Will 2014 be the 'Year of the Protest' (again)?

For all the media attention given to Miley Cyrus’s twerking and the glitches of Obamacare, some of the biggest events of 2013 happened abroad. The theme this year? Protests. Again.

Consider the headlines in recent months: Saudi women rebelling against paternalism, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians defying a lurch towards a rekindling of old Soviet ties, rallies in Thailand seeking to introduce less democracy, protesting against anti-protest laws in Spain, a coup d’état in Egypt against newly elected Islamist authorities followed by violent protests in support of the deposed leader, and massive protests in Turkey and across Brazil that transformed into something far beyond original intent when demonstrators hit the streets to reverse the loss of public green space and increase public transportation funding.

What’s notable is that in each and every one of these cases, organizing technology and access to information – as well as a relatively free press – have served as essential catalysts for instigating or fueling these calls for reform.

For that very reason, it’s deeply concerning that in an effort to push back against this rising tide, many of the world’s most powerful oppressive governments are taking decisive action to clamp down on these freedoms. On Vice President Biden’s recent trip to China, he called for greater freedom of thought and specifically lobbied for better treatment of Western journalists. With two weeks left in the year, China finally relented from its plan to evict journalists from the New York Times and Bloomberg when their visas expire at the end of the year in retaliation for a series of stories that have examined the immense wealth of China’s politically connected “princelings.”

While China is the poster-child of censorship and retribution, they’re far from unique. Recently, Vladimir Putin announced that RIA-Novosti – a government-sponsored, but still internationally respected Russian wire service – would be liquidated and its assets were handed over to its propaganda-heavy cousin, Russia Today. Earlier in the year, Iran arrested nearly a dozen journalists in advance of elections, issuing a clear warning for anyone who might seek to encourage unrest similar to the “Green Revolution” protests of four years ago. (Of note, in 2014 Iran’s treatment of the press will be featured in the film “Rosewater” directed by Jon Stewart – a project Stewart undertook after respected Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari appeared in one of The Daily Show’s satirical sketches and was jailed and beaten for 118 days as a consequence.)

All of this is problematic at an intellectual level – press should be able to report without fear of retribution – but here’s where this issue goes from media hand-wringing to one with substantial international security importance. Consider the names littered among the ten worst offenders in Reporter’s Without Borders’ 2013 “Press Freedom Index:” North Korea, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, China, Iran, Eritrea, Somalia. Not only are these the most dangerous places in the world for free thought, but those that present some of the most acute threats to international stability and security.

For that reason, it’s urgent for Congressional leaders of both parties to back the Obama administration’s assertive support for press and information technology freedoms abroad, regardless of whether these tools are used for education, organizing protests, or simply making everyday life more manageable. If we want to see more stable global partners in the long-term, we should double-down on advocacy and actively protecting this great American export in places we engage abroad.

Most significantly, a commitment to enabling and advocating information freedoms abroad provides our foreign policy and security thinkers new tools and opportunities for creativity. Our brightest technologists often complain that U.S. regulations and laws seriously lag the pace of technological innovation. This isn’t a problem unique to America, and we should use this lag time to our advantage, and consider how deployment of technology can be game changers in places where we want to see reform.

As an example, a recent story in MIT Technology Review reported that the Iranian regime has used so-called “internet throttling” in advance of protests to disrupt connectivity. Although we’re now in a period of engagement, if the situation were to revert to its prior status, we could use long-range wi-fi technologies to enable protesters and overcome throttling – a very similar idea was proposed for use in Syria earlier this year in the New York Times after Assad’s regime shut down the internet a second time. The opportunities for creativity and ingenuity are abundant, and they help to advance ends in a way that’s constructive and exponentially more cost-efficient than force.

Earlier this month, we celebrated Nelson Mandela’s efforts to free South Africa from the bonds of apartheid following his passing. Although South Africa was a repressive state under apartheid, enough opportunity for civil disobedience, dissent, and sharing of ideas existed to overcome the system.

Ultimately, our actions and policies today should seek to create an opening for future Mandela’s who are growing up in places where voices are not free. When crafting international policy for the most complex geopolitical problems, we shouldn’t forget the disinfecting power of sunlight.

Walotsky is a vice president at MWW, a communications consultancy, where he focuses on international affairs and issues management. He is a political partner of the Truman National Security Project.

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