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February 22 2011

18:25

One Journalist's Survival Guide to the Egyptian Revolution

During the uprising that eventually ended the 30-year reign of President Hosni Mubarak, I became convinced that the most important journalistic work being done today is in those countries where journalists are not wanted. Mubarak and his agents were determined to silence the protesters and their message.

But, thanks to the valiant efforts of journalists and the resilience of the protesters they were there to cover, the revolution was not only televised, it was also streamed, blogged, and tweeted. During 18 days of sustained resistance by the Egyptian people, the world was able to see what real bravery is -- in real time. This is one reporter's eyewitness recollection of the revolution and the coverage of it.

Dangerous Driving

I flew into Cairo on the night of February 1st. I counted 35 checkpoints from the airport to my hotel on the island of Zamalek, where many journalists and diplomats reside and work.

The drive, which normally takes 30 minutes, took nearly three hours. After dark there was a curfew in Cairo, and every block in the city seemingly had its own distinct checkpoint. Most of them were manned by civilians armed with all manner of improvised weapons: sticks, poles, machetes, and even a samurai sword. These men primarily wanted to prevent looting in their neighborhoods.

The Mukhabarat, Egypt's secret police, had also set up their own checkpoints. These were the most frightening, especially for a foreign journalist. Last year, I was detained by the Mukhabarat. I was in Rafah doing a story on the tunnels into the Gaza Strip. While shooting street scenes in broad daylight, they snatched me off the street. I was held captive for 12 hours and it was not pleasant.

I was luckier this time and made it to the hotel without incident. After checking into my hotel, I tried to check Twitter for the latest information from Tahrir Square, but the Internet was still shut down across the country. Fortunately, cell phones were working so I was still able to communicate with my editors and colleagues.

I watched Mubarak's second speech since the "Day of Rage" from my hotel room. It was broadcast on virtually every channel. CNN and BBC both offered a live English translation. He was defiant, stating that he would stay in power for another six months to oversee Egypt's transition.

A Wave of Thugs

Twenty minutes later I was on the streets of Cairo, producing a video for the New York Times with Nicholas Kristof. We didn't know yet that someone close to the regime was orchestrating a concerted, systematic effort to harass, arrest, and assault journalists.

As Kristof and I crossed the October 6th bridge on our way to Tahrir, we saw a mob of about 150 Mubarak supporters rushing towards us. It was nighttime and they were some 100 feet away, so initially I couldn't tell if they were friendly or not. They had already seen me filming and probably suspected I was a journalist, so I just kept the camera rolling.

Generally in these situations, I like to keep the camera out for two reasons: Evidence and self-defense. If I get beat up (or worse), I want it to be documented. I am also a trained martial artist and know how to use my Canon XHA1 to ward off attacks. (Don't bother looking in the manual for this.) My camera isn't one of those flimsy Flip cameras that are popular these days. It is hard and heavy and fully insured. It can be used for blocking punches, keeping a distance between me and a threat, or as my own kind of improvised weapon.

I stood my ground filming the mob as they swarmed me. They were chanting "Mu-bar-ak! Mu-ba-rak! Mu-bar-ak!" (I must say, the anti-Mubarak protesters had much more creative chants.) I breathed a huge sigh of relief when they went past me.

We filmed some interviews at the square, then left when an Egyptian colleague warned us that some dangerous elements had moved in.

Targeting the Media

I went home, slept, and woke up early the next morning to edit the material. I had to get to the New York Times bureau in order to upload it, since the Internet was still down. The Times and other news organizations used a satellite BGAN communications system to get around the web shutdown. After filing, I met up with Kristof and headed back to the square.

Reports of journalists being targeted by pro-Mubarak thugs had begun coming in. Our driver dropped us off as close as possible to Tahrir Square, but the area on its periphery was where journalists were the most vulnerable. I felt a bit like a seal swimming in Mosselbai, South Africa, a favored feeding ground for great white sharks.

With my camera in a student-like backpack, we walked up to an army checkpoint outside of Tahrir. They didn't let us in. We went to another and were again denied entry. At a third, the soldiers finally allowed us in. Past the army checkpoints, civilians were also stopping people in an effort to prevent armed thugs from entering the square.

The protesters' checkpoint was security with a smile. A man in Levis jeans took my passport, frisked me, opened up my camera bag, and said with the utmost sincerity, "I am so sorry. Welcome to Egypt."

In Tahrir Square

Inside, it was like a parallel universe. I walked past a Hardees restaurant that was being used as a station for processing medical equipment. The travel agency next door was a prison for captured Mukhabarat.

