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Business Day -06/05/09

Posted on May 06 in News-Publicby Press OfficerPrint

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How communications technology can advance democracy
MOHAMMAD PATEL

SOON after stepping down as US president, Ronald Reagan said: “Technology will make it increasingly difficult for the state to control the information its people receive. The Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip.”
Although Reagan’s words still sound optimistic several years after he spoke them, there can be little doubt that information and communications technology (ICT) has helped people around the world to safeguard and advance the cause of democracy. From China and Myanmar, through to Moldova, Cuba and Saudi Arabia, the internet has provided activists with a way to distribute information about abuses in their countries to the outside world, organise protests and get to information that their governments have suppressed.
While social media such as blogs, Facebook and Twitter are revolutionising the political process in the First World, cellphones are becoming increasingly important tools for advancing democracy in developing countries.
With about 2-billion handsets around the world, the cellphone is perhaps the most pervasive piece of technology yet.
Think of the footage you might have seen of saffron-robed monks leading protests on the streets of Rangoon, captured at great personal risk by cellphone users with cellphone cameras and then distributed worldwide across the web.
Or consider recent protests in Moldova, where new media such as text messaging, Twitter and Facebook helped activists to organise protests against the communist government after a disputed election. “Smart mobs” of activists organised through SMS messaging have led to political change in the Philippines and the Ukraine.
Even in countries that are democratic, technology is bringing more transparency to the political process and making it easier for people to engage with political leaders.
US President Barack Obama, for example, did an excellent job of using social networking sites and other online tools to engage with and mobilise voters during his election campaign last year.
Closer to home, major political parties, including the African National Congress (ANC) and the Democratic Alliance, the official opposition, have also embraced online tools such as blogs, Facebook and Twitter as a way to communicate with followers.
In so doing, they have opened themselves up to more scrutiny from, and interaction with, voters. ANC spokeswoman Jessie Duarte, for example, hosted a lively question and answer session on Twitter the Friday before last month’s election.
The power of the technology as a tool for subversion should not be overestimated, however. Repressive governments are using content filtering and other tools to keep sensitive information from entering or leaving their countries. Some have even managed to turn to the technology to their advantage for propaganda and surveillance. Countries such as China, Vietnam and Iran have imprisoned dozens of cyber-dissidents. There is currently a race on between Revolution 2.0 and Oppression 2.0, with no clear indication of which will win, although I believe that repressive regimes will struggle to contain the chaotic and rapid spreading of information that ICT allows.
So as we recently celebrated Freedom Day in SA, we have much to be thankful for. The powerful tools of democracy — the internet and the cellphone — are becoming increasingly accessible in our society and we’re free to use them as we wish to enjoy our constitutional right to free speech.
My big wish for the years ahead is that the wonderful technology that many of SA’s more privileged people take for granted becomes more widely disseminated among the country’s population.
There is no better enabler and protector of democracy than the free flow of ideas that the internet and the cellphone promote.
•Patel is CEO of O-Tel.

http://www.businessday.co.za/Articles/TarkArticle.aspx?ID=3553995

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