Information v. Power

Posted July 12, 2009, at 5:32 p.m.

Repressive and insular regimes have a new bogeyman to blame for unrest in their countries — the Internet.

Just as Iran’s rulers blamed electronic communications for the post-election protests there, China’s government is now blaming the Internet for the uprising by its Uighur minority.

While these regimes naturally blame foreign groups for using the Internet to stir up protests, more often it is what local residents see and hear through Web sites that are not controlled by the government that feeds their anger. In the other direction, the sharing of firsthand accounts and images of governments brutally responding to protests, through sites such as Twitter and Tehran Bureau, further galvanizes support for the demonstrators.

In China, a weekend street demonstration by Uighurs in the Xinjiang regime turned violent. Accounts vary on whether a police crackdown led to the violence or whether the protesters were out of hand before police arrive. The nexus of the violence became irrelevant as images of protesters being pummeled by police and dead bodies on the streets were posted online.

By the time the government shut down Twitter and disabled Internet access in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, the damage was done.

Oppressive regimes can only survive by keeping residents uninformed and the rest of the world uninformed about what happens within their borders. Because of the speed and worldwide reach of cell phones and the Internet, keeping the populace in the dark is becoming increasingly difficult. At the same time, their brutal practices are being exposed to the rest of the world.

In the long term, this is a good thing. In the short term, it means the clerics who run the Islamic Republic of Iran and the tightly controlled government in China must resort to violence to maintain their hold on power. The death of Neda Agha-Soltan, captured on video in Tehran, galvanized inter-national outrage over the government’s violent response to protests after the June 12 election in which hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad supposedly won re-election by a large margin.

That outrage won’t immediately change the policy in Tehran, but it adds to the international community’s reasons for marginalizing Iran. This, in turn, empowers the moderates who want a more open, forward-looking government.

The same scenario may be playing out in Xinjiang, where an estimated 185 people have been killed.

Rather than criticizing the Internet and supposed international agitators, rulers in these countries should look at themselves and their policies to find the reason for the discontent and protests.

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