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The paper, “Digital Media in Conflict-Prone Societies” that is the outcome of the work that originally motivated this blog has been published by the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA). I originally wrote the paper while a fellow at USIP, and now, more than a year later, it’s in print. Hopefully it’s still timely.
It seems that in the past year a lot of the issues discussed in the paper have reached more mainstream awareness. Conflicts in Georgia, Gaza, and Madagascar, civil unrest in Moldova, Iran, Fiji, China, and Guinea, and a terror attack in Mumbai have all played out in public spaces. Citizen media played important roles in each one of them, to organize opposition, to amplify alternative viewpoints, to report and record violence, and to track and identify opponents. Governments have responded by slowing or shutting internet and cell phone use (Iran, China). DDOS attacks and censorship have also been prominent (Georgia, Iran, China, Gaza) when governments and/or non-state supporters of parties to conflict have participated in shutting down opposing websites and cellular networks. Finally, activists and media have designed projects that support a greater flow of information, or attempt to map and parse information for accuracy and coherence (Madagascar, Mumbai, Gaza, Iran).
A short description, from CIMA, follows:
Throughout history, war has affected media, with conflict often creating an information void. In the 21st century, media has begun to affect war more than ever before. Digital media technologies – particularly participatory, networked tools – have increased communication and information dissemination in conflict settings, affecting all sides and involving new producers of news coverage. These new tools can be used to foment violence or to foster peace, and it is possible to build communication systems that encourage dialogue and nonviolent political solutions. The international media development community must adapt its conflict-zone programs to fit a new media environment, designing projects that encompass digital media applications that encourage more open communities and states, provide venues for dialogue, and reduce control of information.
We’ll be discussing the paper at CIMA October 27, together with Erik Hersman of Ushahidi. We’ll also consider a new generation of innovative digital media projects that focus on producing accurate information in conflict, often in the developing world, as local communities build digital media tools and applications for their own needs.
Burning Bridge has been in hibernation the past few months, breathing only on a delicious links respirator, as I wend my way through more pressing obligations. On a recent trip to Austria, however, on my way to the Salzburg Global Seminar, I went walking in the Hohe Tauern National Park with Oso and Rob:
Climbing the shoulder of the Grossglockner, Austria’s highest mountain (feet on rock and snow, breathing actual air on an undeniably real cliff face),
we began discussing our approach to work, and craft. This was spurred in large part by Oso’s pending presentation for a talk in Budapest at Internet Hungary, which you can now find here. Oso’s concern is the continuation of craft in industrial economies, and whether in the realm of digital work, we can legitimately encumber certain kinds of activity with the name “digital craftmanship.” Without bowing to the pressure to create more neologisms (slacktivists beware!), the term seems to be gathering momentum. Oso longs for:
products that are produced slowly over time. For digital goods that are both beautiful and beautifully made
He then identifies a number of digital projects that roughly fit this definition of craft, focusing on the creation of digital tools such as phone/web 2.0 applications, websites, multimedia productions, data visualization, and website design tools.
Obviously there are clear access, education, and class issues inherent in any conversation about craft economies. Those issues obtain for digital craft as well, so I’m going to lay them aside for the moment. I’m interested initially in the question of whether digital craft is in some way fundamentally different from other kinds of craft, whether it is simply another iteration of the same question, and what it means to move from the digital to the physical.
My first impulse is to think that the claim of difference is overstated. Oso writes:
Seth Godin has found that of the top 100 companies worldwide only 32 of them produce actual physical things. Material culture and materialism are transitioning into digital culture and what might become ‘digitalism’, which has a different set of rules and values.
However, every one of those companies is deeply involved in industrial processes, whether they own and produce material goods, or pay for services managed by others. Our digital culture is also rooted in industry, with associated mineral resource exploitation and global trade implications, as any coltan miner can tell you. Those companies’ profits may come from value-added activities (information access, marketing, etc.), but the industrial economy has clearly not gone away.
So digital craft? In economic terms, it looks a lot like other expressions of craft – eddies of money, resources, and time that might make our lives better and more interesting at a personal level, but is deeply problematic as a fundamental challenge to mass economies that produce abundant and cheap products (inexpensive mass products are not necessarily of poor quality).
