Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Why isolating communities is terribly dangerous

BBC Monitoring just published a translation of a report they saw on the website of RBC Radio which serves audiences inside Somalia. It is one of the most worrying reports I've read in a long time. It's basically shows how some groups are declaring war on storytellers.

Al-Shabab shuts down internet services in parts of Somalia

Al-Shabab, Somalia's Al-Qai'diah-linked militant group, has shut down mobile internet services in all the areas under its control, privately-owned Raxabreeb website reports, two weeks after the group gave all communication companies providing web services in the country 15 days to halt their operations or be considered to be working with the enemy.

Al-Shabab fighters forced their way into the offices of telecommunication companies operating in areas the militants control, and ordered them to shut down the mobile internet system, the website adds.

Some of the districts where the militants shut down the internet services include Baardheere (southwestern Somalia), Dinsor (southwestern Somalia), Bulo Marer (southern Somalia), and Baraawe (southern Somalia). Residents said the services were switched off at about 1830 GMT on 21 January. Internet use is widespread in Somalia although access is slow because of underdeveloped infrastructure. In 2013, Al-Shabab reportedly banned the residents of the southern port town of Baraawe from watching television, saying it harmed their Islamic principles, and ordered them to turn in their televisions and satellite dishes to militant officials.
Source: Raxanreeb website in Somali 22 Jan 14.

All this confirms the theories of people like Thomas P.M. Barnett that the tactics of these groups is to isolate entire communities. We're creatures of communication. Without contact with other people, we die. That's why solitary confinement is such a powerful punishment. When you try to isolate a community, then it looks for any way out. The tragedy of Somalia, Afghanistan, Northern Nigeria, Kenya and too many other places in the world is that these are areas when those who believe in democracy as the best way forward simply lost interest, stopped communicating and pulled the plug.

I'm not advocating a return to the propaganda of the 1960's. Just shouting across a border is never as effective as building a dialogue. These days we have a mixture of ways to build conversations. But it starts with understanding the needs of the audience. Look at how the Russians have silenced Voice of Russia (shouting) in exchange for Russia Today (which wants to influence the conversation through by a sharing policy). It's a much more effective way of getting a message across.

International communication never had a more important role in the world than now. Not to entertain the rich and famous. But to re-connect the disconnected. Otherwise the costs later are difficult to fathom. There is some indication that some people understand what's needed. The BBC's Media Action published an excellent and extensive analysis of the situation in several fragile states.

And there's a discussion in Washington DC this week which will hopefully take the conversation further. But a lot more needs to be done to fix this.

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