“We’re the lucky bloggers of the Middle East,” said UK Ambassador Frances Guy during the recent and first Blogging Lebanon event of its kind at the American University of Beirut. “We’re even able to meet here and talk about the limits of blogging,” added the diplomat, who blogs for UK’s official Foreign Office Blogs.
Guy was speaking from experience. Her now famous post in which she lauded Shia cleric Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah as an admirable man after his passing in July led to some angry reactions, especially from Israelis. The post was eventually removed, but Guy stressed to audience members the potentially dire consequences of blogging in the region. “I think we should spare a few seconds to think about those bloggers in the region who are in detention or threatened with detention, in Egypt, in Syria, in Iran […] for daring to express themselves on a blog,” she said.
Despite certain risks, blogging in Lebanon and throughout the Middle East has increased dramatically over the past few years. According to Liliane Assaf, the brain behind the Lebanon Aggregator blog, although most blogs from 2005-2006 dealt with politics, many of the 350-400 Lebanon-related blogs today are for fun, social commentary, marketing or activism. While freedom of expression is an issue, Lebanon’s snail-like internet seems to be the more pressing concern.
AUB senior Mohammad Hijazi is president of AUB’s online collaborative, which according to its website, seeks to group social media enthusiasts and experienced individuals in the digital media world to help promote proper digital citizenship. “I noticed the significant number of bloggers in Lebanon, but no organization uniting them under one roof,” said Hijazi following the conference, which he created after noticing that whereas tweeters meet during tweet ups, bloggers did not necessarily have a space to meet.
The event featured twelve speakers, who covered a number of blog-related topics, from crafting a copyright system for regional websites to blogging in the Lebanese dialect, to using blogs as a tool for dialogue and activism. Hijazi told NOW Lebanon that freedom of expression tops the list of his worries.
“In the region it’s much worse, but there are limitations in Lebanon,” said Hijazi, a Biology and Business Administration major.
Last spring, Hijazi was fired from his position as staff writer for Align, the official newsletter of AUB’s Olayan School of Business (OSB). He had blogged about AUB students’ medical school acceptances on both his personal blog and Facebook page. He wrote that qualified candidates had been refused, while others admitted because of their “wasta,” the term Lebanese use to describe personal connections.
“They flat out told me it was because of the blog,” Hijazi said. He noted other, sterner instances of jeopardized freedom of expression such as last summer’s famous Facebook incident, which landed three people in prison for libel against President Michel Sleiman.
Others have had it worse. Imad Bazzi spent not one, but two stays in prison for political writings in the late ‘90s. At the conference, he spoke about using blogs to lobby politicians and authorities, and screened a disturbing video depicting police officers picking on a 16-year-old delivery boy.
Bazzi is one of the few bloggers who write in Arabic, as opposed to English, which he said poses higher risks, given that a different subset of people has access to the content. “I use street language,” he said, “I like to make it more people-friendly.” But he also dwelled on the country’ slow internet speed.
In an email to NOW Lebanon, BeirutSpring’s author Mustapha Hamoui said that slow, expensive internet keeps blogging unavailable to many. “This is a pity because we could benefit from the perspective of the underprivileged if they blogged,” he added. BeirutSpring gets an estimated 40,000 unique visits per month. Hamoui blogs primarily about social-political affairs in the region, even though he is based in West Africa.
“Nowadays the only form of self-censorship I exercise is trying to not respond to comments by Israelis on my blog, because I fear the law about having ‘contact with the enemy’ could be used against me,” he said.
“People are increasingly sick of politics and today favor using blogs to showcase their art or poke humor at the society,” said LebanonAggregator’s Assaf.
For example, Maya Zankoul’s Amalgam blog is one of the country’s most popular. Her witty and mocking cartoons of Lebanese society have even been published into a book.
“But bloggers are limited,” Assaf said. “People are reluctant to watch videos, for example, because they simply do not have the time to wait for them to buffer. This is a big loss, a big challenge for Lebanese bloggers.”
With Lebanon’s average download speed ranked 181 after Burkina Faso, Haiti, Swaziland and Tajikistan, it is no surprise that freedom of expression is not the number one concern for bloggers in the Middle East. Perhaps once (and if) resolved, bloggers could begin to see tighter control of what appears online. “I feel it’s getting worse,” Hijazi told NOW Lebanon. “They are trying to limit the power of the internet.”