Taking the front line online

Pleas from a war-torn land reach world over PC network

From a city under siege come messages on the Internet

Copyright 1995 Seattle Post-Intelligencer

You can excuse Edin for being terse: "Grenades are falling again, and for me there is nothing new."

Deadly explosions may be commonplace in besieged Sarajevo, but Edin's brief lament went around the world in a novel manner -- via the Internet.

For Edin and thousands of others in repressed and conflicted areas, the global web of computer networks has become a sounding board for voices that otherwise would be silenced.

Writings of imprisoned dissidents are circulated on the Internet. Manifestoes from rebels in Mexico's impoverished highlands are posted almost daily. Families separated by war find each other in cyberspace. Pleas for political prisoners receive instant circulation via computer.

From Seattle to Zagreb, activists turn to the Internet to look after their neighbors in the global village.

"Dial locally, act globally," preaches PeaceNet, a nonprofit online service in San Francisco that links 33,000 users in 133 countries.

One appeal of the Internet is speed. Amnesty International boasts its computer network spreads the word of an arrest so quickly that an appeal sometimes can be disseminated worldwide before the prisoner reaches the central police station.

It is also cheap. For less than $1,000, two University of Washington graduates recently set up a weekly electronic newspaper reporting the news from Romania. And it is hard to censor. Messages on the Internet are dissected into packets of data that are sent on multiple pathways, making interception difficult.

"It essentially eliminates censorship around the world," said Steve Rowe of the Digital Freedom Network, which uses the Internet to circulate materials outlawed in the authors' home countries.

For all the fervor, the Internet is far from a revolutionary force.

Only the elite have access to the Net in many countries. Technical barriers impede a free-flowing exchange even among industrial nations. And the Internet isn't just a tool for the champions of freedom.

During the Soviet coup of 1991, when Soviet authorities didn't have the foresight to yank out the phone lines, the Internet never stopped filing messages to the world. But two years later, when communist and nationalist hard-liners attempted to overthrow President Boris Yeltsin, both sides turned to cyberspace to spread their message.

On the Internet, a person can find the Bill of Rights -- or how to make a bomb in the Anarchist's Cookbook.

"The Internet doesn't differentiate between saints and terrorists," said Alan Boyle, a Post-Intelligencer wire editor who also serves as managing editor of GlasNews, an Internet newsletter for Russian and U.S. journalists.

The Internet was developed by the U.S. military as a doomsday communications system impervious to nuclear war, but in recent years it has become the people's computer network.

As many as 40 million users are now linked to this global grid of computers, and new technology makes travel from a computer site in Sydney, Australia, to a site in Topeka, Kansas, as easy as a click of a button.

The Internet is most commonly used for sending e-mail, electronic dispatches delivered often in minutes at a cost less than a postage stamp.

Cheaper, faster and more dependable than long-distance telephone or the postal service, e-mail has become the standard means by which budget-minded activists keep in touch with each other in foreign lands.

"For reliable communication, e-mail is the only way to go," said Chris Pforr, a Seattle physical therapist helping organize an international conference in Cuba on disabilities.

About once a week, Pforr logs onto PeaceNet to download news reports and other information posted on an electronic bulletin board about Cuba. It's information Pforr said he can't get elsewhere.

For more than a decade, PeaceNet has been a tool for online activism. The organization serves as an electronic clearinghouse for alternative wire services and political organizations that have little voice in mainstream media.

"What it is really useful (for) is to circumvent you guys -- the big media," said George Gundrey, PeaceNet's program coordinator. "Freedom of the press comes down to those who own the presses. But virtually anybody can get on the Internet and reach hundreds of thousands of people around the world."

PeaceNet and its Mexican counterpart, La Neta, provide regular reports from human rights observers monitoring the popular uprising in the hills of Chiapas.

PeaceNet sounded the alarm in February when the Mexican army resorted to strong-arm tactics against unarmed civilians, and the army quickly backed off because of international protests, Gundrey said.

"It's an example when people organized and made a concrete difference," he said.

Bill Avery, a business school graduate from the University of Washington, discovered the versatility -- and cost-effectiveness -- of the Internet when he moved this year to Romania to establish a news service. He couldn't find financial backing for his ambitious project, but he did secure an inexpensive "publisher" with global distribution: the World Wide Web.

