Media Matters

Tear Down That Firewall

For tyrants, the proliferation of new media is becoming their worst nightmare.

By 6.15.05

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The rise of the so-called New Media, the decentralized network of non-traditional news gatherers, such as blogs and camera/cell phone-wielding, on-the-spot "reporters," has generated much discussion over its implications for the established media. Certainly this is interesting. But perhaps a more consequential query is: What impact will the New Media have on human liberty?

For the world's mixed bag of tyrants, despots, and other assorted authoritarians, the recent wave of information technology may have offered these corrupt rulers a first glimpse at their own mortality. As the ability to share and analyze information en masse and under the radar flourishes, dictatorial regimes everywhere will become more endangered as their ability to operate in the shadows is diminished.

Because all crooked governments rely to some degree upon dishonesty, transparency is inevitably destabilizing. North Korean political officers, for instance, have always sought to indoctrinate their people with stories about America's hatred for North Koreans and its determination to sink their country beneath the sea.

There is a correlation between civil liberty and a free press: the more disreputable the ruler, the tighter he must control the press to legitimize his actions. A recent example occurred last week, when 46-year-old Samir Kassir, a Lebanese newspaper columnist known for his staunch criticism of the Syrian regime and its military occupation of his country, was assassinated. Lebanese authorities wasted no time pegging the blame for his car bombing death on Syrian military/intelligence agents.

Syrian President Bashar Assad did not exactly project an image of innocence when, only four days after the assassination, he spoke publicly to his party's congress about the need to quash emerging media outlets. Assad warned that "These many inputs, especially with the evolution of communication and information technology, made the society open, and this opened the door for some confusion and suspicion in the minds of Arab youth."

Mr. Assad inveighed, in particular, against what he sees as the hidden agenda of this new technology: "The ultimate objective of all this is the destruction of the Arab identity; for the enemies of the Arab nation are opposed to our possessing any identity or upholding any creed that could protect our existence and cohesion, guide our vision and direction, or on which we can rely in our steadfastness." This fiction drawn by Mr. Assad is precisely the sort of fiction most vulnerable without a state-controlled press.

Mr. Assad, no doubt, resents the popularity of the New Media in the Middle East. When American forces entered Iraq, the embedded journalists were not the only sources from which Americans obtained on-the-ground reportage. As soon as Saddam's grip on the Iraqi people was broken, Iraqis went to computers and finally began speaking their minds with unfettered candor. Popular blogging brothers Omar and Mohammed Fadhil of Iraq The Model were immediately embraced for picking up where American correspondents fell short: they published personal accounts of Iraqis experiencing the euphoria of liberation. If you peruse the "blogrolls" of Iraq The Model and other popular Iraqi blogs like Mesopotamian and Iraq at a Glance, you'll see a vast network of freedom-minded Arabs excitedly sharing news and ideas about what's transpiring in their backyards.

Last fall, Iran attempted to put a stop to this burgeoning, Internet-driven, reformist movement by shutting down popular websites. Many of Iran's 15,000+ bloggers responded by changing their sites' names as a form of protest and evasion, signaling that the Internet was not within government control. Three of the sites that were shut down -- Emrooz, Rooydadnews.com, and Baamdad.tk -- were later re-launched in stripped-down form, one as a blog. Apparently, Iranian officials are now contemplating replacing Iran's Internet with an Intranet, which would cut them from the rest of the worldwide Web. For their part, Iranian bloggers express confidence in their ability to circumvent any new controls.

Chinese political leaders must sympathize with the Iranian mullahs. Almost as soon as the Internet blossomed, Chinese agencies were assigned to censor any information deemed damaging to the solidity of Communist Party power. To this day, websites in China are required to register with the government. Last year, in Tibet, Chinese authorities implemented a new rule requiring local residents to use specially issued ID cards for Internet access. This week, the Chinese Ministry of Information Industry (MII) announced that by June 30, all bloggers must register with it the identity of the person responsible for a site.

After trying to register with MII, one Chinese blogger reported to the BBC that an official told him not to bother, because, "There is no chance of an independent blog getting permission to publish."

What's been dubbed the Great Firewall of China is that regime's attempt to filter the information that flows into Chinese computers. To date, their success has been, at best, marginal. Many Chinese techies have managed to sidestep these blockades by setting up proxy servers, which can disguise the origins of websites.

The State Department, meanwhile, has had some success with their Voice of America e-mail broadcasts. These VOA electronic newsletters deliver a collection of articles relating to current events on the Chinese mainland that the people in the PRC would not otherwise hear. Chinese officials are constantly trying to block these VOA transmissions.

For the many Chinese-oriented Web sites based in America, the Great Firewall of China has proven to be as impenetrable as its famously porous namesake. The Web site GlobalSecurity.org attributes the rulers' futility to "poor interagency coordination and very poor links between the central government in Beijing and the various layers of local governments that are build into the system."

Not surprisingly, the most tyrannical regime in the world, that of North Korea, allows no freedom of the press at all. In April of last year, two trains were destroyed when freights filled with flammable gas and explosives erupted in a terrifying inferno. Initially, the blast was said to have been set off during an assassination attempt on Kim Jong Il. While hundreds perished, thousands were injured, and the surrounding town of Ryongchon was destroyed, the world was kept in a media blackout, with no camera crews permitted access. North Korean officials were hesitant to even confirm the disaster. Finally, satellite images of the devastation were acquired and widely disseminated around the world. But in North Korea, the state-run TV prohibited its citizens from seeing any images of the reality, airing instead video of military processions and patriotic music.

During Ukraine's recent "Orange Revolution," many Americans suffused traditional TV broadcasts with New Media reporting. By plugging into the dozens of Kiev-based blogs, people could see images and anecdotes imbued with the elated earnestness that comes with being an eyewitness to history. It's an interesting phenomenon and demonstrably true: Excitement can travel thousands of miles through small, fiber-optic cable (or: can be uploaded, bounced off a satellite, and downloaded onto computers 20,000 miles away). For tyrants, the proliferation of communication technology is becoming their worst nightmare. Try as they might, even slick, practiced Chinese bureaucrats cannot keep pace with technology. For the world's oppressed, New Media is transforming liberation from fantasy to a dream ever more real.

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