My friend and colleage Sami Ben Gharbia just launched a fascinating and useful new site: Threatened Voices. It’s an interactive map of bloggers under arrest and under threat around the world, with an accompanying timeline that makes it possible to track the phenomenon of arresting bloggers over the past several years. It’s an uncomfortable fact that, as blogs become a more influential public space, the technique of arresting bloggers to silence online speech becomes increasingly common.
The Threatened Voices map complements another map that Sami maintains on Global Voices Advocacy, the Access Denied Map. That map is an overview of government efforts to block online publishing platforms, like Blogger or YouTube. I continue to believe that censorship of these types of sites is one of the most serious problems the web faces today. When a government blocks a website, it blocks the voice of one person or one group – when they block a tool like WordPress or Twitter, they block all the voices that wanted to use that tool, which might represent hundreds or thousands of alternative perspectives. While I believe we should combat all online censorship (or, more to the point, I believe that any filtering should be done at the edge of the network, by parents, schools or businesses that pay for internet access, not by governments or ISPs), I think there’s a special importance in calling attention to these blocked platforms.
But the blocking of a platform for speech is an abstract idea. Threatened Voices helps personalize the idea of internet censorship, making it clear that it’s a technique that doesn’t just involve blocking packets – it can involve harrassing and arresting individuals, sometimes detaining them for months or years. The goal was to provide a complement to organizations like Committee to Protect Bloggers and Reporters without Borders, who do a great job of leading campaigns to call attention to the imprisonment of individual bloggers. Threatened Voices isn’t campaigning for any of these individual bloggers – it’s trying to present a picture of how vast the phenomenon of imprisoning and threatening bloggers has become.
There’s no way a map like the one Sami is building will ever be complete. We don’t know about every blogger who’s been arrested. And it’s a difficult question whether someone has been arrested for their blogging or for other alleged offenses – is Hossein Derakhshan still in prison because he’s alleged to be an Israeli spy (an absurd accusation) or because he’s an influential blogger? Sami’s trying to broaden the information available, asking people to contribute reports of bloggers under threat to the map.
Knowing what countries are harrassing and arresting bloggers is a first step. What’s the most useful next step is an extremely difficult question. Not all countries respond well to external pressure, or to direct lobbying. It’s possible to harness a great deal of energy around the cause of releasing an individual blogger, but it’s not as clear how that energy should be productively channelled. My hope is that efforts to map this problem will help build solidarity between organizations that have a long track record of protecting journalists, or protecting human rights more generally, and the emerging movements to protect bloggers and the tools of online speech.