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Assessing the effectiveness and acceptability of governmental activities is always a challenging and ambiguous task. Because the government’s key responsibility is to take care of its citizens guaranteeing their security and welfare, sometimes its activities collide with the interests and values of people. The issue becomes more critical in the case if the government clings to power and desires to preserve it by any means.
Before the rise of the Internet, it was rarely the problem because it was easier to detect opposing citizens and make them change their minds. However, as most people moved communication to the virtual dimension, it became harder to manage them because they have got a platform for expressing their opinions, which are not always beneficial to the ruling party. Nowadays, governments face the challenge of the so-called e-democracy, and they should choose either to provide their citizens with the ability to communicate freely and be overthrown or fall upon censoring their expressions and remain in power.
This paper aims at finding the answer to the following question: is it morally acceptable that a theocratic government censors its people’s expressions on the Internet to remain in power? The answer to this question will be crafted through providing the background concerning the peculiarities of e-democracy in the theocratic states and the strategies of cyber censorship deployed by Saudi Arabia and Iran. The primary idea of the paper is to disclose moral opacities of the issue, conduct stakeholder impact analysis, and speculate on the collision of values of the theocratic governments and people.
Democracy with a Theocratic Face
It is vital to determine the specificities of theocracy and democracy before studying the combination of the two. In general, democracy is the rule of people. The peculiarity of this political system is that people acting as a group decide what is better for their state and themselves. It is characterized by freedom of expressing opinions without regard to their character, the right to vote in and out of the ruling party, several candidates for ruling positions, the protection of human rights, etc. (Hadi par. 1).
Theocracy, on the other hand, is the rule of God in the face of a religious leader, who governs the country based on the postulates of a particular religion. The primary way to become a theocratic leader is to persuade people and lawmakers that an individual is sent by God and acts on His behalf, i.e. is a prophet (Hadi par. 2).
It means that theocracies in their pure form, for the most part, exist in the Muslim world. Unlike democracy, people living under theocratic governments are obliged to accept any governmental decisions just like they do accept the will of God. The challenge with theocracy is determining the right religion. It is especially acute in the case of several branches of religions, e.g. various sects.
Nowadays, however, these two political systems can coexist introducing a new political phenomenon – theocratic democracy. The foundation of the new system is still theocratic, i.e. religion is the source of law. Nevertheless, people are granted some freedom of expressing their thoughts and their rights are protected to a particular extent. It means that theocratic democracy is about finding the right balance between the rule of God and the rights of people (Stein par. 8).
It makes this political system unstable because the interests and values of governments and citizens often collide leading to conflicts. However, it can be seen as the first step towards the transition to democracy and separating religion from the state (Ben-Yehuda 223).
The Challenge of E-Democracy
With the rise of information and communication technologies, people have got an opportunity to participate in the political decision-making process (Freeman and Quirke 143). This phenomenon is referred to as e-democracy. Its primary objective is to provide citizens with the platform for sharing their opinions, which later will be used by the governments to design policies or adopt new laws. In addition to it, governmental institutions provide people with the latest information about the decisions affecting the country’s life. The key idea is to receive feedback and propositions from people to improve their lives and the quality of governmental services (Kreiss 3).
However, establishing e-democracy as the platform for sharing expressions is only possible in the countries with absolute democracy, i.e. when people’s opinion is taken into consideration and their rights are guaranteed and protected. Such platforms grant an opportunity to speak up publicly without regard to the fact that the audience is virtual. The character of similar expressions may vary from positive to extremely negative.
It means that people might choose to criticize the government’s activities and decisions and even promote the idea of overthrowing the ruling party calling for radical measures such as upheavals and mass disorders. The limitation of e-democracy and freedom of communication on the Internet is that an individual never knows, who is hidden behind the nickname. It means that negative expressions might bear a strategic objective of heating masses and bringing them out to the streets to become a new authority.
However, there are instances, in which the government is not interested in receiving feedback, especially when people start criticizing its activities. Because sometimes leaders feel the threat of being overthrown, they might choose to fall back on what is known as cyber censorship. This mechanism implies checking the character of an individual’s opinion and not letting to post it if it is too negative or calls for radical actions.
Simply speaking, cyber censorship is about limiting freedom of expression. In most cases, it takes the form of blocking social networks and forums, i.e. platforms for communication, restricting access to the Internet and viewing the materials containing provocative content, and deleting it right after detecting (Rininsland par. 2, 7). From the political perspective, the primary goal of cyber censorship is to avoid the distribution of dissatisfaction with the government’s performance and its policies to remain in power.
