Saturday, April 26, 2008
Student 'Twitters' his way out of Egyptian jail
By Mallory Simon
(CNN) -- James Karl Buck helped free himself from an Egyptian jail with a one-word blog post from his cell phone.
James Karl Buck sent a message using Twitter which helped get him out of an Egyptian jail
Buck, a graduate student from the University of California-Berkeley, was in Mahalla, Egypt, covering an anti-government protest when he and his translator, Mohammed Maree, were arrested April 10.
On his way to the police station, Buck took out his cell phone and sent a message to his friends and contacts using the micro-blogging site Twitter.
The message only had one word. "Arrested."
Within seconds, colleagues in the United States and his blogger-friends in Egypt -- the same ones who had taught him the tool only a week earlier -- were alerted that he was being held.
Twitter is a social-networking blog site that allows users to send status updates, or "tweets," from cell phones, instant messaging services and Facebook in less than 140 characters.
Hossam el-Hamalawy, a Cairo-based blogger at UC-Berkeley, was one of the people who got word of Buck's arrest.
"At first I was worried about his safety," el-Hamalawy said.
Then, el-Hamalawy took to the Web and wrote regular updates in his own blog to spread the information Buck was sending by Twitter. Nobody was sure how long Buck would be able to communicate. See Buck describe what he saw and captured on film during the protests
But Buck was able to send updates every couple of hours saying he was still detained, he had spoken to the prosecutor, he still had not been charged, and he was worried about Maree.
"Usually the first thing the police go for is the detainees' cameras and cellular phones," el-Hamalawy said. "I'm surprised they left James with his phone."
Twitter is normally used to keep groups of people connected in less urgent situations. Watch how Twitter works »
But Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter, said he and others knew that the service could have wide-reaching effects early on, when the San-Francisco, California-based company used it to communicate during earthquakes.
Stone said that as the service got more popular, they began to hear stories of people using Twitter during natural disasters with a focus on activism and journalism.
Buck's urgent message is proof of the value of Twitter, Stone said. Buck's entry set off a chain of events that led to his college hiring a lawyer on his behalf.
"James' case is particularly compelling to us because of the simplicity of his message -- one word, 'arrested' -- and the speed with which the whole scene played out," Stone said. "It highlights the simplicity and value of a real-time communication network that follows you wherever you go."
Initially, the Twitter message was a precaution -- something people could trace in case anything went wrong, Buck said.
"The most important thing on my mind was to let someone know where we were so that there would be some record of it ... so we couldn't [disappear]," Buck said. "As long as someone knew where we were, I felt like they couldn't do their worst [to us] because someone, at some point, would be checking in on them."
Buck began using Twitter as a way to keep up in touch with the bloggers at the heart of his project and the events going on in Egypt that he intended to cover. Buck was working on a multimedia project on Egypt's "new leftists and the blogosphere" as part of his master's degree thesis.
Buck found out from a Twitter message that a planned protest against rising food prices and decreasing wages in Mahalla had been shut down by Egyptian authorities April 6.
The next day, tensions rose as family and friends of protesters who had been detained took to the streets, eventually throwing Molotov cocktails and setting tires on fire, he said.
On April 10, Buck returned to Mahalla, where protests continued.
"I was worried about getting arrested, so I made sure to stay at a distance from the protest so there was no way I could be accused of being part of it," Buck said. "Mohammed and I had a bad sense; it was really tense."
When the men tried to escape, they were detained. That's when Buck thought of Twitter and sent out his message.
Buck and Maree were interrogated, released and then detained again by the same police officers.
"We are really worried that we are off the radar now," Buck said.
Eventually Buck was released, but Maree was transferred to another police station.
As he left the station, Buck reached into his pocket, as he did less than 24 hours earlier.
Another one-word blog entry said it all: "Free."
As happy as he was to be free, Buck said, his biggest frustration was leaving behind the translator who helped protect him during the riots.
Although the Twitter message helped him find contacts to get out of prison, he says it was more the power of the network he had as an American that enabled him to be released so quickly.
"Mohammed was sitting next to me," he said. "But he didn't have the network to call. I tried to use my network to shield him until they tore us apart."
Twitter may not have been able to secure Maree's release, but Buck hopes his initial reason for using Twitter will help find his missing friend.
"It was my big hope that people would get [the message] right away and at least put a thumbtack on the map as far as our location," Buck said.
There has been no official confirmation regarding Maree's whereabouts.
Attiya Shakran, press counsel for the Egyptian Consulate in San Francisco, said Maree was released April 13.
Maree's brother Ahmed Maree said that he had not heard from his brother and that he believes he is still in jail.
Government officials in Egypt could neither confirm nor deny Maree's release, despite repeated requests for comment.
Buck is now using his story and Twitter page as a way to rally people looking for answers about Maree's status. He's gone as far as publishing the phone number of the press counsel of the Egyptian Consulate in San Francisco and posting a petition for Maree's release.
For Buck, the main story is no longer about his quest for freedom from jail; it's a quest to find answers and, eventually, find his friend.
Posted by Maureen Erickson (Mo) at 9:58 AM