“Technology will make it increasingly difficult for the state to control the information its people receive,” said Ronald Reagan soon after stepping down as America’s president: “The Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip”.
I recently got this email from a colleague:
I’m working in a country with an repressive regime. Media are closed down, journalists arrested etc. We’re thinking about ‘alternative’ ways to spread information. Email alerts to subscribers (from proxy server outside the country), SMS services, websites/blogs etc.
Repressive regimes litter the world we live in. ICT’s are assumed to be powerful subversive devices through which democracy can blossom and authoritarianism defeated, but the real world offers significant challenges with regard to the freedom, production, dissemination and consumation of information under repressive regimes. This is brought out in Open Networks, Closed Regimes: The Impact of the Internet on Authoritarian Rule which states that:
In Open Networks, Closed Regimes, the authors take a comprehensive look at how a broad range of societal and political actors in eight authoritarian and semi-authoritarian countries employ the Internet. Based on methodical assessment of evidence from these cases—China, Cuba, Singapore, Vietnam, Burma, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt—the study contends that the Internet is not necessarily a threat to authoritarian regimes.
The specific example of Nepal offers an interesting perspective in this regard. From the events of 2005 to those in early 2006, people power it seems is alive and well in this country. On the 1st of February 2005, King Gyanendra dismissed the Prime Minister and his government, declared a state of emergency and assumed direct power, citing the need to defeat Maoist rebels, throwing the country into a constitutional crisis overnight. What is interesting is that almost all communications channels – internet, mobiles, telephone – were forcibly shut down by the King after his throne speech announcing his takeover of the country’s affairs. Over a short period of time, blogs such as United We Blog! for a Democratic Nepal and Radio Free Nepal became an important voices in the mobilisation of support for a full restoration of democratic rule in Nepal.
These blogs, along with growing agitation for democracy on the ground, after Maoist rebels and main opposition parties agreed on a programme intended to restore democracy in November 2005, resulted in the Kings announcement in April that he would restore parliament, paving the way for democratic rule in theory and practice. As the BBC country update states:
Why did the king back down and agree to parliament re-convening?
The simple answer to that was the sheer size of the demonstrations against him – some of the biggest that the country has ever witnessed.
Nepal’s experience shows that the mobilisation of people for democracy can, ultimately, influence progress even in repressive regimes. (Interesting reading in this light is a new report by Freedom House titled How Freedom Is Won: From Civic Struggle to Durable Democracy)
What then is the role of technology in such processes of democratic reform – the heart of any process of peacebuilding?
Blogs are hard to control, harder to shut down. The number of blogs in China, though figures differ (see here and here), offers ample evidence that the regime, try as it might, cannot fully curtail the freedom of expression.
Web 2.0 and New Media
New media – podcasts, mblogs, Google Video, MMS – are revolutionising the ways we communicate and produce information. Through social networks such as orkut or even the record breaking MySpace, online communities are forging powerful virtual alliances for political activism in ways that could not have been as easily possible without the use of ICTs.
Growing popularity of mobiles
Actually, make that the exponential growth of mobiles in Asia-Pacific and Africa in particular (home to most of the repressive regimes in the world) that make information production, dissemination and consumption, through messaging and the mobile internet, accessible to many hitherto left out from the PC based web and internet revolution. With the cost of devices and the cost of access rapidly descending, grassroots communities will increasingly be able to influence political change through the use of technologies in the palm of their hands, mirroring similar processes in countries like the Philippines, Spain, India and Hong Kong.
So to answer the question of my colleague, we need to look at the ways through which such new and emerging technologies can revolutionise the ways through which information is produced, disseminated and consumed when in regimes where even a suspected association with information deemed inimical to the parochial interests of the State can get you raped, tortured or killed.
I’ve explored this very question in a paper I wrote recently for a conference on Communication Technology and Social Policy in the Digital Age: Expanding Access, Redefining Control organised by the Annenberg School for Communication in March 2006, titled Thoughts on Democracy, New Media and the Internet – Working Draft. In it, I end by stating:
Billions of people exist without any awareness of the internet or its potential for social change. There are more pressing social issues in some regions than the digital divide – polio, HIV / AIDS, poverty and ethnic conflict continue to take their toll on mankind. Corruption and authoritarian governments worsen the situation. The exceptional nature of academic conferences that discuss the pros and cons of the digital age and ICT is made acute when juxtaposed with the strife of those living in conflict zones and far removed from the promise of ICT and new media.
However, the terrains of violence and conflict also hold within them the possibilities of democratic dialogue mediated through the internet. Some ideas of this paper in pursuit of such possibilities are;
Defining requirements and systems that enable community participation in policy making on the expression of needs by the community itself and not by national level politicians, traditional power-centres or the social elite;
Creating New Media based initiatives that amplify community aspirations for peace while at the same time sensitive to the fragile and complex web of socio-political relations in the context of on-going peace processes;
Expanding a community’s social capital through enhanced access to the internet, while eschewing the facile notion that access to the internet based information itself is indicative of community empowerment;
Using the internet and web to devise communities of practice that transform information to trusted knowledge that aids purposes of grassroots conflict transformation within and between communities;
Animating the potential of new media and the internet is the existence of a vibrant democracy. A vibrant democracy in turn is nourished by a culture of open discussion on core issues of governance and as they are felt by citizens in all regions of a country. This symbiosis between democracy and dialogue, between new media and its influence on progressive social policy, between the promise of the internet to empower communities and the appropriation of ICT by communities to strengthen their engagements with justice and peace, is a qualitative and quantitative measurement of the health of a nation.
In sum, the author submits that the emerging understanding of the use of the internet and media in support of progressive social reform, especially in post-conflict nations, is a vital tool in supporting fragile democracies weather the challenges of a peace process.
In sum, the potential of internet radio to overcome the stranglehold of airwaves by repressive regimes, projects such as eTukTuk to overcome the alienation of remote communities from information architectures for social justice, the ways through which podcasts can be burnt on to CD’s, downloaded to iPod or other digital music players or mobile phones and played through boom-boxes or simple amplifiers in remote community settings to foster discussions on co-existence, democracy, peacebuilding and reconciliation, from SMS responses to community radio programmes to the creation of blogs in the vernacular, which may be run from outside the country, to promote local viewpoints and opinions, to mobile videos posted on websites akin to Witness.org, the sheer potential of ICT’s in general and especially new technologies of access and content production for democratisation and peacebuilding, even in repressive regimes, is extremely powerful.
The problem is not a lack of ICTs, but a paucity of imagination to envision ways through which cutting-edge developments in new media, Web 2.0 and internet communications (such as Mesh Networks) can revolutionise the ways through which communities talk with each other, the diaspora and the larger global community to create networks in support of democracy that are resilient to even the most atrocious violations of human rights, the shutdown of in-country internet service providers and the killing of activists. The peacebuilders of tomorrow will need to be acutely aware of information technologies – the success of the peace processes they envision and on occasion, even their lives, may depend on how well they use ICT’s in their work.
Also see my posts on Digital Voices, World Press Freedom Day & Role of Media and Technology in Peacebuilding and Peace Tools.