Internet — freedom at the touch of a button


I love the Internet. I cannot imagine a world without the worldwide web, e-mail and all those new toys I like looking at but don’t use.
Some years back a businessman in the telecommunications business used to recount how at the height of his struggle to get a mobile network licence in a certain country familiar to us he was invited to the office of one minister.
The minister was very worried. He took the businessman to the window and, pointing to a telecommunications tower, asked, “How can one block signals from outside? Can you put something like a blanket over the country?”
“You can’t,” replied our sage entrepreneur.
You see paranoid politicians hate technology that gives people power. The Internet is a scary thing because it contains something very subversive called INFORMATION.
When you allow oppressed, repressed, frustrated, angry, cynical, bored, outraged, impatient people to find a means of communication then you are letting the genie out of the bottle.
Renowned economist and Nobel Prize laureate Amartya Sen argues that you cannot have a famine in a democracy. Why? A society in which the flow of information is unfettered means that the media and its citizens know their rights and will demand accountability from their leaders.
Dictatorships conveniently hide statistics. Poverty can be embarrassing to those who loot state coffers so better conceal it.
In 1986 Harare hosted the Commonwealth Heads of Government and Ministers (Chogm). It was now time for Operation Mindamirefu (long fields) – as you know our country has a glorious history of so-called operations. This time the streets of Harare needed to be cleaned up for the Queen’s visit (yes, that Queen was our friend once upon a time!)
So our zealous law enforcers descended on the streets of Harare and started rounding up all women who were unaccompanied – very like the Taliban, you would say. I agree.
Ever imaginative and blessed with humour, they tagged it Operation Mindamirefu – young women walking on the streets needed to be rehabilitated (after all, they could only be sex workers).
If we had YouTube then and put up videos of the “black-boots” doing their violent bundling of women into their grey truck do you think that harassment would have continued? Probably not.
Last year the Iranian government launched a violent clampdown on students and opposition members.
The killing of one student was captured on amateur video and the world went aflutter, reacting to the images. The Iranian leaders went a notch higher in their paranoia.
The Burmese generals that hold Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest fear not just her influence but the technology the people could use to spread her message of democracy.
That she won an election by a landslide in 1990 is beside the point.
Those that fear ideas will always want to close the space for a thousand ideas to flower — ask the Chinese regime that is permanently paranoid about its own people.
Freedom of expression equates to support for the ruling party in dictatorships. Any dissent, especially on the Internet, is swiftly dealt with.
But the Internet has arrived and it will sooner or later cause havoc to dictatorships. From its birth the Net has been a disruptive technology— netizens will find ways of climbing the “Great Firewall” of China or Burma.
In Africa ordinary people will soon discover how powerful that little mobile phone in their hand can be. Freedom will come from the touch of a button – not from the barrel of the AK.
If the Communist Party of China thinks that you can create a prosperous middle class and then contain the same class, it is in for a rude awakening.
The Party will need to go back to the Glorious Revolution (1688) and the French Revolution (1789) and then to our own nationalist struggles in Africa to understand how the chattering classes speak over a glass of wine or Moët & Chandon and then create a revolution.
But unlike those old days of writing some pamphlets these folk will now just go on Facebook and Twitter and organise.
“Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown,” writes Comrade Shakespeare.
I am glad I don’t wear a crown. I am just on the Internet.