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August 20 2012

13:57

August 17 2012

14:00

6 Questions for Arion McNicoll of The Journalism Foundation

It has been a difficult time for the British press, caught up in the phone-hacking scandal that has meant the death of the News of the World paper, along with arrests of News Corp. personnel, suspensions at Scotland Yard, and never-ending investigations. But from those ashes has risen one idealistic effort to promote free press issues around the world: The Journalism Foundation.

Unlike in the U.S. with our non-profit funders such as the Knight Foundation, the U.K. and Europe have been looking for a white knight that could help support struggling legacy media in their transition to digital. The Journalism Foundation was started last October by former editor of the Independent, Simon Felner, with money from the Independent's owners, the Lebedev family.

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The Foundation's first two projects include a training program for journalists in Tunisia (in conjunction with the City University of London's journalism school) and financial support for a hyper-local site in Stoke-on-Trent called pitsnpots. But the Foundation has also hired its own editorial staff, who are posting stories online relating to digital media, freedom of speech, and the Leveson Inquiry. The site recently ran a first-person account from the Independent's Guy Adams about Twitter suspending (and then un-suspending) his account.

I recently struck a content-sharing deal with The Journalism Foundation, so that they could run our various stories from MediaShift on free speech issues, while we could run their stories that touch on the digital and global angle of freedom of expression. The hope is to spread our content and ideas across the pond in both directions.

I asked the site's editor, Arion McNicoll, six questions via email to learn more about the Foundation and how it plans to spend its grants. McNicoll comes to the Foundation after being the assistant editor of The Sunday Times online, helping the Times build its iPad app. The following is an edited version of our exchange. (McNicoll also posted his interview with me here.)

Q&A

1. How did you get involved in The Journalism Foundation, and what are its goals?


Arion McNicoll: I joined The Journalism Foundation just prior to its launch in October last year. At the time, British press was under intense scrutiny in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal -- a public event that shocked the nation and led to the closure of the News of the World newspaper. Senior figures at Rupert Murdoch's newspaper publishing company, News International, were summoned to explain themselves to the government; the Leveson Inquiry was initiated to look into press standards and regulation not only within Murdoch press, but across the entire U.K. media landscape.

Against this backdrop, and at a time when the media seemed to be running out of friends, The Journalism Foundation was established to promote free and fair journalism around the world. We try to do this in two ways: by running media-based projects that have a positive impact, and by promoting intelligent debate around the big questions in journalism today on our website. My role as editor is to nurture that debate.


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2. Who has more awareness of press freedom issues, people in the U.S. or U.K., and why?


McNicoll: Whether the average American is aware of it day-to-day or not, freedom of the press is a right guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. The First Amendment upholds a raft of important freedoms -- of press, religion and expression -- which simply do not have an equivalent in the U.K. That said, media in the U.K. is deep and varied, with numerous newspapers, magazines, TV and radio stations, and I think the U.K. public is rightly proud of this plurality. The high rate of literacy is mirrored by a history of high newspaper consumption.

The national broadcaster, the BBC, is a much-loved public institution, in which many people feel they have a stake. When the BBC spends money frivolously or in the wrong place, the public actively complains. Many regard the BBC's service in a similar way to how they think about the free medical care -- as a right and an integral part of what it means to be British.


3. Explain the grant process for people who'd like to get a grant from The Journalism Foundation.



McNicoll: The Journalism Foundation looks to support a broad range of projects. From community-based enterprises to broad initiatives, our grant scheme is intended to support people or organizations with specific projects that further the cause of journalistic freedom. Once an application is lodged (go here), staff from the Foundation will review it and get in contact for more information if the project seems promising. If we can offer support (either practical or financial) we then work out how best to make that happen.

We don't have an upper limit on what we can grant (notionally) but in truth our projects have tended to be to the tune of about £10,000 to £20,000 so far. Our initial funding comes from the Lebedev family who own the Evening Standard and the Independent newspapers here in the U.K. This is one of their benevolent programs. We also do our own fundraising though, and all the money we raise from donations goes straight to projects.

4. Do you believe new online media outlets can help cover news lost at legacy organizations as they cut back? How?

McNicoll: I think media is currently in a transitional state. News organizations were quick to get their content online in the early days of the Internet, hoping that they could convert vast numbers of readers into advertising gold. Gradually it became apparent that simply having a lot of readers was no guarantor of financial success. Consequently, many news organizations have begun putting up pay walls and returning to subscription-based revenue models.

In the meantime, a raft of new media news organizations have sprung up offering alternatives to the traditional providers. Initially, the point of difference was journalistic veracity (i.e., people felt old media could be trusted, whereas new media was more suspect), but even that has eroded over time. Various sites such as Huffington Post and TMZ have put considerable effort into ensuring that their news is not just fast, but also accurate. Can such outlets fill the gap left by the decline in newspaper sales? Certainly, but the transition is not necessarily going to be swift or smooth. Plus, the future of news is unlikely simply to be digital newspapers, but something that fuses the best bits of print, TV, radio and social networking.


5. In the realm of press and Internet freedom, which organizations (including for-profit media and NGOs) do you respect in Europe and why?



McNicoll: Reporters Without Borders does a fantastic and admirable job, fighting for the rights of journalists who work in places where simply doing their job can cost them their lives. The Chartered Institute of Journalists does good work here in the U.K., and has been doing it for longer than almost anyone else in the world, founded, as it was, in 1884. The Centre for Investigative Journalism champions the kind of critical, in-depth reporting that makes the rich and powerful nervous.

At a more community level, Talk About Local is an excellent organization that trains people in starting up their own digital publications. And there are countless blogs and citizen journalism projects around the country which are doing their small bit for the spread of free information, many with deeply journalistic sensibilities.


6. How important is collaboration now in journalism, among non-profits, for-profits, public media and readers/community members?

McNicoll: Very important. In recent years the traditional division between people who are journalists and people who are not journalists has been almost completely eroded. Now anyone with a mobile phone can report on the news. While people remain rightly suspicious of the more sinister aspects of journalism, overwhelmingly I think there is still a great deal of public support for the free spread of information -- support which people are expressing through engaging actively with the process of news gathering and commentary. Just last month the United Nations unanimously backed a resolution that Internet access and online freedom of expression should be considered a human right.

While the spread of journalistic practice is an important development, I think the next stage is working out a fair way to recompense those people who work in the more costly or dangerous sides of news reporting: writers and photographers who report from the front line, investigative journalists who spend months on end trying to uncover a hidden truth. But I think there is broad understanding that some kinds of journalism cost money and people are prepared to pay for it.

The interaction between non-profits, for-profits, public media and readers underpins the evolution of journalism, and that evolution is essential to the continuing spread of information.

*****

What do you think of The Journalism Foundation and its work? Can it succeed in spreading freedom of expression ideas around the world and in the U.K.? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian and fiancee Renee. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit. and Circle him on Google+

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May 03 2012

20:30

World Press Freedom Day: Where We Stand After the Arab Spring

This post is co-authored by Jillian C. York.

Nineteen years ago, before the Internet had reached millions of homes, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the celebration of press freedom, deeming May 3 "World Press Freedom Day." Since then, the day has been celebrated by organizations and government entities alike.

Today, the Internet age has created a whole new slew of concerns about press freedom. Despite early declarations that cyberspace would not be governed, it soon was, with governments such as Tunisia and Saudi Arabia censoring the Internet as quickly as it became available. Today, more than 60 countries engage in online censorship of some kind, with corporate online spaces -- think Facebook -- restricting speech as well.

