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The lack of press freedom in Syria has defined the life of Mohamad Ali al-Abdallah. He has been detained, his brother is serving a five-year sentence in a secret location and his father is finishing a one-year prison term. He recently fled Syria and received refugee status in the United States. Abdallah is an outspoken advocate for human rights through his widely followed blog, "I'm leaving, and I'm not coming back." Abdallah is now exploiting the blogosphere to fight for change from across the world. He talks to the World Association of Newspapers.
How does your work contribute to the establishment or defense of press freedom in Syria?
Freedom of expression is perhaps the most fundamental right, because without freedom of expression we can't demand any other right. However, it goes hand in hand with press freedom, since the press is the most organized and institutionalized voice of the people. Defending journalists and the press is then tantamount to defending our own voice, our own ideas and, most importantly, their expression in the public forum. From attending court hearings to supporting the family of imprisoned journalists, everyone can contribute in their own way, on their own scale.
Of course, my activities as a press freedom supporter were putting me at risk of government retaliation. It eventually hit home when my father was sent to jail after being tried three times in three years, but that has only increased my involvement because I can truly relate to the pain and the fear.
Have blogs and new media in your country been able to bypass government censorship to expose human rights abuses, corruption or taboos? If so, how?
In Syria, blogs, and basically anything on the Internet, are under strict scrutiny by the government, and they will not hesitate to use censorship whenever they can. My brother is in jail for expressing his views on-line and, two months ago, my blog was censored by the government. I guess we are able to bypass the government thanks to our numbers: Anyone can blog and a lot of people have access to the Internet, so censoring everything is impossible. In the face of censorship, quantity is more important than quality.
Are bloggers the new actors in the public sphere, and how are they challenging traditional media practices?
I think bloggers are not here to challenge traditional media but rather to complement viewpoints, offer different sides to a story and, to an extent, act as a check on traditional media's historic monopoly over information and fact. For me, the biggest difference between bloggers and journalists is that there are no rules or censorship in blogging. You don't have to worry about the word count of your article and editors hanging over your shoulder telling you what's good and bad. Most importantly, you publish exactly what you want. No one picks your words except yourself. Anyone on the street can now break the story; it's no longer solely in the hands of a media elite.
You also have the ease, on-line, to create different identities to protect yourself and your work. Journalists still use pen names, but it is hard to have 20 different ones; the sky is the limit on-line. Another important point that has definitely contributed to the legitimacy of bloggers is the fact that we are getting arrested, like traditional journalists, and although it is shameful, it means that we are doing something right. Finally, I think an obvious difference or rather evolution is technology and more specifically access. It takes very little, even in developing nations, to get information out to the world, we can post pictures instantly from the streets with our cellphones, and we can text our article while we are being shot at.
Presented by the World Association of Newspapers in honor of World Press Freedom Day, May 3.