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Blogging beyond borders

Yoani Sanchez: Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The shortest route to blogger celebrity (or, notoriety) is to get a repressive regime after you. It is not exactly an easy path, just a quick one. Consider the case of Yoani Sánchez, the Cuban blogger whose name made it to the Time magazine list of the most influential people in 2008. This notoriety brings worldwide attention to her story and sends a huge number of visitors to her website.

However, in real world, blogger celebrity also translates to travel bans, arbitrary detention, imprisonment and violent attacks — these are the pitfalls of blogging in Cuba. While the island nation may stand out from other countries in Latin America, when it comes to government censorship, there are signs that as more people get online elsewhere in the region, other governments may begin cracking down on internet users, trying to control and limit how people roam and use the world-wide-web.

Sánchez’ weblog, Generation Y, offers a mix of insider takes on politics, culture and daily-life in Cuba. Perhaps, if she stopped there, the Cuban authorities might not have paid as much attention as they do. She has a page on the social-networking website Facebook with an ever-growing roster of fans; and an account on micro-blogging website Twitter with thousands of followers.

Her writings — a mix of cynical humour and contrite political anger, well-suited for the blogging medium — are translated to more than seventeen different languages including English, bolstering her international standing. She is also an occasional contributor to the popular news website The Huffington Post, where, this February, she posted an interview with the mother of Cuban political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo. The interview was posted just hours after Tamayo died from his hunger strike in prison.

As a result of her relentless journalism and exposé of the Cuban regime, Sánchez has been barred by the authorities from travelling aboard. Latest, she was stopped from attending a conference in Chile, where she was scheduled to speak on the uses of social-networking websites like Facebook and Twitter.

These days, we hear a lot about how the internet has shrunk the world into one small global village. Online tools are seen as the great levellers of the age, and they may well be. But, consider this: while the worldwide transmission of news and ideas has indeed become easier for a large number of people across the globe, their physical bodies are all that is required by those seeking to punish such transmission or circulation of information and ideas.

This remains the world where security checks, raids and invasions into people’s home constitute the ground reality. For example, when you are denied your right to travel to the places where your words and ideas have already spread, the rest of the world can still seem very far off, no matter how connected you are.

In Cuba, mirroring the post-9/11 US laws, the regime has its own dangerousness law that allows the police to lock anyone up merely for the possibility that they may commit a crime at some point in the future. It seems that talking about human rights in Cuba is one of such red flags.

In Venezuela, responding to protesters who used Twitter to organise demonstrations under the #freevenezuela tag, Hugo Chavez proclaimed that Twitter was a “tool of terror,” and directed his national assembly to work on legislation that would regulate the use of social networking websites.

In Mexico, members of the Party of the Democratic Revolution are discussing plans to either ban or regulate the use of Twitter and Facebook, under the pretence of combating crime.

While Cuba is currently the exception when it comes to overt government censorship in Latin America, signs indicate that as more people get online, government policymakers in these countries will be forced to make a choice as to which route to take: either get out of the way and let people use the internet as an utility in whatever way they choose; or take authoritarian measures to stifle creativity and opportunity as a way of maintaining control.

Attacks on bloggers and online dissidents have already started in the region, as is the case in other parts of the world.

In 2009, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported that Cuba had twenty-one online journalists locked behind bars. All but one, CPJ reported, had their work published abroad. The committee ranks Cuba in its Top ten worst countries to be a blogger list. Of course, Cuba is not alone in the list. According to Reporters Sans Frontières, in 2009, across the globe, there were 151 bloggers and cyber-dissidents behind bars, 61 were violently assaulted and 1 died in prison.

While these might be about people in far off places, there are ways you can assist them from wherever you are.

Yoani Sánchez’ own weblog has a number of ways to help Cuban bloggers — a number of these methods can be used in other Latin American countries and around the world. Google her name or Generation Y to visit her weblog and read through the article titled, “How to help.”

There are indeed many ways you can help — by sharing links to and content from dissident weblogs; by contacting embassies when you hear or read about bloggers getting in trouble; by spreading information about proxy web services and how to use them to beat internet censorship; by donating tools that would help the bloggers, such as software, memory drives and netbooks; by donating server space for a dissident weblog; by working with the Committee to Protect Bloggers through establishing your own local group of activists who would follow cases around the world and report them online; if bloggers are on trial, if you can, show up at any public hearings they may have; or, send letters to them if they end up behind bars.

These activities may seem insignificant to some of you, but, that is surely not the case. Bloggers in some parts of the world go to great lengths and take personal risks to get their message out there. One reason for that, they want to connect with the outside world and let people know what is going on.

You can let them know you have heard their message, and that you are passing it along even when they can not.


Andrew Ford Lyons is Coordinator, Committee to Protect Bloggers.

In print: Independent World Report — Issue 4/April 2010.

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