Shifting Sands

A year after the start of the Arab Spring and the subsequent spark of social movements throughout the world, it remains a turbulent time for press freedom. As we reported in April, a multitude of countries have begun arresting journalists for their postings on social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook. And offline, censorship remains the norm in much of the world.

Following the ouster of Ben Ali, Tunisia quickly made strides toward a free press and open Internet, unblocking websites and allowing journalists to operate freely. In fact, Tunisia is hosting UNESCO for the World Press Freedom conference, where a representative from the U.S. State Department will deliver remarks at the opening ceremony just as a new report by Freedom House credits Tunisia with significant strides in press freedom.

But even as Tunisia's revolution has marked a new era of openness, just a little more than a year later, there's once again talk of censorship. A Facebook activist and citizen journalist was recently sentenced to seven years in prison, and Nabil Karoui, the owner of independent Nessma TV, is on trial for showing the Iranian film "Persepolis" on the air; if he is convicted, Karoui's case could set a dangerous precedent for censorship in the North African country.

In post-Hosni Mubarak Egypt, the situation is also shaky. On Twitter, Egyptian revolutionary Mosa'ab Elshamy described the state of press freedom as "generally better than [in the] Mubarak days but worse than what revolution aspired for." Al Ahram -- the state-run daily that once photoshopped Mubarak to appear to be the leader of the Middle East peace talks -- now reports on the revolution, but the media landscape still leaves much to be desired. As Egyptian blogger Amr Gharbeia said: "[There are] some independent journalists, [but] no independent journalism."

The Internet Promotes Freedom

Although governments have been exerting control over the Internet for nearly as long as it's been around, media experts are quick to point out that the overall impact of the Internet is toward openness.

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Lina Ben Mhenni and Zeynep Tufekci at the Prix Forum II. Photo by Ars Electronica on Flickr

With the Internet, "censorship is harder; there are more sources of information," sociologist Zeynep Tufekci told us. "The barrier to publish has become lower, so there are more people publishing information that may not have found an audience before." This was visible in Egypt as well where, before Mubarak fell, he tried desperately to keep a lid on information traveling throughout his country, yet was unable to stop the massive amounts of video showing the rest of the world his crumbling empire.

But just as technology allows for journalists to sprout up from anywhere and for stories to spread not only across countries but around the globe virtually instantaneously, it also gives governments another avenue to crack down on them. After the governments of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya fell, journalists found ample evidence of those governments tracking local reporters with sophisticated technology, in some cases leading to arrest and torture.

Nonetheless, more information is indeed available than ever before, begging the question: What happens next?

The Fragile First Amendment

As the U.S. government helps celebrate World Press Freedom Day in Tunisia this week, it's also important to meditate on the current state of our own country. While technology has shaped the media landscape just as much as in countries where press freedom is traditionally scarce, it has also affected the government's response to said freedom -- and it hasn't always been positive. While there's no doubt the First Amendment still gives U.S. journalists some of the strongest press freedom protections in the world, that reputation has also been mired by recent events.

As the New York Times reported in February, "Today, advances in surveillance technology allow the government to keep a perpetual eye on those with security clearances, and give prosecutors the ability to punish officials for disclosing secrets ..." Partly as a result, the Obama administration has prosecuted six leakers to the press since taking office in 2009 -- more than all prior administrations combined.

This has a chilling effect not only on government whistleblowers, but the journalists covering them as well. In one case, New York Times reporter James Risen has been subpoenaed multiple times to testify to his sources for reporting he did on his book "State of War" about Bush administration intelligence failures. In another case, it's clear from court filings the government had been reading emails of current and former ABC journalists Matthew Cole and Richard Esposito.

This is especially troubling given the State Department's push for stronger press freedom protections worldwide. ABC White House correspondent Jake Tapper astutely raised this contradiction with White House Press Secretary Jay Carney after Carney praised two American journalists who died in Syria covering the government crackdown on democratic protesters and were known for practicing uncompromising, aggressive journalism: "There just seems to be disconnect here. You want aggressive journalism abroad; you just don't want it in the United States," Tapper said. When Carney demurred, Tapper asked again, "So the truth should come out abroad; it shouldn't come out here?"

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Occupy Wall Street protest in New York. Photo by DoctorTongs on Flickr

Unfortunately, local law enforcement has also tarnished the U.S. image of broad press freedoms, even in times of protest. More broadly, local police forces, most notably the New York City Police Department, have come under fire for their seemingly unconstitutional treatment of reporters covering the Occupy Wall Street protests over the past year. Josh Stearns of Free Press has documented more than 70 arrests of journalists since the protests began in September. Many more have reported being harrassed or assaulted for just doing their job. As a result, Reporters Without Borders dropped the U.S. 27 places to 47th worldwide in its annual country-by-country report on press freedom. The recently released Freedom House rankings only dropped the U.S. slightly, but also cited the arrests at Occupy protests as the reason.

An upside to the U.S. system is that courts can -- and do -- act as a check on overzealous prosecutions and police tactics against journalists. The Fourth Circuit has twice ruled Risen does not have to give up his sources in the aforementioned leak case, citing reporter's privilege. And another court will soon have the opportunity to hear complaints about the NYPD, as a major lawsuit was just filed by many plaintiffs, alleging -- among other charges -- that the police interfered with journalists' ability to observe and violated their First Amendment rights.

Given its long history and tradition of a free press, the U.S. should be a beacon to other countries, such as the emerging democracies of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. But anytime the U.S. considers advocating for a freer press -- like it will in Tunisia today, it should be mindful of its own actions, or risk losing its ability to influence. Because as we know, information travels much faster now, and unlike in the past, there are likely countless citizen journalists now spreading news about the United States' domestic approach to press freedom abroad, just like so many do right here at home.

Jillian C. York is the director of International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. She writes regularly about free expression, politics, and the Internet, with particular focus on the Arab world. She is on the Board of Directors of Global Voices Online, and has written for a variety of publications, including Al Jazeera, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, and Bloomberg.

Trevor Timm is an activist and blogger at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He specializes in free speech and government transparency issues. Previously, he helped the former general counsel of the New York Times write a book on press freedom and the First Amendment. His work has also appeared in The Atlantic and Al Jazeera.

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April 21 2012

18:35

Study points to prominence of activists in Andy Carvin coverage of Arab Spring

Here’s the media release on the research I presented at the International Symposium on Online Journalism at UT Austin on Saturday, April 21:

A new study shows how far NPR’s Andy Carvin, known as “the man who tweets revolutions,” favoured the voice of protesters in his reporting on Twitter of the Arab Spring.

The rigorous analysis of more than 5,000 tweets found that Carvin’s feed gave higher priority to the messages from citizens in repressive societies who were documenting and expressing their desires for social change on Twitter.

During key periods of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings in early 2011, just under half of the messages on his Twitter stream came from activists and bloggers (48.3%), even though they only made up a quarter of his sources (26.4%).

Carvin also relied mainstream media journalists as sources. While they made up about a quarter of his sources (26.7%), journalists accounted for 29.4% of tweets.

The study, “Sourcing the Arab Spring: A Case Study of Andy Carvin’s Sources During the Tunisian and Egyptian Revolution” by academics in Canada and the U.S., points to the dramatic impact social media is having on journalism and the ways news is being reported.

University of British Columbia professor and lead author Alfred Hermida said: “Our findings suggest a new style of near real-time reporting where journalists tap into social media to include a broader range of voices in the news.”

“The prominence of what many may consider to be rebel voices raises questions about traditional journalistic approaches to balance and objectivity.”

Carvin, a social media strategist for U.S. public service radio broadcaster NPR, rose to prominence during the uprisings in the Middle East for his mastery of aggregating and verifying real-time news on Twitter.

