Since the op-ed I was invited to write by Canada’s National Post is no longer accessible, I am republishing it here. This draft is not as tight as the published version, but it will have to do.
A Collective Conscience for the Wired World
On February 22, in a closed “revolutionary court” in Iran, Arash Sigarchi was sentenced to fourteen years in prison. In addition to being a journalist, Sigarchi is a blogger. A blog, for those who have not heard, short for “web log,” is nothing more than an online journal. On his blog, Mr. Sigarchi protested the months-long crackdown by the Iranian government on bloggers, online and print journalists.
The cover charges of which this secret tribunal found Sigarchi guilty included, untenably, espionage and, weirdly, insulting Iran’s leaders. His real crime was speaking his mind, not just to other Iranians, but to the world at large via his blog and by agreeing to interviews with BBC’s Persian service and Radio Farda. Sigarchi is not alone. Fellow blogger Mojtaba Saminejad was recently rearrested after failing to pay his doubled bail. And today, blogger Mohamad Reza Nasab Abdolahi was sentenced to six months in prison under the same charges.
The Iranian government is currently the most zealous persecutor of bloggers in the world. One reason for this, aside from the obvious distaste of all despotic governments for unfettered speech, is that Farsi, or Persian, the language of Iran, is the fourth most popular language in the blogosphere. Iranians, with their long history of intellectual achievement and worldliness, have taken to blogging like few other nations. After Iranian-Canadian Hossein Derakhshan authored the first Persian-language blogging software in November of 2001, blogging was a fait accompli in Iran.
But blogging is growing like mad around the world, matching and perhaps even surpassing the steep adoption rate of other influential online communications technologies. When I first researched the number of blogs, in late December, the blog search engine Technorati counted 5.4 million. Today they count 7.3 million. And the more bloggers there are, the more conflicts will arise.
Blogging is antithetical to government control of speech. Blogging is easy to do, with free or cheap software and hosting services providing the bulk of what’s needed. It provides the thrill of speaking your mind without censure. The culture of the blogosphere, as the world of blogs has come to be known, is one of radical re-contextualization. Quoting, linking, footnoting, commenting all help to rapidly pass on information. As blogging grows, more countries will begin to clamp down on them, just as they already clamp down on journalists, contributors to online bulletin boards and editors of non-blog websites.
Because Iran is currently the most egregious oppressors of bloggers, the Committee to Protect Bloggers mounted a campaign to free Mojtaba and Arash. Free Mojtaba and Arash Day took place on February 22. We encouraged bloggers around the world to dedicate their blogs to their two imprisoned brothers in Iran. Thousands of bloggers downloaded banners, or made their own; splashed only the words “Free Mojtaba and Arash” across their blogs or blogged on the detentions at length. Hundreds left comments on our site and on others’. Iranian bloggers showed up by the hundreds, at one point making up 12% of our visitors. From February 21 to February 23, our site received over 20,000 unique visitors. Google now lists 11,000 sites that mention us and Technorati counts 1,300 links to our site. Bellwether blogs like InstaPundit and the Daily Kos promoted the day, and it was covered by American public radio, the BBC, CNET and other mainstream media.
In the middle of the day on February 22, we received notice that Arash had been convicted and sentenced to 14 years in prison. It was disheartening news, to say the least. The timing of the announcement by the Iranian government could hardly have been accidental. I believe the intention was to rob a worldwide, grassroots, cross-cultural groundswell of its momentum. Needless to say, it did not work. Nor did the charge that we are an “American” group. (American in this case meaning government-run.) Bloggers are not like other groups. They cannot be hierarchized. The blogosphere is a constantly changing, self-correcting system. Trying to cow bloggers is like trying to herd cats or squash water.
Bloggers are now a force in civil society, much as they have become a force in the world of journalism. Now that bloggers have awakened to both their power and their responsibility, they will clamp down like pit bulls and replicate like Cerebrus.
Nothing can be done now without this linked network, this worldwide organic supercomputer-with-a-soul, from spotting it, spelling it and passing it on. I hardly mean to say, as the Constable so unfortunately did, “A very little little let us do. And all is done.” Eliminating the ability of repressive governments to silence its people is a perpetual process, not a goal to be quickly achieved, not even in the accelerated world of the 21st century. Bloggers are just one more force against which governments living in perpetual fear of their own people will have to struggle. But we’re an unconquerable force: We’re legion, we’re everywhere, and we’re spoiling for a fight.