I spend a lot of time in chemical darkrooms these days, and at the same time spend time with people who have mostly left behind chemical photography, and are turning out high-end, digital photography prints, such as Frank Day. Frank involves craft in much of what he does, whether it’s building up a road bike, knocking together a table, making large-format chemical prints out of 8×10 field camera negatives, or lately, making large digital prints on massive ink-jet printers. Watching him, I’m tempted to say that craft is an attitude of how to relate to the world, and that the artful use of tools, whether digital or physical, is a manifestation of that attitude.
However, watching digital and chemical processes of craft, I do think there’s a difference in approach. At least with photography, this is manifest in how one deals with materials. Chemical processes allow the user to experiment with the material qualities of the thing. Temperature, dilution, combination, reaction; all physically change the outcome of the image in a darkroom. The creation of a digital print, however, is a painstaking and exacting process of matching the code for color correction for each brand of paper with each printer’s software. Without the correct formula, the image is useless. It’s possible to hack the color correction code, and produce something other than intended by the manufacturers, but this is a turning away from the processes at hand, rather than using what’s inherent in them. In other words, a creative process that seeks to counter the intentions of the material – hacking as craft.
This brings us straight to the DIY world – and here I’ll let Beth Kolko speak in this talk, titled “User, Hacker, Builder, Thief – Creativity and Consumerism in a Digital Age.”
The not very slow but definitely steady flow of computer technology into far corners of everyday life has changed fundamental cultural processes and affected how people work, learn, and play. It’s also provided lots of cool stuff to buy. But by some measures there has also been a somewhat fundamental failure of imagination in envisioning what hardware, software and services can look like which has resulted in users from outside targeted demographics adapting technology in unexpected and creative ways. This talk is about diversity of design, the cult of expertise, why hackers are the good guys and lays out the argument that theories of subjectivity and axe grinders can be part of the same conversation. Encouraging users to become hackers, builders, and thieves may be the best way to ensure creative and diverse design.
Here the world of art is also instructive. See, for instance, Camille Utterback’s interactive art. Utterback describes her work as “an attempt to bridge the conceptual and the corporeal.” Among other things, she builds interactive video installations for which she writes her own code. Her projects seek to make visible the link between the abstraction of code and the world’s materiality, for the purpose of contemplation. Her work is not craft – the creation of a thing of utility that best embodies its purpose – but it does open a window into how we perceive craft, and how digital expressions of it relate to the physical world.
BB -09 today kicks off with a look at local perspectives on public service media. This session is an overview of the variety of experience coming from the world, and how it might be applicable elsewhere. The speakers come from Korea, Madagascar, Kenya, the Phillippines, and the ethnic media experience in New York.
1. Kim Myoungjoon of MediAct in Korea works on empowerment to help support social change. he emphasizes the role of media activism – both alternative and mainstream. Kim notes that Korea has undergone rapid technological change, development, such that 100 mb download speeds are common; communications infrastructure better than in the US. Traditionally, there have been four areas of media activism in Korea:
-independent film and video
-trade union movement in mainstream media
-NGOs and citizens press reform
-Internet activism for alterantive media and advocacy
Since ’90s, trends in Korea are deregulation of media and an increase in media participation, together with democratization and neoliberal economic policy. Kim describes an activist agenda – public broadcasting and creating the concept of viewship rights. Longer-term agenda for media change with MediaAct is the institutionalization of public service media and citizen participation of the media.
2. Lova Rakotomalala, Co-founder, Foko-Madagascar and Author, Global Voices Online, talks to us about how social unrest in Madagascar has overwhelmed other news stories. The crisis kicked off around a land deal scandal to grant land to a South Korean country, facilitated by President Ravalomanana. On March 17, there was a military-driven coup that gave power to the mayor of Antananarivo, Andry Rajoelina.
Lova explains that several radio channels used to mobilize and polarize political positions. If local media played a role in the crisis, there was nearly no coverage overseas. Lova makes the argument that this crisis should matter to the rest of the world, because it happened because of the interconnected nature of development. Lova notes that there is a great deal of resentment toward the international community, and suspicions of favoritism in Madagascar. Much of this is based on agricultural policy, with development based on land deals that grant international businesses access to good agricultural land.
Lova also discusses Foko Madagascar. He quotes Michael Tyson – “Everyone has a plan until he gets punched in the mouth,” when explaining how Foko’s mission has changed from training and personal stories to filling in the gaps of international coverage – writing reports, taking pictures, and documenting the crisis, both on Foko and on Twitter. Now, 55 reporters produce content for Foko. It has also become a tool to reach out to mainstream media, with reports on CNN and the Wall Street Journal. Foko is also using frontlineSMS and Ushahidi platforms to aggregate and organize their content. Lova notes that Foko has more reporters in cities throughout the country than any other media.
