Defining freedom is hard. Does being free simply mean being left alone to do as you please? Or is freedom from other constraints, like poverty and disease, also necessary for one to truly be free?
For years, people from all across the spectrum have fought for what they perceived to be the true definition of freedom. American revolutionaries fought for freedom from an overreaching state, valuing individual liberty above all else. Two-hundred years later, the Bolsheviks fought for what they perceived as freedom from an oppressive class structure.
Yet, there is a far more fundamental freedom which (I hope) people from all ideologies can agree upon. If we want to be free, by any definition, we must have the liberty to keep ourselves informed.
Ultimately, if we are denied access to information, we place ourselves fully at the whims of whatever knowledge and instruction is available, and to whoever is promoting it. It’s no surprise that, throughout history, the first actions of a young tyranny usually include mass censorship and book burning.
I could probably write a whole series of books on the relationship between restricted access to information and authoritarian governments, but I won’t, mainly because it’s such a well-established link that’s been covered so many times. Instead, I’d like to be a little more optimistic and turn this on it’s head; how freedom of information can topple tyranny.
What better example to use for this than the archetypal modern dictatorship, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (or, as anyone outside of the DPRK calls it, North Korea). This is a state that has become infamous for its elaborate propaganda and iron-fisted grasp on any and all information that enters the country’s borders.
As a result of the almost total lack of any outside information, the Kim-family regime have managed to keep a firm grip on North Korean society for over half a century, long after other states of the old Eastern Bloc fell. Whether or not North Koreans really believe the propaganda fed to them, the inability to compare their way of life to those of other countries makes it almost impossible for a resident of the DPRK to fully grasp just how much they are worse-off.
Thus, the desire to push for real change or to revolt is subdued. With no frame of reference, how can you distinguish the normal struggles of life from unnecessary poverty and oppression? The restrictions on information access isn’t about convincing North Koreans that life is good, but about blurring the lines between normality and tyranny.
But what if information was suddenly available? What if average citizens could see how much better life in neighbouring South Korea is? Or America? Or Europe?
According to famous defector Park Yeonmi, this is exactly what inspired her to defy the regime, specifically after seeing a bootleg copy of Titanic. Organisations such as ‘Flash drives for Freedom’ now seek to repeat this effect on a larger scale, using balloons to drop outside media into North Korea.
Even in one of the most tightly controlled, authoritative areas of the world, providing access to information offer a gleam of hope. If people are free to learn, they are empowered to push for change.
And yet, here in the liberal west, some call our freedom to learn and to argue to be restricted. Student groups seek to censor and no-platform those they disagree with. Facebook, one of the largest providers of news and information, is removing political pages with vague justification.
To those living under oppressive tyrannies, such as North Koreans, access to information represents the best way to begin progress towards freedom. Yet, here in the west, we often take it for granted. We block those with whom we disagree. We call for controversial speakers to be silenced.
If we give up our freedom to listen, to read, and make up our own minds, we are one step closer to losing our other liberties. Whether you’re a libertarian, a socialist, or somewhere in between, if you believe in any freedom at all, you must resist attempts at censorship. We have a valuable gift; let’s not waste it.