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Print this articleBloggers, the new heralds of free expression

Blogs get people excited. Or else they disturb and worry them. Some people distrust them. Others see them as the vanguard of a new information revolution. One thing’s for sure: they’re rocking the foundations of the media in countries as different as the United States, China and Iran.

It’s too soon to really know what to think of blogs. We’ve been reading newspapers, watching TV and listening to the radio for decades now and we’ve learned how to immediately tell what’s news and what’s comment, to distinguish a tabloid “human interest” magazine from a serious one and an entertainment programme from a documentary.

We don’t have such antennae to figure out blogs. These “online diaries” are even more varied than the mainstream media and it’s hard to know which of them is a news site, which a personal forum or one that does serious investigation or one that’s presenting junk evidence. It’s difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Some bloggers will gradually develop their own ethical standards, to become more credible and win public confidence. But the Internet is still full of unreliable information and people exchanging insults. A blog gives everyone, regardless of education or technical skill, the chance to publish material. This means boring or disgusting blogs will spring up as fast as good and interesting ones.

But blogging is a powerful tool of freedom of expression that has enthused millions of ordinary people. Passive consumers of information have become energetic participants in a new kind of journalism - what US blog pioneer Dan Gillmor calls “grassroots journalism ... by the people, for the people” (see chapter on “What ethics should bloggers have?”).

Bloggers are often the only real journalists in countries where the mainstream media is censored or under pressure. Only they provide independent news, at the risk of displeasing the government and sometimes courting arrest. Plenty of bloggers have been hounded or thrown in prison. One of the contributors to this handbook, Arash Sigarchi, was sentenced to 14 years in jail for posting several messages online that criticised the Iranian regime. His story illustrates how some bloggers see what they do as a duty and a necessity, not just a hobby. They feel they are the eyes and ears of thousands of other Internet users.

Bloggers need to be anonymous when they are putting out information that risks their safety. The cyber-police are watching and have become expert at tracking down “troublemakers.” This handbook gives advice on how to post material without revealing who you are (“How to blog anonymously,” by Ethan Zuckerman). It’s best of course to have the technical skills to be anonymous online, but following a few simple rules can sometimes do the trick. This advice is of course not for those (terrorists, racketeers or pedophiles) who use the Internet to commit crimes. The handbook is simply to help bloggers encountering opposition because of what they write to maintain their freedom of expression.

However, the main problem for a blogger, even under a repressive regime, isn’t security. It’s about getting the blog known, finding an audience. A blog without any readers won’t worry the powers-that-be, but what’s the point of it? This handbook makes technical suggestions to make sure a blog gets picked up by the major search-engines (the article by Olivier Andrieu), and gives some more “journalistic” tips about this (“What really makes a blog shine,” by Mark Glaser).

Some bloggers face the problem of filtering. Most authoritarian regimes now have the technical means to censor the Internet. In Cuba or Vietnam, you won’t be able to access websites that criticise the government or expose corruption or talk about human rights abuses. So-called “illegal” and “subversive” content is automatically blocked by filters. But all bloggers need free access to all sites and to the blogosphere or the content of their blogs will become irrelevant.

The second part of the handbook is about ways to get round filtering (“Choosing circumvention,” by Nart Villeneuve). With a bit of common-sense, perseverance and especially by picking the right tools, any blogger should be able to overcome censorship.

The handbook has technical advice and tips about how to set up a good blog. But a successful one is harder to ensure. To stand out in the crowd, you must be original and post news or opinions neglected by the mainstream media. In some countries, bloggers are mainly worried about staying out of jail. In others, they try to establish their credibility as a source of reliable information. Not all bloggers have the same problems, but all of them, in their different ways, are on the frontline in the fight for freedom of expression.

Julien Pain
Head of the Internet Freedom desk at Reporters Without Borders.

Bloggers, the new heralds of free expression
What’s a blog ?
The language of blogging
Choosing the best tool
How to set up and run a blog
What ethics should bloggers have ?
Getting your blog picked up by search-engines
What really makes a blog shine ?
Personal accounts:
 - Germany
 - Bahrain
 - USA
 - Hong Kong
 - Iran
 - Nepal
How to blog anonymously
Technical ways to get around censorship
Ensuring your e-mail is truly private
Internet-censor world championship