The Internet's role in media freedom
THE RELEASE of Zouhair Yahyaoui from a Tunisian jail last month passed almost unnoticed, but it shouldn't have. Yahyaoui spent a year and a half in prison for criticizing the Tunisian government on his website. The case illustrates the growing battle over freedom of expression in the age of the Internet.
Unlike television and radio, the Internet gives its users the ability to respond and participate, as well as choose from a variety of information sites. The increasingly hot question is whether the Internet will become a force for global democratization or whether "brutalitarian" governments (to use George Bernard Shaw's felicitous term) will succeed in controlling this new medium.
At the moment, the spread of digital technology in many countries is limited to a small, affluent class. In Russia, for example, the typical Internet user is young (under 35), educated, and lives in a major city. Internet cafes exist, but only one-fourth of Moscow's inhabitants have regular access to a computer, and the figure is much lower in the countryside. But if opposition to the government's authoritarian tendencies begins anywhere, it will develop precisely there -- among the elite that has the money and the means to influence politics.
The easiest way for a repressive regime to deal with the Internet is to block it. In Cuba, there are only 10 computers per 1,000 people. Most people wouldn't be able to get on the Internet even if they had a brand new laptop, because only 10 percent of Havana's residents have telephone lines.
However, most countries don't want to be left out of the Internet boom, which is to say, the global economy. About 68 million people are online in China, and some of them have posted criticisms of the government. The Chinese authorities have responded swiftly and harshly. "In 2002," says the Committee to Protect Journalists in their annual report, "the [Chinese] government announced new regulations mandating that Internet service providers censor their own sites."
The government requires all major websites to sign the Public Pledge for Self-Discipline for the Internet Industry. Many people have been jailed for posting "subversive" views, but it is hard to determine the exact number.
But the authorities do not have full control of the Internet. Many Chinese hackers have the technical sophistication to cover their tracks, so to speak, when they browse the Web. Cubans buy and sell passwords.
Two particular aspects of the Internet make it a powerful tool for free expression: It is a remarkably cheap way to disseminate information, and it is a decentralized medium.
Zouhair Yahyaoui was a college graduate in Tunis when he launched a website called TUNeZINE.com in July 2001. He found an Internet service provider in France willing to host the website, and he edited the site in the Internet cafe where he worked. Because freedom of the press has been all but eliminated in Tunisia, Yahyaoui's site took off.
The site criticized the government, sometimes satirically. Yahyaoui once conducted a mock poll that asked people to vote on whether Tunisia was a kingdom, republic, zoo, or prison. The authorities first banned the site, but Tunisians were finding ways to access it. The authorities traced the website back to Yahyaoui and arrested him. Still, it is extraordinary that a young man with no capital but his own talent and courage managed to shake up a government.
A more established journalist, Steve Gan, runs Malaysiakini.com, an independent news site in Malaysia. Last January, police raided Gan's offices and confiscated all the computers. Yet the website was up and running 10 hours later, thanks to a backup server in another location. If Gan had been using a printing press, he would have been out of business for a considerably longer time.
However, as the opponents of Web censorship become more sophisticated, so do the censors themselves. Russia has been pursuing a policy of censorship on one hand and propaganda on the other. The Information Security Doctrine of 2000 expanded government control over the Internet and limited the rights of private individuals and groups. Meanwhile, the government itself maintains several of the most popular news sites in Russia, crowding out smaller, independent alternatives. During the last elections, sites attacking Putin's rivals sprang up like mushrooms after a rainstorm.
The Russian authorities, like the Chinese or the Tunisians, could have followed Cuba's example and shut off all public access to the Internet. But that would be tantamount to cutting themselves off from international economic opportunities. Thus the political cat-and-mouse game goes on. But it is still too early to say who will win. The only certainty is that the Internet has created opportunities as well as dangers for media freedom.
Mick Stern is webmaster at the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.