The study shows how his approach to sourcing marks a break with established news practices. Traditionally, journalists cite a small number of sources who hold institutional positions of power and authority, such as government officials, police or business leaders. Journalists rely on these elite sources, shaping what news gets reported and how it is reported.

News coverage quoting ordinary people still fills only a small part of the news. When it comes to covering protests, journalists tend to cite on officials and police, and tend to discredit activists.

The researchers analysed tweets from two periods in 2011, identifying and categorizing Carvin’s top sources (322 in all). The first, from January 12 to January 19, covered the major portion of Tunisian demonstrations leading to the fall of President Ben Ali. The second, from January 24 to February 13, covered the Egyptian protests and subsequent resignation of President Hosni Mubarak.

University of Minnesota professor Seth C. Lewis, a co-author on the study, said: “This research focuses on the work of a single person, but it’s a key case study for understanding larger transformations occurring as journalism evolves through social media.”

The study is authored by Alfred Hermida from the University of British Columbia, and Seth C. Lewis and Rodrigo Zamith from the University of Minnesota.

Note to editors:

The results of the study will be presented on Saturday, April 21, at the International Symposium on Online Journalism at 11:15 a.m. CDT (12.15 p.m. EDT). A live video stream of the conference will be available on the symposium website.

The abstract for the paper, “Sourcing the Arab Spring: A Case Study of Andy Carvin’s Sources During the Tunisian and Egyptian Revolutions,” is available from the symposium website on Friday, April 20.

About the researchers:

Alfred Hermida is an award-winning associate professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of British Columbia, Canada. His research focuses on social media and emerging genres of journalism. An online news pioneer, he was a founding news editor of BBCNews.com and was a BBC correspondent in the Middle East. He co-authored Participatory Journalism: Guarding Open Gates at Online Newspapers and is currently working on his second book on the impact of social media on the news.

Contact: Alfred.Hermida@ubc.ca - Twitter: @hermida

Seth C. Lewis, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities. His research on the changing nature of journalism in the digital era has received several top-paper awards and has been published in leading academic journals. He co-edited two editions of The Future of News: An Agenda of Perspectives, and he is affiliated with Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab. Previously, he was an editor at The Miami Herald and a U.S. Fulbright Scholar to Spain.

Contact: sclewis@umn.edu - Twitter: @sethclewis

Rodrigo Zamith is a doctoral student in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities. His primary research interest is in the interplay between media, public opinion, and policymaking, with a focus on foreign affairs. He has previously worked as reporter at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

Contact: zamit001@umn.edu

January 13 2012

21:30

Why Training Citizen Journalists Is So Important After the Arab Spring

Tomorrow (Jan. 14, 2012) marks the one-year anniversary of Tunisia's liberation from 23 years of oppression under dictator Ben Ali. It was a liberation sparked by one man's shocking public protest against injustice through self-immolation and fueled by the power of citizen journalism and social media. During the last months of 2010, Tunisians captured footage of protests and government oppression and shared them with thousands via Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Within weeks, similar protests sprang up in Egypt, Libya and other Arab countries, giving birth to the Arab Spring.

With the power of the media now in the hands of every citizen with a smartphone, questions about ethics and accuracy are working their way through the journalism industry -- how do we know what we see on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter is true? Who are the media watchdogs for a form of journalism rooted in unedited immediacy?

For many of the Arab Spring countries, the press has long served as an arm of the government. As the doors to freedom and democracy swing open in the wake of revolutions, a flood of citizen journalists rushes in to take the place of media outlets held up by old regimes. But without training in ethics, accuracy and production skills, these new citizen journalists risk becoming puppets of influential businesses, organizations and new governments yet again. As Fatma Mokadmi, vice president of Tunisian PaCTE (a citizen organization formed after the Tunisian revolution to help build a democratic Tunisia), shared with me recently:

"Tunisians today believe in the role of citizen journalism in preserving freedom of speech; however, we need it to be an efficient and credible institution and not a double-edged sword."

As a photojournalist and journalism instructor, I often work with underrepresented groups to help empower them to tell their own stories through digital media. My work is part of a burgeoning trend in journalism training for the masses. Organizations like Newsmotion.org and People's Production House have teamed up to train underrepresented communities in the U.S. and abroad and distribute their stories online. Al Jazeera recently launched Somalia Speaks, a pilot project aimed at telling the stories of seldom-heard Somali citizens via SMS.

Lessons from Congo

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Two years ago, as civil unrest began to brew in the Arab world, I was returning from three months of teaching multimedia journalism in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country plagued by civil war and injustice for decades. I went to teach students at a small university in war-torn North Kivu province the ethics of journalism and multimedia, so they could begin to report and share stories about their own communities with the rest of the world.

In Congo, I watched students learn to report on the truth in their communities and to tell the stories that they considered to be important, not only the stories the West has grown accustomed to hearing -- stories of rape, violence, war and corruption. In return, my students taught me about human resilience and the ability to affect change in the face of oppression. Their stories, posted on a website created for the project called Congo in Focus, reached well beyond the borders of Congo and continue to do so today.

During our three months together, my Congolese students learned that a video journalism story isn't the same thing as a Hollywood film. They learned that taking a strong photo takes time and patience; that staging photos or asking subjects to perform an action for a video shoot isn't ethical journalism. And they learned to make mistakes and learn from them. Last month, I wrote Francine Nabintu, one of my former students, to congratulate her on an election piece she photographed and reported for PBS NewsHour about the recent elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Her response reminded me of why I love teaching in underrepresented communities:

"You inspired me in everything I'm doing today. I will never forget your encouraging us by saying 'try again.' You taught us to trust in ourselves."

The fact that NewsHour chose to highlight a story reported, written and photographed by a Congolese instead of a foreign correspondent in Congo brought the point of my teaching journalism in Congo full circle.

Here's her NewsHour story:

Speak Out Tunisia

As protests and revolutions sweep across the Arab world, citizen journalism has become the primary source of news for thousands in the Arab world. With Speak Out Tunisia, my next citizen journalism training project formed in collaboration with Tunisian PaCTE, the hope is to begin to build a network of educated, ethical journalists across Tunisia who can continue to report accurately and fairly on their country, government and communities to the rest of the world.

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Both the Congo and Tunisia projects grew from the same basic belief -- that a free and democratic society begins with a free and fair press. But as I've collaborated with Tunisians these past few months to shape the Speak Out Tunisia project, I realize increasingly that this project will take a different form than Congo in Focus. There is momentum already. Tunisians were well-versed in using social media long before the revolution. The power of the people to capture and disseminate videos and photos via the Internet already exists. The goal of Speak Out Tunisia will be to harness that power and turn it into well-produced, ethical and balanced reporting that Tunisians can trust.

Khalil Ghorbal, a Tunisian living and working in the U.S. now and core member of Tunisian PaCTE, believes that building a network of well-trained, ethical citizen journalists is a first step toward building a strong press in Tunisia.

"The Tunisian press doesn't need to be improved because it doesn't exist yet. The media before the revolution was nothing but an arm of the dictatorship -- shaped and managed to glorify a now-ousted scarecrow. Media has an important role to play in democracy. It is the watchdog that ensures that lawmakers adhere to their oaths to serve the people."

Anne Medley is a photojournalist and videographer based in the United States. She teaches photojournalism and multimedia journalism at the University of Montana, the Freedom Forum Diversity Institute and the Rocky Mountain School of Photography. Medley has taught multimedia workshops in Europe, Africa and throughout the United States. Speak Out Tunisia is currently in its fundraising phase via Kickstarter.com. The project's goal is to reach $19,000 before January 25.

