Unfortunately, one way to assess the political importance of blogging around the world is through the growing number of blogger arrests. Since 2003, 64 citizens unaffiliated with news organizations have been arrested for their blogging activities.
Using Google and LexisNexis as search engines, we found 64 blogger arrest incidents discussed in various news articles, blogs, scholarly articles and informational Web sites. We organized the incidents by blogger name, country, date of arrest, reason for arrest and time in jail. The majority of incidents took place in the Middle East and Asia with some in North America and Western Europe. We recorded only bloggers who were arrested for using electronic media, which included written online blogs, videos and text messages, to discuss or record political issues and events. The online texts we reviewed cited a variety of reasons for the arrests including refusal to give information to the government and violating rules unrelated to state security. Incidents involving pornography or sexual abuse were avoided with the exception of a few select incidents.
One example, which gained the most press coverage of the incidents researched, is the arrest of Fouad al-Farhan. Considered Saudi Arabia’s most popular online blogger, Farhan was arrested in December 2007 “for violating rules not related to state security,” said Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki, a Saudi spokesman, to the Washington Post. Farhan’s blog criticized political corruption and called for reform. According to the Post, it is the first known arrest of an online blogger in Saudi Arabia.
We found the majority of arrested bloggers were male. Though ages were not reported in most stories, of those that were, we inferred the average blogger to be between 21 and 45-years-old.
We also found several incidents, which we excluded from our main data set, but placed under an exceptions list. These included arrests of social networking site members who criticized their country’s government and of a blogger who confessed to committing murder via his Web site. We felt it was important to acknowledge these incidents, but because they did not fit our standardized criteria of bloggers arrested for political, cultural and social protest reasons, we excluded them from our main data set.
While researching, we struggled with determining who did and did not constitute a blogger. Some online blogs are kept by citizens who have no ties to the mass media and others are maintained by journalists who are affiliated with the media and often post their blog on a particular publication’s Web site. In the end, we kept with the idea of citizen journalism and recorded arrests of bloggers who were unaffiliated with the mass media. Information regarding select incidents of journalist blogger arrests was added to the exceptions list.
One exception was a list of 344 arrests in Burma that we found via the Committee to Protect Bloggers’ Web site. This table included arrestees’ names, location of arrest and date of arrest. However, the site did not link to a home page or cite any sources for the information. It was also unclear whether all arrestees were bloggers or other activists. We felt it was important to recognize the list because of its magnitude, but its ambiguity prompted us to omit it from our main data set.
Time spent in jail varied from blogger to blogger with the least amount being a few hours and the greatest eight years. We recorded punishment by adding all time in jail in months and finding the average amount of time spent in jail. During the five years we researched, bloggers spent a total of 940 months in jail, while the average prison time for a blogger was 15 months.
Counting the number of arrests in each country during the years 2003 to 2008, we determined which countries were the most dangerous countries for bloggers. Egypt, China and Iran accounted for more than half of all arrests with 14, 12 and eight incidents respectively. The 18 other countries on our list reported three or less arrests each.
During our research, we also found a number of articles regarding blog restrictions in specific countries, namely China, Thailand and Iraq. These served as useful background information for understanding laws and regulations that many bloggers face. We included this information in our data spreadsheet for reference.
Though we found a significant number of incidents from 2003 to the beginning of 2008, we realize there have probably been more arrests than we were able to locate. Many incidents go unreported, while some countries deny access to Web sites. According to OpenNet Initiative, an organization dedicated to investigating and analyzing Internet surveillance practices, there are about 30 countries in which government filters Web sites with political content, conflict/security content and Internet tools such as e-mail and translation. Nearly 50 countries filter social content. In addition, some countries have so little Internet access that few blogs exist, making blogger arrests virtually impossible. Curt Hopkins, founding director of Committee to Protect Bloggers, said in an e-mail that this idea can apply to countries such as North Korea and Cuba. We stress that our data reports the number of known incidents during the years 2003 to 2008.
With the growing popularity of blogs, we also know that the increase in incidents during the past three years could be partially attributed to a growing number of bloggers and the subsequent increased coverage of blogger happenings. In 2004, the word “blog” was the most looked-up word on Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary. That year reputable news sources such as CNN and Forbes noted them as legitimate tools, particularly when bloggers played a significant role in exposing forged documents used by CBS reporter Dan Rather in 2004. Furthermore, blog software improvements in 2004 allowed connections between blogs and between bloggers and their readers, making the practice more interactive and accessible.
By analyzing the reasoning for and timing of these incidents, we have found that blogger arrests tend to increase and become more concentrated during sensitive times of political uncertainty. In Egypt, for example, of 14 total incidents, nine occurred in 2007, the year of the country’s political elections. The majority of these nine arrests occurred during the six months leading up to the June elections; the incidents were usually related to political protest or commentary. We also partially attribute the significant increase in incidents occurring in 2007 overall to this large amount of Egyptian blogger arrests during that year.
After surveying our data, we predict that the number of blogger arrests will rise in 2008. The popularity of online blogs continues to grow and inspire more media coverage of arrest incidents. Countries are enforcing greater Internet regulation, which will only increase with the elections in China, Pakistan, and Iran this year. Assuming a pattern similar to Egypt’s occurs, the number of political blogger arrests has nowhere to go but up. With already four incidents in January and February, we expect the number of arrests in 2008 will exceed that of 2007.
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