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Social Media

Trio of bloggers recounts perils of writing in Asia

What's it like to blog in Asia? It depends where you are: in high-tech India, most people remain offline; China's Internet is heavily monitored; and death threats are made against bloggers in Bangladesh.

At the re:publica Internet conference - which has become an important forum for online activists and bloggers - a panel sponsored by DW highlighted what it's like being a blogger in the Asian countries of India, China und Bangladesh.

India: high-tech but offline

Ravish Kumar, a television host and journalist in India, described a paradox in his country: Although the Internet connection is quite fast, only a small circle of elites uses it. "India is known as an IT power, but it's still an offline country," Kumar said.

Ravish Kumar
Photo: DW/S. Wünsch

Kumar's "qasba" website is among the best-known Hindi blogs

With 60 percent of the country's population in rural areas, mobile phone penetration is at around 80 percent. And although these aren't smart phones that connect to the Internet, "you can find download vendors at every corner of the streets" where people can pay a small fee to load videos onto their mobile phones via Bluetooth or USB sticks, Kumar said.

Online activism is playing an ever-larger role in India, Kumar said. Politicians have discovered the opportunities for propaganda offered by Twitter, Kumar said.

Right-wing groups - which are growing in India - are also using social media to their advantage, while those who express criticism of the ruling powers can find themselves subject to mobbing.

Bangladesh: 'Enemy of Islam'

Bloggers in Bangladesh could face a worse fate, according to blogger and activist Shahidul Alam. The main problem in the largely Muslim country is that you don't know which media you can trust, he said.

"Mainstream media is so completely dominated by corporations or political parties, it's very difficult for people to believe what the channel is talking about," Alam said. Word of mouth has therefore become very important there, he explained.

"You trust people who have over a period of time established credibility - and that is what makes blogs so important," Alam said.

Shahidul Alam
Photo: DW/S. Wünsch

Alam shares his experiences at talks around the world

"Of course the blogosphere has its own share of propaganda, of partisanship and extremism," Alam said. But people within the blogosphere who over time have been reporting authentically have built a community around them. This "gives them power, and makes them dangerous," he said.

Bloggers who are critical of Islam are often arrested, Alam said. Last year's winner of DW's blog awards "The Bobs" - Bangladeshi Asif Mohiuddin - has been sitting behind bars since April - that's after he found himself on a extremist kill list and survived a stabbing attack in January. Especially young bloggers need to be protected, Alam concluded.

China: writing between the lines

Internet users use several strategies to get around censors in China, where practically all public online communication runs over the Chinese micro-blog platform Sina Weibo.

Hu Yong, a journalism and communications professor at the University of Beijing, described how social media was used to support 'Net activist Ai Weiwei.

After Ai Weiwei's blog was shut down, Twitter remained as the only platform for communication. People used Twitter to gather enough money to bail him out after he was arrested over alleged tax debts, Hu said.

Hu Yong
Photo: DW/S. Wünsch

Hu Yong's blog has 3.5 million readers - he was also on The Bobs 2013 jury

With China's heavy news censorship, social media represents an important means of sharing information, discussing, and criticizing the government. Critics who are caught must often go to jail or work camps.

Among the tactics to evade censors is the centuries-old tradition of writing between the lines. "Even in ancient times, Chinese people couldn't express themselves freely," Hu Yong said. So a special euphemistic writing style developed using symbolic characters.

In the Internet age, Hu Yong said, "people still have this tradition - even netizens are using the very ancient Chinese language to try to escape from the censorship." Surveillance software is not able to detect and interpret exactly what is written in this ancient language. Codes hidden in pictures, music or videos are also used.

On Sina Weibo, another trick is the "long weibo," where an image containing text is attached to a post, bypassing the censorship leviathan.

Continued importance of Internet

To all three re:publica panelists, it's clear that the situation in their countries isn't going to change soon, or easily. They each emphasized the importance of educating people around the world about the situation of bloggers in Asia.

Kumar looked to the future in saying that the Internet provides a power to change lives - so encouraging access to the Internet is a first step.

Hu said although the Internet won't necessarily change politics, it will promote a stronger civil society that will be harder to make back down.

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