Tahrir Square was the one place in Cairo where I actually felt safe working as a journalist. I knew that every single one of these protesters would take a bullet to defend me and my right to film.

As is the case in many revolutions in history, journalists become part of the story. The protesters knew that we were not affiliated with Egyptian state media, and thus were likely to depict the strength and righteousness of their movement accurately. They did everything in their power to help us (which in turn would help them). They fed us, offered us cigarettes and tea, and then posed for our cameras.

Western journalists knew we were being manipulated. But most of us didn't care because we believed in their cause. I didn't meet a single Western reporter who was not in favor of the revolution. Journalists cherish the same democratic ideals that these protesters were fighting and dying for. We were all touched in a very profound way and this resonated in all the reports coming out of Egypt.

I spotted Nawal Saddawi in Tahrir Square and we quickly darted over to interview her. Saddawi is an acclaimed writer and one of the leading women's rights advocates in the Arab world. In the middle of the interview, the frail, old lady nearly got knocked over by a group of protesters dragging in one of Mubarak's goons for interrogation.

But Saddawi is tough as nails. She recalled how she first protested against Nasser, then was arrested for opposing Sadat. Now here she was protesting against Mubarak with nearly a million Egyptians by her side. She claimed that this was the first time she could speak freely to a reporter in public. My spine still tingles just thinking about it.

I was in one of the many makeshift clinics in the square, filming a guy with deep lacerations all over his head and face from rocks, when I got a phone call from the Times' Cairo bureau. Two of their journalists had been detained by police. Anderson Cooper was beaten up by thugs. Reports of violence against journalists were now coming in by the minute.

The U.S. embassy warned the Times to get all their journalists off the streets. They were planning on evacuating the bureau in Zamalek. The situation seemed to be rapidly deteriorating. I passed on the information to Kristof and we immediately met up with Stephen Farrel, another Times journalist in Tahrir.

The three of us decided that Kristof and I should try and get all the video footage out so he and I could start feeding it to New York from our hotel rooms. The problem was, our Egyptian driver refused to come pick us up from the square, saying that it was too dangerous. We didn't have another exit plan.

Saved by Public Transit

Fortunately, two young Egyptian students overheard our conversation, and offered to help. They said the best way to get past the thugs on the streets was actually to go underground. I was amazed that throughout this revolution -- with the Internet and phones and the entire country basically shut down -- the Cairo subway system never stopped running!

I took my tapes and stuffed them deep inside of my socks. I always wear hiking boots and long socks in these situations. I did the same when leaving North Korea. My precious material always stays on my person, either in my socks or underwear. I put a blank tape in my camera and labeled it "Giza Pyramids 1."

Kristof and I followed these two guardian angels down a staircase and got on the train. We made one transfer at Mubarak Station and then reached our final destination, Opera Station, where our driver was waiting for us.

We went to Kristof's hotel, where we bumped into CNN's Anderson Cooper and Hala Gorani. They both looked visibly shaken from the day's events.

As a precautionary measure, we switched Kristof's hotel room to another one checked in under my name. At this point, he'd already penned three strongly anti-Mubarak op-eds. I could understand why Kristof didn't feel safe staying in a hotel with the president's mug staring down from a golden frame in the lobby.

An employee of the now-evacuated Times bureau in Cairo brought me my laptop so I could edit from the hotel. Unbelievably, after all the difficulties that day, my computer died on me when I tried to compress video. I was so frustrated that when we were told to evacuate, I just stayed in my bed. "If Mubarak's thugs find me here, then it was meant to be," I thought to myself.

Back to the square

Sleep didn't come, but neither did the Mukhabarat. The next day, I edited my footage on a friend's computer and went back to the square alone.

I walked briskly past several pro-Mubarak gangs. When eye contact was unavoidable, I flashed a fake, friendly smile. I find that in these situations smiling is the best way to alleviate anxiety. More importantly, it projects positive vibes to the people who otherwise may want to harm you. Smiling and maintaining positive, relaxed body language is often the best deterrent.

But that doesn't mean you should ever let your guard down. My eyes were always scanning 180 degrees for signs of danger. My ears were sensitive to increases in pitch or noises that would indicate violence. Probably due to the adrenaline, I could actually feel that my brain was processing data at a faster rate than normal.

I tried filming one of the pro-Mubarak groups, but within seconds was being threatened. One guy made a throat-slitting gesture and aggressively came towards me. I immediately assumed an apologetic posture, and said how sorry I was for filming.

He asked me in Arabic if I was from Al Jazeera. Omar Suleman, Mubarak's newly appointed vice president, accused the network of being foreign agents who were sowing the seeds of this revolution.

