Saudi Arabia Set to Release Blogger al-Farhan?

In the past week, the case of Saudi Arabian blogger Fouad al-Farhan has become a cause célèbre among the international network of bloggers, NGOs and activists that now routinely respond when states attempt to repress freedom of expression online.

Op-ed writers are on the case, Fouad’s fellow bloggers have continued to update his blog and launched a letter-writing campaign to Saudi officials to demand his release, and yesterday the Committee to Protect Journalists sent a letter (via fax) to King Abdullah.

The campaign appears to be working: The New York Times quotes a Saudi interior ministry spokesman, in what looks like a concerted effort to contain the negative press resulting from the arrest, as saying Fouad al-Farhan will be freed soon: “He is not being jailed. He is being questioned, and I don’t believe he will remain in detention long. They will get the information that they need from him and then they will let him go.”

Al-Farhan is reportedly a successful Internet entrepreneur, one of Saudi Arabia’s leading bloggers and, according to Global Voices online, “among the first in the country to have a blog carrying his real name.”

As such, he appears to be an example of what political scientist Marc Lynch, in a piece published in World Politics Review, cited as the “second wave” of Arab bloggers:

The first wave of Arab blogging was dominated by young, technologically oriented, and politically unengaged bloggers, often writing in English. A second wave of more politically engaged bloggers, often writing in Arabic, has appeared — more organically embedded in the political realm and representing a much wider segment of Arab public opinion. More well-known figures also have begun blogging, from journalists and academics to famous dissidents.

In fact, much about how this case has gone so far — from a small number of local bloggers’ ability to quickly get the story noticed by the international press, to Saudi officials’ apparent readiness to release al-Farhan in the face of international pressure — seems to confirm Lynch’s view about the development of blogging as a force for change in the Arab world:

On balance, it seems likely that blogs will increase in political significance. Because the Internet is central to the kind of economic development desired by most Arab regimes, access to the Internet will only increase. Whether through direct activism, bridge-blogging, or public sphere argument, the ability of blogs to frame stories and to funnel information into the public sphere will grow.

Of course, as Lynch points out in a recent post on his blog, this process can’t happen without an international coalition of activists pushing back against regular attempts at state repression:

What’s happening to Arab bloggers was entirely predictable: their increasing visibility and political influence (at home and abroad) drew the attention of security services, which began to push back and try to regain control. Mobilizing international attention is one of the few levers available for the bloggers and activists to push back in turn, and try to defend the open spaces for public discourse that they’ve begun to open. More power to them. At the least, sustained international attention might make security services think twice about whether it’s worth going after the bloggers – even if it ultimately can’t stop them from doing so. It’s a start.

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