Lawrence Pintak and Yosri Fouda’s assertion that, by defending online writers in the Middle East, Western press freedom groups are undermining journalism in that region is a real head-scratcher.

What’s the premise for that argument? Maybe it’s the notion that ‘bloggers are not journalists’. Or if that’s too sweeping a statement, then maybe the reasoning is ‘only a few bloggers are journalists’.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which has been defending press freedom worldwide for nearly thirty years, would not argue that anyone with a Blogspot account or a camera phone is a journalist.

But we can’t ignore the explosion in online writing pioneered by people who do not fit the mold of the accredited reporter employed by a bricks-and-mortar media company. A prescriptive definition of who is and who is not a journalist is not helpful. There are no board or bar exams for journalists like doctors or lawyers. Journalism is more a craft than a profession.

If, in the context of an authoritarian regime, you take the view that a blog is nothing but a vehicle for those who deal in opinion, rumor, innuendo and invective, then you are standing at the top of a very slippery slope leading to the licensing of journalists. The attempt to distinguish between “real” journalists who report facts and bloggers who peddle opinion is misleading. Print journalism and broadcasting have always been replete with political and social commentary. “Good” bloggers are not just those journalists who have left newspapers, whether by choice or necessity, for the Web. A whole generation of net natives has sprung up and is forcing all of us to rethink our notion of ink and paper journalism. Devising definitions to exclude them from the shield of international press freedom organizations is to play into the hands of authoritarian governments.

There are bloggers who spout vitriol at opponents or whip up emotions in support of their pet cause. If that’s all they do, they are not practicing journalism. They should not be conflated with the thousands of other bloggers whose output is based on reporting, observation, or fact-based opinion. Those are the online writers CPJ defends. We don’t endorse their views; we assert their right under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to express those views freely.

In most cases, we don’t agonize over whether to take up a case. Governments make that decision for us by persecuting bloggers who air the kinds of opinion or expose wrongdoings that the cowed or compliant mainstream media will not touch.

“Bloggers shedding light or commenting on abuse of power, corruption and torture should be backed,” said Neziha Réjiba, editor of the independent news Web site Kalima, which has been targeted by a repressive Tunisian government for years. “Their emergence, particularly in this part of the world, is a natural and healthy reaction to the failure of media professionals to accurately and bravely do their job,” she told CPJ.

Bloggers stand out when professional journalists don’t stand up. In Egypt, for example, the mainstream media tiptoe around sensitive issues such as the succession of President Hosni Mubarak and dial back on coverage of political protests, corruption, and torture. Bloggers and independent journalists who directly confront these issues risk prison, but not before they have been maligned in pro-government publications by “journalists” using the very smear tactics they contend disqualifies blogging as journalism.

In the case of Philip Rizk, the Egyptian security services showed by their actions that his writing was at least one of the reasons for his arrest. His interrogators coerced him into revealing passwords to his online account and e-mail address, which were promptly used to disable his blog, delete archival material, and mine his contact book. Journalistic equipment—including cameras, computer hard drives, and memory sticks—was taken from his apartment. Rizk, upon his release, blogged about his experiences in detention.

In countries like Burma, where independent journalism has been crushed, blogging has opened a vital avenue for news and created some unlikely reporters. Maung Thura is a popular comedian and democracy activist known by his stage name, Zarganar. Angered by inadequate government relief efforts after a cyclone in May 2008, he helped organize video reporting of the devastated areas and blogged about it. He is now serving a fifty-nine-year prison term on multiple charges, including violations of the Television and Video Act.

In this case, at least the blogger was indicted directly for what he posted. CPJ’s archives are filled with research showing that governments use a broad palette of charges ranging from minor violations of bureaucratic regulations to sedition against critical writers, broadcasters, and photographers in all media, designed to divert attention from their journalism. Vietnamese blogger Nguyen Van Hai is serving thirty months in jail for tax evasion. His conviction followed his critical reporting on the government’s handling of a territorial dispute with China.

In Uzbekistan, online journalist Salidzhon Abdurakhmanov, who reports on human rights and social issues, has been charged with illegal drug possession—a trumped up accusation meant to silence him, according to his supporters. Iranian blogger Omidreza Mirsayafi wrote a post questioning Iran’s support for the Lebanon-based group Hezbollah. That was enough to earn him thirty months in prison for insulting Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the 1979 revolution. Mirsayafi never got to serve out his sentence: he died in Tehran’s Evin prison in unexplained circumstances in March this year.

In authoritarian states, bloggers are in the vanguard of defenders of freedom of expression, often filling a vacuum left by the official press. Technology is churning up the twentieth century media landscape, burying rigid distinctions between journalists and non-journalists. Anyone who uses this new technology to disseminate news or opinion at risk to their life or liberty deserves our support.

“Chaos is among the characteristics of the blogosphere,” says Kalima’s Réjiba. “But we must acknowledge that the other characteristics are bravery and a real thirst for freedom.”

Read Pintak and Fouda’s piece here.

Robert Mahoney is deputy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.