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Net is a vital weapon for free speech
The Internet is the most important communications breakthrough of our time.

BY: Derek Moscato
The Vancouver Sun
March 23, 2000

Life is easy in the new world, as evidenced by how most folks here spend their time online. Ask your average Vancouverite what he or she is tuning into on the Web these days, and chances are the answer you'll get will revolve around the gratuitous: stocks, sex, sports and soap opera updates. Perhaps some online gaming or a software download.

Chances are you won't hear of a battle against government censorship, or a search for family and friends lost in one of the wars being waged around the globe.

But don't be fooled.

Much more than just a convenience or a toy, the Internet is easily the most important communications breakthrough of our time. For those who've escaped from -- or are caught in the middle of -- one of the world's political powderkegs, the Net has become a vital component in the quest for peace, progress and democracy.

Take the Web portal Iran Online (www., for example. Born of a need to connect the millions of Iranian citizens living worldwide, the site is blazing new trails for that culture, by allowing its users to indulge in something we Canadians take for granted: freedom of speech. Nearly 20 years of strict Islamic rule in Iran have been marked by censorship and militant enforcement of a harsh national law.

That situation makes the job of Iran Online that much trickier. The portal is an easy target for extremists who'd like to parlay the site into a vehicle for political sloganeering. But CEO Davoud Manouchehri has been adamant that the site remain non-religious and non-political.

''Most Iranian sites tend to go that way: pro-party or pro-organization or anti- organization,'' he says. ''Our first ground rule was not to do that. We provide a forum for people to come and voice their opinion.'' Manouchehri has cited Iran Online's chatrooms as being one of the real breakthroughs for his company.

For the first time, he says, his ethnic brethren can engage in open discussion without being scrutinized by the watchful eye of big government.

''They can't use their censorship machinery to ban everything, '' says Manou- chehri.

And while the site, launched in 1996, was originally aimed at Iranian ex-pats, Iran Online is one of the many Internet sites now being viewed within the country's national borders. That alone is an event once considered unthinkable.

Closer to home is the story of (www., a portal dedicated to uniting the various conflicting factions within the war-torn Balkan region. The site was founded in 1997 by Abbotsford resident Almir Ramic, a Bosnian refugee who fled to Canada in 1995.

Ramic has watched his hometown of Sarajevo go from the status of a vibrant European city (culminating in its hosting of the Winter Olympics during 1984) to its current, Beirut-like condition.

Ramic's original aim was to relay breaking news about the war in the Balkans to other folks who'd escaped the region, as well as to people within those countries where news agencies were stifled by, again, government censorship and propaganda. After the NATO intervention of last year, however, media outlets like CNN rose to the fore with premier coverage of the war.

But would become anything but obsolete. Ramic discovered that the site was attracting Serbs, Muslims and Croatians -- who were willing to put aside their differences to search collectively for a solution to the tragedy of war. Instead of exchanging gunfire, his site's visitors were sharing cultural similarities and new hope for their devastated homeland.

There's a sombre side to this free flow of information, however. One of Balkanika's sections, called Broken Links, allows displaced relatives and friends to track down one another. Ramic admits that some of the folks being searched for -- fatal victims of ethnic wars and military conquests -- will never be found.

But if Balkanika is anything, it is a beacon of hope for those who've lost everything but. ''The rebuilding process is underway,'' says Ramic. ''Younger generations don't want to think about the war. For them, the war is boring and bothersome. And the Internet is bringing them closer together.''

That theme of youth is being carried out south of the border by a professor at San Francisco State University. Gary Selnow's non-profit initiative, the Global Learning Center, installs computer networks for schools in the remote villages of Croatia, many of which are at war with one another.

By giving Serb and Croatian kids the opportunity to surf the Web and send e-mail, Selnow hopes to use technology as a catalyst for peace.

After all, what better medium than the Net to break down old grudges and show these children that they have so much in common.

Already, the Global Learning Center has provided computer access to over 1,000 kids in the area, while new cyber-labs are being introduced to youth in Montenegro.

The aforementioned ventures in the Middle East and the Balkans go a long way in putting our connected globe in perspective.

In the Western world, the Net is a boon to consumers, media-addicts and telecommuters.

But in the world's hotbeds of political tension and strife, it represents a foundation for eventual peace and prosperity.

For a new breed of politically aware webmasters, the possibilities online are endless.

Derek Moscato is a Canadian correspondent for He can be reached at


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