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Bloggers Behind Bars

Bloggers Behind Bars seminar, Washington, DC, 27April 2010
For the first time, the number of online journalists and bloggers in prison surpasses the number of traditional print and broadcast journalists in jail, reported the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) and the National Endowment for Democracy at a discussion on Capitol Hill that was hosted and vigorously endorsed by the U.S. Congressional Caucus for the Freedom of the Press.

“The battle is theirs, but there’s much that we can do to assist them in their unequal struggle,” said U.S. Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fl), referring to journalists who’ve been jailed for their work in countries without a free press, including her home country of Cuba.

U.S. Congressman Adam Schiff (D-Ca.) said, “Our government must put on center stage those countries where journalists were killed, jailed or censored.”

Paul Foldi, a senior advisor to U.S. Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), spoke specifically about Iran, which “is doing its best to jam, block and imprison voices of descent. It’s important that the people of Iran know that Congress stands behind their efforts.”

The discussion quoted the Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) 2009 prison census, which counted at least 68 bloggers, Web-based reporters, and online editors in prison at the end of last year, a number then representing half of all journalists in jail. CPJ's census ranks China, Iran, Cuba and Eritrea and Burma as the world’s top jailers. Freedom House's annual survey of the press, released this week, noted increased restrictions over the internet as one factor contributing to a decline in media freedom over the last year.

Robert Mahoney, CPJ’s deputy director, said bloggers pose a distinct risk to regimes because they are not affiliated with traditional media and “are out there in space.” However, many are also especially vulnerable to attack. They operate without any institutional support and, together with on-line journalists, often work anonymously and report locally, standing little chance of gaining international attention in the event of harassment or jail.

Omid Memarian, an Iranian journalist who was jailed in 2004 for several months, described the experience of many bloggers in his country who are frequently imprisoned and subsequently forced to “draw out the blogosphere” and produce false confessions.

“If it weren’t for those bloggers, God knows how many people would have been killed,” he said of their role during last year’s election protests. Remarking on the role of exiled journalists like him he said, “Providing access to information is the most important thing we can do here.”

Originally reported by Ladan Nekoomaram, RFE/RL.