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July 14 2011

18:11

Social Media and Satire Fuel Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt

Political satire is, historically, a great propeller of social movements. As Srdja Popovic, a leader of Optor, the Serbian resistance movement, said:

Everything we did [had] a dosage of humor. Because I'm joking. You're becoming angry. You're always showing only one face. And I'm always again with another joke, with another action, with another positive message to the wider audience. And that's how we collected the third party in the whole story -- which is very important -- the publicity, the people on the ground.

Nowhere has this been more true that in the pro-democracy movements in Tunisia and Egypt: While humor was potent contraband in the 23 and 30 years, respectively, of dictatorship in those countries, the increased breathing room afforded by their revolutions has allowed it to expand.

SATIRE IS NOTHING NEW

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In Tunisia, where the Arab Spring in many ways began, a satirical comic book series on Facebook is gathering buzz. Called "Captain Khobza," (spelled 5OBZA) it features a masked, Zorro-like character who goes around with a baguette rather than a weapon in order to promote and highlight the importance of non-violent action.

Its creators see the series as an important tool to prevent a backslide on freedom of expression in post-uprising Tunisia. As they told Reuters: "We are complementing the revolution with this comedy because we don't want there to be any retreat in any way on the issue of freedom of expression."

And formerly apolitical comics have also jumped on the bandwagon. The most prominent example of this is Migalo, who started out as a football satirist but has switched topics since the Tunisian uprising.

In some ways, this isn't new. As Behedinne Hajri, a Tunis-based activist, told me, "Tunisians are satirical natives ... and all kind of satirical programs have a lot of fans ... Some are caricatures such as this one, some are radio sketches, and some are inspired by [the American television series] 'South Park.'"

Satire on the radio and on the streets was tolerated to varying degrees under dictatorship. Social media, however, increases the impact of political satire that formerly existed only on radio. As Youssef Cherif, a student in Tunis, put it:

Satirical anecdotes were common to Tunisia, even though not as open [as now]. We always had jokes about the "cop-president and his hairdresser wife," [but] I am not sure if these radio shows had political impact ... The big impact comes from the Facebook pages that disseminate pictures and videos (old or new) and that are touching the population.

While radio is still important, it's the availability of this content on Facebook (and the speed with which it can spread there) that's key.

POST-UPRISING INCREASE IN SATIRICAL MEDIA

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Regardless of medium, there's been a definite uptick in all political comedy since January in Tunisia.

"A lot of people tried to express themselves by making funny critiques of the government," Wael Ben Slimene, another Tunisian activist, said. "It's a way to make sure that freedom of expression will remain."

Similar trends are apparent in Egypt. Take a look around Tahrir Square nowadays in Cairo, and you'll see plenty of caricatures and wordplay. Likewise, a Cairo-based English-language "fake news" website called El Koshary Today, modeled on The Onion, the successful satirical news network in the United States, has attracted a dedicated and growing fan base. Recent fare includes, "How To Become a Political Activist in Egypt" and "Egypt's National Security Agency Helps Former Torturers Find Inner Child."

Humor threaded the 18 days of the Egyptian uprising as well. According to a recent (informal and not statistically significant) survey on media use during the uprising, people were trafficking jokes nearly as much as they were sending logistical information. On Facebook, 35 percent of respondents reported receiving jokes in their news feeds, compared with 42 percent who said they had used the news feeds to get information about where to go and when. Similarly, 20 percent of respondents reported receiving jokes over their mobile phones, which isn't too far below the 32 percent who got coordination instructions over the phone. Humor was likely as important a morale booster and motivator during those 18 days of protest as it is today during the continued revolution.

In political environments marked by citizens struggling to move forward with revolution, people are using satirical media not just to hold onto increased political space but to push for more freedoms.

Cartoon screenshot from this satirical blog.

Susannah Vila is the Director of Content and Outreach at Movements.org. Get in touch with her at susannah.vila@gmail.com.

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March 02 2011

15:40

Leaks on demand – how the Wikileaks cables are being used

From a leak to a flood

Image by markhillary on Flickr

I’m probably not the only person to notice a curious development in how the Wikileaks material is being used in the press recently. From The Guardian and The Telegraph to The New York Times and The Washington Post, the news agenda is dictating the leaks, rather than the other way around.

It’s fascinating because we are used to seeing leaks as precious journalistic material that forms the basis of some of our best reporting. But the sheer volume of Wikileaks material – the vast majority of which still remains out of the public domain – has turned that on its head, with newsrooms asking: “Do the leaks say anything on Libya/Tunisia/Egypt?”

When they started dealing with Wikileaks data some newsrooms built customised databases to allow them to quickly find relevant documents. Recent events have proved that – not to mention the recruitment of staff who can quickly interrogate that data – to be very wise.

February 13 2011

17:13

Gutenberg of Arabia

At the critical climax of the Egyptian revolution, one of its sparks, Google’s Wael Ghonim, told his followers on Twitter that he would not speak to them through media but instead through the Facebook page he created, the page he’d used to gather momentum for the protest, the page that had gotten him arrested, the page that was one of the reasons that Hosni Mubarak hit the kill switch on the entire internet in Egypt (here’s another reason). After Mubarak left, Ghonim said on CNN that he wanted to meet Mark Zuckerberg to thank him for Facebook and the ability to make that page.

After the Reformation in Europe, Martin Luther thanked Johannes Gutenberg. Printing, he said, was “God’s highest and extremest act of grace.” Good revolutionaries thank their tools and toolmakers.

There’s a silly debate, well-documented by Jay Rosen, over the credit social tools should receive in the revolutions, successful. abortive, and emerging, in Egypt, Tunisia, Iran, and elsewhere in the Middle East. Jay compiles fine examples of the genre, which specializes in shooting down an argument no one we know has made: that Twitter carries out revolutions. (I would add the Evgeny Morozov variation, which incessantly wants to remind us—not that anyone I know has forgotten—that these tools can also be used by bad actors, badly.) No one I know—no one—says that these revolutions weren’t fought by people. As a blogger said on Al Jazeera English, Twitter didn’t fight Egypt’s police, Egyptians did. Who doesn’t agree with that?

This same alleged debate—curmudgeons shooting at phantom technological determinists and triumphalists—goes on to this day over Gutenberg, too. Adrian Johns, author of The Nature of the Book, accuses premier Gutenberg scholar Elizabeth Eisenstein, author of The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, of giving too much credit to the printing press. He does not buy her contention that print itself was revolutionary and “created a fundamental division in human history.”

Like Jay, I’m a befuddled over the roots of the curmudgeons’ one-sided debate. Why do they so object to tools being given credit? Are they really objecting, instead, to technology as an agent of change, shifting power from incumbents to insurgents? Why should I care about their complaints? I am confident that these tools have been used by the revolutionaries and have a role. What’s more interesting is to ask what that role is, what that impact is.

I was honored to have been able to call Eisenstein to interview her for my book, Public Parts. Her perspective on the change wrought through Gutenberg was incredibly helpful to my effort to analyze the change that our modern tools of publicness are enabling. When I asked her about the internet, she demurred, arguing that she’s not even on Facebook. (Though I do love that when she’s researching, her first stop is Wikipedia.)

At the end of our conversation, Eisenberg raised the Middle East, observing that “they sort of missed Gutenberg. They jumped from the oral phase to this phase.” She was quick to add that it’s facile and wrong to say that the Middle East is still in the Middle Ages; she’s not saying that, merely observing that “they skipped Gutenberg, for better or worse.” She said this before the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions and I was not sure what she meant.