While I do speak rudimentary Arabic, I replied in English, "I'm American." My goal was to limit the conversation as much as possible.

Mass Bloodshed

As I got closer to the square, I witnessed scenes of horrible violence. Molotov cocktails lit up the night sky. I saw lacerated, bloody faces. The air smelled of smoke; sour, rotten tear gas; burning flesh.

Pro-Mubarak mobs ran into Tahrir making male guttural noises and screaming. Armed with broken glass bottles, poles, and anything that they could find, it felt like a scene from a cheap, Middle Eastern remake of "Braveheart."

I was too afraid to take out my camera, and it was too dark to film with my iPhone, so I just watched.

Feeling insecure, I used another important defense tactic, which I call "meet and greet." I found a group of pro-Mubarak guys around my age and asked them for a cigarette. I don't normally smoke, but I wanted to create a feeling of camaraderie with them in case the situation got much worse. For once, I really enjoyed a cigarette.

Change Over Night

By next day, the violence had waned considerably. It reminded me of how South Florida feels the day after a hurricane. The Internet was back on, the thugs were mostly off the streets, and a sense of tense normalcy returned to Cairo: I once again smelled the stench of Cairo pollution; drivers went back to using loud, obnoxious honking to communicate; street vendors hawked tissue boxes and Egyptian flags.

As days went by without mass violence, more and more people came to Tahrir Square, sensing that the protesters were on the right side of history. I even ran into many employees of the government controlled Al-Ahram newspaper. They told me that a similar mutiny was occurring inside their newsroom.

At this point, I was stringing for Time Magazine and PBS MediaShift. I bumped into some Times reporters I'd previously worked with and they told me that their bureau had reopened. I joked that it had been "a premature evacuation."

The mood had shifted from anxious to festive. Celebrations peaked on Friday night, when Mubarak finally stepped down.

After his resignation, foreign journalists seemed as confused as the Egyptian protesters about what to do next. The common refrain among reporters was, "Where should I fly to now?" Libya, Algeria, Yemen, Iran, Bahrain, Morocco, China, and even the West Bank have felt tremors from the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. Protesters and journalists changed Egypt and have inspired other uprisings across the world.

The Middle East today feels kind of like a seventh grade classroom: It's a rapidly changing place with young countries at various stages of awkward transition. These transformations are happening faster than reporters, politicians, and intelligence services can process them. As Egypt steps into a very uncertain future with the world watching, I get the sense that the Middle East's coming of age story may have just begun.

But wherever the plot leads next, it's likely that journalists, bloggers, and social networkers will be there to share it with the world.

Jaron Gilinsky is a journalist and documentary filmmaker based in Jerusalem. As a freelance video correspondent for Time, the New York Times, and Current TV, he has produced and directed scores of documentaries on a range of international topics. Jaron regularly posts his videos and articles on his personal blog.

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February 18 2011

21:30

UPIU Mentors, Publishes Student Journalists Around the Globe







Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by the USC Annenberg nine-month M.A. in Specialized Journalism. USC's highly customized degree programs are tailored to the experienced journalist and gifted amateur. Learn more about how USC Annenberg is immersed in tomorrow.

Suleiman Abdullahi was recently an eyewitness to the birth of the world's newest nation.

In early January, the 20-year-old Kenyan journalism student flew to Juba, Sudan, to cover the massive referendum responsible for the creation and upcoming independence of South Sudan. As Abdullahi wrote, he arrived in the prospective nation's capital city with a travel visa, a press pass, a story budget, and a 48-hour window to interview, observe, and report upon "the history that was about to be made."

By the end of his first day, he was under arrest.

Abdullahi was part of a two-man student reporting crew hired by UPIU, a student journalism project run by the United Press International news service. UPIU is an emerging player in the college media and journalism education arenas. Its website features a self-publishing platform for news stories and multimedia journalism projects posted by students around the globe.

More than a platform

The most standout aspect of UPIU: It does not just publish content by students; it provides classroom workshops, story editing, and one-on-one mentoring to help their pieces sing. The students who take advantage of its services undergo what UPIU senior mentor Krista Kapralos calls a "mini-internship experience."

It currently partners with more than 30 schools in roughly a dozen countries, leading to a cluster of student-produced stories touching on things such as Kenyans and antibiotic resistance, Moroccans and Christianity, the Chinese and homosexuality, and Egyptians and a revolution. The UPIU motto: "Mentoring Student Journalists Worldwide."

"We want to leverage UPI's solid reputation to attract aspiring journalists and improve foreign coverage," said UPIU Asia regional director Harumi Gondo. "I've not encountered another program that has such direct communication and relationships with journalism schools around the world."

