The plight of the blogger and how to protect them

 

The protection of the free press in the West is a given, but who protects a blogger arrested under a repressive regime?

WHEN THE local correspondent of a Western newspaper is arrested or intimidated under a repressive regime, a huge machine grinds into action.

If the newspaper chooses to pick a fight, the correspondent has the public support of the newspaper’s editorial and the case has the ear of its readers. If the newspaper chooses a quieter route, the political department of the newspaper almost certainly has some sort of working relationship with their domestic government, and at least the attention of politicians.

Even if it is not always expedient, the protection of the free press is a standard that Western diplomats and statesman alike are content to defend – if prompted.

What happens when a local blogger is arrested under such a regime? Even if she is read around the world, a blogger publishes for and by herself. She probably won’t have the support of a particular Western newspaper, she won’t have contacts with diplomats or foreign politicians. If she’s lucky, she might have readers in a powerful position or an audience big enough to organise a protest in its own right. But the Google Ads that pay her salary aren’t going to pay for foreign publicity, international diplomacy or a famous lawyer.

She may be connected to the world via the Web, but she is disconnected from an institutional safety-net.

The relationship between all the many spinning gears of our media machine is coming apart and slowly re-forming. The carefully evolved protective shell that our old media companies have built around their most vulnerable employees has not yet coalesced around bloggers and independent online journalists.

Even in countries like the United States, laws that offer particular protection to established media, such as those that protect journalists’ sources, are still struggling with what to do with their online equivalent. In countries where an independent media is barely tolerated or actively under threat, bloggers are more vulnerable than most.

Who can we expect to protect them? Independent organisations like the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Sans Frontières and the World Press Freedom Committee have, in the last decade, stepped up and expanded their work to include online journalists.

The Committee to Protect Journalists reported last year that for the first time, bloggers and other online journalists were the single largest professional media group imprisoned for their work. Other groups, like excellent bloggers network Global Voices Advocacy, have emerged exclusively to publicise and protect online journalists at risk.

Defending already threatened journalists is only part of the solution. Online journalists need the same level of protection as their predecessors had to dissuade intimidation and attacks before they happen.

Newspaper publishers and broadcasters were the intermediaries who protected journalists. Now, as their role changes, we need others to step up and play a more pro-active role in organising to protect this new generation of these particularly isolated reporters.

One group would certainly be the assembled readers of the world. Rather than individual journalists depending on their own audience to react to threats, perhaps our new situation means that all of us should work together to support all journalists in extreme situations.

That would have the benefit of protecting even those old media journalists who don’t have the protection of a large media company behind them. In many countries, that would be the majority of investigative journalists. Despite all the doom and gloom, newspapers and magazines are still growing markets in the developing world (indeed, everywhere except western Europe and the US).

In countries such as Russia, where TV and radio are largely controlled by corporate or state interests, independent online and print media are one of the few bastions of independent journalism left. That’s why they are exposed to so many threats of violence or assaults by groups who are rarely prosecuted and can attack again with impugnity.

Both the free press and the online world share a common vulnerability. Moscow’s print publication Novaya Gazeta has suffered four murders of its journalists in the last decade; in 2008, Magomed Yevloyev, the publisher of a news website about the Russian republic of Ingushetia, was shot by the police after sharing a plane with the republic’s then president, Murat Zyazikov.

Bloggers could do with some protection in kind, too. For the last 10 years, services like Google’s Blogger, Wordpress.org, Yahoo! and Microsoft have benefited from providing a platform for bloggers to tell the world their stories.

Most of those services understandably treat their blogging customers as just that – customers. Only a small subsection of them are writing from repressive regimes and only a handful of those are at any risk.

These companies though could do much to help that small handful. They could apply their technical genius to think of tools they might use. They could work on ways that those journalists could get their message out, even in the face of many regimes’ online censorship systems.

They could recognise the need to be responsive to their support queries – especially if they are prompted by the kind of cyber-attacks that online journalists are increasingly seeing from state-sponsored hackers.

Online service providers aren’t publishers or newspaper moguls in the traditional sense and should not have the same relationship with the writers of the web.

However, in this period, when our new press is just emerging, they might want to think about how best to nurture the independent media that the world needs.