Today, it occurs to me that Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube may be the Gutenberg press of the Middle East, tools like his that enable people to speak, share, and gather. Without those tools, could revolutions occur? Of course, curmudgeons, they could. Without people and their passion, could revolutions occur? Of course not, curmudgeons. But why are these revolutions occurring now? No, curmudgeons, we’ll never be able to answer that question.

But it does matter that the revolutionaries of the Middle East use—indeed, depend upon—these social tools and the net. That is the reason why we must protect them, for by doing so we protect the public and its freedoms. If you follow Gladwell, et al, and believe that the social tools are merely toys and trifles, then what does it matter if they are shut down? That is why the curmudgeons’ debate with themselves matters: because it could do harm; it could result in dismissing the tools of publicness just when we most need to safeguard them.

In the privileged West, we have been talking about net neutrality as a question of whether we can watch movies well. In the Middle East, net neutrality has a much more profund meaning: as a human right to connect. When Mubarak shut down the internet, when China shuts down Facebook, when Turkey shuts down YouTube, when America concocts its own kill switch, they violate the human rights of their citizens as much as if they burned the products of Gutenberg’s press.

In the midst of the Egyptian revolution, I realized that many of us in the West—and I include myself squarely in this—act under the assumption that progress in digital democracy would come here first, because our technology and our democracies are more advanced. Then it became clear to me that such advances would come instead where they are most needed: in the Middle East.

This is why I keep calling for a discussion about an independent set of principles for cyberspace so we can hold them over the heads of governments and corporations that would restrict and control our tools of publicness. I keep revising my list of principles, from this, to this, to this, to this:

I. We have a right to connect.
II. We have the right to speak.
III. We have the right to assemble & act
IV. Privacy is a responsibility of knowing.
V. Publicness is a responsibility of sharing.
VI. Information should be public by default, secret by necessity.
VII. What is public is a public good.
VIII. All bits are created equal.
IX. The internet shall be operated openly.
X. The internet shall be distributed.

This, to me, is a far more fruitful discussion than whether Facebook and Twitter deserves credit for Egypt and Tunisia. The revolutionaries deserve credit. They also deserve the freedom to use the tools of their revolutions.

February 03 2011

21:45

Social Media Alone Do Not Instigate Revolutions

This post was also written by Sean Noonan for STRATFOR.

Internet services were reportedly restored in Egypt yesterday after being completely shut down for two days. Egyptian authorities unplugged the last Internet service provider (ISP) still operating Jan. 31 amidst ongoing protests across the country. The other four providers in Egypt -- Link Egypt, Vodafone/Raya, Telecom Egypt and Etisalat Misr -- were shut down as the crisis boiled over on Jan. 27. Commentators immediately assumed this was a response to the organizational capabilities of social media websites that Cairo could not completely block from public access.

The role of social media in protests and revolutions has garnered considerable media attention in recent years. Current conventional wisdom has it that social networks have made regime change easier to organize and execute. An underlying assumption is that social media is making it more difficult to sustain an authoritarian regime -- even for hardened autocracies like Iran and Myanmar -- which could usher in a new wave of democratization around the globe. In a Jan. 27 YouTube interview, U.S. President Barack Obama went as far as to compare social networking to universal liberties such as freedom of speech.

Social media alone, however, do not instigate revolutions. They are no more responsible for the recent unrest in Tunisia and Egypt than cassette-tape recordings of Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini speeches were responsible for the 1979 revolution in Iran. Social media are tools that allow revolutionary groups to lower the costs of participation, organization, recruitment and training. But like any tool, social media have inherent weaknesses and strengths, and their effectiveness depends on how effectively leaders use them and how accessible they are to people who know how to use them.

How to Use Social Media

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The situations in Tunisia and Egypt have both seen an increased use of social networking media such as Facebook and Twitter to help organize, communicate and ultimately initiate civil-disobedience campaigns and street actions. The Iranian "Green Revolution" in 2009 was closely followed by the Western media via YouTube and Twitter, and the latter even gave Moldova's 2009 revolution its moniker, the "Twitter Revolution."

Foreign observers -- and particularly the media -- are mesmerized by the ability to track events and cover diverse locations, perspectives and demographics in real time. But a revolution is far more than what we see and hear on the Internet -- it requires organization, funding and mass appeal. Social media no doubt offer advantages in disseminating messages quickly and broadly, but they also are vulnerable to government counter-protest tactics (more on these below). And while the effectiveness of the tool depends on the quality of a movement's leadership, a dependence on social media can actually prevent good leadership from developing.

The key for any protest movement is to inspire and motivate individuals to go from the comfort of their homes to the chaos of the streets and face off against the government. Social media allow organizers to involve like-minded people in a movement at a very low cost, but they do not necessarily make these people move. Instead of attending meetings, workshops and rallies, uncommitted individuals can join a Facebook group or follow a Twitter feed at home, which gives them some measure of anonymity (though authorities can easily track IP addresses) but does not necessarily motivate them to physically hit the streets and provide fuel for a revolution. At the end of the day, for a social media-driven protest movement to be successful, it has to translate social media membership into street action.

The Internet allows a revolutionary core to widely spread not just its ideological message but also its training program and operational plan. This can be done by email, but social media broaden the exposure and increase its speed increases, with networks of friends and associates sharing the information instantly. YouTube videos explaining a movement's core principles and tactics allow cadres to transmit important information to dispersed followers without having to travel. (This is safer and more cost effective for a movement struggling to find funding and stay under the radar, but the level of training it can provide is limited. Some things are difficult to learn by video, which presents the same problems for protest organizers as those confronted by grassroots jihadists, who must rely largely on the Internet for communication.) Social media can also allow a movement to be far more nimble about choosing its day of action and, when that day comes, to spread the action order like wildfire. Instead of organizing campaigns around fixed dates, protest movements can reach hundreds of thousands of adherents with a single Facebook post or Twitter feed, launching a massive call to action in seconds.

With lower organizational and communications costs, a movement can depend less on outside funding, which also allows it to create the perception of being a purely indigenous movement (without foreign supporters) and one with wide appeal. According to the event's Facebook page, the April 6 Movement in Egypt had some 89,250 people claiming attendance at a Jan. 28 protest when, in fact, a much smaller number of protestors were actually there according to STRATFOR's estimates. The April 6 Movement is made up of the minority of Egyptians who have Internet access, which the OpenNet Initiative estimated in August 2009 to be 15.4 percent of the population. While this is ahead of most African countries, it is behind most Middle Eastern countries. Internet penetration rates in countries like Iran and Qatar are around 35 percent, still a minority of the population.

Eventually, a successful revolutionary movement has to appeal to the middle class, the working class, retirees and rural segments of the population, groups that are unlikely to have Internet access in most developing countries. Otherwise, a movement could quickly find itself unable to control the revolutionary forces it unleashed or being accused by the regime of being an unrepresentative fringe movement. This may have been the same problem that Iranian protesters experienced in 2009.

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Not only must protest organizers expand their base beyond Internet users, they must also be able to work around government disruption. Following the Internet shutdown in Egypt, protesters were able to distribute hard-copy tactical pamphlets and use faxes and landline telephones for communications. Ingenuity and leadership quickly become more important than social media when the government begins to use counter-protest tactics, which are well developed even in the most closed countries.

Countering Social Media

Like any other tool, social media have their drawbacks. Lowering the costs of communication also diminishes operational security. Facebook messages can be open for all to see, and even private messages can be viewed by authorities through search warrants in more open countries or pressure on the Internet social media firms in more closed ones. Indeed, social media can quickly turn into a valuable intelligence-collection tool. A reliance on social media can also be exploited by a regime willing to cut the country off from Internet or domestic text messaging networks altogether, as has been the case in Egypt.