In Madagascar, of 20 million people, only 160,000 have Internet access. and 2.2 million have cell phones. Radio remains the primary source of information.
Citizen journalism and cyber-activism have led to a backlash by security forces, with people being harassed and attacked. Additionally the government now proposes to regulate Internet content. Lova proposes the need for a vigorous defense of blogger’s rights.
3) Juana Ponce de Leon, Executive Director, New York. Community Media Alliance. The Alliance works with ethnic media in New York, translating and amplifying the needs of local ethnic media audiences in the New York area.
Most of these media outlets are small. 84% of ad revenue comes from local revenue, which means that migration to online presence is slow. Of 200 ethnic media in NYC, 36% were static, another 1/3 were beginning to create some interesting models, and the last 1/3 just post text. The Alliance is seeking how to help these small media create better online presence, including looking at Internet radio.
The Alliance works to connect ethnic media to the government, to MSM, and activist communities. An example of this kind of connecting work around the census. In New York, over 200 languages are spoken, yet the last NY census was only conducted in seven languages. Yet in New York, there is traditionally a low participation rate.
4) Daudi Were of Mentalacrobatics. Why democracy is so important for development. Daudi thinks that democracy is often poorly defined. He wants to focus on democracy as “government by discussion.” In traditional African society, discussion was at the heart of decision-making; the purpose of of which is to avoid conflict. From East Africa we have the example of the Baraza, and from South Africa, the Indaba, as forums for community discussion.
Today, Daudi thinks that the actions and interests of government officials are opposed to discussion. Yet blogging and online speech has the potential to return discussion to the center of African experience. Daudi proposes that content and community together are what makes interesting online material – another way of saying that it’s the discussion that needs to be emphasized, rather than information in isolation.
Daudi explains that the technological challenges of the digital divide are “overcome by relevance.” As people find a need for particular kinds of information, they seek out the paths to find it.
While these speakers are sharing local and national perspectives, it’s curious to see how each of them describes links into global communities as crucial for their function.
5) Anthony Ian M. Cruz of TXTPower begins by focusing on Filipino mobile phone use. A peripatetic people of 90 million, 70 million use mobile phones. TXTPower uses texting as a tool to mobilize citizens for activism and rights. TXTpower begins by looking at access to mobile use and texting, to ensure that costs remain fair. Anthony describes how in 2004 activism managed to defeat a tax on texting, by running a campaign to text government officials protesting the tax. The mainstream media picked up the story of the campaign, so that it became the biggest story of the week. He describes the use of texting in other campaigns and explains their model of success:
-Fight for consumer welfare and general democracy always be important to people.
-Stay close to the interests of citizens – conveners within TXTPower all have their own networks and local relationships.
-Be media. Work with both legacy media and to gain power and profile itself. Mong Palatino, one of their conveners, as well as the SE Asia editor for Global Voices, recently became a member of parliament.
Drawing a link between these presentations, there’s an common set of issues for TXTPower, Foko, MediaAct, Kenyan bloggers, and the Community Media Alliance. All look to structural and institutional issues to ensure continued online speech and activism, including fair pricing schemes, institutional and structural support for citizen participation in media, and legal protections for citizen media participants.
Since I joined Global Voices I’ve had little time to work on this blog. Sad, because there’s so much going on in the world. Georgia, Mumbai, Sri Lanka, and now Gaza. Fortunately, there’s a good number of writers around working on similar themes, so I feel somewhat more at ease not having to put the material together myself. For today, just want to point to a couple of exceptional posts and sites on Gaza:
From Gaurav Mishra, a tight, comprehensive overview, complete with analysis of Israel’s use of digimedia applications as part of their public diplomacy. Gaurav sees through it, and makes me wonder – can governments successfully manipulate or influence audiences on Twitter or Facebook? If the guiding ethos of global public spheres is (or should be) transparency, then such efforts are fraught from the start; even if governments represent their policies accurately, they are likely to come in for a beating from opponents. Note, Israel has also employed 20th century media strategies here: they hacked Hamas’ TV station Al-Aqsa in preparation for the ground war.
Ushahidi technology is now powering an Al Jazeera project, War on Gaza AJ clearly has a bias (the site’s not called War in Gaza, or Hamas/Israel conflict), but what’s interesting to me is the way a citizen media project started by bloggers has become featured in an MSM site. Innovation from the citmedia world is a driving force in innovation in MSM as well it seems.
