Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Blogging Activism and Journalism: Bahrain's Recent Restrictions

I was first introduced to the idea of blogging as activism by reading Saudi Jeans. The more I have been aware of blogs, and the more they have impacted on the news and political events--sometimes to the point of becoming the news-- the more different aspects of this endeavour have become apparent to me. The importance of blogging where there are major limitations on freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of association rapidly elevates blogging to "alternative journalism". Whether bloggers should be held to the same standards of ethics as professional journalists was something I alluded to in the first set of posts I did on Blogging and Ethics: Blogging & Ethics Part I: ELSI; and Blogging & Ethics Part II: ELSI--Tall Tales, Truthiness, and Big Hits!

Ironically, later another blogger, who self-identifies as a journalist, wrote a post decrying the need for bloggers to meet the ethical standards of journalism. The topic came up again in a post by Duha, Saudi Dawn, on her blog The Eternal Philosopher. In a post entitled "Personal letter to Saudi woman bloggers", she essentially called on bloggers to clearly identify when they are speaking from their own perspective, rather than speaking for all Saudi women. Both the post and the comments alluded to the distinction between journalistic blogging and personal blogging, or at least the co-opting of personal blogs by journalism outlets with the compliance or complacence of the bloggers.

It seems to me clear that some blogs are highly personal and don't aim to do anything different than share the life experiences, adventures, and impressions of the blogger. Others are more obviously aiming to effect change in their society, or to at least expose certain aspects which aren't dealt with in the mainstream media. Some of these self identify as journalistic, whether explicitly in the stated premises of the blog, in the blogger's qualifications, or in the content and tone of the posts. Some where in between are those blogs which have a mixed status of being personal "diaries" which have gained credence and journalistic stature by virtue of their access to a world of which their readers have little experience.

As blogging is a public activity, even those blogs which perceive themselves as personal reflections only are subject to the same laws of freedom of expression as exist (or not) where they are geographically based--whether the geographic base is a physical one , or a thematic one. A blog can be shut down by its "country of origin" or blocked in a country that doesn't like its content for whatever reason.

Similarly, bloggers can be held accountable for their activism in the same ways that professional journalists are. This is most dramatically true when a blogger is arrested for transgressing boundaries defined by the country where he or she is blogging. Sometimes the boundaries are newly enforced, and sometimes newly reset--as when there is a new government, or a new governmental attitude.

This seems to have happened most recently in Bahrain, where in the last few weeks there have been a number of shutdowns and arrests: Abduljalil Alsingace, of, Ali Abdulemam founder of BahrainOnline (now shut down), and Mohammed Al Mousawi and Hussain Yousif, moderators of the same. This is most disconcerting, especially as there are legitimate concerns that the persons are being held incommunicado and are at risk of being tortured. These repressions are seen as part of broader actions that began with the arrests of Abdul Ghani Al-Kanjar, the spokesman of the National Committee for Martyrs and Victims of Torture, Mohammed Saeed, a member of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, Jaafar Hisabi and four clerics – Mohammed Al-Muqdad, Saeed Al-Nouri, Abdulhadi Al-Mokhoder and Mirza Al-Mahrus.

I'm sure the word "torture" invokes a set of negative images for all of us, the specifics depending on the associations we make to the word. Mine are mainly derived from reading for various research and clinical endeavours, sometimes to the point of traumatizing myself, and having to stop--at least for a while. Also from documentaries, interviews, and current affairs programs (Maher Arar, Omar Khadr).

I've forgotten which of the books I read, or which of the programs I saw that has me shuddering as I drive by certain hospitals in Morocco, but the torturee in that case was Abraham Serfaty, though of course not the only one. Books abound on Tazmamart--the secret prison that was so bad that the USA made Morocco close and destroy it, as word of it spread and it was making the USA look bad to have such an ally. The Oufkir family have each detailed their imprisonment and torture of a less conventional sort.

One of the many issues I have with the Guantanamo Bay prison is the use of torture there (and in the places overseas before prisoners are brought there); particularly with the role of psychologists in devising the psychological ones--which leave no marks, but are potentially more devastating, are harder to treat, and that people who have been tortured say are the ones that plague them the longest (mock executions longest of all). I have seen in clinic a few refugees who have been traumatized to the point of psychosis, and the victim of a particularly perverse and sadistic rape who was psychotically depressed for a while (right after she remembered the mock execution and the gun, not just the knife).

I did do an assessment of a woman with PTSD after she had been tortured during a civil war in her country (rape, bayonet wounds, teeth smashed in...) for a refugee claim, because the referring social worker insisted I do it, even though I tried to set it up with one of the local experts with whom I work on cross-cultural issues. I'm not sure why she insisted, except maybe the woman preferred a woman psychiatrist, or the social worker thought I would be more amenable. Probably the latter, and I was.

So, yes, when I read that people are arrested and held incommunicado, and in countries where the risk of torture is high, I am disconcerted, to put it mildly. I start mentally running through the possibilities, and the latest research on predictions of psychiatric trauma. Fortunately the best research has gone beyond "the person must have had a mental weakness" theory, or must have had a "pre-existing predisposition or condition", and shows that the "dose" of torture is more significant, the circumstances contribute greatly, and time is a factor in that it increases the "dosing", though significant trauma can occur in a remarkably short time.

As the days pass, the situation of the Bahraini bloggers, journalists and human rights activists becomes more urgent; and so I appreciate the efforts made by those doing posts, like Saudi Jeans, Free Ali Abdulemam, and others spreading the word by social networking media.  The less bio-psycho-social trauma the better.

Relevant resources:
Reporters Without Borders
Unacceptable arrests of human rights activists
Arrests, torture and website-blocking as situation worsens alarmingly
Barhain Center for Human Rights
CPJ [Committee to Protect Journalists]: Prominent online journalist arrested in Bahrain
Frontline: Protection of Human Rights Defenders
Bahrain: arrest of human rights defender and leading blogger Ali Abdulemam and ten other human rights defenders

Free Blogger Ali Abdulemam
Free Bahraini Blogger Ali Abdulemam
Free Human Rights Defender and Blogger Ali Abdulemam + Others

Possible Actions:
Blog, Twitter, or Facebook an item with links back to campaign sites above

What is your impression of the relationship of blogging to journalism?
What rights do/should bloggers have?
Who protects those rights?
What other actions could be taken in this instance?
Any other comments, thoughts, impressions, experiences?


Susanne said...

Thanks for this post making us aware of these facts. The map was interesting!

Dentographer said...

i might not be the blogger that help the world becoming a better place,but i surely enjoy being part of it,its a place of self expression,which is more into art,science and music.

Wendy said...

I feel concern for many bloggers in the ME countries. I was rather shocked (as was my husband) to hear about Bahrain as we both thought it was a bit more liberal. Is there a change happening in Bahrain or were we just very naive?

Chiara said...

Susanne--thank you for your comment. :) It seemed necessary to draw attention to this development in Saudi's supposedly more lax neighbour. :(

Dentographer--I am a great fan of your blog, as you know. I agree that there is a place for all types of blogging. Moreover, it seems to me that Saudis with personal or cultural blogs perform the unfortunately necessary service of showing that Saudis have normal interests and concerns that non-Saudis share. Thanks for your insightful comment! :)

Wendy--I would imagine from following Coolred's experiences with the Bahraini press, and more significantly those of her journalist friend Maryam, that this potential was latent and applied more discretely until this recent sudden crackdown. I am not sure of the background for why now, but perhaps someone will enlighten us. Thanks for sharing your impression and that of your husband!


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