Friday, February 9, 2007
"CAIRO (AP) — Wael Abbas hasn't been arrested yet by Egyptian police — but the blogger, who never leaves home without a camera, fears it could happen any day.
State security is keeping a close eye on the democracy activist, most recently for posting graphic cellphone videos on his blog that show what many Egyptians only mention behind closed doors — police brutality and sexual attacks on women.
Egypt arrested a string of prominent bloggers last year, including one who remains jailed and is on trial for allegedly defaming Islam after he published posts criticizing Islamic institutions on his Arabic-language blog.
"I might be next," Abbas said recently at a downtown Cairo coffee shop. He said his family has received anonymous phone calls asking questions about him, which he suspects come from state security. "I think there is a campaign against the bloggers here," he said. "We are exposing what all Egyptians know but weren't talking about."
Abbas is part of a wave of Middle Eastern writers and photographers blogging from a region ridden with censorship and intense pressure not to criticize authorities. Mideast governments for decades have dominated the media, trying to keep a monopoly on information. But bloggers like Abbas are chipping away at that lock, writing about everything from human rights to the region's rulers and even the most taboo topic — Islam.
Weblogs — or blogs for short — started taking off in the Mideast a few years ago as the access to the Internet and technology for creating sites grew. There are now hundreds of Arabic- and Farsi-language blogs written out of the Middle East — many just personal musings but also many that tackle political and social issues.
Bloggers are increasingly getting into trouble as governments crack down by blocking their sites and throwing them in jail. "I firmly believe that blogs now with normal people using them have become the fifth estate. They watch the watchers, especially in this area of the world, because there are no controls over them," said Mahmood al-Yousif, a Bahraini blogger.
Al-Yousif knows firsthand the control his government and others are trying to yield over the Internet. His blog was blocked by authorities briefly last year after he published articles about an election-related scandal, he said.
Rights groups accuse several Mideast governments of increasingly suppressing the Internet by blocking websites and detaining bloggers. Reporters Without Borders has listed five Mideast countries — Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Syria — on a list of the 13 worst Internet freedom enemies.
Governments defend their Web regulations, saying they are protecting citizens from "immoral" and "defamatory" content. But rights groups and bloggers say they overstep their authority.
"Five years ago, authorities didn't care about bloggers because the Internet's reach was less," said Julien Pain, head of Reporters Without Borders' Internet Freedom Desk. "Now, what is most interesting is the Weblogs in the local languages. You look at what the authorities censor, they censor content in local languages."......
Though the number of Internet users has grown nearly fivefold since 2000, only about 10% of the Middle East's population has access to the Internet, according to the online Internet World Stats, which monitors Web usage around the world. The numbers are generally lower in North Africa, including Egypt, where about 7% of the country's 70 million people use the Internet, the website said....."