The Internet is one of the most significant tools for the
furtherance of human rights today. In places where resistance is driven by certain
elements within the middle and upper classes such as Hong Kong, Indonesia and even greater
China electronic communications actually fuels resistance.
And in the case of Mexico, communications via the Internet had mobilised crucial international support needed during the Chiapas revolt.
"With the world watching, it became difficult for the Mexican government to crack down on rebels," said Patrick Ball of the Science and Human Rights Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. (See Arabianews at http://www.arabia.com, June 16, 1998)
Indeed, the Internet remains as one of the most potent tools against government censorship or clampdown on vocal opponents or critics. A good example would be the Digital Freedom Network (http://www.dfn.org), which has been on the Internet since 1996.
The site dons the description of "an international non-partisan partnership working with free speech and human rights organisations."
Among the authors on DFNs Web site are "dissidents" such as Bao Ge (China), Salima Ghezali (Algeria), Ral Rivero (Cuba), Pius Njawe (Cameroon) and Kiogi wa Wamwere (Kenya).
One can also find works by Algerian cartoonist and columnist Chawki Amari who was allegedly arrested at his home on July 4, 1996 for publishing a cartoon making fun of the Algerian political classes.
Be that as it may, "the Internet is grossly overplayed as a force for change in the Third World," says Ball. In certain countries, the Internet, on its own, is still incapable of organising grassroots resistance against repressive regimes, other than rallying people of the middle and upper classes to the popular cause, if at all.
In fact, in some instances, the elite and the grassroots are so bifurcated that things which have been circulated over the Internet cannot be easily considered as "public knowledge".
In Turkey, for example, a teenager was convicted and sentenced with a 10 month jail term after criticising the police for using violence on a group of blind protestors, but Ball points out that very few people have access to online communications in that nation.
Hence the defense put forth by the teenager that he did not publicly insult the state security forces because online comments were not "public" was a valid one, albeit it was finally rejected by the Turkish court.
For that matter, the Internet can be used to further remove the elite from the grassroots people making them ever more aloof to what is actually happening on the ground, so to speak.
In such a situation, it is more likely that the elite would place significance on matters which would only further their own interests or that which mostly affects them instead of the grassroots people.
Alternatively, many among the middle and upper classes would mistakenly think that it is sufficient to further a human rights cause by just indulging in electronic exchanges in virtual discussion groups.
They would not hesitate to speak their minds in strong and colourful language, posting their electronic mails using services made available by free e-mail account providers, such as Hotmail or Yahoo!Mail, in order to guarantee anonymity but would not necessarily go to ground with the rest of the grassroots people.
For, at the end of the day, there is still no substitute for physical resistance through demonstrations or otherwise which, in most instances, involves the threat of incarceration, physical injury and even the loss of lives. And the preparedness of those of the middle and upper classes in that regard cannot be considered a foregone conclusion.
There is also an aspect which may impinge upon the overplaying of the significance of the Internet on human rights activism in a most contradictory fashion.
In the contemporary human rights debate, nations of the North tend to place great emphasis on civil and political liberties whereas those of the South tend to emphasise upon the right to social and economic development. It is as though, at some point, these two aspects of human rights were mutually exclusive
Whichever side one takes, one must acknowledge the fact that the increase in a nations wealth, in some instances, has had a positive effect on human rights.
According to Joseph Nagy, former senior editor for Asiaweek, in nations such as Thailand, the Philippines, South Korea and Taiwan, "the middle class developed into a critical mass where people had enough influence to demand justice and accountability from their government. Once that turning point was reached, there was no turning back."
After all, wealth meant greater access to and dissemination of information that is almost impossible to censor through satellite television or as found on the Internet.
This has led some to argue, in a most ironic fashion, that not only is it unreasonable to expect a country like Myanmar to change its system overnight, economic sanctions may adversely affect human rights by preventing a groundswell for democracy that would be brought about by socio-economic development.
And, if anything, the bifurcation between the elite and the grassroots people would only be strengthen or intensified.
This is because, in such a situation, due to its limited accessibility, the Internet does little or nothing to alleviate the powerlessness of the grassroots people against the overbearing presence of the state as backed by the political elite.
Thus it is arguable that the significance of the Internet vis-à-vis human rights would be fully realised only if some sort of Marshall Plan is formulated and put into effect for solving many of the worlds problems today.
The policy or plan formulated by General Marshall, the then Secretary of State, was directed
generally against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos, albeit it was primarily meant to counter the Soviet threat.
Its purpose was the revival of a working economy in Western Europe that would permit the
emergence of political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist or attain significance.
And today, those "institutions" would also mean the Internet.
Ahmad Faiz bin Abdul Rahman
1 August 1998.
[[Currently, he is the Assistant Director of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST). He was also a Researcher for the Institute of Islamic Understanding, Malaysia (IKIM)].]