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Article by Maya Chanthaphavong | Published May 30, 2012
This interview forms a part of our theme for April and May: the relationship between art and human rights.
Samaya Chanthaphavong spoke to Antony Loewenstein, author of The Blogging Revolution about the use of the internet, in particular blogging, as a communicative tool to promote self-representation, democracy and human rights in areas where excessive regimes impose strict censorship over most forms of communication.
RN: We know that as part of your book The Blogging Revolution that you have travelled to Iran, Cuba, China, Saudi Arabia and Egypt to look at how these societies blog under excessive regimes. How important do you think blogging and self-representation is for people from those countries, and also for people that are interested in getting news as to what’s going on in those countries?
[Antony Loewenstein]: There has been no doubt in the last five years all those countries except Cuba have had a vastly important and growing internet culture-I will put Cuba aside and explain why in a second. We shouldn’t forget that in those countries most people didn’t use the internet and were not online, whereas obviously in the West we are. So the voices that we often have and hear are only the elite and not the majority.
So the voices that we often have and hear are only the elite and not the majority.
Most people online aren’t engaged in politics. In China, which is the biggest internet community in the world with roughly 450 million internet users out of a population of roughly 1.4 billion, the vast majority of those people are not engaging in politics. They are downloading music, films, meeting guys and girls. What most people on the internet do.
However in all those countries, with the exception of Cuba, there is a growing space that is repressed to have political discussion and political debate. The reason why I said Cuba was an exception is that it has the lowest internet penetration in that part of the world roughly equating to two to four per cent due to two main reasons: firstly with the US embargo on Cuba it is very difficult to get reliable technology for the regime to use for access to the web. But more importantly in my view, it’s because the Castro brothers are fearful of free speech. So few Cubans have access to the internet so the blogging reach is very small. There is a lack of free speech culture in the public arena which has been a disaster for that country. There are however Cuban political bloggers. Often they are unable to leave the country to get awards that they have won overseas, however their reach within Cuba is miniscule because most people don’t access the web there.
I am saying all of this not to argue that the internet has no influence anywhere – it has massive influence. But I do think that many in the West, particularly since the Arab Spring that started in late 2010, have exaggerated the influence of the internet. For instance, websites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube etc have been spoken of almost as a way to explain what’s happening as opposed to arguing that the internet is an important part of challenging state power and state repression.
But it’s not the only way. In countries where internet usage is either very much censored or repressed, like in Iran, people often have other ways of communicating. Mobile phones, for example, were far more important to talk with and get information. This was seen particularly during the Arab Spring.
Do you think it’s up to the Western media to provide a spotlight on issues such as repression, censorship and free speech or do you think it is something that will gain momentum from within these countries?
The Western press is not homogenous but part of the problem that the Western media has – and this has come out since the Arab Spring – is how little it understands what is happening in those parts of the world.
Far too often, in places like Egypt or others, the Western press has a responsibility to speak honestly about the Western role in maintaining regimes for so long. I am not suggesting the endurance of repressive regimes is solely the West’s fault or responsibility but if you, as a Western country – I am talking particularly about the US of course but not just America – fund, arm, train and support dictatorships and for that matter allow Western security firms, many of whom are based in the States, to provide and support internet censorship in these countries, it will not end well.
The evidence of that was clear before the Arab Spring but since the Arab Spring public documents have emerged from Egypt, Libya and elsewhere of Western (American and European) so called “internet censorship” companies who of course don’t advertise themselves publically as helping dictatorships. They advertise their tools as helping schools censor information from young kids or helping libraries, but the evidence suggests that these corporations have assisted regimes in censorship.
In my view, this has been talked about for years and I discuss it in my book The Blogging Revolution, that there needs to be far more aggressive regulatory legislation in the United States and elsewhere to prosecute corporations that are based in the US or other Western countries that collude with dictatorships in repressing free speech. This doesn’t occur at the moment despite talk about it, and I think it should.
Obama has in fact deepened and worsened that situation rather than making it better.
Do you think from a grassroots level, taking into consideration global internet activism, that people could get momentum going for pressuring governments to introduce legislative measures on companies that provide censorship measures to support regimes?
Yes I do, I think unfortunately to some extent that people are still in shock from eight years of the Bush administration, the last three and a half years of Obama and the election this year, on many of these kinds of issues. Obama has in fact deepened and worsened that situation rather than making it better.
There is an idea somehow that the Bush administration was the worst that it could get; this is a complete myth. The Obama Administration has nationally expanded the monitoring of US citizens. There was a talk from a whistle-blower at the National Security Agency (NSA) about this to media program Democracy Now which is saying that in the last few years the US has collected 20 trillion emails, phone calls etc. This data is not necessarily being actively used but the US is collecting every single email or phone call that everyone makes in that country.