The challenge of e-democracy is especially acute in the case of theocratic states. In fact, speaking about these countries, an individual implies the total absence of e-democracy because people do not have the right to free access to whatever they want to read or watch and, what is more significant, express their opinions regarding the policies of their authorities.
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The justification for cyber censorship in the case of theocratic states is that government is the reflection of God’s power, so, it has the right to control people’s activities on the Internet including what they read and post. I believe that a similar statement can be a source of moral opacity because even though people know that they are censored by the government, they might not realize that censoring their expressions on the Internet could be morally problematic.
Cyber Censorship as a Tool for Remaining in Power
Gulf Countries, i.e. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, together with Syria, Iran, and Yemen are among the states, which are extremely censored. The level of Internet filtering in these states is either substantial or pervasive. When it comes to political issues and Internet tools, the level of censorship is pervasive, i.e. total absence of freedom (Rininsland par. 15). This paper, however, will choose Saudi Arabia and Iran out of the list mentioned above because these two countries are included in the top ten most censored countries in the world. In addition to it, they are theocratic states.
Saudi Arabia is number three in the world’s most censored countries. The decision to intensify the cyber censorship strategy was made after the outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011 to guarantee safety to the political regime in the country. The foundation of the strategy is prohibiting publication of any opinion opposing the postulates of sharia, violating national interests and promoting those of the foreign states, harming social order or security, and enabling criminal activities (Committee to Protect Journalists par. 22).
All in all, the government placed a legal ban on criticizing its policies and primary ideas of Islam. The tool for reaching this objective is monitoring all Internet activities intending to detect potential violations of the law. All blogs, personal websites, online forums, electronic archives, and any means of traditional Internet media including news websites should be registered and licensed. Anonymity is undesirable and in case of being detected, an individual is fined. Also, YouTube and Viber messaging service as the tools for connecting with the outer world and finding out opposing opinions were blocked (Al-Khair par. 2).
In addition to it, Saudi Arabia’s censorship policy is characterized by a strict filtering policy. It means that all websites containing any information opposing the postulates of Islam, raising the issues of human rights, discussing religions, or criticizing governmental policies are blocked and their license is withdrawn. Tackling sensitive issues entails fines and, in the most severe cases, arrests, and prosecutions (Committee to Protect Journalists par. 23).
Iran’s rating is number seven in the list of the world’s most censored states. It is the global leader in imprisoning journalists. The cyber censorship strategy has several dimensions. First, one of the ways to guarantee Internet security is the extremely low speed of connection (Esfandiari par. 3). It might seem ineffective, however, the speed of connection is so low that it is nearly impossible to upload the video content, e.g. from YouTube, or open websites. It should be noted that this limitation is only true about home networks because Internet cafés offer higher speed.
Nevertheless, they cannot solve the issues because of the second dimension of cyber censorship policy – Iranian authorities block social networks and news websites. Still, the strategy of Iran is more peculiar if compared to Saudi Arabia. Instead of blocking all websites containing sensitive content such as anti-Islamic, immoral, and criminal information, and criticizing the government, the design and launch fake versions of popular websites and search engines (Committee to Protect Journalists par. 35).
This technique is intricate but, at the same time, fruitful because the government has a perfect opportunity to control people, who think that they are free to share their opinions and visiting the chosen websites. So, it creates another moral opacity – people do not know that they are censored. In addition to it, there is a relatively small circle of journalists, who are allowed to cover a relatively small number of topics in the press.
Ethical Concerns Surrounding Cyber Censorship
Even though the issue under investigation is morally opaque because people either do not know that they are censored as in the case of Iran or do not think that cyber censorship is morally problematic like in Saudi Arabia, numerous ethical concerns are surrounding it. It should be kept in mind that the only instance under speculation is when censorship is the part of the governmental political strategy, i.e. when people are not allowed to express their opinions on the Internet freely or gain access to the desired information, and this process is controlled by the government and empowered organizations. The situations, in which citizens choose to be silent or distance themselves from the easily accessible provocative information because of their religious, moral, or any other considerations, are ignored.
To begin with, it is vital to conduct a stakeholder impact analysis. There are two major stakeholders involved – the governments and the rest of the mentioned countries (Iran and Saudi Arabia), i.e. the citizens of the theocracies. The justification for such division is that there are only those, who are affected whether they are ordinary people, businesses, or website developers and those, who determine the rules of the game, i.e. the governments and organizations responsible for controlling that the adopted regulations are followed. What is at stake for the governments is that they remain in power and know whether their regimes are endangered.
