It seems that the persecution faced by the anti-military Fijian Freedom Bloggers – who are using blogs to protest against the coup of December 5th, 2006- has subsided following a decision by the Fiji Military Forces (FMF) to stop hunting for anti-military bloggers and abandon its efforts to block the popular blogspot blogging platform. However, Lieutenant Colonel Pita Driti still insisted that “if bloggers were eventually found they would be taken to the camp to be questioned”. Last week, he admitted that Rowland Fenton was arrested and released after interrogating him over anti-military blogs deemed a “threat to national security”.
Intelligentsiya reported on May 14th that the army’s Land Force Commander has a list of about 20 people who will be arrested in connection with anti-military blogs. It has also been reported that the Fiji Military Forces (FMF) have pressured FINTEL, Fiji’s only ISP, to block blogspot.com blogging platform, which is nearly exclusively used by the Fijian “Freedom Bloggers”. Previously, on Friday May 11, the prominent businessman Ulai Taoi was arrested and then released after being held in custody for 24. The FMF suspected him of being an anti-military blogger. It has been reported that he was “physically abused while in custody”. According to an email from “Bainivore,” a member of the Fijian Freedom Bloggers, the military claimed that Ulai Tao was Fijian Black – the blogger who ran the May Day protest and called on people to boycott work in protest against the interim administration. (see the video below). But the irony in that is the fact that the Fijian Black is not a person but a blog. As described by Intelligentsiya: “FIJIAN BLACK is the blognym for the blogsite Good Men (and Women) Doing Something and is calling on the public of Fiji to passively resist the interim regime by staying home on Tuesday, 1st of May, 2007.”
And while the Fijian military junta has reportedly been hiring Indian “hackers” from Bangalore to track the identities of the Freedom Bloggers, the cyber-activists have been gaining support over the last few days as bloggers from around the world condemn the military crackdown on blogging. Two days ago, a group composed of prominent bloggers from New Zealand offered its support to provide hosting on their servers to the Fijian blogs. The group called on the New Zealand government to condemn the Fijian interim government crackdown on bloggers. “Blogs are one of the few news sources outside of the control of the military regime in Fiji, representing a vital channel of uncensored information for both Fijians and the international community. Any Fijian bloggers wishing to make use of this offer should make contact through one of the above-listed websites,” the statement said referring to a list of prominent blogs offering access to their own websites for Fijians.
But the question of why the Fijian military junta decided to crack down on this group of “Freedom Bloggers,” composed of independent citizens without political affiliations exercising their constitutional rights to free speech, remains. Can blogging drive political action in “a nation where Internet access is far from ubiquitous and far from affordable by local standards”?
The answer may be found in the reaction of apolitical Fijian bloggers to the approach of the “Freedom Bloggers”. As a member of Fijian Black described in an email exchange: “Now the political blogs are the most vocal, visible and visited of the blogs in Fiji. Not only do our posts get read, they get emailed all over the world, to people who are interested in our country, they get printed out (I'm talking reams of printouts here) in totality for the consumption of the Fiji public who don't have internet access, and now, they are getting widespread media coverage, in Fiji and regionally.” For Discombobulated Bubu, a female Fijian blogger and a mother: “the reaction of the average Fijian has been overwhelming – people that have access to computers download and print out stuff on the blogs. This then gets sent out to the remote villages by bus, boat and fax (those who have it) and by [what we call] “coconut wireless” – people talking to each other. The military has grossly underjudged this means of communication – hence I think [the reason for] their panic now to shut the “people's voices” up.”
The Fijian blogsphere which, according to Fijian Black, was “fairly dormant until this coup last year”, has turned political. “Blogging from Fiji was pretty much a thing for the techies/nerds/researcher/scientist. Since February, the average citizen has now become more familiar with the term ‘blog’ and would have a rough idea of how to set one up. Mostly, thanks to the Fiji TV station and the Military for drawing attention to it. Whilst some blogs are about life in Fiji, Fijian citizens overseas reminiscing about their homeland/home, food in fiji, research in fiji I'd have to say that the majority of blogs on Fiji are somewhat political in nature – in that they attack the coup perpetrators and supporters.” said Bainivore who started blogging at Intelligentsiya and then on his own blog. There is a consensus that Intelligentsiya was the initiator of the Fijian political blogging phenomenon: “I didn't have any idea about blogging until the military brought the nation's attention to Intelligentsiya who, they claimed at that time (Feb I believe it was) was a “threat to national security”. So in a way, the military got me started on blogging“Bainivore adds.
As Ethan Zuckerman, co-founder of Global Voices, said in his interview with Radio Australia, Pacific Beat (listen above): “we're trying to call attention to their situation, we're promoting it on our site” and we are publishing here the first interview we’ve made with Chief Intelligentsiya:
Sami: Can you give us more information about the “Fijian Freedom Bloggers” and tell us why you have chosen blogs as a political tool? And why now?
