With bombs dropping in Lebanon and Israel, sectarian violence rising in Iraq and civil war in Somalia — among other bad tidings — we are in dire need of good news and a reason to get up in the morning. Thankfully, there has been a spate of such news in the blogosphere, with a few high-profile bloggers being released from jail in China, Egypt and Iran.
Beijing blogger and filmmaker Hao Wu was set free on July 11 after spending almost five months in prison after working on a documentary about underground churches in China. In April, I wrote about how his sister Nina had been blogging about Hao’s detention, and how the blogosphere had been bringing attention to his case. Ethan Zuckerman and Rebecca MacKinnon at Global Voices Online also set up a special Free Hao Wu site; Hao had done some work for Global Voices as a China editor.
While Global Voices and other bloggers had campaigned for Hao’s freedom with special graphical badges on their sites, the Global Voices site now sports a “Hao Wu is Free” badge, like the one above. How much the campaign helped is difficult to gauge. The Wall Street Journal ran a front-page story on Wu the week before he was released, leading the paper to say that its story embarrassed China’s authoritarian rulers to relent.
Zuckerman from Global Voices says it’s hard to say what worked and what didn’t at this point.
“Thanks to everyone who has been agitating for Hao’s release and advocating for his freedom,” Zuckerman commented on the Free Hao Wu blog. “We will likely never know to what extent our efforts helped, but it’s important to ensure that people whose rights are constrained are not forgotten. Today is a happy day.”
Meanwhile, in Egypt, blogger/activist Alaa Abd El Fattah, who runs Manal and Alaa’s Bit Bucket, was released from prison on June 22, after a rough day in an overcrowded holding cell. Blogger Elijah Zarwan spoke to Alaa soon after his release, and Alaa told him he was happy to be free and heading home. I wrote previously about Alaa’s jailing here on MediaShift, and how the global blogging and activist community had used various new-media means to bring attention to his case — from blogs to wikis to even a Google-bombing campaign.
There was some doubt, even on his last day in jail out of 46 days, whether Alaa would get out OK. Here’s part of Zarwan’s report:
Rumors suggesting that plainclothes police were beating Alaa and forcing him to remain standing for prolonged periods without sleep spread quickly over SMS [short messaging service cell messages] touched off a flurry of activity over email and the Egyptian blogosphere. Manal [Alaa’s wife] must have spent some frantic minutes fielding calls from concerned friends and reporters. Alaa, she told me, was being held in terrible, crowded conditions with run-of-the-mill hoodlums in Omraniya police station. But his cellmates and the crowded, filthy conditions — not the police — were apparently the proximate cause of his suffering. Then, minutes later, news came over SMS that Alaa was free.
How fitting that news of the tech-savvy activist’s freedom came over cell phone text messages. Egypt’s crackdown on street protests has landed many of Alaa’s blogging friends and colleagues in jail. But this past Tuesday, the last of the secular activists (meaning: not in the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood), Mohamed al-Sharqawi and Karim al-Shaer, were finally released from Egyptian jails. The two received attention from blogs and Human Rights Watch for the horrendous torture they received while in jail.
According to the Human Rights Watch report:
In his statement, al-Sharqawi wrote that his captors at the Qasr al-Nil police station beat him for hours and then raped him with a cardboard tube. Then they sent him to the State Security prosecutor’s office in Heliopolis. His lawyer told Human Rights Watch that he saw al-Sharqawi at the prosecutor’s office around midnight that night. ‘There wasn’t a single part of his body not covered in bruises and gashes,’ the lawyer said.
Meanwhile, in Iran the string of good news continues, with the release of blogger Abed Tavanche on July 11. Human rights group Reporters Without Borders reported that the Iranian blogger was arrested during a protest at Amir Kabir University, where he was a student, on May 26. Tavanche was accused of being in the “Marxist branch” of the student union, and had posted photos on his blog from protests at the college.
Despite all the good news about bloggers being released, all is not well. While they are released from prison, the bloggers will have to consider their actions — and what they write on their blogs — very carefully if they are to avoid more jail time and torture. And still, Reporters Without Borders counts 58 cyberdissidents in prison around the world, including two bloggers in Iran and 50 cyberdissidents in China.
So let’s pause to share the warmth of freedom with these fellow bloggers, and take heart that our collective efforts could well have helped to shame the authorities to do the right thing. But we can’t forget for a nanosecond that there are still risks of arrest, torture and worse for people around the world who speak their minds online. The Wall Street Journal sums it up well:
[Hao’s] detention is also an important reminder of the repression that remains the norm — for the millions of Christians who worship secretly outside government-sanctioned churches and for those, like Mr. Wu, who attempt to tell the truth about life in modern China.