Celebrate Internet not abuse it
REASONS OF STATE by Shashi Tharoor
AS a writer and a politician I am conscious how fortunate we are to live in a country that guarantees us the right of freedom of expression. I think of freedom of expression as a fundamental human right — one that helps to guarantee all my other rights. Indeed Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that people have the right to “ seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Writers in some developing countries have to contend with the argument that development and freedom of expression are incompatible – that the media, for instance, must serve the ends of development as defined by the government, or operate only within the boundaries of what the social and religious authorities define as permissible.
The developing world is full of writers, artists and journalists who have to function in societies which do not grant them this freedom. For them freedom of expression is the oxygen of their own survival, and that of their society, but they are stifled. In countries where truth is what the government or the religious establishment says is true, freedom of expression is essential to depict alternative truths which the society needs to accommodate in order to survive.
And yet it is all too often absent, because in many countries, there are those who question the value of freedom of speech in their societies; those who argue that it threatens stability and endangers progress; those who still consider freedom of speech a Western import, an imposition from abroad and not the indigenous expression of every people’s demand for freedom.
What has always struck me about this argument is that it is never made by the people, but by governments; never by the powerless but by the powerful; never by the voiceless, but by those whose voices are all that can be heard. Let us put this argument once and for all to the only test that matters: the choice of every people, to know more or know less, to be heard or be silenced, to stand up or kneel down.
Only freedom of expression will allow the world’s oppressed and underprivileged a way out of the darkness that shrouds their voices, and their hopes.
Media freedom is a vital aspect of the freedom of expression. A free press often marks the difference between a society that is able to protect itself from abuses of human rights and one that falls victim to oppression and injustice. The media must always use its freedom to raise the awkward question, to probe beyond the evident reality, to awaken the dormant consciousness, and therefore, yes, sometimes to subvert the established order.
Freedom of the press is ultimately the best guarantee of liberty, of change and of progress. It is the mortar that binds together the bricks of freedom – and it is also the open window embedded in those bricks, which would, in Mahatma Gandhi’s famous metaphor, allow the winds of the world to blow freely through the house. As Indians we know that there is no development without democracy, and no democracy without freedom of speech. There is widespread recognition today that restraints on the flow of information directly undermine development and progress in the 21st century. In this era of globalisation, global interdependence means that those who receive and disseminate information have an edge over those who curtail it.
The Internet has been giving people more opportunities to exercise freedom of expression than ever before. In the age of the Internet, there can be little argument that information and freedom go together. The information revolution is inconceivable without political democracy — and vice versa. Already, the spread of information has had a direct impact on the degree of accountability and transparency of governments around the world.
The Internet has been made possible by advances in technology that have also transformed the traditional media.
Technology that is lighter to carry, simpler to use, and comes at a fraction of the cost, has already changed television reporting.
Not so long ago, a ton of equipment was flown into a trouble- spot; a satellite dish the size of a house was set up; a story was born.
And where that satellite dish was, the journalists stayed. So that’s where the story stayed, until the dish moved on. But now, digital technology is producing cameras a tenth the cost of yesterday’s, simple enough to be operated by a non- technician, the reporter himself, with pictures that can be sent down the telephone line.
The simpler to use, more affordable technology has truly democratised television news. Smaller, less well- financed newsgathering organisations and independent operations in developing countries, have all benefited from this revolution.
But so has the story in itself; because no story will be too remote to reach, too hard to get to, too expensive to cover, or too difficult to transmit. One reporter and a telephone line will often be enough.
This kind of technological innovation that has transformed TV has also made the Internet a vital source of news and analysis without any of the limitations of reach that television has.
The new hallmarks of freedom of expression today are the ability to receive, download and send information through electronic networks, and the capacity to share information — whether in a newspaper, on a TV screen, or an on- line web site — without censorship or restrictions. The information society of the 21st century can thrive only if citizens are provided with full information to allow democratic participation at all levels in determining their destiny.
New digital technology offers great possibilities for enhancing traditional media and combining them with new media. Technology has become the biggest asset for those who seek to promote and protect freedom of expression around the world.
That is why we must support and celebrate the Internet and strive to ensure that the freedoms it offers are neither abused nor eroded. There is a thin line between the risk of abuse and the threat of censorship, but in a democracy, there is only one side of that line we can stand on.
The writer is a member of Parliament
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Saturday, August 25, 2012