By Helle Wahlberg, IMS, Iraqi Kurdistan
For many bloggers in Iraq, blogging is about publishing what traditional media will not run. But for some, it is simply a way to breathe in a society where independent voices struggle for air
While social media have broken through the barriers of freedom of expression and contributed to a wave of revolutions in several Arab countries, they are still in their infancy in Iraq. The poor infrastructure, frequent power cuts and dire security situation has kept internet penetration at a mere 2.8 per cent (InternetWorldStats.com, June 2011) out of a population of 30 million, compared to just over 30 per cent (MCIT) in Egypt.
However, for the more than 60 young bloggers from across Iraq meeting in Iraqi Kurdistan this week at the first ever conference for Iraqi bloggers, blogging is not just a means to express opinions and relay issues and events that otherwise wouldn't be covered in traditional media. Blogging is about entering a new era.
Danger of blogging "a fact of life" in Iraq
The young bloggers at the conference organised by International Media Support (IMS) will pioneer the first pan-Iraqi bloggers network. Through the Iraqi Network for Social Media, bloggers can build a community in which to share experiences, blogs, and exchange information on issues like digital security and blogging ethics. In an environment where criticism of authorities or power holders can have detrimental consequences for the individual, knowing how to protect one self and how to responsibly manage one's online presence is crucial. For example, when do you use your own name and when should you choose not to?
Kurdish blogger Karwan Gaznay actively blogged in his own name during the Arab spring-inspired demonstrations which took place in Sulimanyah in March 2011.
"When I blogged about the demonstrations in Sulimanyah, I did so using my full name, he explained to fellow bloggers during a workshop on safety.
"It got me into trouble and I faced lots of problems, as did many of my friends. Some were arrested, threatened or even attacked. But it is my duty to provide my followers with the truth. In countries like ours we know that blogging can be dangerous. It is a fact of life."
Threatened for revealing pollution
Another blogger described how he had felt the wrath of unknown "individuals" after having blogged about an environmental disaster caused by a rich oil-drilling company in the village of Haseera in Kurdistan.
"An oil company drilling for oil was using dangerous chemicals that had not been properly secured and contained in order to avoid polluting the surrounding environment. As a result, animals residing on the land began dying. I raised the issue in my blog in my own name. I also tried to take a sample of the soil, but was stopped from doing so by unknown individuals. Then I received a phone call threatening me to stop pursuing the issue or I would get myself into trouble," the environment blogger explains.
Although he did stop blogging about the polluted land and the oil companies continued un-phased, he tried to get some local newspapers to pick up the story. But they turned it down. Only when people in the nearby village began showing signs of illness as a result of the pollution, was the story picked up by media.
Today, he writes his blog about pollution using a pseudonym.
"If I used my real name, I would not be here now," he emphasizes to his fellow bloggers.
Increasing focus on bloggers
Although the number of bloggers in Iraq remains relatively low compared to the size of the population and the blogging activity in neighbouring Arab countries, these and other incidents show the authorities and power-holders are very much aware of their presence and their ability to influence public opinion.
Iraq holds the dubious title of being one of the world's most dangerous places to practice journalism and while blogging is not only done by journalists, in the eyes of the authorities and other power holders, they fall into the same category. This only heightens the need for bloggers to have a support network.
Forging ties between north and south
A significant aim of the Iraqi Network for Social Media is to strengthen ties between bloggers in the historically feuding regions of the Kurdish north and the Arab south. By sharing information and stories about their regions, the bloggers can spread their material more widely in both Kurdish and Arabic and through their blogs contribute to mending the fractured images that they share of each other.
"What we need is a culture of blogging in Iraq, explains the environment blogger when asked why such a network is important now.
"I already network with Tunisian, Syrian and Libyan bloggers. But in my hometown, we are only two bloggers out of a population of 200,000. That is why I plan to voluntarily train people around me in how to blog.
"Blogging is a means to publish material which would not be published in traditional media. But most of all, for me, blogging is a way to breathe."
Join the conference online:
Blog : www.1stconference4iraqibloggers.wordpress.com. To follow a live stream of the conference, Click here or write to Iraqi.email@example.com to join the network or ask questions.
International Media Support has supported independent media and freedom of expression in Iraq since 2005. For more information about the Iraqi Network for Social Media and the first conference for bloggers in Iraq, please contact Osama Al-Habahbeh at Oha@i-m-s.dk, international Media Support (IMS) or check visit www.i-m-s.dk