The capability of governments to monitor and counteract social media developed alongside the capability of their intelligence services. In order to obtain an operating license in any country, social networking websites have to come to some sort of agreement with the government. In many countries, this involves getting access to user data, locations and network information. Facebook profiles, for example, can be a boon for government intelligence collectors, who can use updates and photos to pinpoint movement locations and activities and identify connections among various individuals, some of whom may be suspect for various activities. (Facebook has received funding from In-Q-Tel, the CIA's venture capital firm, and many Western intelligence services have start-up budgets to develop Internet technologies that will enable even deeper mining of Internet-user data.)

In using social media, the tradeoff for protest leaders is that they must expose themselves to disseminate their message to the masses (although there are ways to mask IP addresses and avoid government monitoring, such as by using proxy servers). Keeping track of every individual who visits a protest organization's website page may be beyond the capabilities of many security services, depending on a site's popularity, but a medium designed to reach the masses is open to everyone. In Egypt, almost 40 leaders of the April 6 Movement were arrested early on in the protests, and this may have been possible by identifying and locating them through their Internet activities, particularly through their various Facebook pages.

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Indeed, one of the first organizers of the April 6 Movement became known in Egypt as "Facebook Girl" following her arrest in Cairo on April 6, 2008. The movement was originally organized to support a labor protest that day in Mahalla, and organizer Esraa Abdel Fattah Ahmed Rashid found Facebook a convenient way to organize demonstrations from the safety of her home. Her release from prison was an emotional event broadcast on Egyptian TV, which depicted her and her mother crying and hugging. Rashid was then expelled from the group and no longer knows the password for accessing the April 6 Facebook page. One fellow organizer called her "chicken" for saying she would not have organized the protest if she had thought she would be arrested. Rashid's story is a good example of the challenges posed by using social media as a tool for mobilizing a protest. It is easy to "like" something or someone on Facebook, but it is much harder to organize a protest on the street where some participants will likely be arrested, injured or killed.

Beyond monitoring movement websites, governments can also shut them down. This has been common in Iran and China during times of social unrest. But blocking access to a particular website cannot stop tech-savvy Internet users employing virtual private networks or other technologies to access unbanned IP addresses outside the country in order to access banned sites. In response to this problem, China shut down Internet access to all of Xinjiang Autonomous Region, the location of ethnic Uighur riots in July 2009. More recently, Egypt followed the same tactic for the entire country. Like many countries, Egypt has contracts with Internet service providers that allow the government to turn the Internet off or, when service providers are state-owned, to make life difficult for Internet-based organizers.

Regimes can also use social media for their own purposes. One counter-protest tactic is to spread disinformation, whether it is to scare away protesters or lure them all to one location where anti-riot police lie in wait. We have not yet witnessed such a government "ambush" tactic, but its use is inevitable in the age of Internet anonymity. Government agents in many countries have become quite proficient at trolling the Internet in search of pedophiles and wannabe terrorists. (Of course, such tactics can be used by both sides. During the Iranian protests in 2009, many foreign-based Green Movement supporters spread disinformation over Twitter to mislead foreign observers.)

The most effective way for the government to use social media is to monitor what protest organizers are telling their adherents either directly over the Internet or by inserting an informant into the group, counteracting the protesters wherever and whenever they assemble. Authorities monitoring protests at World Trade Organization and G-8 meetings as well as the Republican and Democratic national conventions in the United States have used this successfully. Over the past two years in Egypt, the April 6 Movement has found the police ready and waiting at every protest location. Only in recent weeks has popular support grown to the point where the movement has presented a serious challenge to the security services.

One of the biggest challenges for security services is to keep up with the rapidly changing Internet. In Iran, the regime quickly shut down Facebook but not Twitter, not realizing the latter's capabilities. If social media are presenting a demonstrable threat to governments, it could become vital for security services to continually refine and update plans for disrupting new Internet technology.

Quality of Leadership vs. Cost of Participation

There is no denying that social media represent an important tool for protest movements to effectively mobilize their adherents and communicate their message. As noted above, however, the effectiveness of the tool depends on its user, and an overreliance can become a serious detriment.

One way it can hurt a movement is in the evolution of its leadership. To lead a protest movement effectively, an organization's leadership has to venture outside of cyberspace. It has to learn what it means to face off against a regime's counterintelligence capabilities in more than just the virtual world. By holding workshops and mingling among the populace, the core leadership of a movement learns the different strategies that work best with different social strata and how to appeal to a broad audience. Essentially, leaders of a movement that exploits the use of social media must take the same risks as those of groups that lack such networking capability. The convenience and partial anonymity of social media can decrease the motivation of a leader to get outside and make things happen.

Moreover, a leadership grounded in physical reality is one that constructs and sticks to a concerted plan of action. The problem with social media is that they subvert the leadership of a movement while opening it to a broader membership. This means that a call for action may spread like wildfire before a movement is sufficiently prepared, which can put its survival in danger. In many ways, the Iranian Green Revolution is a perfect example of this. The call for action brought a self-selected group of largely educated urban youth to protest in the streets, where the regime cracked down harshly on a movement it believed was not broad enough to constitute a real threat.

A leadership too reliant on social media can also become isolated from alternative political movements with which it may share the common goal of regime change. This is especially the case when other movements are not "youth movements" and therefore are not as tech savvy. This can create serious problems once the revolution is successful and an interim government needs to be created. The Serbian Otpor (Resistance) movement was successful in the 2000 Serbian democratic revolution precisely because it managed to bring together a disparate opposition of pro-Western and nationalist forces. But to facilitate such coalition building, leaders have to step away from computers and cell phones and into factories, rice paddies and watering holes they normally would never want to enter. This is difficult to do during a revolution, when things are in flux and public suspicion is high, especially of those who claim to be leading a revolution.

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Even when a media-savvy leader has a clear plan, he or she may not be successful. For instance, Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister of Thailand and telecommunications magnate, has used his skills to hold video conference calls with stadiums full of supporters, and launched two massive waves of protests involving some 100,000 supporters against the Thai government in April 2009 and April and May 2010, yet he still has not succeeded in taking power. He remains a disembodied voice, capable of rocking the boat but incapable of taking its helm.

Simply a Convenience

Shutting down the Internet did not reduce the numbers of Egyptian protesters in the streets. In fact, the protests only grew bigger as websites were shut down and the Internet was turned off. If the right conditions exist a revolution can occur, and social media do not seem to change that. Just because an Internet-based group exists does not make it popular or a threat. There are Facebook groups, YouTube videos and Twitter posts about everything, but that does not make them popular. A neo-Nazi skinhead posting from his mother's basement in Illinois is not going to start a revolution in the United States, no matter how many Internet posts he makes or what he says. The climate must be ripe for revolution, due to problems like inflation, deflation, food shortages, corruption and oppression, and the population must be motivated to mobilize. Representing a new medium with dangers as well as benefits, social media do not create protest movements; they only allow members of such movements to communicate more easily.

Other technologies like short-wave radio, which can also be used to communicate and mobilize, have been available to protesters and revolutionaries for a long time. In reality, so has the Internet, which is the fundamental technological development that allows for quick and widespread communications. The popularity of social media, one of many outgrowths of the Internet, may actually be isolated to international media observation from afar. We can now watch protest developments in real time, instead of after all the reports have been filed and printed in the next day's newspaper or broadcast on the nightly news. Western perceptions are often easily swayed by English-speaking, media-savvy protestors who may be only a small fraction of a country's population. This is further magnified in authoritarian countries where Western media have no choice but to turn to Twitter and YouTube to report on the crisis, thus increasing the perceived importance of social media.