No contracts are signed. UPIU does not collect any revenue from the posted stories. Students retain ownership of their work and are free to submit elsewhere. In the meantime, their content is vetted by professionals and considered for pick-up by UPI. Since its creation in late 2008, more than 2,300 stories have been published on the site. More than 100 -- roughly 4 percent of all submissions -- have been approved for placement on UPI.com.

Extra Help in the Classroom

UPIU transparent-grey-logo 225.jpgI can personally vouch for its potential. I have incorporated UPIU into multiple sections of my news reporting classes at the University of Tampa to mostly positive results. The process is five-fold: 1) an introductory video chat with each class hosted by veteran journalist Kapralos, who oversees UPIU's initiatives in Africa, Europe, and the Americas; 2) an optional video session in which students pitch story ideas; 3) a critique from a UPIU mentor on subsequent story drafts students post to the site; 4) a video chat round-up with Kapralos commenting on the quality of submissions overall; and 5) revisions by the students based on the feedback from Kapralos and, of course, their professor.

Students' involvement with UPIU ultimately helps underscore the lessons I am teaching them -- if nothing else, the importance of a news hook, timeliness, editorial collaboration, and three-source minimums.

It also has served as the platform for award-winning work. In fall 2009, Michigan State University student Jeremy Blaney earned a Religion Newswriters Association honor for his reports on local Muslim issues that were published on UPIU and, soon after, UPI. The headline of one of his pieces, which touched on the intersection of Islam and technology was, "You're a Muslim? There's an App for That."

"When you're on our site, you're not only seeing students practicing journalism," Kapralos told a news-writing class during a recent video chat. "You're also seeing a lot of really groundbreaking work. And you're seeing it through a lens that you don't always see through the New York Times or CNN."

Lunch, Without the Education

One prime example involves peeling potatoes. Unbeknownst to many Westerners, a government program in India requires public schools to provide a hot lunch for all students. Since its roll-out roughly a decade ago, scattered stories from professional news media have been mainly glowing, focused on the positives of children eating at least one decent meal a day in a country where poverty and hunger are rampant.

It took a local student journalist -- and five days of editing oversight by a UPIU mentor -- to help present the truth. Shiv Sunny, a student at New Delhi's AJK Mass Communication Research Center, built upon his personal knowledge of the required lunches and close proximity to numerous schools to uncover the program's underbelly. In some schools, the teachers are the individuals required to receive the food shipments and prepare the meals -- forcing them to spend hours each day cooking, mixing, and peeling essentials like potatoes and carrots in place of teaching.

As Kapralos explained it, "The story our student found: Yeah, the students are getting lunch, but they're not getting any education because their teachers are spending literally the entire day in the kitchen." Another problem: Hungry students often attend school just for lunch, and then skip out on the learning.

Krista225.jpgAdmittedly, some students treat UPIU similarly. They use the site to gain a web presence with panache and ignore the professional mentors' editing feedback, leaving their articles' factual inaccuracies and grammar slips in public view. The operation also still screams young and scrappy rather than streamlined, at times seemingly run solely on the hard work and sheer tenacity of Kapralos. And the site's story template is somewhat restrictive -- sporting the same look for every piece and an accompanying photo slot that is a bit tiny.

According to Kapralos, template changes, multimedia add-ons, and paid freelancing opportunities are in the works. The latest call, which is for student reports on Internet infrastructure, access, and control, offers $100 for selected stories.

Back in Juba

The first major freelance initiative was the Sudan assignment, which spun into action quickly as hopes for the referendum became reality. UPI president Nicholas Chiaia was a strong advocate of hiring students as stringers for the seminal event.

"He really sees the value in student journalists and he is not one to turn them away simply because they have minimal professional experience," said Kapralos. "He's the one to say, 'We need to utilize students, if there's a way we can do it that equates to responsible reporting and provides quality work.'"

Kapralos contacted two student journalists in Kenya whose previous work impressed her: Abdi Latif Dahir and Abdullahi. She assigned Dahir to Nairobi, where he covered the referendum voting of Sudanese refugees. She asked Abdullahi to fly to the story's geographic center, Juba.

Along with his "fixer" (a local guide), Abdullahi boldly charged into the international reporting gig. He describes competing for stories with "thousands of foreign correspondents, each one eager to thrust their cameras and microphones at every passing local." At times, Abdullahi employed his "rudimentary Arabic" to interview residents who did not speak English.

Just before midnight on the day of the big vote, he went downtown to see if anyone had begun lining up. There, he said, an "extra cautious" security force detained him and demanded a curfew.

