In a time where social media is king, human rights have never received more attention. ACU media lecturer Carmela Baranowska looks at the power of the people when they can unleash the truth online.
Once upon a time, dictators and military regimes could act with impunity – and nobody would ever know about it. If nobody could see and hear what was taking place, the abuse could continue indefinitely.
After the Indonesian military invaded East Timor in 1975 another three years would go by before a letter written by a Catholic priest describing the killings and disappearances would reach the outside world. "Genocide will come soon," the priest wrote to two nuns in Portugal.
It was another 14 years before tourists and independent journalists could travel to East Timor.
And it wasn't until 1991 that a video journalist filmed the massacre at Santa Cruz cemetery before smuggling the footage out and onto our television screens. In less than a decade after that startling and disturbing footage was broadcast, East Timor would become independent.
Now with the internet and its most popular social media platforms, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, human rights abuses can be relayed the instant they occur. Consider the recent 'Facebook revolution' in Egypt – when the young and tech-savvy got together for a cause.
In that virtual community they posted and distributed news and views, YouTube videos and Twitter posts. They told of demonstrations and government repression, imprisonment and deaths, followed by gatherings that erupted across Egypt demanding democracy and a change of government.
These demonstrators were able to bypass the traditional government-controlled media. They became the media, and the news from Cairo spread around the world.
Live satellite TV channels such as Al Jazeera and the BBC also played a crucial and defining role, often working in tandem with 'Tweeters' on the ground.
In the midst of the uprising, Egypt's dictator Hosni Mubarak recognised the internet's unstoppable democratic power and in our always-connected world the unthinkable happened – internet access in Egypt was blocked.
Egypt's supporters worked around the clock to break through the information blockade. In order to transmit their message they were forced to return to an earlier time, with dial-up internet and the humble fax machine. Despite the obstacles, Egypt's dictatorship fell, and dictatorships across the world will continue to do so.
While Apple may want us to believe that the revolution is just an iPad away, it is in Africa where the most unexpected and surprising breakthroughs have, and will, develop. When the internet was censored in Egypt, Google engineers in Africa developed voice-to-tweet – so protesters could leave a short voice message via their mobile phones that was then uploaded onto Twitter.
The internet is not an end in itself. It functions as a means to an end, and acts as a tool to empower political change.