Blogging gets more dangerous as worldwide arrests triple

Iran, China and Egypt accounting for more than half of all arrests since 2003

It's becoming increasingly dangerous to post blogs in some parts of the world. Various governments continue to step up efforts to crack down on bloggers who expose public corruption and human right violations, according to a research study released earlier this month.

Documented arrests of citizen bloggers - those not associated with official news organizations - tripled from 2006 to 2007, according to the World Information Access 2008 Report compiled by the University Of Washington. Iran, China and Egypt accounting for more than half of all the arrests since 2003, according to the report.

Philip Howard, an assistant professor at the university and lead author or the report, also noted that because not all regimes report arrests of bloggers, so the numbers are likely to be higher than the 65 arrests from 2003 to the beginning of 2008 cited in the report.

"Governments are starting to take citizen bloggers seriously," Howard said. "The biggest takeaway is that people are reading these blogs. The citizen bloggers are important political actors now. A lot of these citizen bloggers are having an impact."

During the five years covered in the report, citizen bloggers spent a total of 940 months in jail. The average time served was 15 months, with terms ranging from a few hours and to eight years, the report noted.

The report attributed the jump from 10 arrests in 2006 to 36 in 2007 to bloggers posting opinions on elections in Iran and Egypt, Howard said. The report said that blog posts seeking to organize or explain social protests led to the most arrests, followed by posts said to violate cultural norms and comments about public policy.

There were also several cases where bloggers were arrested after embarrassing senior public officials or exposing corruption, he added. For example, an Iranian blogger was arrested after he obtained documentation and receipts showing the cost of the Iranian President's security dogs. The receipts showed that the President was classifying his of pugs - a breed not usually associated with personal protection - as part of his security detail.

"Our study almost certainly underestimates the number of arrests Iran, Egypt and China," Howard said. "They are much less likely to report details of these arrests."

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China is notorious for the tight reins it keeps on bloggers from that country. That censorship is so sharp that Chinese bloggers gained worldwide recognition last month when many were able to blog freely about the devastating earthquakes there because Beijing censors were too overwhelmed by the disaster to monitor blog posts.

The fastest growing category for arrests of citizen bloggers was for exposing corruption or human rights violations, he added. "In most democracies a whistle blower can get in touch with a journalist easily," he noted. "In a lot of the tougher authoritarian regimes, there is no tradition of or respect for whistle blowing. Blogs are taking on that whistleblowing function."

While Iran, Egypt and China were the most likely to arrest citizen bloggers during the five years studied, Howard said emerging democracies like Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand also posted some arrests, which surprised the researchers. "They are not familiar with how to deal with citizens who speak out," he noted.

While the research did not show that arrests stifled the free speech of bloggers, it did show that such arrests are driving citizens to new media like YouTube, Facebook and MySpace to comment on the arrests. "When the regimes crack down on bloggers, there is a spike in YouTube [postings about the blogger arrests]," he noted. "When word spreads that the government is cracking down on bloggers, people will turn to other ways of expressing themselves politically."

Howard noted that his research found 344 arrests logged online by the Committee to Protect Bloggers, but that the information did not detail of all the those arrested were bloggers or other activists. As a result, those arrests were not recorded in the study.

Researchers only included bloggers who were arrested for using electronic media, which included online blogs, videos and text messages, to discuss or record political issues or events, according to the study. The news reports and other online published details of the arrests cited various reasons for the arrests including refusal to give information to the government and violating rules unrelated to state security, the report said.