Africans' newest form of dissent: blogs

From Congo to Chad, dissidents are taking their grievances online. But are some rebels going too far?

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    Vocal citizen: Cédric Kalonji documents ordinary life in Africa, and some of his posts openly criticize governments.
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From his kitchen table in the bustling capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cédric Kalonji types an entry on his blog, in which he writes about the many problems facing his country while trying to avoid government censors.

"I am Congolese and I talk about what is happening around me – the truth," Mr. Kalonji says. "When my neighborhood floods and there is no irrigation so I have to take off my shoes to walk through it, I have the right to complain."

The blog, on the website congoblog.net, is read by thousands of people around the world, receives about 250 pageviews per day and has won international awards including the prestigious Best of Blogs (BOBs) award for the top French-language blog in 2007.

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"Blogging allows me to be a middle man for Congo, between those in power and those without any, thanks just to free Internet and a small digital camera," says Kalonji, who does not have an Internet connection in his house and detects a nearby wireless signal on his laptop computer to update his blog.

Kalonji is among a growing number of bloggers in Africa who are using their websites to question or challenge their governments. But, although Internet access is slowly becoming more affordable and available in Africa, bloggers say their audience is still mostly outside the continent.

Kalonji says it is difficult to be on the cutting edge of technology while in a country where computers and digital equipment are hard to find and can sometimes cost twice as much as in the United States.

Bob LaGamma, director of Washington-based advocacy group Council for a Community of Democracies, says that despite these logistical challenges, bloggers in Africa are opening up new avenues for free speech.

"It is impressive that despite all of the problems, there has been enormous growth in the use of the Internet to find out about important developments in a country," LaGamma said. "This is the equivalent of what happened in the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe with the underground newspapers. Because of the monopoly of government control on formal media, these informal means of communication become all of the more important."

Rebels turn to blogs for propaganda

While Kalonji is challenging the Congolese government to improve life for its citizens, other African bloggers are actually seeking support to overthrow their respective governments.

Niger's ethnic Tuareg rebel group, the Movement of Nigeriens for Justice, uses its blog, m-n-j.blogspot.com, to recount their fighters' latest attacks against the government.

When rebels in Chad advanced on the capital, N'Djamena, earlier this year, makaila.over-blog.com was a mouthpiece for their movement with entries calling for the ousting of President Idriss Déby.

The sokwanele.com blog in Zimbabwe tallied election results in efforts to prevent President Robert Mugabe from cheating his way into a another term.

From a stark, one-room apartment in Senegal's capital Dakar, self-exiled Chadian blogger Makaila Nguebla receives phone calls and text messages tracking the movements of Chadian rebels who have been on the offensive in recent days. He publishes information about new attacks, along with opinion articles supporting the rebellion.

Mr. Nguebla sleeps next to his computer.

"This allows me to receive and follow, without delay, what is happening in Chad," Nguebla said. "I receive messages and telephone calls 24 hours a day."

He says the government is well aware of and not happy about his blog.

"They are observing and watching constantly what we are doing on the net," Nguebla says. "Sometimes they call and tell us we have to take down a certain articles and they threaten us. But we tell them we have the right to do this. Anything that serves to destabilize the regime I find suitable for publication.

Are some bloggers going too far?

Africa expert Leonard Vincent, with the Paris-based journalism watchdog group Reporters Without Borders, says that while expanding freedom of speech in Africa is important, some opposition and rebel blogs are taking it too far.

"You have the personal bloggers and the political bloggers: Political parties publish whatever they want – full of libel, defamation, violence, sometimes very graphic images," Mr. Vincent says. "I have the feeling that the ones who are blogging in an individual way are more conscious of their responsibility and are more likely to be measured and moderate in the publication than those who use the Internet and their Web sites as war tools or propaganda tools."

For the time being, Vincent says, African governments don't seem too concerned by bloggers. Few governments have tried to block blogs or trace down their authors, although, he says, this may be due to a lack of technology rather than a lack of will.

Also, Internet access is still extremely limited, and those who are logging on are for the most part using cyber cafes, where governments can easily monitor their activities.

"When the Internet becomes democratic in Africa," says Vincent, "it will become a danger, and the repression will step up."

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