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Blogging in the Middle East is a tough choice By Wael Abbas

Deutsche Presse Agentur
Published: Thursday September 14, 2006

By Wael Abbas, Cairo- Creating a blog in a Western country is a very private decision, depending only on one's interests and a willingness to express oneself. Such is not the case in the Middle East, where becoming a blogger can be a life-changing decision attracting phone taps, official harassment or even arrest.

For Egypt's less-than-open regime, bloggers have been a veritable "pain in the neck," covering presidential and parliamentary elections as well as the activities of all the new movements calling for change in the country.

The bloggers have been winning favour with audiences who see them as transparent and credible as they provide reports and photos that expose vote rigging, corruption and police brutality. By using unorthodox methods and avoiding censorship, bloggers have excelled over conventional media.

But one Egyptian blogger, Alaa Seif owner of Manalaa.net, paid the price.

In a major indication that the Egyptian government has lost its patience with bloggers, Seif recently spent 45 days in detention for taking pictures of a sit-in protest.

While some Egyptian bloggers choose to disclose their identities and expose themselves to the authorities, bloggers in other of the region's countries do not have that option.

The Iranian blogger revolution for example was started in Canada by Iranian emigre Hussein Derakhshan, nicknamed Hoder. His blog was followed by huge numbers of others written anonymously in Iran. As a result of this revolution, government officials - including President Mahmud Ahmadinajad - have their own blogs.

In 2003, Iran became the first country in the world to jail a blogger, journalist Sina Matlabi, who was jailed for endangering the security of the state. Iran was also first in issuing laws regulating activity on the Internet.

In 2005 the owner of Bahrainonline.com Ali Abdulemam was arrested in Bahrain on accusations of violating press law, inciting hatred and threatening to destabilize the country.

Sami Bin-Gharbiya, the Tunisian owner of Kitab.nl, is destined to become a refugee both physically and virtually. He lives in Holland as a political refugee and he is banned from the Tunisian blog aggregator (a software that displays news feeds on blogs) so he took refuge in the Egyptian blog aggregator hosted by Manalaa.net.

A country where blogging is becoming popular is Morocco. Following in the footsteps of their Egyptian counterparts, Morocco's small community of bloggers are making their voices heard. For example, a report published on Jankari.org about how government money was being spent on official trips abroad lead to the sacking of a high government official.

In Lebanon where the press is relatively free bloggers have taken a different approach, using their blogs to raise funds for the victims of the 33-day war between Israel and Hizbullah. One example was the Lebanese Blogger Forum, which also posted photos, cartoons and video coverage of the war.

To the south, Israelis used their blogs to justify their country's war in Lebanon. "Please understand us, our government has a duty to protect civilians from Hizbullah's rocket attacks," says Israellycool.

Even in Saudi Arabia, where blogging lies under a stifling theocratic shroud, bloggers succeeded in lobbying against censorship. In August when the famous blog Saudijeans.org was blocked, a group of Saudis organized a strike in which they stopped blogging for 27 days. This succeeded in convincing the authorities to remove the block.

© 2006 DPA - Deutsche Presse-Agenteur