Now that’s happening undeniably illegally, though of course the Patriot Act exists which is a piece of legislation that the Bush Administration initiated post-2001 and the Obama Administration deepened. Many of these companies that are assisting regimes overseas, such as Egypt, Libya and Iran, generally speaking feel protected, though occasionally Hillary Clinton speaks about internet censorship because other Americans believe that America is doing hideous things to their own people and therefore don’t care about what happens in other countries. It is rhetoric that they use when speaking out about censorship.
Telecommunication companies in the United States have been co-opted willingly by the US Government to essentially be involved in monitoring American businesses. Some of these have also been active in countries overseas and colluding with repressive regimes to censor the internet but also to monitor mobile phone calls and text messages. This has become clear in the Arab countries in the last 18 months.
If you speak to many people from those places – and I have and continue to do – they do think solidarity matters.
If we consider all of the censorship and monitoring issues do you think that there is a future in blogging to make a difference to what is presented in Western media? Do you think that there is any point to blogging if (a) no one is really listening or (b) people are pretending to listen or (c) everything is under surveillance? Where is blogging headed?
I don’t want to give the impression that people shouldn’t bother so let’s further explain my points on censorship. There is no doubt that in the last 18 months in many countries there has been a profound shift in the power of citizens to be able to effect change – obviously in the Arab world, though these countries are still in flux – it’s almost like the revolution has happened but they are still in progress. Egypt is in a very difficult situation, Libya is as well, and these countries haven’t come through a dictatorship into a democracy.
It’s all very much a work in progress but I see the role of Western activists who are interested in raising a voice, or giving a voice to the voiceless individuals who don’t get much press or coverage in the West, should continue to reach out and build connections and relationships with people in those countries.
Western media should talk about censorship on the web but they should also try to highlight stories outside the West, not just about support by the US of oppressive practices which happen throughout the Arab world. But also to let people feel that they are not alone.
If you speak to many people from those places – and I have and continue to do – they do think solidarity matters. It matters because you feel like you are not alone, and that people outside your country are listening. We also shouldn’t forget that in many of these places in the last 18 months, since Tunisia had their revolution in late 2010, there are numerous examples of repressive states that are desperate to not show the West their censoring behaviour. They are embarrassed and ashamed and would rather keep those practices hidden.
It’s the rule of independent media to highlight that. This is something that I speak about in The Blogging Revolution. A lot of the Western press reporting on repressive states far too often – and there are many exceptions to this – but far too often echo the perspectives of the US State Department. So in one sense the media agrees that torturing is terrible but have excuses like “it’s a difficult part of the world, America needs to have reliable allies” etc. This is echoed countless times throughout Western press like Washington Post and The New York Times. It is not just the concept of embedding journalists with the US military in Iraq or Afghanistan that is concerning, it is the mindset that is concerning when dealing with embedding, as they feel the desire and need to be close to power and have access to power.
After all these years since 9/11 and the changes that have occurred across the Muslim world we still rarely, if ever, hear an Arab person in their own voice in the media. Of course you sometimes hear them being interviewed but let’s talk about Iraq for a moment. You rarely see Iraqis in the press, you may hear them for five seconds but we do routinely hear Western analysts talking about Iraq in Washington, London or Canberra. I think the role here of Western activists, bloggers, tweeters, Facebookers, YouTubers etc is to try to bypass that blindness that exists in most parts of the Western corporate press and simply connect with people in these countries and give them a voice because ultimately that’s what media democracy should be.
…we still rarely, if ever, hear an Arab person in their own voice in the media.
Where does human rights blogging sit in Australia?
Clearly being in a county like Australia which nominally is a democracy and not a repressive state the role of blogging on the internet is very different to places like Iran and China.
There is a growing push by private companies here in Australia and much of the West – particularly coming out of the US – towards a surveillance state to monitor and collect all electronic communication that you have.
This could be as simple as a phone call made on a mobile to booking travel; everything that you could possibly do online would be collected and stored.
I am not suggesting that Australia is becoming like North Korea but what I am saying is that there is a growing desire by security agents and private companies to do that and is something, in my view, that should be strongly resisted.
What role can Australian bloggers have in spreading Human Rights awareness or activism within Australia?
The role of the Australian blogger can be made up of two things: one, to show the degree of solidarity with people in repressive states because we have a relatively open internet to be able to build some kind of support network for people in rather difficult circumstances and two, to raise awareness of issues in Australia.
Australia clearly has a range of issues and one example that comes to mind is Indigenous Australians being able to be represented in their own voice. There are of course a handful of Aboriginal activists and academics that you hear all the time but you can pretty much count them on the one hand and the image we get otherwise is of drunken guys or women somewhere. Those images, though not untrue, are related to wider issues such as alcoholism etc in Aboriginal communities.
I believe that activism should start at home so these kinds of issues and questions should be spoken about here.