In the Middle East, where Internet penetration is below 35 percent (with the exception of Israel), if a movement grows large enough to effect change it will have been joined through word of mouth, not through social networking. Still, the expansion of Internet connectivity does create new challenges for domestic leaders who have proved more than capable of controlling older forms of communication. This is not an insurmountable challenge, as China has shown, but even in China's case there is growing anxiety about the ability of Internet users to evade controls and spread forbidden information.

Social media represent only one tool among many for an opposition group to employ. Protest movements are rarely successful if led from somebody's basement in a virtual arena. Their leaders must have charisma and street smarts, just like leaders of any organization. A revolutionary group cannot rely on its most tech-savvy leaders to ultimately launch a successful revolution any more than a business can depend on the IT department to sell its product. It is part of the overall strategy, but it cannot be the sole strategy.

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This story originally ran on STRATFOR's site under the headline Social Media as a Tool for Protest, and is republished with permission of STRATFOR.

Image of Moldova protest sign outside UN by Dan Patterson via Flickr.

Image of tanks in Egypt by Beacon Radio via Flickr.

Image of Thaksin Shinawatra from www.kremlin.ru via Wikipedia.

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18:24

Social Media, Facebook Help People Stand Up in Tunisia, Egypt

Even though they're far away from the center of the action in Cairo, Chinese web users felt the impact of the current demonstrations and political change afoot in Egypt. Chinese users searching for "Egypt" on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, came up empty, and 467 sites were reported inaccessible after a call for a "march of a million" was issued in Cairo days ago.

For roughly a week now, the journalists and bloggers spreading information about the situation in Egypt have been harassed been by the military. Yesterday and today saw the worst outbreak of violence against journalists yet, as evidenced by this video of CNN's Anderson Cooper and crew being attacked by a crowd:

Plus, CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera, Al-Arabiya and ABC News staffers were attacked too. As of this morning, reports have been flowing on Twitter and in the mainstream press that journalists are being detained by the regime, while the physical attacks on them continue in streets and hotels.

Serge Dumont, a Belgian reporter, has even been arrested and accused of spying. What started with relatively peaceful demonstrations has turned into a violent and deadly case of repression by government -- and it is playing out in real-time thanks to social media and television.

Tunisia: End Of Info Repression

The demonstrations and political fallout in Egypt are reminiscent of what began on December 17 in Tunisia, when Mohamed Bouazizi, a young fruit vendor, set himself on fire in an act of protest. But one important difference between Egypt and Tunisia is that official media in the latter did not cover the event, and journalists were harassed when trying to get to the city of Sidi Bouzid.


5367417272_ddd33cd5a1_m.jpgIn Tunisia, the official media blackout was challenged by amateur video and pictures, which often became the most important information coming out of the country. Soon, #SidiBouzid became a popular Twitter hashtag, and Facebook began filling with reports and infromation. The Internet was the place where pictures and videos of government repression were assembled for the world to see.



Finally, on January 13, Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled the country after a TV interview showed him to be nothing but a weak man in power. Three days later, the transitional government got rid of the Information Ministry and Slim Ammamou, a blogger who was released from prison just four days before, became Secretary of State for Youth and Sports.



During the Ben Ali regime, information was strictly controlled. All but three newspapers were controlled by the government and the cyber-police -- also called Ammar404 -- kept themselves busy by filtering opposition websites and installing surveillance systems in Internet cafes and email providers. The result was that Facebook become one of the only places where freedom of speech could flourish in Tunisia. (The regime attempted to block Facebook in 2008, but had to abort the idea.)

Forty percent of the population has access to the Internet in Tunisia. It was this group of connected citizens who demonstrated that online buzz and chatter can grab the attention of international media, and thereby help bring about change. Of course, this kind of political and social change is about people behaving bravely; but social media can help bring an issue to the attention of the international community.

The same can also be said for Egypt: Social media proved a powerful and constant source of reportage, but it was the people in the streets who stood up.

Al Jazeera Emerges

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On January 31, five foreign and Egyptian journalists from the pan-Arab broadcaster Al Jazeera were interrogated by the Egyptian military, and their equipment was confiscated. They were released, but the day before Egyptian authorities ordered the closure of the network's Cairo office. Al Jazeera denounced the move as an attempt to muzzle open reporting and urged Egyptians to send blog posts, eyewitness accounts and videos to get around the censorship.

Much in the same way that the Persian Gulf War was a defining moment for CNN, the uprising in Egypt has been something of a coming out party for Al Jazeera's English service. Its website has seen a 2,500 percent increase in web traffic, with a notable portion of that traffic coming from the U.S. That's quite a feat, since the vast majority of U.S. cable carriers do not offer Al Jazeera English. (You can see the Al Jazeera English live feed online here.)

While people around the world were watching the live stream of Al Jazeera's coverage, those in Egypt began reporting problems with their Internet connections on January 26. There were particular problems when attempting to access the online newspapers Al-Badil, Al-Dustour and Al-Masry Al-Youm. Access to Al-Badil and Al-Dustour was subsequently blocked altogether, while Al-Masry Al-Youm experienced major problems. A huge online blockade was reported the night of January 27, which also happened to be the day before a general call for a Friday protest.

Four local ISPs were forced to stop their services. Only Noor was still working before it shut down at 11:30 pm local time earlier this week. In order to prevent the disruption of their services, Google and Twitter now allow people to tweet just by making a phone call. Facebook, which was intermittently blocked, issued a statement condemning the Internet shutdown.

"Although the turmoil in Egypt is a matter for the Egyptian people and their government to resolve, limiting Internet access for millions of people is a matter of concern for the global community," said Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes in a statement. "It is essential to communication and to commerce. No one should be denied access to the Internet."

Mobile Phones Disrupted

In terms of new technologies, the Internet wasn't the only target. The authorities began jamming mobile phone communications in locations where protesters gathered. Representatives of Vodafone and Mobile Nile denied any involvement in the disruption of service and placed the blame on Egyptian authorities. And today Vodaphone released a statement saying that the government also forced it to send messages over its network

Free Press, a U.S. non-profit organization working for media reform, has denounced one American company, Boeing-owned Narus of Sunnyvale, Calif, for its relationship with the government. It sold Egypt "Deep Packet Inspection" equipment that can be used to track, target and crush political dissent over the Internet and mobile phones. Before January 27, mobile phone services were disrupted only where the protesters gathered. But on the night between January 27 and 28, SMS and phone connections were interrupted and only partially reestablished on January 29.

As of this writing, news organizations are reporting that Internet access has been restored in Egypt, with Facebook and Twitter coming back online for the populace. This comes at a time when clashes in the streets have turned violent against citizens and journalists. With the Internet and social media back to normal, let's hope the same can soon be said for the Egyptian people.

This post was made possible thanks to the contributions of the Middle East and New Media desks of Reporters Without Borders.

Image of Tunisian demonstrators by magharebia via Flickr.

Image of Egypt demonstration by Beacon Radio via Flickr

Clothilde Le Coz has been working for Reporters Without Borders in Paris since 2007. She is now the Washington director for this organization, helping to promote press freedom and free speech around the world. In Paris, she was in charge of the Internet Freedom desk and worked especially on China, Iran, Egypt and Thailand. During the time she spent in Paris, she was also updating the "Handbook for Bloggers and Cyberdissidents," published in 2005. Her role is now to get the message out for readers and politicians to be aware of the constant threat journalists are submitted to in many countries.

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January 30 2011

19:22

January 28 2011

23:05

What Role Did Social Media Play in Tunisia, Egypt Protests?