Global Voices Special Coverage page on Gaza, of course! Some amazing posts by authors all over the world. I especially like the non-typical perspectives, such as the view from Latin America; the view from Indonesia. These posts expand our perception of global audiences and participants.
Having lived most of my life in Bangalore, yesterday’s bomb blasts cut pretty close to the bone. A friend of mine who works near one of the blast sites expressed his disgust at the manner in which mainstream media, especially local 24-hours news channels, dealt with the incident. Having seen the site, he described the bombs as being only “slightly larger than a firecracker.” This led me to ponder how Bangalore, with India’s highest internet penetration, high mobile penetration (in the state of Karnataka), and massive IT industry, responded to the incident. Has it created any alternative news streams based on eye-witness accounts and/or emergency-responses using digital technologies?
The blasts themselves were carried out using mobile phones, and all networks were jammed soon after the incident. It is unclear whether they were jammed intentionally, but that seems unlikely. In response to the jam, people used other means to find out about their loved ones. Blogger Mukund Mohan found that SMS worked much better as a means of communicating through blocked networks. He also started a twitter microblog keeping tabs on the blasts, casualties, and eye-witness reports, decrying the “hype” permeating local media coverage. Blastnews is another Twitter microblog keeping track of the blasts. Read this post by Daniel Bennett on From the Frontline that tracks how Twitter was used in the blasts’ aftermath.
Bangaloreans cut off from cell-phone networks also used various discussion forums to inform others of injury/death tolls, traffic reports, emergency response, and other developments. Sankalp India Foundation used their website to inform people about blood donation drives and safety measures. Bloggers like Applemilkshake used their blogs not only to discuss the incident, but also to keep readers, presumably friends and family, informed about his/her own safety.
Citizen journalist website Merinews also reported the blasts, while Wikipedia had a page up within hours describing the nature and aftermath of the blasts. They also posted this map of the blast locations. Also check out this Google map with all the blast sites marked
It’s hard to tell whether these efforts in the digital sphere played any part in calming the frayed nerves of a city that has been largely free of terrorist activity in the past. Mainstream media still have access to video footage and timely reports, but citing Daniel Bennett’s post, “media have the Bangalore story but Twitter was first.” I’ve found much less activity and up-to-date information on the internet about the long-running, intractable conflicts in India that I’ve been looking at over the past few weeks. But the volume and immediacy of the responses to Bangalore’s blasts point to the growing use of digital media as emergency-response tools. Whether this is a function of a tech-savvy, urban population, or simply a reaction to flashpoints like bomb blasts cannot be determined at this time.
Guest post by Anand Varghese
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the most challenging instances of reporting in conflict zones, especially when looking at whether and how participatory media projects and digital media technologies could be useful in filling information gaps. Paul Currion’s been writing about the importance of recognizing that early warning, monitoring and human rights organizations have valuable expertise. He says that participatory media projects should tread carefully when they approach the same questions, and demonstrate that they have systems for verifying information, in addition to their cool interfaces and quick response times.
With that in mind, I took a look through the literature on disappearances and abductions in the Sri Lankan wars to see whether participatory media projects are engaging the subject in a useful way. Human Rights Watch, among others, has done extensive research on the subject. From an HR watch report summary:
Hundreds of enforced disappearances committed since 2006 have already placed Sri Lanka among the countries with the highest number of new cases in the world. The victims are primarily young ethnic Tamil men who “disappear”—often after being picked up by government security forces in the country’s embattled north and east, but also in the capital Colombo. Some may be members or supporters of the LTTE, but this does not justify their detention in secret or without due process. Most are feared dead.
Here’s a BBC story on the Sri Lankan goverment’s response, denying HRWatch’s claims. HRWatch based its research on over 100 interviews with family members of the disappeared, field work, and dozens of interviews with aid and activist organizations, over the course of a year.
What stands out about coverage of abductions and assults in the Sri Lankan case is that journalists have also frequently been targets. Journalists and human rights advocates aren’t just monitoring attacks against civilians, they are documenting attacks against their own communities. In a sense, they are the story they are covering – an increasingly typical scenario in modern conflict, when perception of and information about events are often important elements in military tactics.
Because of this, both media and media support groups such as the Free Media Movement have been very involved in documenting, disseminating, and tracking incidents. FMM and others have over the past few years built strong links to regional and international freedom of expression groups. This creates a flow of information and advocacy that starts with local expertise and contacts and extends to global dissemination. The relationships also ensure more rigorous research methodology, accountability, and often access to some security and resources for local groups – whether by virtue of their increasingly international profile, or access to safe havens for those in trouble.
