Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Information Divide - How Government Represses Vital Freedoms

The recent censorship of a performance by Pearl Jam at a festival in the US, is the latest in a long line of attempts by the privileged elite to restrict the flow of information and the right to free speech. Despite the rhetoric about spreading freedom around the globe, the west has been reluctant to grant the same freedoms at home as they claim to export abroad. The British government have been reluctant to allow a culture of free speech, and the past couple of weeks have only gone to reinforce the fact that this is one of the most secretive democracies in the world.

This has ever been so. Back in 1988, the then Conservative Home Secretary, Douglas Hurd, gave a speech to the Royal Television Society Conference. In that speech, Hurd said the following:

'The disclosure of certain information was always harmful whether or not it had been published before.'

The Conservative government had shown that they had no intention of allowing a culture to develop that encourages freedom of information, and why should they have? For decades, government had been trying its utmost to ensure that the internal workings of government were not open to public access. The irony was, of course, that the British government at the time of Hurd's address was actually trying to encourage freedom of information in a country that was truly suffering at the hands of censorship. In the same year, Kenneth Baker addressed students at Moscow State University:

'What's the point in having computers and information technology if you are now allowed access to anything more than the contents of a modest library?...The information technology revolution cannot bear fruit without the free flow of information within society and between societies.'

Of course, being in the USSR, Baker would say that. The Conservative government proved that, although they talked of freedom of expression and lobbied their enemies to open up the flow of information, the establishment were reluctant to let go of the reins during the technological revolution. This double-speak continued, even after the Conservative government were finally kicked out of power in 1997.

The election of the Labour government in 1997 brought forth the promise of a more open style of government. Perhaps anticipating how difficult it would be to manage information in the age of the internet, the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act heralded a new age of access to information. However, this was not to last. In May 2007, Alastair Darling wrote to Lord Falconer expressing his concerns about the Act. In the letter, he claimed that government may need to:

"redress an apparent imbalance between the 'right to know' and the protection of private space where necessary for good governance".

Once more, the establishment had revealed that it cared little for the concepts of freedom of information, despite the Act. Even before Darling's letter had come to light (courtesy of the BBC by the way. A novelty, eh? A state broadcaster prepared to reveal the true nature of government machinations), MPs had been trying to put through legislation that would have prevented their travel expenses being open to the public.

Two recent actions by the government have also attempted to restrict the flow of information and the rights to free speech. Only today, it has emerged that the police are able to use terror laws to deal with protesters at Heathrow. According to The Guardian:

Armed police will use anti-terrorism powers to "deal robustly" with climate change protesters at Heathrow next week, as confrontations threaten to bring major delays to the already overstretched airport.

Up to 1,800 extra officers will be drafted in to prevent an estimated 1,500 people disrupting the airport over the period of the camp for climate change, which is due to begin on Tuesday. The police have been told to use stop and search powers against the protesters, who have pledged to take direct action on August 18 and 19 but not to endanger life.

The police powers will include:

· Stop and search people and vehicles for anything that could be used in connection with terrorism

· Search people even if they do not have evidence to suspect them

· Hold people for up to a month without charge

· Search homes and remove protesters' outer clothes, such as hats, shoes and coats.

Remember when the government said that anti-terrorism powers will not be abused? As well as this blatant attempt to suppress free speech, the government has also been cracking down on the military. Only yesterday, The Guardian revealed that the Ministry of Defence has been taking steps to address soldier's rights to free speech. According to the report:

Soldiers, sailors and airforce personnel will not be able to blog, take part in surveys, speak in public, post on bulletin boards, play in multi-player computer games or send text messages or photographs without the permission of a superior if the information they use concerns matters of defence.

They also cannot release video, still images or audio - material which has previously led to investigations into the abuse of Iraqis. Instead, the guidelines state that "all such communication must help to maintain and, where possible, enhance the reputation of defence".

Despite the fact that this may contravene the Human Rights Act (an act that opponents of free speech have long lobbied to repeal), the government seems willing to continue with a blatant act of censorship to ensure control over the flow of information. But then, should we be surprised given that the government also crippled the BBC after a report that has proven to be factually accurate, yet exposed the truth behind the government. The hounding of the BBC in the wake of the Gilligan report, only laid bare the extent to which the government was willing to suppress information that was harmful to its interests, regardless of the facts.

Meanwhile, as the government continues to control the amount of information about the inner workings at Whitehall, the government is demanding even more information about the general public. Earlier this year, it was revealed that there is an amazing 4.2 million CCTV cameras in the UK (32 cameras around George Orwell's house alone), ensuring that the government is able to gather information about your movements. Government is also trying to introduce a mass programme of DNA collection from every citizen in the UK, providing important genetic information about the population. Finally, the government has also been pursuing the idea of a national identity card carrying biometric information. So, while the government has been restricting our rights to free speech and our ability to access information, they have been collating more information about us than any other government in this nation's history. And if you think the government won't abuse this mass of information, you only have to look at the abuse of anti-terror legislation that is being deployed by the police at Heathrow to realise that we are heading for desperate times.

This issue of freedom of information is a crucial one. If this country wants to stand as a beacon of freedom across the world, it must do something about the lack of freedom citizens currently enjoy. Whilst the government continues to restrict our access to information, while increasing theirs, the UK will remain a country divided along informational lines. That cannot be a good thing for democracy.