"You are welcome to do your work here and we appreciate you, but you must be indoors by midnight," the police told him. "After midnight, we really cannot guarantee your safety and we don't want your government breathing down on our necks."

In Washington, D.C., Kapralos was holding her breath. She had been trading messages with Abdullahi non-stop. He had been turning in all his reports on time. Suddenly, he had gone quiet, and a story deadline had passed.

"As an editor, it's one thing to have a story go missing in the melee of a major breaking news situation," she recalled. "But when the breaking news story is in a region of the world where violence has been a way of life for decades, and when what you've lost isn't a story, but a reporter, stakes are high."

Fortunately, Abdullahi was released a half hour later, unharmed, and went back to work. He ultimately earned three UPI bylines, reporting on the guns, flags, billboards, long lines, traditional folk songs, and ink-stained fingers of voters that comprised the spectacle of the historic referendum.

And along the way -- like his reporting partner Dahir -- he experienced his own unforgettable journalistic coming-of-age story.

"Seeing tens of thousands of people line up under the scorching sun with such zeal is a scene that is hard to describe," Abdullahi wrote soon after flying home. "When it's all done and the seemingly inevitable decision of secession is made, we'll be able to say that we were there when they became a nation."

Dan Reimold is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Tampa. He writes and presents frequently on the campus press and maintains the daily blog College Media Matters, affiliated with the Associated Collegiate Press. His first book on a major modern college media trend, Sex and the University: Celebrity, Controversy, and a Student Journalism Revolution, was published this past fall by Rutgers University Press.







Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by the USC Annenberg nine-month M.A. in Specialized Journalism. USC's highly customized degree programs are tailored to the experienced journalist and gifted amateur. Learn more about how USC Annenberg is immersed in tomorrow.

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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

moldova twitter.jpg

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.

beacon in egypt.jpg

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.

6 of april facebook.jpg

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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February 01 2011

20:41

NY Times Defends WikiLeaks Collaboration, Metered Pay Wall

"All the News That's Fit to Print" is both the slogan of the New York Times and the title of the most recent installment of the Kalb Report, a monthly media discussion put on by George Washington University in D.C. Given its title, the overflow audience at last night's discussion between Marvin Kalb and Times executive editor Bill Keller and Washington bureau chief Dean Baquet might have expected to hear more about the paper's long history in the printed word.

But in spite of the moderator's repeated attempts to talk up the front page, the "wild web," as Kalb described it, kept creeping in. Keller and Baquet explained how the Internet has -- and will continue to -- change America's newspaper of record.

Changing Strategy

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To begin with, Keller said its famous motto, which has been printed on the front page of every edition since October 25, 1896, is no longer entirely accurate.

"The slogan," as he called it, "harkens back to a day when the aim of the newspaper was to be comprehensive." Now it is simply "an aspiration, or a mindset."

Keller pointed out that, for many years after it was founded on September 18, 1851, the Times would print items as seemingly mundane as the comings and goings of ships in New York Harbor. Information like that is now relegated to trade newsletters or specialist websites.

All of these publications are now to some extent competition for the Times. While Keller sees the Wall Street Journal as his primary competitor, he is also keeping his eye on websites that have a niche focus. Last night, he specifically mentioned both the politics-centric reporting at Politico and the opinion-driven coverage at the Daily Beast.

The race is "not just for the stories," according to Keller. "The Huffington Post and places like that are competing with us for talent," he said, alluding to the recent defections of a Times' business editor and economic correspondent to the progressive news and aggregation site.

"They're competing with us a lot in the field of innovation," Keller added. "I don't regard the Huffington Post as an extremely aggressive competitor in national reporting, but the way they do social media is pretty instructive."

Rise of Metered Pay Wall

While the Times is taking user engagement cues from the Huffington Post, it is taking a page from the Financial Times when it comes to business models.

Like HuffPost, NYTimes.com attracts hundreds of millions of readers. Keller said the Times has made a "tidy sum" from advertisers trying to reach its 50 million unique visitors each month. But with a much larger news team -- Keller put the current headcount somewhere between 1,100 and 1,500 -- the Times' digital ad revenues are not enough to offset losses from declining print ads and circulation, which has fallen to about a million subscribers per day.

To make up this difference, the Times is planning to end unlimited access to its website. Like the Financial Times, Keller said that "later this year" NYTimes.com will implement a metered pay wall. That would allow casual users to read articles on the site, but charge frequent visitors if they are not already subscribers to the print newspaper.

"People who use the New York Times website as their newspaper," he said, "should pay a little something for it."

