From Samizdat to Twitter

From Poland to China to Egypt, the free flow of information is the oxygen of democracy.

CAIRO, EGYPT - FEBRUARY 04: A shop in Tahrir Square is spray painted with the word Twitter after the government shut off internet access on February 4, 2011 in Cairo, Egypt. Anti-government protesters have called today 'The day of departure'. Thousands have again gathered in Tahrir Square calling for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

The uncertainty surrounding Egypt’s future is fueling a debate: Are we witnessing Tehran in 1979 or Prague in 1989? Is Egypt on the threshold of theocracy or democracy? The truth is that there is no way to know. But the flood of texts, emails, Facebook posts, tweets, and YouTube videos that continue to stream out of Egypt remind me of samizdat — the illegal grassroots literature that circulated underground throughout the former Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Digital technology is doing more to shape our politics than anything since Gutenberg’s introduction of the printing press helped Europe usher in the Protestant Reformation. It is a revolution over 20 years in the making. In 1989, I was in Eastern Europe covering the unraveling of the Soviet empire for Time. When I got to Bratislava, I was put in a hotel where foreigners stayed, which was one of the few places to get satellite television. One of the maids asked whether I minded my room being used in the afternoon by school kids who liked to come watch MTV and the other music-video channels. I said sure, and I made a point of coming back early so that I could meet the students. But when I came in, they weren’t watching MTV. They were watching international news broadcasts that were showing the unrest at the Gdansk shipyard in Poland.

I saw something similar 10 years later in Kashgar, an oasis town in western China. In the back of a small coffee shop on an unpaved street, three kids were sitting around a computer. I asked what they were doing. They were on the Internet, they said. I typed in some news sites. They were blocked. One of the kids elbowed me aside and typed in something. The news sites popped up. I asked what he had done. Oh, he said, we know how to go through proxy servers about which the censors are clueless.

The Internet is but the latest tool for people disenfranchised by autocratic leaders who seek what those in free societies take for granted — access to the truth. Tunisians used social media as a way to organize their protests and share evidence of the Ben Ali regime’s abuses of power. In Egypt, text, photos, and videos from the streets of Cairo rocket around the world instantly thanks to mobile technology. The regime’s attempts to sever Internet connectivity, which were only partially successful, are reminiscent of the Soviet Union’s jamming of the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe during the Cold War. The attempt to extinguish the free flow of accurate, trustworthy information — the “oxygen of democracy” — is a sure sign of fear.

Al Jazeera English, the Qatar-based, 24-hour news channel, is earning praise from media critics for its on-the-ground, extensive coverage of the turmoil. Alhurra TV, the U.S.-funded international broadcaster, has also come of age during the crisis. Daily visits to increased 540 percent between Jan. 23 and Jan. 30. Over the past few days, leaders of Egyptian opposition parties –Wafd, Ghad, and the Movement for Change (Kefaya) — have sought out the station to bring their messages to its viewers.

The United States finances Alhurra and other international broadcasters to support exactly the long-term goals of democracy and respect for civil society that are at the heart of protesters’ demands across the Middle East. It’s what the United States has been doing for 70 years, and what it needs to keep doing. Two years ago, a would-be suicide bomber called Radio Free Europe’s popular Afghan station and defected from the Taliban live on the air. He credited the station’s respect for the diversity of opinions for changing his mind.

Our media tools have changed. In the 1950s, we floated weather balloons containing leaflets with news from the outside world over the Iron Curtain and into Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. Today, we help information flow freely using sophisticated anti-censorship tools including satellite transmissions, web encryptions, and proxy servers to evade Internet firewalls.

Whatever the media platform, and whatever the era, the idea is the same. Free media works. Accurate information empowers citizens to build a more hopeful, democratic world.

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