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A Lesson to Autocrats: You Can't Shut Information Out

Trying to impose a total ban on information in this day and age of the Internet and social media is proving to be practically impossible.

In this Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014, file photo, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan attends a news briefing in a ceremony for signing agreements between Iranian and Turkish officials in Tehran, Iran. Turkey restricted access to Twitter on Friday, March 21, 2014, hours after Erdogan threatened to “root out” the social media network where wiretapped recordings have been leaked, damaging the government’s reputation ahead key local elections this month. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi, File)\n

The recent showdown between the Turkish government and Twitter is an important test case between free speech and governments wanting to impose censorship: as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan discovered, silencing a news source is becoming a far more difficult task to accomplish.

Indeed, trying to impose a total ban on information in the day and age of the Internet and social media is proving to be practically impossible. As the British Broadcasting Corporation pointed out in a dispatch from Turkey, web users have found many ways of circumventing the ban, which was widely criticized.

Even Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul, a long-lime supporter and close associate of Mr. Erdogan, criticized the prime minster’s actions targeting Twitter, and he did so on Twitter. Still, the Turkish prime minister insists that no one is outside the law and that the ban on Twitter will be maintained.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. (File photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images) Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. (File photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Twitter has so far made no public comment on the ban, but the company posted a message last Friday in both English and Turkish telling users how to send tweets via text messages.

In fact the Internet proved it was capable of doing precisely what it was initially designed to do.

The Internet was initially designed for the military to have a fall back communication network by which they could relay messages in case their primary networkd were put out of commission.

The Pentagon realized that in case of a major war the first thing that the enemy would target would be the communication network, without which the nation’s military would become crippled. So the idea was formed to have a secondary system that would be impossible to silence as it would not be centered in any one spot. The initial servers feeding the Internet were typically to be found in universities’ computer labs. Take one down and another computer across the street or across the country could easily take is place.

Thanks to the Internet, censorship has become far more difficult – if not impossible -- to impose, as much to their chagrin more that one autocratic ruler have discovered.

Protesters hold placards reading 'do not touch my twitter ' and 'communication right is a basic human right' during a demonstration against the ban on Twitter during a demonstration against Turkish government in Ankara on March 22, 2014. Placards read, 'do not touch my twitter ', 'communication rught is a basic human right' (back R). Turkey's government on Saturday defended its internationally condemned ban on Twitter as a 'preventive measure' to stop 'character assassinations' following a wave of corruption investigation leaks. AFP PHOTO/ADEM ALTAN ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images Protesters hold placards reading 'do not touch my twitter ' and 'communication right is a basic human right' during a demonstration against the ban on Twitter during a demonstration against Turkish government in Ankara on March 22, 2014. Placards read, 'do not touch my twitter ', 'communication rught is a basic human right' (back R). Turkey's government on Saturday defended its internationally condemned ban on Twitter as a 'preventive measure' to stop 'character assassinations' following a wave of corruption investigation leaks. AFP PHOTO/ADEM ALTAN ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images

Just ask the former presidents of Tunisia, of Egypt and Libya. It was largely thanks to the Internet and more precisely thanks to the social media, that demonstrators in Tunis, Cairo, Alexandria, Tripoli and Benghazi were able to circumvent the state-controlled medias and share information.

This information was vital in bringing down President Zein el Abbedine ben Ali in Tunisia, President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and President Moammar Gaddhafi in Libya.

Similarly, the plethora of Arabic language satellite television networks that have exploded unto the Arab market in recent years is truly astounding. With 162 channels, Beirut today has more cable channels than New York City.

Al-Jazeera, for example, the Qatar funded satellite network that has become so popular in the Arab world and so despised in the United States, has greatly contributed towards reducing censorship across the Arab world. Or if not reducing censorship per se, offering the public a new source of information.

Prior to the establishment of the Arab satellite networks, the news in the Arab world was largely limited to reporting only what the government wanted to report. In many instances, the national news agencies acted as a social calendar for the president, the prime minister and a few select others in government. The public in the Arab world who wanted to receive reliable information had to tune in to either the BBC, Radio Monte Carlo, or the Voice of America.

Members of the Turkish Youth Union hold cartoons depicting Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a protest against a ban on Twitter, in Ankara, Turkey, Friday, March 21, 2014. Turkey's attempt to block access to Twitter appeared to backfire on Friday with many tech-savvy users circumventing the ban and suspicions growing that the prime minister was using court orders to suppress corruption allegations against him and his government. Cartoon second right reads: Erdogan, left, to his Ankara Mayor Melih Gokcek " we will rip out the roots of Twitter." Gokcek: "don't say it."(AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici) Members of the Turkish Youth Union hold cartoons depicting Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a protest against a ban on Twitter, in Ankara, Turkey, Friday, March 21, 2014. Turkey's attempt to block access to Twitter appeared to backfire on Friday with many tech-savvy users circumventing the ban and suspicions growing that the prime minister was using court orders to suppress corruption allegations against him and his government. Cartoon second right reads: Erdogan, left, to his Ankara Mayor Melih Gokcek " we will rip out the roots of Twitter." Gokcek: "don't say it."(AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)

But along comes Al-Jazeera with its Western styled programing and 24-hour news reporting. While the Doha-based network is indeed far from perfect, it has nevertheless established two very important landmarks in the history of Middle East journalism.

First, it has removed the monopoly previously held by the various Arab governments on information and in doing so has kicked ajar the door to democracy in the Middle East.

And second the establishment of Al-Jazeera has forced the creation of other networks, financed for competing Arab states, thus creating genuine competition between the Arab networks. And as we know, in journalism competition is good and healthy.

When the Internet was first created, no one imagined the impact it would have promoting democracy and threatening the few remaining autocrats still clinging to the belief that they can continue to muzzle information.

Claude Salhani is senior editor at Trend Agency in Baku and a political analyst specializing in the Middle East, Central Asia and terrorism. You can follow him on Twitter @claudesalhani.

TheBlaze contributor channel supports an open discourse on a range of views. The opinions expressed in this channel are solely those of each individual author.

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