Keller's statement seems simple enough, but it is a profound departure from the way newspaper companies have viewed their websites in the recent past. And, because of the Times' size and stature in the American media landscape, its change of heart will likely have a profound effect on the web strategies of other newspapers around the country.

Working with WikiLeaks

Kalb's pointed questioning seemed to suggest the view that the Times' decision to collaborate with WikiLeaks has degraded the definition of, and standards for, journalism organizations. Keller and Baquet, the DC bureau chief, both pushed back hard against this notion.

Baquet.jpg"The New York Times became the enabler of WikiLeaks by publishing a lot of stories based on the cables WikiLeaks provided. And when I use the word 'enabler,'" Kalb emphasized, "I'm not using that in a positive way."

WikilLeaks is not a journalism organization, according to Keller. "They are an advocacy group," he said. "You can call them a vigilante group," he added.

And, Keller pointed out, they didn't need the support of the Times to throw American diplomacy into disarray. "They would have published it to a website available to anybody who wanted to look at it and the information would have circulated through the blogosphere in a day."

Baquet was more forceful in his defense of the controversial collaboration. "There is no question that WikiLeaks added tremendously to the understanding" of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, he said.

Baquet said questions about if the Times was "behaving in an arrogant way, flaunting its ability to publish this stuff, enabling WikiLeaks," missed the point.

"To me the most unimaginable and arrogant thing the New York Times could have done," Baquet said, "was to have this stuff, look at it and say, 'This is interesting. Let's have an ethical debate. Let's put it back in the computer. And let's go have lunch.'"

Regardless of their objections with the source -- and Keller, as he's done before, again expressed his distaste for WikiLeaks and Julian Assange by association -- the Times felt obligated to share information it had received.

New Opportunities

The web has not only upended the Times' motto and business model and forced it into unusual sourcing arrangements, it has also enabled new editorial experiments and collaborations.

"It's a particular malady of the journalist that we jump right to the negative," Baquet said, "but the reality is that the rise of the Internet and newspapers is the greatest thing that has hit us since sliced bread."

For those outlets that can still afford to do it, the web has opened new opportunities in international reporting. Keller was eager to talk about the paper's thorough reporting of the ongoing protests in Egypt.

Keller also highlighted an innovative series from 2008, Kremlin Rules. The stories were translated into Russian and posted on one of the country's most popular blogs to elicit comments, which were then translated back into English before each article was published in the Times.

"The Russian readership enriched our stories about Russia," Keller explained.

In addition to collaborations with Russian bloggers, the Times has worked with NYU and non-profit newsrooms like ProPublica. During the question and answer session after the discussion, I asked Keller if readers and media watchers should expect more projects and partnerships from the Times in the future.

"Yeah, I think so," he said. "These days we're in an era of experimentation and -- as long as we can be persuaded that we can undertake an experiment without putting the credibility of the paper at risk -- we're game to try it."

Corbin Hiar is the DC-based associate editor at MediaShift and climate blogger for UN Dispatch and the Huffington Post. He is a regular contributor to More Intelligent Life, an online arts and culture publication of the Economist Group, and has also written about environmental issues on Economist.com and the website of The New Republic. Before Corbin moved to the Capital to join the Ben Bagdikian Fellowship Program at Mother Jones, he worked a web internship at The Nation in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @CorbinHiar.

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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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January 20 2011

19:44

Aussie Academic Journal to Publish Peer-Reviewed Journalism







Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by the USC Annenberg nine-month M.A. in Specialized Journalism. USC's highly customized degree programs are tailored to the experienced journalist and gifted amateur. Learn more about how USC Annenberg is immersed in tomorrow.

An Australian journalism professor has started an online academic journal with a twist: It publishes journalism, rather than just studies of journalists and their work.

The fledgling journal -- believed to be the first of its kind in the world -- is called Research Journalism and it's the initiative of Edith Cowan University journalism lecturer Dr. Kayt Davies.

"I would like it to become a vibrant publication that regularly breaks big stories [and] I would like it to enable academic journalists to be practicing what they preach and really leading their classes by example and involving their classes in research projects," Davies told me. "[But] most importantly I would like it to make a real contribution to Australian civic life by examining corporate and government behavior and bringing problems and potential solutions to light."

The journal publishes journalism as an academic exercise. Authors are required to apply for university ethics clearance for their journalism projects, and submitted articles are subjected to triple-blind peer review.

Academic Focus for Australian J-Profs

In the U.S., the craft of journalism has academic status in many journalism schools and many professors continue to work as journalists after entering the classroom. But in Australia, journalism professors often struggle to maintain their professional practice when they join academia.

