Jillian York writes: Each time I log in to Facebook, I am presented with the option of visiting the profiles of friends currently in prison. These friends are not incarcerated in my country, the United States, nor are their “crimes” violent or drug-related. All are, rather, victims of political repression, imprisoned in Tehran and Damascus, or in hiding somewhere in Bahrain.
When Hossein Derakhshan (or “Hoder” as he is known to friends) was arrested back in 2009, he was the first blogger I’d met in person to fall victim to such a fate. We’d met the previous summer, at a Global Voices conference in Budapest, to the sound of dance music on a rooftop well past midnight. He was charismatic, and as I learned from many of his friends, conflicted. Just one year later, shortly after his ill-fated return to Iran, he would be arrested and sentenced to 19 years in prison.
Although our meeting had been brief, Hoder’s arrest impacted me pretty intensely. Seeing him largely ignored in the US press – despite previous praise as the “Blogfather” of the Iranian blogosphere – spurred me to speak up; I haven’t been silent since.
It was only a month after Hoder’s arrest that, along with some of the Arab world’s most prominent and respected bloggers, I was welcomed to Beirut for the second “Arabloggers” workshop for my work with Global Voices. It was there that, for the second time, I met Ali Abdulemam, the Bahraini blogger who by that point was well-known – at least in our blogger circles – for the online platform he had founded, Bahrain Online.
Like Hoder, perhaps Ali didn’t realise how brave his actions were. It was only a few months later that Bahrain began to crack down on dissidents. In August, Ali’s home was raided, he and his team arrested and charged with “inciting hatred of the government”. Though they were released not long after, Ali was arrested again the next month and charged with “spreading false information”. While in detention, he was fired from his job, tortured and reportedly denied legal counsel. He was free long enough to see the beginning of Bahrain’s uprising, but by the time the government once again began to crack down on bloggers and activists, he had disappeared.
In June 2011, Ali was tried by a military court in absentia and sentenced to 15 years in prison for allegedly plotting an anti-government coup. He remains in hiding. More recently, my good friend Razan Ghazzawi spent time in prison for her brave work with the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, along with a number of her colleagues. Though she has since been released, Razan still faces a trial; her fate remains unknown.
Ali, Razan and Hoder are but three examples illustrating the repression that bloggers face throughout the Middle East and, increasingly, many countries across the globe. From Iran to China, Vietnam and back to Tunisia, the year following the “Arab Spring” and a series of global popular movements has resulted in crackdowns on expression, showing just how terrified governments have become of the voice accorded their citizens via the internet.