WIA Releases Report on Arrests of Bloggers, Does It Overcount?

According to a new report by the World Information Access (“WIA”) Project, 64 independent bloggers have been arrested since 2003, suggesting governments around the world are growing more aware of blogs and more likely to act to silence bloggers.

In the report, WIA researchers write that they used Google and LexisNexis to find arrests of bloggers who were unaffiliated with news organizations.  The researchers found that the number of reported arrests appeared to increase over the years, with just five arrests during 2003, but totaling 36 in 2007.  Arrests were most frequent in China (11), Egypt (13), and Iran (8), and overall Asia and the Middle East accounted for the lion’s share of WIA’s data.  But western nations were not blameless – researchers recorded a blogger arrest in each of Britain, Canada, and France, and three arrests in the U.S. as well (Josh Wolf, Jack McClellan, and Daniel Aljughaifi).  On the whole, WIA reports that the arrested bloggers tended to be males between the ages of 21 and 45, and the durations of their arrests ranged from a few hours to eight years.

The researchers observe that blogger arrests seem to increase during “times of political uncertainty,” noting for example that most of Egypt’s arrests took place during its 2007 elections.  The researchers predict that 2008 will likely see a further increase in the arrests of bloggers, as China, Iran, and Pakistan all have elections this year.

The researchers also acknowledge that there are likely more arrests than they’ve managed to include in the report, noting for example that according to a list kept by the Committee to Protect Bloggers (“CPB”), 344 Burmese have been arrested, and some of those may be bloggers.  (The CPB wrote after the WIA report’s release that it is indeed likely that some of the 344 are bloggers, though certainly not all of them.)

Unfortunately, while acknowledging the survey’s undercounting of arrested bloggers, the researchers appear to have inadvertently overcounted the arrests instead.  Despite the report’s stated intent to “record[] only bloggers who were arrested for using electronic media . . . to discuss or record political issues and events,” it often seems to fudge the distinction between arrests for blogging, the survey’s purported goal, and arrests of bloggers, where blogging was not itself the grounds for arrest.  I counted at least 13 instances where, from the articles cited in their data, it was either unclear or unlikely that the blogger’s online activities directly related to his or her arrest.

Take blogger Alaa Abd El-Fatah, one of the report’s data points.  Fatah was one of some ten people arrested for taking part in a peaceful demonstration.  Judging by the article cited by the report, Fatah is a prominent Egyptian blogger.  It is likely that his arrest will chill the speech of other Egyptian bloggers.  But is his blogging relevant to his arrest?  From the article’s description, it doesn’t appear to be.  Rather, his arrest seems to stem directly from participating in the protest.

Similarly, two of the three U.S. blogger arrests that the report cites seem loosely tied to the bloggers' online activities.  Jack McClellan, a self-proclaimed pedophile who posted photos of children he had taken in public places on his blog, was arrested for violating a restraining order against coming within 30 feet of any child in California.  Daniel Aljughaifi was arrested for undergoing terrorist training in Africa and for conspiring to use a destructive device.  Of the three U.S. bloggers' arrests, only that of Josh Wolf, arrested for refusing to turn over to a federal grand jury footage he filmed and posted of a burning police car, seems directly tied to blogging.  The fact that McClellan and Aljughaifi have blogs appears coincidental, not causal, to their arrests.

Is it helpful to include arrests like those of Fatah, McClellan, and Aljughaifi in the WIA survey?  I’d argue no.  While it is commendable to analyze the efforts of governments around the world to muzzle bloggers, it is the repression of free speech that is the concern.  By including the arrests of those who happen to be bloggers in their count, the WIA researchers diminish the impact of their report, because they blur the value of that which they mean to defend.

(Arthur Bright is a second-year law student at the Boston University School of Law and a CMLP Legal Intern.)

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