Citizen Media and Online Free Speech

While the first session of the 2008 Global Voices Summit focused on how internet censorship works in Belarus, Japan, Egypt, and Pakistan, and how activists have responded to those limitations, the second session was specifically focused on how censorship affects bloggers and citizen media. It was liveblogged by Juliana Rotich. Speaking during the session were Wael Abbas, who is the first blogger to receive the Knight International Journalism Award for documenting human rights abuses in Egypt through online video; Ory Okolloh, a veteran Kenyan blogger who co-founded Mzalendo, a website that tracks the performance of Kenyan Members of Parliament and Ushahidi, which tracked incidents of violence following the Kenyan elections; Alex Au, a leader of Singapore’s gay rights movement who blogs at Yawning Bread; Oiwan Lam, co-founder of the Hong Kong-based media activist site inmediahk.net; Amine, a Moroccan human rights activist and co-founder of DigiActive.org; and Hamid Tehrani, Global Voices Persian language editor who spoke on behalf of Mehdi Mohseni who was not able to secure a visa to come to the summit.

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Audience intently focused on the “Citizen Media and Online Free Speech” session.

Wael Abbas spoke first and led off with several difficult-to-endure videos showing clear human rights abuses in Egypt.

Abbas emphasizes that while Egypt claims to be a democracy, its government system is really a façade of democracy which does now allow for full political participation. Unsurprisingly, that also applies to online political participation. Most famously, Egyptian blogger Abdel Kareem Soliman was sentenced to four years’ prison for insulting Islam and the president. Kareem’s detention spawned the Free Kareem! campaign which has been documented at length by Sami Ben Gharbia on Global Voices.

It’s not easy to be a citizen media activist in Egypt, notes Abbas. Several bloggers have suffered character assassination campaigns. Abbas himself has been accused of being Christian (he is Muslim) and homosexual in hopes of discrediting the videos and blog posts he publishes.

Up next was the tireless (and currently pregnant) Ory Okolloh who was ordered by her doctor to stay in bed. Her version of bed rest, she told us, would be to briefly share her personal experience of the valiant response by Kenya’s bloggers in the political crisis following their country’s late December presidential election. Ethan Zuckerman has recently documented Okolloh’s participation (along with other Kenyan bloggers) throughout the crisis.

As it became clear that Kenya would be in crisis for more than a few days, bloggers began to search for ways to share their workload. Okolloh, who resides in Johannesburg, returned home on January 3rd, after a difficult debate over whether she should stay to document the crisis or prioritize the safety of her young child. Three days after arriving in South Africa, she added a new feature to her blog: “diary entries” written by guest bloggers and submitted to her via email. In the month the diary was active, it featured 26 posts from a variety of Kenyans, including regular bloggers who sought an opportunity to reach a larger audience and from people who had not previously published online. The tone was sharply different from Okolloh’s opinionated, but news-focused, reports – the diaries were personal reflections on the crisis, providing context for readers interested in how the crisis was affecting individual Kenyans.

In her first post on returning to Johannesburg, Okolloh proposed another form of distributed reporting, a Google Maps mashup that showed incidents of violence reported throughout Kenya […] The reaction to this idea, one of nine points in a long roundup, helps demonstrate Okolloh’s influence and reach in the blogger community. (Technorati lists Kenyan Pundit as the #15,282nd most popular blog in its index, a very high rank for an Africa-focused blog. At the peak of its popularity during the crisis, 0.004% of all blog posts on the internet linked to Kenyan Pundit, a level comparable to regular linking to Global Voices Online, one of the 200 most popular blogs in the world. Within three days of her January 3rd blog post, a prototype version of the system she proposed had been built. By January 9th, it was live at Ushahidi.com. (The term Ushahidi means “witness” in Swahili.) A day later, a partnership with Kenyan mobile phone operators allowed Kenyans to post reports using an SMS shortcode.

Okolloh is clear that, especially compared to her Ethiopian and Zimbabwean colleagues, there was very little institutional censorship, but that most bloggers self-censored during the crisis because of societal and family pressures. There was also the matter of moderating comments. Okolloh received many comments threatening to rape and attack her. Every time she wrote a post she thought of her family and their safety. On a related note, the popular Mashada.com discussion forums were also briefly shut down after some posters advocated violence.

While Okolloh added the element of self-censorship to the discussion, Alex Au starts his presentation with a slide which reads “the psychological side of censorship.” He is concerned about the amount of apathy to the internet censorship which takes place in Singapore. What is it that drives a local society to advocate for their right to free speech and why isn’t it taking place in Singapore? Alex wonders if it might have to do with Singapore’s impressive economic development over the last twenty years. “If life is pretty good,” asks Au, “is there a need for freedom?” On a closing note, Alex adds that he understand the need for anonymity among online activists, but that anonymity usually doesn’t lead to social change, and that activists should be encouraged to use their real names and stand up to repressive governments.

691AF8D1-3458-4A28-A5F6-3821DB9412A9.jpgOiwan Lam describes a court case which was brought against her by Hong Kong’s Obscene Articles Tribunal for posting a photograph of a shirtless woman covered in leaves [Not work safe.]. Oiwan’s case has been covered in detail by Rebecca MacKinnon in a three post series.

Amine also started his talk out with videos to show how online citizen media is spreading awareness about government corruption throughout Morocco. This video shows a police officer collecting bribes from passing cars.

Of course, it only spreads awareness when YouTube isn’t being blocked like it briefly was in 2007. Other sites that have been blocked in Morocco include Google Maps, Livejournal, OpenDNS, Anonymizer, and Google Earth. Amine says the Moroccan government is ‘allergic’ to all website which allow for user-generated content which it cannot control. This is most famously exemplified, of course, in the arrest of Fouad Mourtada for creating a fake Facebook identity of Crown Prince Moulay Rachid. Amine says that it is typical of the Moroccan government’s ignorance about the internet that when Mourtada was being interrogated he was asked by he invented Facebook.

Finally, Hamid Tehrani of Global Voices filled in for Mehdi Mohseni and offered an overview of censorship in Iran. He starts off with a slide of what National Geographic looks like from within Iran. While censorship has always existed in Iran, notes Tehrani, it has been stepped up in the past three years both online and off. Now most social networking sites are blocked, including content-rich sites like YouTube and Flickr. Interestingly, anti-Bush and liberal blogs from the US like Juan Cole and the Huffington Post are also blocked in Iran. This has led to innovative tools from anti-censorship activists like Hamed Saber’s Access Flickr! Firefox extension.

Many of the questions for the speakers focused on how to get more internet users interested in and involved in the anti-censorship movement. How do you make anti-censorship an issue which attracts as much attention as celebrity and technology news? What role does the diaspora community play? How do you try to promote an atmosphere which encourages active participation over self-censorship? These were all mostly open-ended questions, which generated some speculation from the speakers (eg. governments can discredit diaspora communities as out of touch), but no concrete answers.

If you are interested in issues of censorship and citizen media, make sure to subscribe to Global Voices Advocacy.


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4 Responses

  1. El Oso » Archive » Citizen Media and Online Free Speech

    […] Originally published on the Global Voices Summit blog. […]

  2. Jillian York

    Wonderful!

  3. Global Voices Advocacy » Citizen Media and Online Free Speech

    […] Originally posted on GlobalVoices Summit 08 […]

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    […] Session: “Citizen Media and Online Free Speech” […]

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