Net Effect

Should we also make lists of the world’s ten worst places to be a vegetarian?

It’s no secret that bloggers as a social group still make for fascinating media coverage — particularly, those bloggers who are brave enough take on and oppose an authoritarian government. Very few Western newspapers would shy away from running an article on how China’s (Cuba’s, Iran’s, Egypt’s, Syria’s — fill in the blanks based on ...

It’s no secret that bloggers as a social group still make for fascinating media coverage — particularly, those bloggers who are brave enough take on and oppose an authoritarian government. Very few Western newspapers would shy away from running an article on how China’s (Cuba’s, Iran’s, Egypt’s, Syria’s — fill in the blanks based on your own geographical preferences) get arrested for opposing the regime. The problem is that all too often these bloggers have other identities; some of them are prominent journalists, some are old-school activists ,and some are intellectuals. Blogs usually provide them with just another platform for engaging in traditional activist campaigns; quite often, it’s not even the most effective platform at their disposal. 

So here is a provocative question: when they get arrested, is it fair for the media and NGOs to refer to such activists by their secondary identity (i.e. "bloggers")? Or should we instead treat them based on their primary identity, i.e. writers, intellectuals, activists, journalists, and forget the blogging lable?

This is not an arcane question,for it not only inflates the number of "jailed bloggers" worldwide, but helps to perpetuate the myth of "bloggers-as-renegades" narrative. Much of this recent confusions has to do with a brief report on "10 worst countries to be a blogger" released by the Committee to Protect Journalists last week. For all the right reasons, it’s getting a lot of media attention this week, including this story on CNN.com that says that Burma tops the CPJ list. The story includes a reference to Maung Thura, whom CNN credits as "one Burmese blogger, Maung Thura, [who] is serving a 59-year prison term for circulating video footage after Cyclone Nargis in 2008".

One of my friends working on Burma-related issues forwarded me the CNN piece complaining that it’s incorrect to lable Thura as a blogger. It would take you just a few minutes on Google to figure out that Thura (also known by his nick Zarganar) is much better known as a comedian, actor and director  than as a blogger. He was already involved in political activism during the 1988 uprising and was arrested and detained many times before anyone even heard of blogging. So what makes him a politically-repressed blogger (rather than a blogging political activist) in the eyes of the CPJ and CNN? 

Imagine that an activist blogger who also happens to be a vegetarian  gets arrested next week. Will anyone ever mention him in a report on the world’s worst places to be a vegetarian? Probably not.Yet we are increasingly eager to play up the blogging identity at the expense of other affiliations. Once again, this is not an arcane question for anyone thinking of ways to protect freedom of expression; most often, this question pops up in debates on whether we should extend the same protection enjoyed by journalists to bloggers. Cases like this highlight the conceptual difficulties in making such a leap…

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