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Blogs Become Serious Business

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Blogs Become Serious Business

Blogs Become Serious Business

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

All this week on MORNING EDITION we've been marking an anniversary.

The term Web log is 10 years old, and we're crazing the way that blogs are changing our lives. The same kind of Web blogs that bring you news of Britney or detail the morning routine of somebody you've never met can also bring news of life or death. And that is when even this freest form of communication sometimes faces constraints. In a few minutes, we'll meet an Egyptian who used the blog to put out news his government did not like.

First, we'll track blogging by American troops who've written for the Web in between firefights in Iraq. We invited Noah Shachtman to talk about this. He works for Wired magazine where he writes and blogs about national security.

Mr. NOAH SHACHTMAN (Editor, Danger Room, Wired Magazine): During the early days of the war, there was kind of this almost free-for-all period where soldiers were allowed to write about their experiences and published it to the world. And I do think that that added to the reporting, gave it a kind of you-are-there battlefield sense. Soldiers were kind of allowed to do this freely. It was kind of flying under the radar.

INSKEEP: Well, we talked to one of those early military bloggers, Colby Buzzell, who started blogging about eight months into his deployment.

Mr. COLBY BUZZELL (Author, My War: Killing Time In Iraq): When I started blogging, I don't think the military really knew what a blog was. The Internet cafes were all somewhat brand new on the bases there. And we're allowed to pretty much go in any Web site we wanted to while I was over there. And they actually found out about my blog when I wrote about a firefight on August 4th 2004 that got hardly any press coverage.

INSKEEP: Were bloggers actually breaking stories?

Mr. SHACHTMAN: In Colby's case they were. And certainly, wherever they blog, they were providing new details. Now it's highly, highly restricted. Everywhere you go on these big military bases in Iraq on every computer, for example, there's a rotating screensaver. There's a series of messages about operational security. Message after message about lose lips sink ships, the modern equivalent thereof, about how blogs are can be very dangerous and you really have to watch what you say. The sort of poster child, you know, what you're absolutely not supposed to do, the thing you've got to be the most scared of is blogging.

INSKEEP: When did all that start to change from that openness we were just describing?

Mr. SHACHTMAN: Well, part of it changed when Colby Buzzell blogged about that firefight in August 2004. You know, he pretty quickly wound up on a front page of newspapers and then magazines.

INSKEEP: Well, let's hear what happened to Colby Buzzell in his own words.

Mr. BUZZELL: My chain of command found out about it, and I had to go see my battalion commander. He had a printout of all of my blog postings. And he went over to some of the concerns that he had, like how we run low on ammunition, how we almost run out of water on a particular mission. Two weeks after that, an order came down from high up that I still had a freedom of speech and I can still blog but I was confined a base and couldn't go out on missions and that lasted for about a week.

INSKEEP: Which is not the worst punishment that we've heard about for bloggers.

Mr. SHACHTMAN: No, it's not. Other guys have been demoted. There have been new regulations put in place by the army, which, if enforced to the letter of the law, would make every soldier have to run every blog post and every e-mail, for that matter, by their commanding officer.

INSKEEP: You mentioned e-mail communication. Are there different restrictions on e-mails than on blogs?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHACHTMAN: The regulations are - let's say - ambiguous. Certainly, I think that a public blog is more scrutinized than a private e-mail, but theoretically, many of the same restrictions apply.

INSKEEP: Well, now let me try to explore the military's justification for these restrictions. The military will say that the enemy can grab all sorts of little pieces of information that you think aren't very important but that a good intelligence analyst could piece together and make something out of.

Mr. SHACHTMAN: It's a legitimate concern, and it's the reason why, you know, in wars past, military sensors read soldier's mail.

INSKEEP: Well, setting aside details of combat, there were military restrictions on social networking sites like MySpace or Facebook. Have people gotten around those?

Mr. SHACHTMAN: Oh, yeah, they have. In Taji, north of Baghdad, soldiers that I met bought their own satellite dish so that they could hook up to MySpace and YouTube, and so they could play online games. You know, it's a great way for them to keep in touch with their friends and family. It's a great way for them to flirt with girls online. And, damn it, they are going to flirt with girls no matter what the army says.

INSKEEP: Important things first. That'sā€¦

Mr. SHACHTMAN: Yeah, exactly.

INSKEEP: Security violations of a different kind I supposed.

Mr. SHACHTMAN: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Noah Shachtman, thanks very much.

Mr. SHACHTMAN: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: Noah Shachtman writes, and of course, blogs about national security for Wired magazine.

Now, in some countries, civilians who blog can wind up in jail for writing the wrong things. We might expect that to happen in places like Iran or China, but it also happens in Egypt where the government cracks down on the pro-democracy movement and the liberal press.

One of the best-known Egyptian bloggers is a man named Wael Abbas. He has not been jailed but his government takes a dim view with the videos he's put on his blog because some are graphic scenes of police brutality. He had an account on YouTube, which was frozen for a while. After human rights groups protested, most of his videos were restored earlier this month. We got him on the line from Cairo and Abbas spoke briefly with Renee Montagne.

RENEE MONTAGNE: What was in those videos?

Mr. WAEL ABBAS (Blogger, Human Rights Activist): There was a variety of videos in this account. It was not only about torture. There were other videos including coverage of demonstrations, walkout strikes. It was a variety of activist stuff.

MONTAGNE: Do you think that by doing this you have the opportunity to get stories out there that are not otherwise addressed in the media?

Mr. ABBAS: Yeah, because stuff that - the videos that were published in my account cannot be shown in any of the traditional media outlets. So it was the only way to do that in a country where the media is really controlled and perhaps censorship. And I get readership from all over the world because it's mainly video stuff that you can see other than you can read.

MONTAGNE: That advocacy group Reporters Without Borders has deemed Egypt as one of the most repressive countries for press freedom. Blogs, when they first got started, seemed to be a way around that but it seems that now it's very dangerous for people like you to write a blog a critical of the regime.

Mr. ABBAS: Yes because the regime now is using a different technique. So count the bloggers, they used to detect them electronically but now they are harassing them personally and physically and calling them on the phone, harassing the families.

MONTAGNE: And you don't think that a blog provides any sort of anonymity?

Mr. ABBAS: Blogs can be anonymous if you decide to keep yourself anonymous. But most of the bloggers in Egypt and most of the ones who are really active and who are really making a change writes using their real names. They are very well known now and they appear on television so there is no way being anonymous again.

MONTAGNE: Are you worried that you'll end up in jail for the work on your blog?

Mr. ABBAS: Yes. Everybody who is working in journalism is worried that somehow he might end up in jail. It can happen to anybody. You cannot - you can never predict to what this regime is about to do.

INSKEEP: That's Egyptian blogger Wael Abbas speaking with Renee Montagne.

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