Intelligentsiya: We started Intelligentsiya in January, a month after Fiji's military forces overthrew the elected government on December 5, 2006. I set up the blog and then gradually got more bloggers on board. A month into the coup, with the arbitrary arrests, beatings and a death (now it's two deaths) at soldiers’ hands, my conscience didn't allow me to sit by and watch this country go to hell again.
With the climate of fear and intimidation (newspaper reporters were fearful of their bylines being printed), I decided an anonymous blog was the way to go. Not because I was afraid of being taken in by the military (I am concerned but not overly worried) – but because I didn't want our voice to be shut out, especially with the high level of self-censorship in the mainstream media.
Sami: Are the dissident bloggers members of an opposition party or they are all independent citizens exercising their right to free speech?
Intelligentsiya: I am not a member of any political party and neither are any of the Intelligentsiya bloggers. I actually did not vote for any candidate from the ousted government during the general elections in May 2006. The Intelligentsiya bloggers are independent citizens exercising our constitutional right to peaceful free speech.
In fact, the military has been trying to make bloggers out as people with close links to the ousted government. Speaking for Intelligentsiya, I can emphatically say we are not connected to the SDL government. We are just passionate about our freedoms and not willing to let them go at the point of a gun.
Sami: The prominent businessman Ulai Taoi, president of the Fiji Indigenous Business Council, was arrested and released on Friday May 11 after 24 hours custody. Does anyone know why the Fiji Military Forces (FMF) suspected him of being an anti-military blogger? Were you supporting him in the past? Is he an opposition leader?
Intelligentsiya: We never had any contact with businessman Taoi at all. The first we knew of his “possible” links was when the military arrested him. But it turned out the only “evidence” the army has against him is an email he circulated to members of the Fiji Indigenous Business Council of which he is president. The email contained a May Day protest idea that the Fiji Freedom Bloggers came up with to boycott work on May 1 in protest against the junta.
Sami: We are witnessing a kind of clash between the pro- and anti-interim government bloggers in Fiji. On the weblog Loyal Fijian, we read a post in which the blogger was threatening to reveal the identities of anonymous dissident bloggers and even worse: he/she was threatening people with death threats and inciting to violence against dissidents, how can you describe this dangerous turn in the Fijian blogsphere and do you believe that the Junta is not only keeping an eye on the Freedom bloggers but also using other bloggers against them?
Intelligentsiya: We have suspicions that the junta is using other blogs (if not setting them up themselves) although those blogs are usually lame apart from accusing us of being linked to the ousted government and making threats against us.
Intelligentsiya initially had several threats left as comments on our blogs, one saying something to the effect that “We will find you…” and “Your time is up…” Comments like those have now decreased although we feel the military is now using other methods including hiring IT experts from India (we had several tips about this but none are confirmed).
Sami: On May 14 you reported that the army's Land Force Commander Colonel Pita Driti has a list of about 20 people who he says will be arrested in connection with anti-military blogs. What are the safety steps that you need to take in order to remain safe and keep on blogging?
Intelligentsiya: We have alerted organisations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and several supporters off-shore have offered various technical ways to help us such as mirroring our blogs our outright hosting.
We have also stepped up our online security. I am now using Torpark, an browser that automatically sends our connections through various IP addresses. We have also set up support email accounts with other free services like Yahoo! in case Google gets blocked completely.
Sami: It has also been reported that the FMF have pressured FINTEL to block blogspot.com blogging platform, nearly exclusively used by the “Fijian Freedom Bloggers”, what is your alternative? Are we going to witness a massive migration to another blogging platform or perhaps you will opt to more sophisticated anonymous blogging techniques?
Intelligentsiya: The fact that we're all using Blogger is a bit of a downside because the military can in one stroke block access to all of us. But we are trying to get alternative connections and blogging services set up as well as stepping up the technical aspects of our blogs.
Sami: Can you provide us with brief history of the Fijian blogsphere: number of blogs; are they highly politicized; what is the reaction of the average Fijian bloggers to the approach of the Fijian “Freedom Bloggers”?
Intelligentsiya: Before Intelligentsiya made it onto the news in late January, blogging was a relatively unknown thing outside of the IT circles in Fiji. I knew about blogs several years back and briefly started one but it never went anywhere. After the military announced it was hunting for the Intelligentsiya bloggers, interest suddenly soared and several bloggers set up online – one (Discombobulated Bubu) saying she was inspired by our actions in defying this oppression against free speech. As the number of blogs grew, we decided to form a Google group of all the like-minded blogs and from then on coordinated all our online actions.
In a future article we shall publish other interviews with outspoken Fijian bloggers and draw attention to other aspects of their cyber-activism and the measures they are undertaking to undermine any eventual crackdown on their online activities.