As the protests are playing out in the streets of Cairo and the rest of Egypt today, I have been glued to the live-stream of Al Jazeera English as well as the Twitter hashtag #Jan25, a top trending topic based on the big protests a few days ago. The Egyptian protests come on the heels of a similar revolution in Tunisia, where a longtime dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was ousted after young people organized protests via Facebook. We've heard about "Twitter revolutions" before in Iran after huge protests there in 2009, but how have things changed today? How much of a role has social media played in the turmoil happening in the Middle East? Will that continue to be the case? Vote in our poll below, or share your deeper thoughts in the comments below.




What role did social media play in Tunisia, Egypt protests?online surveys

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

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January 27 2011

18:00

Citizen Media Brings Opposing Political Views to the Maghreb

The Maghreb is generally a term used to refer to five countries in North Africa: Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia. This article explores the current state of the media in the region, and marks the effect that a burgeoning citizen media sphere is having on democracy. It is based on a contribution by the author, Algerian journalist Laid Zaghlami to the book "Citizen Journalism & Democracy in Africa," an exploratory study undertaken by the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University, South Africa, in July 2010. Download a PDF of the publication here.

The current political systems in the Maghreb countries are not eager to promote freedom of the press. On the contrary, they are acting to prevent the emergence of a real pluralistic media landscape and the birth of independent and active civil society.

In Morocco, the ascension of King Mohamed VI in 1999 brought high hopes for freedom and liberty. They have been dashed, however, by 10 years of banned newspapers and jailed journalists -- all because they dared to publish "sensitive" news about the king's health or his family members.

Media policy changes in Morocco are only cosmetic and tend to promote the king's image; journalists and bloggers alike are often subject to authorities' control and surveillance over their articles and comments.

In Tunisia -- where a new interim government is in power after the recent ouster of dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali -- several international bodies and non-governmental organizations have openly criticized the government because of the worsening situation of press freedom and human rights.

Human rights activists, political opponents, lawyers and journalists are often harassed and even imprisoned. Also many bloggers face prison charges because of their critical reports on the Internet. (Next week MediaShift will have a more detailed report about the situation in Tunisia.)

Algeria appears to have a relatively free press, compared with its neighbors. Privately owned press accounts for a dominant and prominent position in the media market, comprising 74 newspapers out of a total of 80 titles. However, economic sanctions and fines may apply in the event of acts of defamation and libel.

Algerians also seem to enjoy unrestricted Internet access, in as much as there is no legislation to supervise or monitor Internet sites. However, authorities are enacting laws to address what they refer to as "communication crimes."

An Emerging Blogosphere

Illiteracy is an important factor that affects the educational and cultural participation of citizens in Maghreb countries, and therefore online media participation. In statistical terms, illiteracy affects 23 percent of Algeria's 35 million inhabitants, 32 percent of 9 million inhabitants in Tunisia, and in Morocco 40 percent of a population of 36 million.

Citizen journalism in the Maghreb region -- and in Algeria in particular -- still has a long way to come before providing a real alternative to conventional media. But it is clear that new technologies have enabled journalists and normal citizens alike to become multi-skilled media producers.

In Tunisia, for example, bloggers have set up a collective blog called Tunisian Witness, which aims to reach Tunisian citizens worldwide, particularly those interested in developing independent national media. These bloggers consider themselves to be active citizen journalists, contributing to the idea of citizenship with news, ideas and comments, as well as actively participating in forums and debates on issues related to Tunisia.

Perceptions of Citizen Journalism

One key issue is that the concept of citizen journalism is ill defined among the population of these three Maghreb countries. Some consider it just to be the online press.

Screen shot 2011-01-25 at 9.45.58 PM.pngMost newspapers have their own electronic editions on the Internet, although only few titles are exclusively available online. The latter include Algeria-based Echorouk Online and Tout sur l'Algerie [Everything about Algeria], which operates in compliance with the requirements of its French owner CNIL.

Others recognize blogs as a key part of the citizen journalism movement, representing online spaces for political opposition and a means to promote freedom of expression and the press.

There have been moves to build up common spaces on the Internet for new forms of expression, especially in the sphere of political blogging and particularly in Algeria.

The website agirpouralglerie.com [Act for Algeria], for example, was initiated by Hichem Aboud, a former Algerian security officer living in France. Also key to the political blogosphere is haddar-blog.com, which is authored by an active political opponent, Yazid Haddar.

There are citizen media websites and blogs that are not politically focused. Algerie Decouverte [Algeria Discovered] is a travel blog exploring the country's history, nature and geography; Kherdja is a blog dedicated to outings, food and shopping.

A timid debut of professional local citizen journalism is also taking place in the Maghreb. One good example is the electronic newspaper Algérie Focus [Algeria Focus]. Based in France, it's produced by a team of professional journalists, scholars and experts. It aims to promote freedom of expression and a diversity of opinions.

fay.jpgIts chief editor, Faycal Anseur has launched parallel citizen spaces with the support of social network applications including Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace, Orkut, Flickr, Bebo, Hi5, YouTube, Basecamp, Viadeo, and Webwag. Nevertheless, citizen journalism in the Maghreb seems to have a long way to go before it can be widely grasped and comprehended.

Anseur's concept of citizen journalism developed from a desire to elevate free and unfettered communication as a platform for generating fresh understandings about justice, politics, economics, democracy and more.

Resenting the ethical strictness and political correctness of existing Maghreb public media, his immediate aim is to secure more spaces on the Internet for free expression of opinions without restrictions or censorship.

There are basic communication gaps between within members of the same society across the Maghreb, thanks to a variety of economic, social and cultural barriers: Generational, educational, financial and gender differences.

It is too early to confirm how a project like Algérie Focus will fit into the conventional journalism model in the country. What is evident however, is how traditional media in the Maghreb has disappointed citizens.

Convential Media Joins In

Conventional public and private media in the Maghreb appear to underestimate or ignore the concept of citizen journalism. Their typical response has been simply to have online editions of their publications.

As such, they exhibit a highly institutionalized approach to citizen journalism, tending to think of their newspapers as spaces for all citizens' contributions and suggestions.

Besides having a network of regional and local correspondents, some newspapers provide hotlines to their readers for comments and reports on different issues. Traditional media assume there is no need to develop new specific citizen journalism projects that would provide an alternative to conventional channels.

Only a newspaper called Le Citoyen [The Citizen] is dedicated to reporting on regional news by placing citizens at the core, and it is privately owned.

The practice of citizen journalism requires a political system that is basically founded on core democratic values, including media and political pluralism. These key tenets were in fact instilled in the Maghreb at a conference on citizen journalism in the Arab world, held in Casablanca, Morocco in 2008.

The media is an important part of the democratic process in the region; journalists themselves are actors or agents of democracy. Those working in the region's private press should today be proud of their achievements in securing communicative spaces for public opinion.

Conventional media, and especially the private press, still has an important role to play in promoting and safeguarding democracy in the Maghreb. However, it must open up to provide the kind of forums in which journalists, scholars, political opponents and ordinary citizens alike can intervene in public affairs.

Laid Zaghlami has been a journalist, reporter and specialized chief editor in Algerian broadcasting since 1982. Most recently he has contributed to the book "Citizen Journalism & Democracy in Africa," an exploratory study by the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University, South Africa, available online at www.highwayafrica.com.

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This story was originally published by the European Journalism Centre, an independent non-profit institute dedicated to the highest standards in journalism, primarily through the further training of journalists and media professionals. Follow @ejcnet for Twitter updates, join us on Facebook and on the EJC Online Journalism Community.

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