How are participatory media projects, blogs, and other nontraditional media tied into coverage of abductions, and what do they add? How are more traditional human rights organizations using digital media to get their messages out?
Among Sri Lankan media, the online news service TamilNet has timely coverage of events as they occur, as do Lankaenews and Lankadissent. TamilNet is one of the earliest online newspapers in Asia, and while it has a controversial profile, it is also widely read both in Sri Lanka and abroad, and helps shape the Sri Lanka news frame.
Among participatory media projects in Sri Lanka, Groundviews, Jasmine News Wires, and PACT are the most prominent examples. Each takes a different approach. Groundviews focuses on quality citizen reporting and analysis; Jasime on SMS news bulletins of events and a public SMS blog, and PACT on creating an accurate timeline of events. Each has a significant participatory element, together with a transparent process that states when and how editorial controls are applied.
Among blogs, the aggregator Kottu nets individual blog posts, participatory media links, and stories coming out of the advocacy and journalism communities. A search for “abduction” (July 11, 08) comes up with 20 links, about half of which are from advocacy organizations. Among blog posts, most are commentary, such as indi.ca.
While these efforts might have started out without the rigor of a Human Rights Watch, by virtue of their focus on human rights issues, they have rapidly gained the skills, profile, and relationships to be effective. They now have institutional homes, resources, and usually, some staff. They professionalize in response to pressures on them, as well as through links with other advocacy organizations – locally, regionally, and internationally, and attract resources accordingly.
At the same time, more evidence that human rights organizations recognize they are now media. Returning to the Human Rights Watch report on abuction, we see that their summary page is written like a news article, and disseminated as such on humanitarian news sites such as Reliefweb. Additionally, HRWatch has created a video of their staff discussing the report, available on their YouTube channel.
Behind all this activity, there’s the question of audience penetration and effect. The HRWatch video has less than 2000 views; Sri Lankan participatory media projects do not yet have mass audiences. They do, however, have the attention of the policy world, and of elites in and diaspora from Sri Lanka. Increasingly, they have strategies to get their work into mass media outlets, whether as columns in newspapers, or as reports about their work. Cumulatively, they have managed to both raise the profile of the issue of abductions, and to help direct resources and energy into better research and monitoring. It remains a question as to whether they’ve managed to affect the political landscape. HRWatch’s call for UN monitors is unlikely to be heeded by the Sri Lankan government.
Links to other reports on abduction, for those interested:
Sri Lanka’s long-running conflict has had an explosive year. The Sri Lankan government’s decision in January 2008 to pull out of the cease fire signed in 2002 between the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE has led to the renewal of open war. The agreement had been in trouble for years, and analysts have argued that it would have collapsed sooner were it not for the tsunami and consequent weakening of the LTTE military, and diversion of resources from the GoSL.
Sri Lanka has a highly educated population with literacy rates exceeding 90%, and an active civil society, a vocal if partisan media, an influential and well-off diaspora, an active ICT sector, and numerous humanitarian organizations, and the UN present to observe both the cease fire and now, the return to war.
Sri Lanka is a great example of the diversification of information sources that coincide with conflict. Specifically, conflict encourages both media and various nonprofit and civil society groups to create new media projects to fill an information gap, or to find solutions to deal with lack of physical access to conflict zones, political violence, surveillance, and censorship. It’s also the case that resources to create such projects are directed to Sri Lanka because of the conflict as well as the savvy and organization of activists. Funding sources include international aid, citizens groups, diaspora, private foundations, and corporate social responsibility efforts.
The idea that conflict has effects on media, and spurs entrepreneurial and technological change has been observed by others. Ted Okada of Microsoft Humanitarian Systems, for instance, describes the work of his unit in complex humanitarian emergencies as a testing ground for new technologies that have applications both in emergencies and everyday contexts. Software tools such as Groove or testing for the smart personal technology watch and collaborations with media outlets to build communications networks, for instance in Afghanistan or earthquake relief in Kashmir, have resulted. Here, Ted is quoted by Jon Udall on Sri Lanka:
“We’ve been working with an NGO that was using Groove to negotiate between the Tamil Tigers and the Sinhalese government in Sri Lanka. The two parties wouldn’t sit in the same room, but they did agree to use Groove to arbitrate the conflict.”
