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Last Updated: Monday, 20 June, 2005, 15:11 GMT 16:11 UK
Not just critics
WEBLOG WATCH
The Magazine's review of weblogs
By Alan Connor

Weblog Watch started in response to criticisms of weblogs as vapid, self-obsessed hot air.

But there are parts of the world where blogging risks a fate far worse than some snarky comments by columnists.

Take Mohamad Reza Nasab Abdolahi, for example. "Insulting the country's leaders and making anti-government propaganda" is just another part of the day in some parts of the blogosphere, but in Iran, it's a serious criminal charge.

Iran Reform blog
Webnegar
Abdolahi had published an open letter to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on his blog, Webnegar, and found himself facing six months in jail and a fine of one million rials. When his pregnant wife wrote about this on her own weblog, she too had her computer seized and was taken to prison.

And then as other bloggers commented on these arrests, they were in turn imprisoned, with Arash Sigarchi getting a 14-year sentence on charges of spying and aiding foreign counter-revolutionaries. This has not gone unnoticed in the blogosphere: earlier this year, the Committee To Protect Bloggers announced Free Mojtaba and Arash Day, for two of the more recent arrests, and reported 10,000 visitors.

This scrutiny is one way in which bloggers are trying to stick together, and the feeling is that even mentioning incidents where blogging has been restricted helps in a small way: banners and links to keep the issue alive.

Not so long ago, many blogs were not unlike LiveJournal diaries: all personality quizzes and LOLs, but the form is versatile, it's developed, and some bloggers are getting serious. Very serious.

And outside of the West, that change has been fast. A good example is given by Dinesh Wagle, who set up Nepal's United We Blog! resource. He writes about how things have changed since King Gyanendra sacked the government (click here for the BBC's Q&A on the crisis):

Bloggers at United We Blog! who were blogging about their dating, family gatherings and fascination with Google desktop search suddenly found themselves one morning without internet connection in the whole country. When the Internet service resumed 8 days after the February 1 royal takeover, they sensed the urgency of blogging about things other than dating: how newspapers have been severely wounded by the censorship, how pro-democracy demonstrations are taking place in different parts of the country.

Nepal journalist arrest
A Nepalese journalist arrested after demonstrations against media restrictions
Since then, posts at United We Blog! have been more forthright and greater in scope: one entry, in fact, concerns the Iranian bloggers mentioned above and begins:

Iran is a country being ruled by Islamic fundamentalists. Nepal is a country being ruled by royalist fundamentalists. Our situation is not different.

Just as blogs provided a different kind of reportage on life in Iraq since 2003 (examples include Baghdad Burning and Where Is Raed?), so has it been possible to follow developments in Nepal, such as the army arriving at the TV stations, shootings at protests and the King's Peace Bond financial experiment.

Many Nepalese bloggers choose to remain anonymous, such as "Kathmandu" of Radio Free Nepal, while Wagle now wonders about his role as "the Salam Pax of Kathmandu", and takes umbrage at mainstream media describing Nepal as "one of the world's poorest and most backward nations", retorting:

I fully agree with that line and want to add that we are poor by economic standard, yes, but not so poor when it comes to thinking and implementing ideas. Imagination has no boundaries and it has to do nothing with money. A beggar could very well imagine himself being another Bill Gates.

Is it worth the risks? The bloggers think so, and are clear that their audience is not just the wired Nepalese, estimated as 300,000 of a 23 million population: they too want to forge links with blogs abroad and "raise issues in cyberspace where powerful and influential people of the international community do visit".

They'd also like some tech support. Blogs are immensely useful for independent journalists, since they require little technical savvy, are often hosted abroad, and link together in ways which help to spread the world. The main con against these pros is that the available blogging tools are, unsurprisingly, not written in Nepalese.

As well as reducing the ease of entry, this also means that the tools play havoc with some characters from the alphabet used in Nepal, but things may be about to change.

In Iran, Hossein Derakhshan who blogs at Editor: Myself, tweaked blogging software to make it work in Farsi, leading to a rich world of Persian weblogs, including Mansour Nasiri's Photoblog, The Lonely Rave and How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Write The Blog.

The NGO Reporters Sans Frontiers is trying to work on this, as well as highlighting other censorious states in their Freedom Blogs Awards. This being the blogosphere, it's not just the Iranian and Persian regimes that are disgruntled by RSF's efforts: Bloggledygook gives a sense of those who are questioning the organisation's funding and tarring them "neo-con crusaders" for criticising the same countries that the White House is thought to have issues with.

On the ground, though, this is likely to make little difference. As the tools become more usable, they're open to all: supporters of Ayatollah Khamenei and King Gyanendra can blog too. And with Google News, which doesn't generally carry weblogs, including reports from United We Blog!, the stakes are a lot higher. In places like Nepal and Iran, the big questions about weblogs are questions about the future of a free press. It's enough to make you forget about "Comments Spam" for a moment.


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