From Mauritania to Yemen, the Arab world has seen an increasing number of bloggers and tweeters expressing their views and interests freely on the internet, but there are growing concerns that governments are beginning to curb this freedom.
To begin with, let us try to understand who these bloggers are and what they seek. There have been many descriptions of those who successfully maintain blogs or pages on websites, albeit some not so patronising. The diverse nature and background of Arab bloggers make it impossible to define them in a few sentences, but for the most part, bloggers are individuals who post and maintain personal diaries on a website.
The subjects they tackle cover a wide spectrum of issues. Some blogs relate to photography while others relate to social events and happenings. Some are slightly more narcissist and devote themselves entirely to the individuality and spirit of the blog-owner. These are the personal blogs in which the blogger writes about his personal details, emotions, experiences, or his or her take on a host of topics, including the political arena.
Then there is the company or corporate blog that is often set up by major organisations to facilitate the flow of communication within the company. It may also be accessible to interested clients. External corporate blogs help communicate information to the public in terms of marketing and branding of products and services. Internal corporate blogs are created to share information and views within the organisation and are often restricted to employees within the company.
There is also the professional blog — a site where expertise on certain subjects or topics is discussed. The site is usually limited to hobbyists and those interested in specific industries or objects, and who visit to interact on their particular subject of interest.
Tweeters are those who post items they consider of interest on the Twitter web site. These posts are could be short sentences describing emotions, explanations or links to other stories. They are also be used to circulate information faster than the standard media organs. They can be authored by anyone who wants to add their two cents worth to whatever tickles their fancy.
The Arab awakening that has been witnessed across several countries in recent times has given rise to a number of bloggers and tweeters who have used this forum for expressing their concerns over social and political events taking place in their country. Many of them have come under fire from the authorities, with some being arrested and jailed for self-expression.
Some governments have taken to suppressing internet access to certain websites in the hope of smothering these growing voices. Others have resorted to monitoring and following the activities of targeted users, some of whom are being held on charges of civil disobedience or worse yet, terrorism against the state.
But are those charges valid? Is Twitter or Facebook or the internet responsible for the changes sweeping across these countries? Was it Twitter that brought down the government of Zine Al Abidine Bin Ali, the former Tunisian president who ruled the country for 24 years?
Was it the internet that led to the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, former president of Egypt, who ruled with a strong hand from 1981 to 2011? Was it Facebook that brought down Muammar Gaddafi, who ruled Libya from 1969 until his end in 2011, a period spanning 42 years.
And is it the internet or its many social media sites that have created the ongoing misery in Syria? The daily number of innocent lives being brought down is done so with bullets and not with words expressed on any social media outlet.
While information has become readily available and accessible, it would be imprudent to assume that such access has led to the upheavals in these countries.
It was the corrupt and morally decaying policies of the ruling government against their people that laid seed to the rejection and ultimately the ouster of the respective governments. It was policies of denying their citizens their basic needs and rights which led to the dictators’ downfall. When personal safety and security became compromised and rights were denied, the citizen had nothing more to lose.
Only the warped and mentally unbalanced seek to bring instability to their countries. People for the most part want a safe and secure country where their basic human rights are recognised and honoured. When governments respond to the needs of the people in the manner expected, no threat from any quarters would shake the resolution of the majority of citizens to group together and confront such attacks.
Governments must steer away from the concept that social media is a threat to good governance. Criticism expressed on blogs or tweets against some government policies should not be viewed as a subversive attempt to bring down the government. At its best, it is the simplest form of self-expression.
It could also serve as a positive tool for self-evaluation by government agencies.
While governments must monitor threats of terrorism that harm us all, such fears should not be widely used to blanket the right of free speech. Responsible freedom of expression is a fundamental right that must not be denied.
Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. You can follow him at www.twitter.com/@talmaeena