Sri Lanka’s civil society and media activists are technologically saavy and well connected to technologists around the world, and both work with other local and international initiatives, and create projects as innovative as anywhere else. Sahana, an open software tool for managing disasters created by the Lanka Software Foundation but picked up by the humanitarian community eslewhere, is an example of this.
So Sri Lanka is an example of how information in conflict zones will increasingly function in the 21st century. While much violent conflict occurs out of the public eye, it is becoming more common for wars to be fought in the midst of information access, and even abundance (Iraq and the Lebanese/Israel conflict are other examples). This is the case in Sri Lanka, starting with Tamilnet (see Whitaker’s Learning Politics from Sivaram for a compelling history of Tamil journalism), which began as a listserve in 1995, and became one an early successful online (if partisan) online newspapers in June 1997. It extends to a range of citizen journalism and participatory media projects coming out out of media development, activist, and human rights groups in Sri Lanka.
Increasingly, there is a convergence in the function of information providers, including news outlets, human rights research groups, participatory media projects, political analyses, and humanitarian organizations. Digital media technologies allow all of them to communicate directly with audiences, and thus we find bloggers providing news, humanitarian organizations providing editorials, freedom of expression groups reporting on access restrictions, human rights observers covering the front lines, and Wikipedia as both a news source and an active debate over the war.
This convergence is especially evident in conflict zones because access to the actual conflict is still often highly restricted, and impartial unchaperoned reporting from front lines remains rare – when fighting actually occurs in restricted fields of military activity, rather than in the midst of civilian populations (subject of another post). In the Sri Lanka case, the challenge remains obtaining accurate, reliable, first-hand accounts of the fighting, documentation of disappearances, kidnappings, beatings, and other forms of political violence and harassment.
And the technology to access information is only one part of the story – what constitutes information is itself highly contested. The fight over content, spin, language, and interpretation rages across the information spectrum. From edit wars on Wikipedia to hate speech on blogs, attacks and incitement in newspaper editorials, to physical attacks, intimidation, and murder, Sri Lanka’s war sometimes seem to move seemlessly from information space to the real world.
Following is a rough map of information and communications pertaining to the Sri Lankan war. Following postings will deal with specific questions, including the May 10 eastern province elections, reporting of disappearances, and humanitarian information for IDPs.
Sri Lanka also has a strong government broadcaster, SLBC, and numerous private TV and radio stations and newspapers. Mass media are highly centralized, with most broadcasters based in and producing all programming out of Colombo, including terrestrial and satellite broadcasters. Exceptions include a number of smaller regional state radio broadcasters and government-owned community radio stations, such as Uva community radio, Ruhuna FM in Matara, Pirai FM, in Ampara, and Anoor FM in Puttalam, as well as smaller regional newspapers and regional inserts. Media development projects work with all sectors of the media: prominent local and international groups include Ya-TV, the Sri Lanka Press Institute, CPA, UNESCO, FOJO, and Internews.
Internet access is growing, though still under 3% of the total population. Cell phone subscribers are over 6 million, roughly 30% of the population, and currently growing at 2 million/year. However broadband wireless, 3G cellphone networks, and numerous carriers exist, and Sri Lanka has an active and well-educated ICT sector, both private and the ICTA, a government agency, promoting everything from e-government to rural Internet access points and telecentres.
Sri Lanka has seen the appearance of several interesting new media projects, including Jasmine News Wire, Groundviews, components of the Internews humanitarian information programs, also available on Voice of Reconciliation Radio online. There are also online versions and SMS text news services of newspapers such as Virakasari, online radio and TV stations such as Thaalam FM and others. Digital media are also used to create early warning systems for information delivery in emergencies. The Peace and Conflict Timeline is a new participatory media project that tracks the war’s trajectory.
Additional information and reporting sources in Sri Lanka include active research centers, human rights organizations, and policy analysis organizations. Insight on Conflict/Sri Lanka has a substantial list of these organizations. Notable include the Centre for Policy Alternatives, University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), Berghof Centre for Conflict Transformation, and ICG.
These efforts, both local and international, in sum, constitute extensive, well-conceived, and sometimes well-financed efforts to preserve space for dialogue, and freedom of expression, as well as efforts to accurately document the war.
Sri Lanka has an active blogging community, as well as Facebook and Twitter groups. Bridge blogs include Kottu and Achcharu. Bloggers include both strong supporters of peace processes, freedom of information, and civil society activism, and strong pro-government and military blogs replete with slander and hate speech.
