Sunday, May 11, 2014

Saudi Blogger Sentenced To 10 Years and 1,000 Lashes

The sentencing of a prominent Saudi blogger to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for insulting Islam shows the Kingdom is run by radical Islamists who leave no room for dissent, his wife told
Raif Badawi, co-founder of the “Saudi Arabian Liberals” website and a well-known thinker and blogger, has been accused of writing anti-Islamic discourse online. His wife, who fled the nation two years ago and now lives near Montreal, said Badawi is “paying the price” for believing in freedom of expression.
“I am very shocked by the news, but the Saudi government is radical Muslim,” Ensaf Haidar told of her husband. “He is the leader of the Saudi liberal movement, and the government wants to make a symbol out of him.” 
Haidar said it has been two years since she last saw Badawi, who first came on the Saudi government’s radar in 2012, when he was imprisoned and subsequently sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes for violating the country’s cybercrime laws.
In December, his sentence was overturned after appeal, but his case was sent to the Jeddah Criminal Court for review. A retrial was ordered. Badawi had originally been charged with “apostasy,” according to his wife, which is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia. 
The Saudi Court also fined him the equivalent of $266,000, in a verdict Amnesty International called “outrageous.”
Amnesty International is publicly calling for the verdict to be overturned.
"He is a prisoner of conscience who is guilty of nothing more than daring to create a public forum for discussion and peacefully exercising the right to freedom of expression," said Philip Luther, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Amnesty International.
This year, Saudi King Abdullah issued a piece of legislation that would clamp down on dissent in any form.
While the law is meant to curb regional terrorism from bleeding into Saudi Arabia, critics say it is an overreaching measure that allows officials to prosecute any form of peaceful dissent.
Lisa Daftari 

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Bloggers Make A Difference

I have been thinking about what blogs do, economics blogs in particular. Here are some preliminary thoughts - please add to the list if you have more ideas:
1. Blogs are often criticized for simply echoing information. But in doing so, they provide information to readers. Blogs act as filters on information. When you come to trust a blog, or know it well enough to judge its content, the fact that an article is posted there tells you that the person running the blog thought it was important enough to bring to your attention. Blogs can also help by pointing out information that is misleading, wrong, etc.
2. Even if you don't fully trust any one information source, there is value in repetition. As blogs echo information, it gives a sense of its importance and credibility. If a report is only discussed in one place it might be notable, but in general if an issue is being discussed most places you happen to visit, that indicates the information has some significance. So, beyond the filtering role that blogs play as they echo information from other sources, they also give it weight, e.g. if all blogs are worried about how to interpret labor force participation statistics, that is notable. And on those occasions when blogs on both sides of the political fence (or whatever fence divides the issue) are discussing an issue and coming up with similar answers, that is informative, as are the cases when heated debate erupts among reputable blogs on opposite sides on an issue.
3. Blogs add new information. On occasion, bloggers are inclined to seek out new information, for example to present economic information graphically, in tables, descriptively, and so on that helps to place economic statistics in perspective or to point in new directions. Thus, novel information provided on blogs can buttress or rebut the topic of the day, or it can point in new directions altogether. And the information does not have to be novel to enlighten and inform a discussion. There is also a role for pointing to, say, existing academic research on topics being discussed in the news and elsewhere.
4. This is something that I think is new, or at least a speeded up version of what we had in the past. In a sense, a traditional column in the newspaper is a blog as are editorials. A columnist posts articles say twice a week, then comments come back in the form of letters to the editor. There are also discussion at work, and so on. The modern blog speeds this process up considerably and allows broader participation in the dissemination of information and in feedback. When there is an important question, say a proposal for an energy tax as we saw recently, instead of the discussion being dominated by a few columnists, editorials, letters to the editor, discussion on talk shows, etc., we have almost instantaneous discussion of these topics on blogs, some from people with expert credentials, along with feedback in comments, email, etc., and many rounds of discussion happen quickly as ideas richochet back and forth.
I think this will become important when we have a crisis of some sort, say a currency crisis, and there are important policy questions that require immediate reaction. We saw something like this after Hurricane Katrina with questions about whether the Fed should lower rates, pause, or continue increasing them in light of all the uncertainty and destruction that existed. Blogs began debating this topic almost immediately and added important elements to the discussion.
When a crisis hits, we have a collective capability to respond that did not exist in the past and it will be interesting to see how well it works when it is needed.
5. In addition to their filtering role, blogs also motivate the media to take care in how they write about economics and other topics. Though anyone writing publicly develops a thicker skin, it can't be fun to be skewered for something you have written, and tools like Google and The WayBack Machine hold people accountable for things they have written in the past in ways they never were before. It's no longer possible to present misleading points of view without being immediately and thoroughly rebutted in public and if the issue is important enough, on fairly prominent platforms.
So, what have I missed or gotten wrong? I suppose there's a whole post to be written about the downside of blogs, e.g. bad information can get echoed and magnified as well as good, so on balance are blogs a positive or negative influence, questions like that. But that will have to wait for another day, or perhaps others can fill in the missing pieces.