Saturday, May 7, 2011

Will the filtering of information flow make the country stable?

What is the importance of information in a democratic society? Thomas Jefferson summed up the answer in a single line – “Information is the currency of democracy”. Yes this is the currency which helps the democracy to prosper. It is the knowledge about the rulers and their policies, which help us to decide, whether we have to give them one more chance? It is as important to the society as the currency is to the economy, what will happen if we don’t know about the corrupt and destructive practices of the administration? Will we be able to select the right choice?

From ancient time onwards, information is considered as one of the most important component of governance. There are a lot of stories, about Kings and emperors walking around the cities and villages, in disguise, to know the living conditions and opinions of common people. Arthashastra made it more methodical. It gave a lot of importance for the creation and maintenance of spy networks - not only to gather information about enemy's activities, but to know the opinion of common people also. In those days countries were not democratic and gathering information helped the rulers to make the administration more efficient, and those who resist it invariable went to the black wells of history.

Just take a look at the history of civilizations, instead of reinventing the wheel, earlier civilizations tried to accept and assimilate different philosophies and technologies from their counterparts across the world. In those days trade and cultural exchanges provided a good platform for exchange. This unrestricted motion of ideas bring paper from China to other countries; number system from India to Europe through Arabian traders; progress in chemistry made by Arabian scholars reached other parts of the world etc. If I can state this in another way - globalization was there (more effective?) in the ancient days!!!

Information flow in modern day world

In these days, instead of making the world more open to ideas, are we walking towards a closed one? Instead of learning from each other, are we strengthening Huntington's fault lines and living in the cocoons created by our own hesitation to think and understand other's opinions?

In almost all autocratic (or similar administrations) information flow is severely restricted. There will always be some laws, linked to national security, to limit the flow of information. Even the slightest criticism may be termed as a threat to national security!!! This selective flow often leads to the distortion of public opinion and force people (in the closed world) to swallow administration's view. In such a situation, even a person/administration with a limited influence will be able to manipulate the public opinion to satisfy their wishes.

How the restriction of flow affects nations

US and War on Terror:

Just take the case of USA, US government is working with various governments across the world to achieve their targets. This collaboration is often friendly and creates mutual benefit. But US is failing to create the same the connectivity with common people in these countries. Just take the case of ‘War on terror’, US made a strong case for a global war against terrorism and spend more than once decade and a trillion dollar. But did they able to sell it to the common people of Asia (where they launched two full scale wars and several commando/surgical strike operations in other countries)? Forget about Asia did they able to sell the war in Europe, which remained as their ally for a long time? Moreover did they able to sell the war to their own people?

Now, when they killed the most important target in a commando operation in Pakistan, it was not perceived as such in Islamic world. Why? Is it only because of the mutual distrust between US and Islamic world? Well this may not be the case, US argued well in the international circles, but did they able to penetrate put forward their case deep in to these countries?

A case from East Asia:

Consider the case of North Korea, how many North Koreans know about the South Korea’s perspective of North-South relations? How many of them have the information/experience of life in democratic countries? If they know about democracy and political liberty, will they make efforts to go for it?

India and Pakistan:

How Anti-India feelings become a sellable commodity in Pakistan? It is true that we had fought many wars with Pakistan. When facing the eventuality of war, nationalistic feelings will be high among people they will ready to march behind the administration. But how this distrust sustained for such a long time? No one is hardwired to distrust others, then why? Did they able to analysis and understand the situation from India’s point of view? Did the common people in Pakistan ever have the information and analysis regarding to the numerous terror attacks in India, which killed thousands of common people, from India’s point of view? Of course these are not the attacks by freedom fighters as many in Pakistan would like to interpret.

More than that how far India was able to sell its point of view to the common people across th border? If we are not able to put forward our case deep in to Pakistan, conspiracy theorists will create their own interpretations for every event.

An African story - Nigeria:

Consider the case of Nigeria, when the explosion in deep water horizon was in the front pages for a long time, another country in the resource rich Africa was facing the same issue. In this case spills become part of their life; there was not enough press coverage for that and slowly and inevitably it ends up an everyday event. Will it be the same case if it happened in Europe or US, where information flows very fast?

Flower revolutions of North Africa and Middle East:

Now look at the case of flower revolutions in North African countries and Middle East, these countries are experiencing the chain flower revolutions started in Tunisia. There were revolutions before also, but this time the characteristics are different. Even if it reached almost all Arab and neighboring countries, there is no sign of such a revolution in democratic Turkey and even in Palestine areas. These revolutions armed with the information on what happening in the outside world and focused on democracy is essentially an outcome of connectivity with a global information highway. This is one of the reasons why many autocratic countries are so paranoid about Internet and add all type of online filtering. Do you think such a revolution will happen in Afghanistan, where most parts don’t have access to information, against Taliban?

Results of disconnect

This disconnect will force the countries to reinvent the wheel, spending millions (if not billions) of dollars in research and development, when the technology is already available. This is what happened when many countries imposed sanctions on India, especially the US sanctions on the transfer of cryogenic technology to India started early in the nineties. This not only created delays in space program but only results in spending of many valuable dollars, which may otherwise will go to some other program.

Consider the case of Malaria, this disease still remain as deadly to humans. According to WHO’s 2010 world malaria report, each year there are 225mn cases of malaria killing around 7,81,000 people. Irony of the fact is that, this not an incurable decease, vaccines and methodologies to prevent this disease are available in market, still this disease is reason for the 2.23% of total deaths!!! Will this be the situation if people know more about this disease? If they know about the vaccines wont they force their government to act on the issue? If international donors, realized the gravity of the crisis will it go on unchecked for these many years?

Problem of disconnect between common man and a valid information source is very dangerous for national security as well as global peace. This will help the autocratic rulers to manipulate public opinion according to their wishes, if nothing works they will be able to create an ultra nationalistic/ultra religious fever among people, and march all of them behind him/her. It may not be that much difficult to create an imaginary enemy and prepare people to fight against it.


It is important for the democratic governments to spread the values for which they are standing. They don’t have to forcefully ensure democracy in all countries, which is not a viable option anyway. But authorities should invest more on their diplomatic missions abroad and news agencies on home to provide information and ensure the quality of it. But freedom comes with responsibility, as information is a double edged sword; giving freedom to publishing houses doesn’t mean giving them the permission to glorify the people or organization they like and demonize the entities they don’t like. Regulators have to make sure that paid news (and the events related to newspapers described in Radia tapes) is no longer in circulation – this should come under advertisements not news.

As an independent body, UN can open some of the closed channels to some extent. We can't expect more that as most of closed world are part of UN itself. And matters related to press freedom can be interpreted differently in different parts of the world.

If governments are ready to allocate money to Foreign/State Department, with the same eagerness of funding Department of Defence, they may not have to face some of their current problems. If nations are unable to maintain a proper (proper doesn't mean 'only' the data favorable to government) flow of information to the common people, they will not be able to understand the gravity of various issues considering alternate opinions. To analysis the pros and cons and to reach a proper conclusion you need to have full access to global information highway.  Let’s hope that, we will be able to establish this proper flow and connect all parts of the world to global information highway.


1 comment:

  1. good read..