Both the government and the LTTE have been accused of harrassment of journalists and NGOs at various times over the course of the conflict, and over the past two years numerous cases of harrassment have been documented.
Freedom of expression groups closely track censorship, attacks on journalists, and harassment. Sources include Amnesty international’s report titled Silencing Dissent, a stream of statements by the International Federation of Journalists, and continuous tracking by Sri Lanka’s Free Media Movement, as well as International Media Support, ICT4Peace, the citizen journalism website Groundviews, and the Sri Lanka Press Institute, as well as the South Asia Free Media Association, CPJ, and RSF.
Following Zimbabwe’s elections for the past few days – especially the running tab and mapping of violations by Sokwanele. An impressive and well-organized effort to tell the story both in the run-up to elections, and following the tabulations and possible fraud after the vote. Sokwanele’s gone to some trouble to demonstrate transparency of their information sources, and linking their mapping back to the database, explaining the limitations of their data – which is based on a parsing of news sources, and linking to South African Development Community (SADC) standards for elections. They also provide links back to original news sources.
While the technology is impressive, the challenge with any citizen monitoring project is to ensure the accuracy of the original data source – the news article or monitor report. Training for observers (if it’s a citizen group), or reporters on what to look for is key to establishing a strong and defensible evidentiary chain. There’s a role for elections monitoring and media development organizations here – not only in assisting with technology, but providing standards and monitoring and reporting skills that emphasize accuracy and information transparency.
Sokwanele’s approach is temperate – although some of the posts on their related blog contain strongly anti-Mugabe language which point to partisan preference, and of course makes us wonder whether there might be bias in their own sourcing. And some of the language here points to possible protests and the threat of violence if the MDC sense that they’ll win doesn’t materialize. Language such as: “The big question is whether or not the nasty, desperate little zpf vermin are trying to cook the books” is typical of incitement language we’ve seen recently in Kenya, for instance. Incitement language is tricky, and we’ll be discussing in more detail elsewhere. What’s more of a challenge is the mix of supposedly highly transparent and accurately sourced data with derogatory and clearly partisan commentary on one website.
In addition to Sokwanele’s effort, there are other monitoring efforts, such as the Zimbabwe Elections Support Network (ZESN), and possibly, grassroots efforts to document results. One observer, in an email, dated March 31, notes: “The most fascinating aspect is that Zimbabweans are using cell phones to ensure honesty in the election. There was a recent reform to election results stating that they had to be posted on the wall of the polling statino immediately after counting. As soon as they are posted, people are taking photos with their cell phones and sending text messages of the results so they have prrof of what was posted in case they are tampered with later. It is pretty awesome to see that kind of grassroots watchdogging going on. If cell phones were not so successful in Africa then they would not be able to try this.” It would be interesting to know if these efforts are all organized, or are also spontaneous. I suspect the former.
I asked Dorina Bekoe, one of USIP’s Africa specialists, for her take on what’s going on with the results. She says, in paraphrase:
The MDC has already come out and said it’s won by 60%. This is thus far the only real news, hence raising expectations that the MDC won. The MDC is getting its information primarily from its own election monitors. ZESN, which deployed about 8000 people, say they have their own results but aren’t yet revealing them. Perhaps they want to avoid violence. The MDC approach of announcing results ahead of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), as information comes in piecemeal, of employing its own observers, and providing its own results, is consistent with many elections in Africa, and points to a fear that ZEC will not be independent or transparent in its analysis of electoral results.
It’s not unusual in Africa for election commissions to state that there should be no piecemeal release of results, because it causes confusion and tension. Requests of this sort have rarely been respected; more commonly observer groups and political parties push out results despite the requests of electoral commissions. This is partly because people don’t trust electoral commissions, and partly because some NGOs with credibility play a watchdog function, to push governments to behave honestly.
As for whether there might be violence – if there are demonstrations, it’s likely that the police will come out and repress them. The police deployed police Sunday evening (March 30), and have said that they won’t tolerate Kenya-type demonstrations. It’s difficult to make prediction this time, because in Zimbabwe, violence hasn’t featured in past post-election disagreements; rather it’s been primarily part of pre-election efforts to rig elections. Dorina considers Operation Murambatsvina (translation – “operation clear out the filth”) in May 2005 emblematic of this tactic. The operation was a forced displacement of 700,000 out of urban areas in a kind of brutal gerrymandering, to ensure pro-MDC people could not vote in urban areas. The government claimed the effort was to destroy illegal structures and buildings in certain neighborhoods.