One reason for this is the structure of Australian universities and their dependence on research funding, which has historically discriminated against journalism research. Another is a traditional disregard for published journalism as a legitimate form of journalism research -- in the way that art and literature have long been accepted as creative research outputs.

Both of these factors have mitigated the practice of journalism by Australian journalism professors. It's also due to the demands of traditional academic research requirements, which typically include the study of journalists and journalism through the disciplines of cultural studies, mass communications, and journalism studies but not the academic publication of works of journalism. Then there's the heavy teaching loads. While there are some notable exceptions including collaborations between the online alternative news outlet Crikey and two journalism schools, most Australian journalism professors eschew journalism practice in favor of traditional academic publication in highly ranked, peer-reviewed journals.

A sense of frustration with this reality was one of Davies' main motivations for starting the journal.

"It was a crying shame to be preventing academic journalists from doing journalism," she said. "In many ways, with our skills honed by teaching and without the time and other constraints of commercial newsroom employment, I had a sense that we could be doing remarkable work."

I know from experience that it's essential to continue practicing as a professional journalist in order to be an effective and up-to-date journalism educator. But in an academic environment like Australia's, it can be difficult to sustain. In addition to building traditional academic publication profiles, journalism educators in my country are increasingly required to obtain PhDs, regardless of career achievements. They are also expected to win significant research grants; undertake labor-intensive teaching and innovate in the classroom; keep track of massive industry change; offer career guidance for students (past and present); and coordinate student publications.

A Need to Practice Journalism

Nevertheless, continuing professional practice after becoming a journalism professor is increasingly necessary, according to Davies.

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"Staying in the game and continuing to do it is the best way to [keep] abreast of the changes in the industry, and by that I don't only mean that news is going online," she said. "I also mean the way corporate and government departments duck and weave and spin, the FOI [freedom of Information] rules, sensitivities about privacy, all kinds of changes."

As Davies pointed out, "It is ... the best way to motivate a class. When you stand up in front of them and air your frustration at receiving bland motherhood statements in response to specific questions, they arc up and understand that journalism requires determination and tenacity and it isn't just about placidly churning whatever is handed to them."

If the system in Australia that discourages active journalism practice by journalism educators is to change, then academics, universities and the Australian Research Council need to start recognizing published works of journalism as research and/or back Davies' approach of publishing a peer-reviewed journal of academic journalism.

Some Australian journalism schools are starting to make progress in this regard, with limited agreement to count journalism as research and recognition by one university of the professional code of ethics for Australian journalists as a suitable replacement for cumbersome ethics clearance processes.

"The main difference [between U.S. and Australian journalism professors] is that U.S. academics are not bound by the ethics committee red tape that is effectively gagging Australian journalism academics," Davies said.

This can cause journalism projects to be refused ethics clearance by university committees because these committees interpret the rules of academic research as prohibiting the naming of sources and the broadcast of recorded interviews if the interviewees are identifiable, for example.

While the process of reform in Australia has begun, it is likely to be a long and difficult struggle against overlapping bureaucratic processes. Davies sees her journal as an alternative route to supporting professional journalism practice among Australian journalism professors, while working within existing structures.

All Content Welcome

Davies will accept submissions of all forms of journalism -- from text to audio, video and multimedia -- and she is keen to receive international submissions. She has informal agreements in place with Fairfax Digital and Crikey to co-publish content for mainstream consumption. But what distinguishes the journal from standard journalism publications, aside from the academic ethics clearance process and peer review requirements, is the publication of an accompanying reflective commentary by each author that outlines the journalistic methodologies and processes adopted in the production of the piece of journalism. In academic terms, this equates to an exegesis.

"I think this will make the journal a useful tool in actually tracking contemporary best practice," Davies said.

Unlike most other academic journals, Research Journalism will publish its content online, and without a pay wall. This fits with Davies' general approach to digital media.

"Media is changing and, unless we want to be teaching something as outdated as blacksmithing and smocking, we need to be across the shifts," she said. "This doesn't mean we should abandon teaching grammar and thinking skills and devote all our time to learning software, but it does mean we have to be paying attention and preparing our grads for the world they'll be working in."

Davies hopes the journal will evolve to incorporate an interactive element. She has established a WordPress site that operates in conjunction with the journal and accommodates comments and limited social bookmarking. But at this stage, she isn't planning to experiment with crowdsourcing peer review, preferring instead to pursue traditionally recognized processes. Her immediate goal is to publish another 11 submissions in order to apply to have the journal formally rated via the system of scholarly publication rankings.

