During the height of the anti-Syrian, prodemocracy March 14 movement in 2005, which coalesced in the wake of Hariri's death, blogs played a valuable role in reporting rallies and mass demonstrations. They also serve as a corrective for Western journalists and observers; indeed, the blogosphere's greatest benefit may be its ability to provide Lebanese-watchers with both access to Arab media and proper contextualization. The 2007 bi-elections in Lebanon were an example of this.

Unfortunately, in addition to filling a media vacuum, blogs can also serve as conduits for state propaganda. Syria has used the blogosphere in Lebanon as a tool for disinformation; websites and online forums have become a veritable battleground for information warfare. For example, this medium is sometimes exploited to suggest the imminence of a U.S.-Syrian bargaincat the expense of Lebanese sovereignty--in order to demoralize the Lebanese population.

AEI research assistant Jeffrey Azarva prepared this summary.

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