Cyber censorship strategies have a positive impact on the governments because they guarantee that any plan to overthrow the ruling party is detected at the earliest stages if expressed online. The possibility of mass dissatisfaction with the state policies is not taken into consideration because the right to freedom of expression and access to information is not the fundamental one in the case of theocracies.
As of the other stakeholders, i.e. the citizens, they are interested in freedom of access to information and sharing their opinions. Of course, the impact on them is negative because their freedoms are suppressed and they are obliged to live under the rules, which implies the absolute absence of the freedom of choice. Living in the twenty-first century, when information is all around us, limiting access to it cannot but lead to dissatisfaction with the governments’ actions and the desire to develop alternative sources of access to obtain it such as various applications for breaking the governmental bans, etc., which are illegal.
The foundation of the desire to have the freedom to use information is the experience of the Western governments, which provide the freedom of deciding whether the information is morally acceptable to the citizens. However, it is vital to keep in mind the type of government. Because we speak of theocratic states, we should remember that initially no freedoms and human rights are guaranteed and the government is the source of God’s power on earth.
Second, it is necessary to recollect when the governments tightened censorship policies. In fact, it happened after the outbreak of the Arab Spring. So, it is logical to assume that the justification for taking this step is not only the desire to remain in power but also save the citizens from the dreadful destiny of other countries involved in the upheavals. Of course, the desire to save the lives of the leaders is strong, however, thousands of people died in the course of the upheavals.
So, the version that similar strategies aim at caring for the citizens has the right to be expressed. It is still unclear why the governments have chosen to arrest those violating the adopted rules, but it might be for the sake of public education, i.e. teaching the lesson and highlighting that the state interests should be of higher priority than the personal ones.
When speaking of tightening censorship in response to the revolts in the Arab world, it should be stressed that any community is the combination of both peaceful and military dissidents. Unlike peaceful dissidents, who use the Internet for educative and entertaining goals, military groupings often see it as a means for sharing provocative and anti-governmental messages and promoting dissatisfaction with the state policies.
Nowadays, it is not a secret that the Internet is a powerful tool for propaganda. And, in fact, it was the Internet that helped gather masses and generate the way of recent upheavals in Arab countries. So, the ethical concerns regarding the limitation of the freedom of expression and access to information have dual nature. On one hand, of course, there is the suppression of personal rights and freedoms, and it is a negative feature of the theocratic states.
On the other hand, however, it was a necessary step because it is almost impossible to draw the line between peaceful and military objectives of using the web. It means that the government had to make a complicated but vital choice: either censor almost all activities on the Internet to maintain power and guarantee national security or show respect to fundamental human rights such as freedom of expression and access to information letting the demonstrates overthrow the existing regimes and cover the country with another sweeping wave of unrest, which would inevitably lead to bloodshed and violence.
Finally, it should be highlighted that the governments block only those websites and personal blogs, which provide anti-Islamic, anti-governmental, or criminal content. That said, any peaceful activities on the Internet and personal affairs are not affected. It means that the state cares for the endurance of the Islamic nature of the political regime, i.e. preserving its unique nature, and keeping crime rates at low levels. Also, even though there is the conflict of the primary stakeholders’ values to a particular extent because people are not granted the right to express their opinions freely and have the access to the desired information, they still can communicate on the Internet, but should not raise sensitive issues or demonstrate the desire to share them.
Bearing in mind everything that was mentioned above it is possible to answer the central question of this paper: is it morally acceptable that a theocratic government censors its people’s expressions on the Internet to remain in power? My answer is yes, it is. The justification for this position is that the governments of Saudi Arabia and Iran act by their nature. Because they are the theocratic states, the fact that they fall upon cyber censorship is a normal manner for designing and developing their political systems.
During the times before the rise of the Internet, they deployed the same model of behavior assuring the total control over the lives of their citizens, and I cannot see the justifiable reasons for changing it now, in the era of the newest technologies. Because leaders of theocratic states act on behalf of God, people should fear them just the way they fear God and follow the rules adopted by the government just the way they live under the will of God.
That said, controlling people’s activities on the Internet could be compared to God controlling their thoughts and deeds. It should be said that similar cyber censorship policies are perfect for achieving the primary strategic objective of these states – preserving power. They have no significant disadvantages being an excellent tool for controlling the moods of the society and guaranteeing the safety and endurance of the chosen political regime finding out whether there is the risk of upheavals and being overthrown. I believe that it was a well-thought decision based on both internal and external developments.
These strategies will last unless Saudi Arabia and Iran demonstrate the desire to separate religion from state and switch to democracy or, at least, update their political system to theocratic democracy. As for now, it is unlikely to be true, but nobody knows what tomorrow will bring.
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