The Magazine's review of blogs
By Alan Connor
"It is now 2:33am. I can hear gunshots. Put, put, put. I hear them every year at this time."
Why do you blog? A question that's asked both in a nice way and in a way which often means "what on earth possesses to you to write for no money and, probably, no readers?".
Be wary of taking the latter line on bloggers, in case the answer comes back like this:
"I will not forget. I promise to remember forever. I will live my life better and for all of us because I am alive and you are no longer. I won't let this happen again. I will remind the world for you, the students of Tiananmen Square. My Heroes. My Big Brothers and Sisters."
That's Yan Sham-Shackleton writing. She blogs at Yan's Glutter, and is a contributor to a nifty new free guide for bloggers published by Reporters Without Borders.
Other reasons for blogging might be whistle blowing, a secret private life, or to defy threats from would-be terrorists. It may not even be too much to hope that insights or revelations about those planning to do violence in the name of Islam might come from a public-spirited Muslim blogger. Even if those posts come among, say, some catblogging.
Weblog Watch is the BBC News Magazine's weekly review of blogs
The guide, the Bloggers' Handbook, is what they call an eye-opener: every time some story from around the blog-o-globe threatens to get depressing, there's another fearless netizen who makes it all inspiring. Along the way, we hear about Jeff Ooi, whose blog got him threats from the Malaysian powers-that-be; "Chan'ad Bahraini", a pseudonymous Asian in Arab Bahrain who photographed the oppression of protesters; and Arash Sigarchi, sentenced to 14 years for blogging in Iran.
Each of them makes the Anglo-American "Armchair General" bloggers - whether they're shouting "pull out!" or "bring it on!" - seem, well, a little less compelling and a little more Walter Mittyish.
Censorship not an obscure concept
Likewise, Dan Gillmor's chapter What Ethics Should Bloggers Have? reminds us that, for familiar reasons, bloggers don't often do investigative journalism, and most political bloggers react to the same stories as the mainstream media - meaning that they're being led by the same Westminster announcements and the same PR initiatives as is Fleet Street. Which means that Gillmor's talk of "thoroughness" and "independence" does the job of quietly raising the bar for blogging in general.
And if Weblog Watch can switch to actual, physical space for a vulgar moment (normal service will be resumed soon), some of the most affecting moments since the birth of the blogs have involved seeing British bloggers meeting their counterparts in regimes which throw around the death penalty, and the consequent mutual respect and -- more importantly -- the swapping of details.
But even among all the snooping, arrests and beatings, it's still hard to decide which state would be the worst to blog in.
MOST CENSORIOUS STATES
Source: Reporters Sans Frontieres Internet-Censor World Championship
Cuba's not a bad candidate for a competition among the Internet Censor World Championships. If you're accustomed to the idea of internet users being a select, unrepresentative few - that's going to pale in comparison to those in the .cu domains, where you need express permission from the Party before connecting to the net. After all, there are as many Amish as there are Cuban bloggers.
And it's not just the obvious candidates. If the word "Maldives" makes you think "SCUBA" or "parasailing", it's worth remembering that an e-mail to Amnesty International can get you a fifteen-year jail sentence there.
But the Daddy? The Daddy's still China.
China's still the country where the most people want to be heard abroad, and who won't be. Try and quote BBC News's story Erotic Verse Sheds Light On 'Playboy Lama' on a Chinese blog (now state-licensed, thank you very much), and automatic editing will mean that your story reads "Verse Sheds Light On". And that's if you're lucky -- pornography, religious expression, dissent and free speech being the same kind of anathema.
The internet in China, in fact, punctures a few 20th century ways of thinking. Those enamoured of state control of the economy may have cause for thought at the Chinese government's aversion to free speech. And those who hope that capitalist markets will foster personal freedom will be dismayed by the apparent co-operation of hi-tech American corporations in helping the Chinese state to stifle freedom of expression.
And so the Western blogosphere, being made up of those that would speak their minds, is pretty much in favour of Reporters Sans Frontières' open discourse. From the Francophobic Jiblog to the Bush-sceptic Gekido's Lair, there's a feeling that anything that empowers bloggers must be a good thing.
With one concern.
The most involved section of the guide involves advice on how to blog anonymously: from the easy-but-traceable to the involved-but-apparently-paranoid.
Anonymous blogging, then, seems like a jolly good idea, especially in a world where bloggers can be blackmailed or bullied into silence, and where some seem to live in fear of a fatwa.
And yet, a nervous reader might see words in the Handbook like "anonymiser" and "privacy key" and wonder whether these things are, well, maybe a little dodgy?
The answer to that depends on where you live. There are parts of the world where using an online anonymiser is neither more nor less dangerous than speaking your mind without a state-issued licence. And then there are Western countries where there the idea of encrypting your e-mail: well, it feels a little odd, possibly illegal, possibly makes you look as if you have something to hide from someone or other.
And so reading about this kind of privacy, and having it apparently endorsed by the eggheads at Harvard University and the eggheads at the BBC - that might prompt a frisson of something approaching raciness.
But it's important to remember that weblogging, like universities, and like the Beeb, is all about spreading information around freely.
There's still an argument to be had about privacy on the web. It comes down to whether we should have no private communication. To do this would be in an effort to prevent terrorism, which would almost certainly be futile. On the other hand, we'd maybe like to keep some communication private, so that we can make an effort to try and fight tyranny.
The latter might well be futile, too. But if it wets your whistle, there's going to be a chat on Tuesday about all that we've talked about here. The issue's still live. After all, it's impossible to cover all the issues in a world of censors. As Qannai ominously asks:
"The guide book should also include a crisis action plan, where a blogger can alert others worldwide in cases of contingency."
Because there remain parts of the planet where Richard Littlejohn and Robert Fisk would automatically be thrown in prison from Day One.
Mind how you blog.
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