Think Again: Identifying legitimate democracies

Some news in the last few weeks has demonstrated the fragile nature of our freedoms. As riots in Great Britain spread, on Aug. 11 the British prime minister’s reaction was to begin an assault on freedom of speech and assembly by attempting to ban social media and other communication channels, hoping it would quell protesters.

Less than a week later in San Francisco, protests broke out against Bay Area Rapid Transit in response to the July shooting of a homeless man by BART police. Subsequently, BART shut down cell-phone service in the transit system to block the ability of protesters to organize and communicate, resulting in a local problem becoming a global one with outrage beyond San Francisco.

The rationale used by authorities is that they had to find a way to stop violence or maintain safety. Free-speech advocates contend these moves were an infringement on freedom of speech. One thing is clear: The primitive response in attempting to limit the technologies that enhance the ability to communicate in both cases has had the opposite effect, fueling further outrage.

In many western countries, a premium value is placed upon rights, such as freedom of speech, press, religion and assembly. In the United States, we have the 1st Amendment to the Constitution, championed by Thomas Jefferson, which serves to protect some of our cherished freedoms.

The 1st Amendment reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

While many take freedom of speech, press, assembly, etc. for granted in the U.S., it is elusive in most countries where people are risking their lives for it every day. In recent months, we have seen waves of protest and change movements in Middle Eastern countries run by old dictators whose retirement is long overdue. Whether new democracies will blossom is unknown, but the decades-old status quo in these countries is being challenged.

It is interesting to examine the role of social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other online and wireless communications, in galvanizing a new generation to stand up for freedoms. These new communication media have shrunk the world and facilitated dialogue between large numbers of people and spread ideas and inspiration at warp speed.

New technology has allowed “headless movements” to sprout. These movements don’t have a single leader, but instead the movement is an entity by itself, with no particular hierarchy. This is the dynamic of the new world we are in, and if we want to understand how governance in the world is changing, it’s important to understand the impact that new technology is having on engaging people.

We are in a new, highly networked world where interrelationships between people are what count and create credibility. Governments, companies or community organizations, whether they are run by old-world, autocratic mentalities or democratic principles, would be wise to study the disruption that is happening.

That disruption is a change in how people are willing to be governed and how their opinions need to be considered. As a result, respecting the rights that Thomas Jefferson was so obsessed about and engaging in greater dialogue and transparency with the public is becoming more important than ever.

By trying to pull the plug on technologies that facilitate communication, leaders in Great Britain and San Francisco inadvertently began joining the ranks of Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, who shut down the Internet when protests started.

The danger is that erosion of freedoms and rights usually happens gradually, so people don’t realize it until it is too late. In this case, the question is what separates a legitimate democracy from these autocracies or dictatorships when both start taking similar actions?

The answer is a fine line.

ZANKU ARMENIAN is a Glendale resident and a corporate communications professional. He can be reached at

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