Page last updated at 13:50 GMT, Monday, 22 June 2009 14:50 UK

Blogging all over the world

Digital Planet
Alka Marwaha
BBC World Service

In a special edition, World Service programme Digital Planet looked at the role of blogging, censorship and citizen journalism. In particular it considered bloggers in Vietnam, Cuba and China.

Arabic blogosphere map, Berkman Center

"There are about 18 to 20 million web users registered in Vietnam, of which two to three million are blogging everyday," said Giang Nguyen, head of the BBC's Vietnamese service.

"Vietnam has an army of bloggers that exchange information and views, and they discuss all sorts of topics online from mundane stuff to politics," he added.

The Vietnamese are well connected and the government is keen on the web.

"The government's contribution to the internet's development is huge," said Mr Nguyen.

"Broadband internet is popular in Vietnam and internet cafes provide very cheap internet access".

Americo Martins, Americas editor for the BBC's World Service, said blogs were becoming important in Cuba despite the poor communications infrastructure.

"You really have a hard time getting a decent connection and very few people have access to computers.

"I went to Cuba last year and had a really hard time trying to connect to the internet.

The poor technical infrastructure has made Cubans masters in creating workarounds for their problems.

A portrait of the US President Obama displayed in a Vietnamese shop
'ChangeWeNeed' is inspired by Barack Obama's famous election slogan

"Students sell their internet access to their neighbours and they also do the same in public offices," said Mr Martins.

"A good number of Cubans have access to the internet, usually using illegal tricks and it is becoming more popular," he added.

Blogging is also booming in China, which now has the biggest net using population in the world.

"Just over one quarter of the population goes online in one form or another and about 150 million blog or follow blogs," said Shirong Chen, editor of the BBC's Chinese service.

"People are not only blogging for their personal journeys but they blog on political, sensitive stuff as well.

"You can discover all sorts of topics and tips in the Chinese blogosphere," he said.

Block and censor

Despite the popularity of blogging, many net users face restrictions on what they can do and say online.

China has plans to put filters on new PCs made that will limit access to pornographic or violent content.

Many suspect that this is another way to keep people away from sensitive or dissenting political material.

"The Chinese authorities have become more sophisticated in their blocking of internet activities," said Mr Chen.

A candlelight vigil to mark the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square
Twitter and Flickr were blocked in China on the anniversary of Tiananmen Square

"The Chinese have teams of people to ensure that the sensitive stuff does not get published and they are now asking PC makers to install software to block access to certain sites that could very well include some blogs.

"The software will probably be able to block specific web addresses and phrases as they will be written into the source code.

"They do not just block stuff or ask the internet service providers to take stuff offline, which they have done during the week of the Tiananmen Square anniversary, the Chinese started to block Twitter, Flickr and some blogs," said Mr Chen.

"In fact one blogger noticed that his blog was blocked by his friends texting him and asking why they couldn't read it.

"Bloggers are themselves becoming more sophisticated and are trying to avoid the censors and the technical filters by using dot or a hyphen in-between the phrases," he added.

"In China and Vietnam you have a system that tries to control politically what is mentioned there but people have access to technology," said Mr Martins.

A woman reading a blog at home in Havana
Cuba has a poor internet connection and therefore very few bloggers

"In Cuba it is a completely different story, you have very few people blogging to start with, this gives the security people an advantage of knowing more or less who they are, so they go for physical intimidation sometimes.

"Some of them are arrested or they try to discredit the bloggers by saying they receive money from the US.

"In theory you could blog about anything and lots of people do until the government really starts putting pressure on some of these people," he said.

The best known blogger in Cuba is a woman called Yoani Sanchez who blogs about her daily life on a website called "Generation Y".

"Sanchez doesn't have access to a blog herself but has to e-mail the text to friends abroad and it's them who publish the blog for her in Spanish and translate it into several different languages," said Mr Martins.

"This aspect of a personal account is very powerful in a place like Cuba, she became a personality because she blogs about her daily life and that's what annoys the government.

They assume that technology and the internet is part of the economy, so they overlooked the whole control of the internet
Giang Nguyen

"The daily routine of Cubans is exposed to the press of the world, their lack of choice and lack of things to buy, she became a celebrity by exposing this and showing how difficult life is in Cuba."

Ms Sanchez was chosen in 2008 by Time magazine as one of the most influential people in the world, despite the fact that she is influential abroad and is only well known to the police, the State and the forces that control the internet in Cuba.

"The Vietnamese government have learnt a lot from the Chinese Communist Party in how to control the media," said Mr Nguyen.

"The government has overlooked the past 10 years because the premise of the Vietnamese reform, is that we have just opened up the economy.

"They assume that technology and the internet is part of the economy, so they overlooked the whole control of the internet," he said.

Blogging from the State

Many popular political bloggers in Vietnam, such as "ChangeWeNeed" and "Osin", are thought to have high-level sources inside government who leak political scandals.

Who or how many people are behind the "ChangeWeNeed" blog remains a secret but they claim to have met with Vietnamese military leaders.

The other well known blog is called "Green River" which has identified all the politicians and government officials who drive expensive cars.

"That blogger has named everybody and the government has not made any move to deny it," explained Mr Nguyen.

"It seems they are very well placed in the Communist system in Vietnam and have access to info.

Many bloggers are using their blogs as a political weapon to fight for their own freedom and rights
Shirong Chen

"Many bloggers work for the State and access the internet through the government's own computers," he said.

In China, people are encouraged to write blogs sympathetic to the government.

"These blogs partly come from those who do believe in the government line but there are also reports of people whose job it is to plant blogs in the blogosphere, to push the government lines," said Mr Chen.

"Some of the blogs are subtle, but some give the straightforward party line.

"Many bloggers are using their blogs as a political weapon to fight for their own freedom and rights," he said.

Double life

In Vietnam, journalists have woken up to the potential of blogs.

"During daylight, some of the bloggers may work on government newspapers, they produce the same articles praising the government for doing very good things but at night they write their blogs which is totally different," said Mr Nguyen.

Said Mr Martins: "Bloggers are becoming more influential and you have a lot of blog journalists from the traditional media that just decided to either give up everything or lead double lives."

"They are becoming more influential because they offer a different point of view and information that the traditional media doesn't provide," he said.

Digital Planet is broadcast on BBC World Service on Tuesday at 1232 GMT and repeated at 1632 GMT, 2032 GMT and on Wednesday at 0032 GMT.

You can listen online or download the podcast .



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