Bloggers Under Fire

By William Fisher

Last April, writer and historian Barbara Goldsmith announced that Nay Phone Latt was the winner of the 2010 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith “Freedom to Write” award, which honors international literary figures who have been persecuted or imprisoned for exercising or defending the right to freedom of expression.

But Nay Phone Latt wasn’t there to receive his award. Like Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese dissident who last week received the Nobel Prize in absentia, the prominent Burmese poet and human rights advocate was back home in his native Mynamar, serving a 12-year sentence for distributing news and views via his blog.

Nay Phone Latt was arrested on January 29, 2008, following the monks’ protests in Rangoon and elsewhere in the country

“He represents a younger generation of Burmese who are longing for freedom and willing to pay the cost of speaking out in its defense,” said Kwame Anthony Appiah, president of PEN American Center.

“That he is a blogger reflects the global truth that Internet censorship is one of the great threats to free expression today.”

Nay Phone Latt’s treatment is emblematic of a deadly virus sweeping across the world and spreading its pathogens any place where an authoritarian, totalitarian government holds power. These despots have quickly learned the contemporary Internet social networking techniques used by their subjects – and have moved in with a heavy hand to suppress these free expressions.

Despite its faux non-military trappings, Mynamar certainly qualifies, but then so do scores of other countries – most of them America’s “allies” and recipients of large sums of money and aid to help us wage “the global war on terror.”

The war on bloggers and other social networkers is probably fiercest in the Middle East, but a host of other countries participate with similar sinister gusto.

For example, in Iran, the world’s youngest detained blogger, 18-year-old Navid Mohebbi, is currently being tried behind closed doors before a revolutionary court in the northern city of Amol. His lawyer is not being allowed to attend the trial, which began on 14 November.

Mohebbi is facing the possibility of a long prison sentence, accused of “activities contrary to national security” and “insulting the Islamic Republic’s founder and current leader…by means of foreign media.” He has also been accused of being member of the “One Million Signatures” movement, a campaign to collect signatures to a petition for changes to laws that discriminate against women.

Mohebbi is but one of many bloggers being persecuted in Iran. For example, another Blogger was sentenced to 14 years in prison for membership in the banned “One Million Signatures” campaign.

He was also charged with acting against national security, propaganda against the state through connection with foreign media, and insulting Ayatollahs Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei.

A week after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told heads of state gathered for the U.N. General Assembly in New York that his government does not jail its citizens for expressing their opinions, Iran’s Revolutionary Court sentenced Hossein Derakhshan, an internationally known Iranian-Canadian blogger, to 19 and a half years in prison.

The list of writers, journalists, and bloggers currently in prison in Iran includes some of Iran’s most distinguished journalists, some of the country’s leading bloggers, and Kian Tajbakhsh, an Iranian-American scholar and social planner who was sentenced in August 2009 to 15 years in prison following a mass trial of 140 activists, intellectuals, and writers accused of fomenting a “velvet revolution.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists this month announced that the 47 journalists now in prison in Iran are more than any other country on earth has imprisoned at any one time since 1996.

Egypt, where I used to live, is still ruled by the aging authoritarian Hosni Mubarak under a “temporary” Emergency Law that is now 30 years old. There, a military court has sent a man to jail for starting a Facebook group to advise would-be army recruits, his lawyer said.

Ahmed Hassan Bassyouni, 30, was blogging advice on how to enter the armed services and to prepare the necessary papers, according to Agence France Presse (AFP).

They accused him of “spreading military secrets over the Internet without permission.” He was sentenced to six months in prison and been fined 500 pounds (85 dollars/65 euros).

Amnesty International declared Bassyouni a “prisoner of conscience” ahead of his court martial on charges that he revealed “military secrets” by publishing information about military service already available in the public domain.

“The Egyptian authorities must end the practice of trying civilians before military courts. This is an abuse of the Egyptian judicial system and the right to a fair trial,” Amnesty said.

In Kuwait, lawyer and blogger Mohammad Abdul Qadir Al Jasem was sentenced to one in year in prison after he was found guilty of defaming Kuwait’s Prime Minister, Shaikh Nasser Al Mohammad Al Subah.

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), Syria has detained a teen blogger — a 19-year-old high school student — for nine months without charge.