Ok, “serendipitous violence” is an unfortunate word pairing. Though part of the intent of these notes is to sort through concepts without clear terms, and maybe blow a few metaphors along the way. The idea behind serendipitous violence is that digital media extend access of communication and information beyond the reach of their original target community. Two most obvious cases in the past few years are the ‘Koran in the toilet’ incident that sparked riots in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the Danish cartoons depicting Mohammad.
Content aggregators, translation tools, and internet create global reach for local or community-specific information. Groups that thought they were talking only to themselves find they have a larger audience. It’s not necessarily hate speech or incitement – intentional, targeted language – but a result of incidental conflict between world views, language usage, discourses. Conflict results from the spread of information beyond traditional audiences. And it’s likely to keep happening. Digital media tools and technology change quickly and provide tremendous opportunities for access, but human culture and social organization are more resistant. Out of this friction comes something else – perhaps call it correlative, or better, incidental incitement.
Returning to the LiveLeak story – in addition to it being another instance of incidental incitement, what struck me is that I first got the story through International SOS – a private health, security, and evacuation firm that provides a news feed for its members/clients , and one version of the walled garden, situated inside the design of a security, health, and on security issues. Interesting, not because it’s a private information service, but because it’s a version of the ‘walled garden’ vision of information distribution, nicely articulated by Jonathan Taplin, a USC Annenberg professor, in which some people will agree to pay a high price for accurate, vetted information uncluttered by advertisements by subscription, while others will accept information, even cell phone calls, provided they first view or listen to extensive advertising. Taplin made those remarks on a panel at a conference at USC’s Annenberg School, thrown by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and liveblogged by EthanZ here.
The conference, “on the state of the field of participatory media within the overall news and information environment,” burned a lot of mental energy trying to define terms – in the wonderfully solipsistic way media discusses media discussing media. I’ll skip the well-chewed discussions of what to call participatory media, a sample of which you can find on media re:public’s site, narrated by the able P, and move on to that other walled garden, America, and unfortunate habit of viewing participatory media (PM?) only through the American experience, despite the many and colorful instances of digital media projects around the world, and often in the developing world.
An aside – it’s interesting to discuss developed countries as having some of the same attributes and problems as developing world countries (arguably the US has a developing world living inside it, the community formerly known as the underclass, even if class analysis went out with the Berlin wall, and has never really regained it’s influence – though it’s still relevant all the time in political discourse, and policies, in the developing world (“eat the rich,” my favorite graffiti tag).
The underclass was also not well represented today, and presumably, therefore, rarely get to enjoy one of these:
a double headed hydra nozzle – perfect for conference-goers who stay up too late before important meetings with their donors.
I should mention, before I go on – this blog looks at digital media’s functional relationship to conflict, and specifically, to political violence in developing countries. It’s meant as a space for rough notes, questions, and conversation for a research project I’m working on at the US Institute for Peace. Broadly, the research considers the relationship between rapidly growing digital media networks and the numerous developing world states with weak or fragile governance, weak states, and contested political contexts.
I’ll also look at media and development, conflict, photography, along with the usual miscellany.
So, quick and dirty explanation:
Why functional? Because examining how digital media affects a particular issue focuses us on its effects.
Why political violence? Because violence, and conflict are what happens when law, persuasion, rhetoric, and other forms of nonphysical coercion stop. Conflict exposes the roots of power and interest, and tears apart the fabric of law and social norms that usually guide interactions and communication in the public sphere.
Why developing countries? Because many of them are weak or fragile states, and have a greater likelihood of tipping into conflict through contested politics, civil conflicts, struggles for autonomy or independence, and disputes over sovereignty. Susan Rice at Brookings has a recent comprehensive mapping of weak states on the Brookings site, here.
Why digital media technologies? They allow for significantly more people around the world to participate in public discussions and produce information. This is true in weak states in the developing world as well as the developed world (more on digital divide later).
While it is extremely difficult to predict how technology will ultimately alter media and information delivery, it is very likely that in the medium to long term, media will become radically more open and participatory. This is already having significant impact on the production and dissemination of information and on the practice of journalism, the scope and extent of dialogue and debate on local, national, and international levels, and on social and political participation.
Digital media technologies and applications have a disruptive, multifaceted impact in how news and information is gathered, produced, and disseminated in and around conflict-prone settings. Yet most research, policy makers, the donor community, and media assistance organizations still remain predominantly focused on the role of traditional media in relation to conflict.