Thwarting a Tyrant

Serbian strong man Slobodan Milosevic came to power 10 years ago in part because he understood something crucial for maintaining political tyranny: Whoever controls the flow of information wins. But recently a brave band of journalists taught Milosevic a lesson: Thanks to modern technology it’s now harder for tyrants to strong-arm the truth. The dramatic story began in Serbia two years ago in the fall of 1996, when Milosevic annulled the results of 18 local elections. Thousands of outraged protesters packed the streets of Belgrade. But the state-controlled news media either ignored these protesters or labeled them traitors. In essence, the government created a news blackout that isolated the protesters and prevented them from getting the support of their countrymen. But one media outlet defied the state in a victorious effort to get the truth out. A tiny radio station called B92 began broadcasting accurate information about the Belgrade protests. Immediately, the government jammed B92’s broadcasts. But that didn’t stop the radio station’s editors. They had begun testing a computer program called RealAudio, which enables sound to be carried over the Internet. At the first sign of jamming, the station used RealAudio to send B92 news bulletins via the Internet to the station’s home page, located on computers in Amsterdam. This home page was accessible to anyone in the world with a computer and a modem. Radio Free Europe Director Kevin Klose acquired tapes of Radio B92 programs—and broadcast the stories right back into Serbia. For the first time since Milosevic had annulled the elections months earlier, Serbians were able to learn the truth about what was happening in Belgrade. The station’s victory strengthened the resolve of anti-government forces, inspiring support from such diverse groups as the army and the clergy. Shortly afterward, Milosevic was forced to reinstate the original election results. It’s a wonderful story of how computer-savvy journalists used a $30 piece of software to thwart a tyrant. And it highlights a central truth of the Information Age: Dictators can no longer hang on to power through the repression of information. After the Communists fell in Russia, dissidents told me that their principal weapon had been the Xerox machine. Information technology is permanently altering the world. The old tools of repression and control are becoming obsolete because of faxes and the Internet. Whether under a traditional dictatorship like Serbia, or under the milder social controls of places like the United States, political and cultural dissidents can now find each other and disseminate their views with radio and alternative communications. They can get around a sometimes hostile media elite. This freedom is risky, as freedom always is. The Internet provides access to worthwhile material—such as news of what’s going on in our own cities. But it also provides access to mountains of trivia¾ and even harmful materials like pornography. The real issue is whether we choose "whatever is good and true," as the Bible puts it, or decide to wallow in garbage. Our job as Christians is to help people choose the good and the true. The Internet is a powerful new weapon to disseminate ideas and maybe¾ as the Serbians learned¾ to guard our liberties as well.


Chuck Colson


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