June 28, 2009

The First Twitter Arrest

Tucked away in a back corner of my morning paper, I found something that caught my eye.

Jean Anleu may be the first to be Twitarrested by his own government. To be sure, there are paranoid and repressive governments who fear the Twitterverse, and have taken actions. There may be scores of unreported arrests already. We've read reports of Iran arresting thousands, many of them for Internet activity. China and Vietnam are also worried about the effect that Twitter and other social networking sites has on opposition groups—the ability of protesters to use networking sites to gather people quickly for a common cause is a concern to governments that don't trust their own people.

But Guatemala is doing something different. They've gone public with Anleu's arrest to send a message to those who might use Twitter as a forum for protesting the government's actions.

Anleu's alleged crime? He was so fed up with corruption, especially the government banking system, that he used Twitter to send a message for popular action to counter the corruption. The managers of the government's rural development bank, Banrural, are enmeshed in a political scandal. Anleu sent this message out to the Twitterverse: "First concrete action should be take cash out of Banrural and bankrupt the bank of the corrupt."

Prosecutors now seek to charge him for spreading false information which carries a five-year prison sentence and $6,500 in fines (much more than the average Guatemalan makes in a year). Sympathetic Twitterers raised money for his bail. About half of his $6,200 bail was donated via PayPal from 19 countries.

Prosecutor Genaro Pacheco says that Anleu's words illegally undermined the public trust in Guatemala's banking system. The police were able to prove that Anleu sent the message by searching his home in Guatemala City. He was taken to a prison that houses kidnappers, extortionists and other dangerous criminals for two days before he was able to make bail. Anleu's lawyer, Jose Toledo, believes the government wants to make an example of him.

Twitter co-founder Biz Stone declined to comment on the Anleu case or say whether he knows of any other arrests involving Tweeting. In an irony that only living in a country with a repressive government can produce, Anleu, a geeky computer enthusiast whose passions include playing chess online and reading Czech author Franz Kafka—we see his life has taken on some eerie parallels. Kafka wrote The Trial, whose protagonist struggles to defend himself against the powers of the state.

"I fear I'm being watched and scrutinized in everything I say and do," said Anleu, who walks around with an iPhone to constantly tweet and a BlackBerry loaded with e-books. "The fear makes me want to avoid saying what I think, even about the most mundane topics, and saying where I am, where I'm going—like you would normally do on Twitter."

Guatemala is only a nominal democracy—emerging, still, from a quarter century of genocidal civil war that has seen the deaths of 250,000 of its own citizens, most of the dead comprised the indigenous Mayan populations in remote villages. Guatemala has never been free from violence in its troubled history—a history our own country has provided examples in the laws of unintended consequences. In the 50s, Eisenhower's State Department and the CIA helped to overthrow the legitimate popularly elected government of Jacobo Arbenz, in part because that newly elected government posed a threat to our own multi-national corporations' profits and interests.

Twitter—not so innocuous or vacuous as some critics like to proclaim—it can be a tool for moving toward freedom, and to hold governments accountable.

Anleu's Facebook page is here.

Note: I have some experience in Guatemala. I've written about one part of that in aprevious post here on OS—Chajul and Chalcaté. In my time there, we were never completely safe. On our way up into the remote mountain villages to build homes for widows, we would pass by buses and vehicles, pushed off the dirt highways only enough to allow traffic to pass. They were metaphoric reminders from the government of the dangers of opposition. Slowly rotting and rusting hulks, burned from RPG explosions—stories of untold death and misery—charred and burned bones long since carried away. Our group even had 105mm howitzers fired over our encampment, reportedly as "artillery training exercises," but the message was clear. "You can be here to help widows, orphans, the poor and destitute, but don't make any political statement other than building homes for widows." On one of our trips a uniformed customs agent at the airport in Guatemala City asked us "Why are you taking this dental and medical equipment to the Indians? They're animals—they're not even people."

Source: http://open.salon.com/blog/bbd/2009/06/28/kafka_and_the_twitterverse

Tags: Open Salon, Guatemala, Eisenhower, Mayan, Twitter, Twitarrested, Jean Anleu, twitterverse, Guatemala City, iPhone, Kafka, blackberry, dissident, Global IT News, Politics, Technology and Politics,

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