Tune out, log in

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 February, 2011, 12:00am

In July 2009, in the wake of deadly ethnic rioting in Urumqi , China cut off internet access to parts of the city, and did not restore full access for 10 months. The ability to control the internet and block text messaging and mobile phone services, which can be used to organise protests, has become part of the armoury of authoritarian governments worldwide.

More recently, the Egyptian government succeeded in cutting off internet access in the country, but it did not save president Hosni Mubarak, who was forced to resign. Other governments in North Africa and the Middle East, which are similarly beset by protesters demanding political reform, are also manipulating the internet in an attempt to block communications by those organising the demonstrations.

Modern technology is a two-edged sword as far as governments are concerned: it can help a country in many ways, but, at the same time, it reduces a government's ability to control the information available to its people.

For years, governments have used radio broadcasts to get their message across, both to inform their own people and to influence those in foreign countries.

In the first decades of the People's Republic of China, it was a criminal offence to 'surreptitiously listen to enemy broadcasts', such as those of Voice of America or the BBC. To this day, the Chinese government goes to great lengths to prevent Western broadcasts from reaching its people. Last autumn, after Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, CNN was blacked out so that viewers in China could not receive the news.

China scored a major victory in the battle of the airwaves late last month when the BBC announced that its World Service was cutting 650 jobs, more than a quarter of the total, and, as a result, there would be no more radio programming in Putonghua, Russian and some other languages. Then, this month, the US government's Broadcasting Board of Governors announced that Voice of America will cease radio and television broadcasting in Putonghua, although Chinese-language broadcasts by Radio Free Asia would continue.

While the silencing of the BBC and Voice of America was dictated primarily by budget cuts, it also reflected China's success in jamming short-wave radio, thus reducing the audience on the mainland so those organisations could no longer justify spending the resources in hard times.

And, at a time when the US and Britain are cutting back on Chinese-language broadcasts, China is stepping up its broadcasts around the world. In November, Xinhua, China's official news agency, launched 24-hour English programmes via satellite from its office in New York, which are beamed throughout North America.

But the West is not throwing in the towel just yet. Instead, it is shifting to a different platform. As British Foreign Secretary William Hague said while defending the move to cut radio programming, the BBC is moving 'to online and mobile services - that is the way the world is going'.

And US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton last week announced a programme to help 'people in oppressive internet environments get around filters, stay one step ahead of the censors, the hackers, and the thugs who beat them up or imprison them for what they say online'.

'The internet,' she said, 'has become the public space of the 21st century - the world's town square, classroom, marketplace, coffee house and nightclub.'

So the battle goes on. And, no doubt, China will counter the online assault just as it did the one on the airwaves.

But in the end, the issue is the message itself. Protesters in different countries are calling for democracy. There are no demonstrators calling for democratic governments to be replaced by authoritarian ones. And that message is certainly potent, regardless of whether it is carried on old-fashioned radio broadcasts or by new media forms.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1