He compiles the news from local newspapers and other sources, and transmits the reports by e-mail to his sister in Seattle. Anne Avery, a University of Washington communications graduate, edits and posts the material on the World Wide Web, a multimedia network that has become the fastest-growing part of the Internet.

They're not making any money off the Romanian Press Review, but for less than $1,000, the brother and sister have established an exclusive news service they hope someday will grow into a moneymaking Balkan-wide operation.

In the meantime, they're reporting news that nobody else provides.

"There's not a lot of competition," Anne Avery said.

From the war-torn nations of former Yugoslavia, dedicated activists from the United States and Europe have established an Internet service that serves as a communications lifeline to the rest of the world.

On the ZaMir Transnational Net, Bosnian refugees in San Francisco e-mailed letters back home and searched for lost relatives spread around the world, a Sarajevo hospital made a desperate plea for antibiotics, reports of beatings of imprisoned activists were widely transmitted, and a request for the popular computer game "Doom" was issued.

As a result, relatives were reunited, antibiotics were dispatched, the beatings stopped and the "Doom" fan was flooded with software.

The Center for Civil Society International, a Seattle-based group that supports private, nonprofit groups in former communist nations, found the Internet reaches an audience it missed with the printed word.

Its World Wide Web site has been visited more than 17,000 times. Few of the 600 subscribers on the center's electronic mailing list appear on its regular mailing lists.

"You reach more people using both (electronic and printed media)," said Holt Ruffin, executive director. "There's not a lot of crossover. It's not redundant."

Kathy Daliberti turned to the Internet for help when her husband and another American defense contractor were arrested by Iraqi authorities. The two had been pronounced "spies" for straying from Kuwait into Iraqi territory.

Supporters helped Daliberti create the "Yellow Ribbon" page on the World Wide Web, which provided updates on the two Americans and e-mail forms to urge President Clinton to press for their release. The computer site received more than 21,000 visits from 45 countries before Daliberti decided quiet diplomacy was needed.

"With the whole world watching, it is difficult to know what to say, and what not to say. So, sometimes it seems that not saying anything is best," she said in her last dispatch.

In the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, Amnesty International USA operates its "Urgent Action" center, where reports of torture, pending executions and other life-threatening situations are handled.

"We call ourselves the emergency room of the Amnesty hospital," said Scott Harrison, who runs the operation from his home in Nederland, Colo.

A report of a political arrest comes in on the Internet from London headquarters and is dispatched within hours around the nation, triggering a lightning-speed response.

"If it's a long road," Harrison said, "we might precede his arrival to the police station. That's where the Internet is so powerful."

Amnesty International makes general information public on the Internet, but its action appeals are made on private computer lines to avoid having appeals backfire, Harrison said. For example, the campaign to stop Singapore's caning of an American youth very well could have triggered the opposite response if an open appeal had been made, he said.

Another shortcoming of the Internet, activists say, is that high technology limits its audience.

The Internet transcends borders, but most users are in the United States and West Western Europe. And even in highly developed nations, the Internet tends to be out of reach of the poor and uneducated.

"What about folks who don't have the means to get to a (computer) terminal? How can they not be disenfranchised by this information age?" asked Paul Gloeckner, a Seattle resident who frequently uses the Internet on behalf of Bread for the World, an anti-hunger organization.

The Internet's open access also can be an invitation for political mischief, warned Steve Jones, a University of Tulsa professor of communication and author of "CyberSociety."

For example, Jones said, he was caught off-guard when he relied on what he thought was a nonpartisan newsletter on the Yugoslavian conflict, only to discover that it was cleverly written tract by Croatian extremists.

"You really never know who you're talking to on the Internet. It's in a way a terrific tool for propaganda," he said. "You can take on just about any identity and push a political point of view in a convincing way that appears unbiased."

Despite these shortcomings, activists say the Internet is a tool of peace.

"Electronic communication will never replace face-to-face encounters, but it can certainly help when there is a lack of communication," said ZaMir founder Eric Bachman in a cyberinterview over the Internet.

"It is, of course, just a small step, but a step in the direction of a more civil, more peaceful society."

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