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Politics & Policies: The other Mideast revolt

By CLAUDE SALHANI, UPI International Editor

WASHINGTON, March 2 (UPI) -- Modern communications is breaking down the gates of censorship in the Middle East, helping spread democracy by denying governments the monopoly they once held on dissimulating information.

Satellite television and the Internet have already defied censorship rules imposed by autocratic leaderships in the region. Authoritarian regimes are starting to find it impossible to sustain their restrictive ways in a rapidly changing world where taboos are being broken and fears abandoned.

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A good example of dissipating fears has been the reaction of the tens of thousands of Lebanese who have taken to the streets of Beirut since the Feb. 14 assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, demanding the end to almost 30 years of Syrian occupation. There is little doubt that the free-flow of information helped edge on the opposition who found additional strength in the worldwide support the movement is generating.

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Borders -- both physical and imaginary -- that for decades were kept hermetically sealed in efforts to control the flow of information are now being flung wide open as a result of governments being unable to control the airwaves and the word-wide Web. It's not for lack of effort on their part, but there is simply too much information to control, even in countries with totalitarian regimes.

Now, a growing trend - the proliferation of blogs -- is making it all that much harder for governments to police the free-flow of data.

For the un-initiated to the world of the Internet, the word blog originates from "Web log." A blog is basically a journal made available on the Web. Someone who maintains a blog is therefore called a blogger. Many are interactive, meaning that they allow readers to insert their own comments on the site. There are millions -- if not more -- of such blogs around the world, covering every possible topic under the sun and even some beyond. A select few are dedicated to serious journalistic reporting. Often, the challenge is sorting out the more serious from the mundane.

Unlike conventional media where layers of editors check and vet information before publication, bloggers are accountable only to themselves. The vast majority of blog sites are administered by a single person, the "owner" of the site. Despite that, bloggers are rapidly becoming a force to be recognized in the media world.

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Much like the television satellite dish, bloggers have contributed in making government censorship and restrictions more difficult in countries where the primary function of information ministries is to control -- if not stifle -- the information.

In many instances, the anonymity of bloggers allows criticism of the government without fear of retribution or persecution. But, alas, that is not always the case.

In Bahrain, webmaster Ali Abdulemam was arrested Sunday for comments that were published on his site, Bahrainonline.org, a site previously shut down by the Information Ministry in 2002.

The government's censure of the Web site proved futile. Friends of the Bahraini blogger simply set up another server outside the country, making it impossible for local authorities to take further action, and allowing local Web surfers to continue to view the site.

According to the Gulf Daily News, the 27-year-old computer engineer with EDS who has been detained for 15 days over comments that appeared on his Web site has a membership of around 20,000 and gets around 80,000 hits a day -- a huge number in a country of just 678,000 people, of which some 196,700 are Internet users as of December 2003, according to Internet World Stats.

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In Bahrain Monday, Abdulemam's supporters covered their mouths with tape in silent protest outside the Public Prosecution offices -- symbolizing their claim that he had been gagged, reported Robert Smith in the GDN.

From Cairo to Beirut and from Riyadh to Damascus, the Internet is playing an ever-increasing role in allowing the free-flow of information.

In this respect the Internet has played a major role in allowing people, particularly young people in the Middle East, to be aware of what is going on around them. The availability of the Internet has made communicating with the rest of the world easier and more accessible. Reading foreign newspapers - often banned -- and tuning in to foreign radio and television newscasts on the Internet has permitted people to stay in touch with the rest of the world.

In some countries where freedom of the press is restricted, such as in Egypt, or where information is tightly controlled by the state, as in Iran, bloggers -- both inside the country, or often operating from exile -- are proving to be an important source of information. Those publishing from outside typically rely on a vast network of family, friends and political supporters to keep them informed about latest developments back home.

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A good example is Iran, where according to the Guardian Online, there are some 75,000 Web blogs, and Farsi is now reported to be the fourth most popular language used on blog sites. By comparison, there are only 50 known blogs in neighboring Iraq.

The Islamic Republic tried to ban satellite dishes in the past but proved unable to enforce the ruling. Trying to block 75,000 blogs, a great many of which are calling for democratic change, is not likely to be any easier.

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(Comments may be sent to Claude@upi.com, or you may visit Claude's blog. ClaudeSalhani.blogspot.com.)

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