Fear and blogging in the Arab world

Harvard survey shows one third of Arab bloggers have bean threatened for their opinions, one fifth reported on-line accounts have been hacked.

August 23, 2011 11:15
Analysts work at NCCIC

cyber attack 311 R. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Arab bloggers have encountered “astounding” levels of intimidation and arrest since the onset of the Arab Spring, but large numbers of them have made it easy for the authorities to find them by failing to take defensive measures to protect their identities, a survey conducted by Harvard University has found.

One third of the 98 bloggers surveyed by Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society in May said they have bean threatened for their opinions and one fifth reported that their on-line accounts have been hacked. Almost a tenth of the respondents admitted to being arrested or detained for their on-line activity.

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"I’m constantly receiving threats from paramilitary forces, members of Lebanese political parties and anonymous people related to my online support of cyber-dissidents in the region," Imad Bazzi, a Lebanese activist who blogs at trella.org, told The Media Line.   

The Internet has played a key role in the spread of protests this year, with activists bypassing media and communications networks controlled by governments in favor of social media to spread the word of upcoming rallies and report news. The authorities have responded by imposing stricter controls and in some cases shutting down networks entirely.

In Syria, a well organized effort known as the Syrian Electronic Army has been carrying out attacks to disable and compromise websites critical of the regime as mass protests enter their sixth month. In Saudi Arabia, the government in January extended censorship for the printed press to cover the Internet, including blog sites. It has since toughened the rules.

Even countries where protestors have ousted long-time despots, successor governments have been acting to douse critical bloggers. Egyptian Asmaa Mahfouz was arrested on Sunday and released on bail after she was accused of using Facebook and Twitter to defame the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. In Tunisia, the government was blamed for a phishing attack against human rights activists in an effort to gain access to their Gmail accounts.

The tough treatment meted out to bloggers was to be expected, according to the Berkman report, which noted that the survey was taken amid a surge of on-line activity spawned by the Arab Spring, and just one of the 98 bloggers surveyed described himself as pro-government. Nevertheless, researchers said the extent of the crackdown was “astounding.”

The researchers found that Arab bloggers were often unaware of the available security measures to protect their identity. Most bloggers reported choosing an e-mail provider based on design and sharing capabilities rather than its ability to protect their security. The bloggers' responses revealed that their knowledge and practice of on-line security ranged "from fair to very poor," the study found.

Asked how they identify themselves on-line, 49% told the Berkman researchers that they used their full name while 47% said they provided an e-mail address and 42% a photograph of themselves. Only 20% rated “resistance to sharing data with your government” as one of the three most important features of a company hosting their blog, the Berkman report showed.

Bazzi says his blog was repeatedly hacked before he received training from international advocacy organizations that taught him how to protect his on-line identity and information.

"Bloggers always learn from their experiences in terms of on-line security," Bazzi said.  "My blog was hacked twice by supporters of Lebanese political parties who didn’t like what I have to say regarding freedom of expression and human rights in Lebanon."

Dalia Ziada, an Egyptian blogger and social activist, said that her blog recently earned her an anonymous threat.

"A couple of weeks ago I got a threatening message on my mobile phone and I do not know who sent it."  

According to the Berkman Center, some 35,000 Arabic-language blogs exist on the internet.

Self-censorship is widely practiced by Arab bloggers. Half of the respondents said they self-censored their on-line content, with many citing fear of retribution from their government as the main reason. Many bloggers opted to write their blog in English, attempting to evade government surveillance.

But Naseem Tarawneh, a Jordanian who blogs in English at The Black Iris, says he feared his compatriots more than the government.

"I do practice self-censorship, but it's minimal," Tarawneh told The Media Line. "My fear is less with the government and more with goons and thugs that are busy waving flags out of some sense of pop-nationalism."

The assault on free speech hasn’t been as bad in Jordan as it is in other Arab countries during the Arab Spring, Tarawneh says, since the Jordanian public was calling for political reform and not a revolution. However, independent news websites are being gradually limited by new press and publication laws that impose government censorship to their content. Tarawneh says the new laws would likely lead to greater self-censorship on the part of these websites.

"Freedom of speech is typically the first victim on the chopping block when it comes to the Arab Spring," he said.

Jad Aoun, a Lebanese blogger living in Dubai, says his English-language blog did not cover political issues, but if it did he would probably censor himself.

"With the change in the status quo, anything can happen," Aoun, who blogs at Lebanon News: Under Rug Swept, told The Media Line. "Regional governments seem to be more focused on social media and are more likely to pounce on any online dissent to pre-empt street action."

Kal, an American of Syrian and Algerian origin who blogs about North Africa at The Moor Next Door, says he practiced self-censorship to a limited degree, "mainly to avoid unnecessary controversy which might provoke spam attacks or the like."

He says that although never hacked or threatened with violence, he did receive a massive amount of spam from Bahraini e-mail accounts after criticizing the government crackdown on Shiite protesters on his Twitter account. His blog was also spammed by "Moroccan commenters of obscure origin" who objected to his posts about the country's control of Western Sahara.

Bazzi, the Lebanese blogger, says he opposed self-censorship in principle.

"I believe I have the right to freely express my ideas and beliefs," he said. "This is my human and legal right, also guaranteed by the Lebanese law and constitution."

The anonymity of some Arab bloggers was recently abused, however. In June, American blogger Tom Macmaster admitted to creating the persona of Amina Arraf, a Lesbian Syrian-American blogger, who claimed in a blog that she had been persecuted by Syrian authorities for her sexual orientation, and finally arrested.

Macmaster apologized to his readers for the hoax, but says that "the facts on this blog are true and not misleading as to the situation on the ground."

The Harvard research concluded that more could be done to protect Middle East bloggers from menacing regimes. They recommended expanding on-line security training efforts, online monitoring of threats, and appealing to internet providers to better their security options and defaults.

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