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Arab Bloggers Under Pressure as Bush Visits the Middle East

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Much of the Arab blogosphere is abuzz this week. Not about President Bush's current Mideast tour which began in Israel on Wednesday, but about a thirty-two year old IT executive-turned-blogger currently in prison in Saudi Arabia.

Few Americans may have heard of Fouad al-Farhan, the young Saudi who runs a popular website alfarhan.org, but in Arab cyberspace bloggers from Tunisia to Saudi Arabia have rallied to his defense calling for his release, and in the process have captured international media attention. Last week, State Department spokesman Sean McCormick added the U.S government's voice to these calls by expressing concern over the case. But whether President Bush, whose trip is being cast as an attempt to highlight the US's "work in the region to combat terrorism and extremism, promote freedom, and seek peace and prosperity," forces the issue in his meeting on Monday with King Abdullah in Riyadh is another question.

Al-Farhan, one of Saudi Arabia's first bloggers and one of the few to use his real name, was detained by Saudi security agents on December 10 at his office in Jeddah and has been held ever since without charge. The only public statement from the Saudi government came last week from an Interior Ministry spokesman who said al-Farhan was being questioned "about violating non-security regulations."

In an e-mail to friends prior to his arrest, al-Farhan explained that he had received a phone call from the Saudi Interior Ministry instructing him to prepare himself "to be picked up in the coming two weeks" for questioning by a high-ranking official. He also stated in the e-mail that he believed he was being summoned "because I wrote about the political prisoners here in Saudi Arabia and they think I'm running an online campaign promoting their issue."

Al-Farhan's posts are a mix of mild social and political commentary. In one of his last posts before his detention, he listed an entry titled "Ten Saudi personalities I don't like and hope I never to meet." They included influential Saudi religious, media, and business figures, among them billionaire prince Alwaleed Bin Talal.

Al-Farhan's detention is the latest indication of how Arab bloggers, who have taken to the Internet to circumvent rigid state media controls, are increasingly being targeted by governments fearful of their rising profile and influence. Saudi Arabia's media is among the most restricted in the region, a country where newspaper editors are appointed by the government, and publications devoid of controversial political content, especially concerning the Royal family. Despite heavy Internet censorship, a small but growing number of blogs have emerged as forums for debate and discussion not found in the discredited local media. And governments have taken notice.

In addition to al-Farhan, online Saudi writer Rabah al-Quwai' was held for 13 days last year in retaliation for his writings about religious extremism. The trend is region-wide. Since CPJ documented its first case of an Arab Internet journalist to be imprisoned for his work -- the jailing of Tunisian blogger Zouhair Yahyaoui in 2002 -- at least five others have been sent to prison for long periods while several more have been detained, threatened, harassed, or even abducted. The attacks have taken place in countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and even Iraq. At least one other blogger is currently in prison: Abdel Karim Suleiman, an Egyptian writer who was jailed for four years on charges of insulting President Hosni Mubarak and Islam in his online writings.

Despite the risks of speaking out, Arab bloggers remain outspoken about the jailings of Farhan and Suleiman. President Bush can do the same by forcefully urging their release in his expected meetings with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah and Egypt's Mubarak early next week. In a letter CPJ sent to Bush today, we appealed to him to do the right thing and work for the freedom of al-Farhan and Suleiman. Such a stand would prove to the world that the Bush administration's floundering democracy promotion policy is more than just rhetoric.

Joel Campagna is the Middle East and North Africa Senior Program Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists.