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Net as friend of freedom

Just to share with all of you -- fathi

The internet is a friend of freedom
Politicians will say something must be done about the world wide web. They'll be wrong

More net news

Peter Preston
Guardian [United Kingdom]

Tuesday January 30, 2001

It is the ancestral cry of politics. Something must be done! And thus our jumpy leaders spring into action - cancelling their last announcement or, in the case of MMR immunisation, spending an extra £3m to defend it. But what if - as so often in life, and even more frequently on the internet - there is nothing sensible to be done?

We can talk child pornography and adoption and the killers of James Bulger in a moment, though. This story begins almost six years ago when Steven Gan, an investigative reporter for the Sun, a Malaysian paper, wrote an exposť of the evil conditions at Semenyih immigration detention camp in Selangor. Evil? Try brutality and squalor and rampant sickness - like typhoid - behind closed doors. Try 59 seekers of asylum dying in secret, unmourned and unmarked. Even Ann Widdecombe would find that a scandal.

But Gan's story wasn't published. The Malaysian press is not free. It exists, amid some chafing misery, in the long, dark shadow of prime minister Mahathir Mohamad. Instead, in the end, Gan turned over his findings to a battling women's rights activist, Irene Fernandez, and she distributed the Semenyih dossiers at one of her rallies. At least, then, a tale that had to be told began to break surface.

What happened next? Irene Fernandez was charged with "criminal defamation". Her trial - already the longest in Malaysian history- still continues. Translators for Bangladeshi defence witnesses from the camp seem to be in amazingly short supply. There have been 47 adjournments - yes, count them, 47 - for lack of a translator. And curiously, when one is available (as last week), the witness himself goes missing. If this shambles ever ends, Fernandez faces three years in prison.

And Steven Gan? He had his farcical moment earlier: arrested, locked up, an Amnesty prisoner of conscience. But then he went on, just over a year ago, to found malayasiakini.com. You, like millions of Malaysians, can find it easily enough on the net. It is a paperless newspaper - and yesterday it won the Media Pioneer award (for valour) presented every year by the International Press Institute and Freedom Forum.

The wonder of malayasiakini is how straightforward and solid it is. No hysteria, no vituperation: Gan and a dedicated team of professionals believe in news you can trust and measured comment. Their strength is that they cover the things the country's print papers have to bury or set to one side: the appointment of grotesquely unsuitable judges, the views of the opposition, the illness of Anwar Ibrahim, the ordeal of Irene Fernandez. They are measured and responsible: they are also virtually alone, the carriers of a torch.

Why, you may wonder, doesn't Dr Mahathir do to them what he's done to Malaysia's conventional press? License it, with licences which can be (and are) summarily withdrawn? Or find a way, through party backwaters, of owning the journals which are supposed to call him to account? Here's the unique strength of the internet.

A country like Malaysia, which has to be open for business, must also be open to the net. You can't have one without the other. Shut down or censor or try to block, and business gets a dire message. Opting out of the world wide web is opting out of your country's future. That is a step too far for Mahathir. He must grin and bear at least one outlet he can't control or intimidate.

I could replicate the essential story of malasiakini.com many times over. The web site of the Mail and Guardian in Johannesburg (which this paper owns) has its own proud record for bringing news to the countries north of South Africa where a free press perennially struggles to survive. Later today (when I log on again) I'll find emails from all over the world from distant readers of Guardian Unlimited. There's a power here which is an immense force for good. It makes us one world not merely in the flashing of share prices and bid offers, but in the challenging of oppression and the exposure of devious dictatorship.

But blessings, of course, are rarely unmitigated. Look at the headlines of the past few days. Police break up a (global) child pornography ring which grew on the net. The Kilshaws found their babies on the net. And something must be done. Ministers chafe and mutter, then duly warn web service providers that they face prosecution (under a 1971 act). Leave adoption to local authorities. Chris Smith's proposed Ofcom, most amorphous of future regulators, will have more of an e-role. We await, without eagerness, the first website to reveal the new identities and whereabouts of Venables and Thompson, who murdered James Bulger.

Here, though, is the rub. Just like Dr Mahathir, we can't have one thing without the other. There's no choosing the good things about the net and conveniently banning the things we find bad. It is what is. Seek to constrict, to limit here or censor there, and the force is no longer with it. Imagine, as the line of principle bends and breaks, how Malaysia - and so many other dusty regimes - will rejoice. Imagine what will happen to Steven Gan and Irene Fernandez and the inmates of the camps.

Do we shoot the messenger? That's the easy bit for politicians - though child porn and foreign adoption agencies can arrive by fax or phone or stamped, addressed envelope. But some of the choices are truly hard. I agree with Judge Elizabeth Butler Sloss that Venables and Thompson should be left alone to find a new life; I don't want vengeful mobs or crowds of reporters on their doorsteps. But how do you wrap them in a permanent blanket of silence? How do you seal them off for ever from the world? Judges may order these thing with the full authority of the law, yet they are still, coldly considered, impossible to sustain. These orders cannot hold through a lifetime. Some flickering screen, one day, will blow them to smithereens. And what do we do then?

You need no gift of prophesy. Something will have to be done! And it won't necessarily be the politicians of the right who clamour loudest for action. That could just as easily come from the centre or left, making a case that Guardian readers can embrace. Tony Blair and Charlie Kennedy are always keen on doing something. They will have the best of short-term justifications and nobody will say a prayer for the long-term, nobody will remember that "good" interference - in logic and reality - admits the possibility of bad interference as well.

Try to remember Steven Gan when that moment comes. Try to remember what he, and we, have to lose. Try to remember the nature of freedom - and the times when something mustn't be done.

Ke atas  Balik Menu Utama    Tarikh Artikal : 1 Februari 2001

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