Challenges Ahead

One challenge is already hampering the progress of Research Journalism that may prove fatal: the failure of journalism academics to follow through on enthusiastic promises to submit content. So far, the only peer-reviewed article published on the site (which was launched nearly a year ago) is by Davies herself. (It's an excellent piece on conflict in a West Australian Indigenous community which was also published as a Crikey series).

"I am surprised that it has been so slow," Davies said. "Every time I speak about it to a group of journalism academics I get a flurry of promises and declarations of support but the promises are yet to manifest as submissions."

She said this is likely because of workload and cumbersome university ethics committee clearance processes, which can be viewed as hostile to journalism and incompatible with deadlines. But it's also likely to be a product of the reluctance of ladder-climbing academics to publish in lowly ranked or unranked academic journals. This is a Catch-22 that infuriates Davies.

"I can't apply for ranking until I have two editions out, and so if people are holding out for this reason then they are killing it before it can walk," she said. "My wish is that people would be a bit more generous, bold and proactive so that we can get something going that will be good for all of us."

Confession: I'm one of the academics who's so far failed to follow through on a promise to submit an article. But I am in the process of writing a piece for Davies on the controversy surrounding five tweets I sent from a journalism education conference in Sydney last November. The tweets will represent the journalistic output, while the exegesis will examine my experience of the international debate and the legal threats that the tweets triggered.

Research Journalism deserves the opportunity to make a global impact on contemporary journalism research and education -- and I encourage you to hold me to my commitment to help kick it along.

Photo of Dr. Kayt Davies by Floyd Holmes

Julie Posetti is an award winning journalist and journalism academic who lectures in radio and television reporting at the University of Canberra, Australia. She's been a national political correspondent, a regional news editor, a TV documentary reporter and presenter on radio and television with the Australian national broadcaster, the ABC. Her academic research centers on journalism and social media, talk radio, public broadcasting, political reporting and broadcast coverage of Muslims post-9/11. She is writing a PhD on "The Twitterisation of Journalism" and she consults on social media for contentgroup. Posetti blogs at J-Scribe and you can follow her on Twitter.







Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by the USC Annenberg nine-month M.A. in Specialized Journalism. USC's highly customized degree programs are tailored to the experienced journalist and gifted amateur. Learn more about how USC Annenberg is immersed in tomorrow.

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January 11 2011

17:45

How Mapping, SMS Platforms Saved Lives in Haiti Earthquake

This article was co-authored by Mayur Patel

Tomorrow marks the anniversary of the devastating earthquake that shook Haiti last January, killing more than 230,000 people and leaving several million inhabitants of the small island nation homeless. Though natural disasters are common, the humanitarian response this time was different: New media and communications technologies were used in unprecedented ways to aid the recovery effort.

A report released today by Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities, with support from Internews and funding from the Knight Foundation, takes a critical look at the role of communications in the crisis and recommends ways to improve the effectiveness of utilizing media in future disaster relief efforts. (The Knight Foundation is a major funder for MediaShift and its sister site MediaShift Idea Lab.)

In the weeks after the crisis, Haiti quickly became a real world laboratory for several new applications, such as interactive maps and SMS texting platforms. In the aftermath of the quake, these tools were used for the first time on a large scale to create dialogue between citizens and relief workers, to help guide search-and-rescue teams and find people in need of critical supplies. The report, Lessons from Haiti [PDF download] (co-authored by Anne Nelson and Ivan Sigal, with assistance from Dean Zambrano), recounts the stories of media participants, technologists, humanitarian organizations, Haitian journalists and response teams involved in the relief. Many of these players were first brought together to share their experiences at a roundtable convened by the Knight Foundation and Internews last May.

Notable Innovations

"The most notable innovations to emerge from Haiti were: the translation of crowdsourced data to actionable information; the use of SMS message broadcasting in a crisis; and crowdsourcing of open maps for humanitarian application," according to the report. A dizzying array of new media and information technology groups, Haitian diaspora networks and media development partners were involved in these initiatives (see the infographic below). Although these innovations had varying levels of impact in Haiti, they showcased the potential for use in future crises.

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One of the most notable developments was the application of Ushahidi, an online crisis mapping platform that was born only a few years earlier in Kenya. Ushahidi had already been used to map political violence, but it had not yet been used in the context of large-scale natural disasters. When the earthquake struck, an ad hoc coalition quickly took shape, anchored by a group of graduate students at Tufts University in Boston.

The Ushahidi teams, supported by translators from the Haitian diaspora community in the U.S., gathered information from news reports and individuals about the most acute needs on the ground: rescue, food and water, and security, among others. The coordinates were placed on a map and made available to rescue and relief teams.

Soon they were able to include SMS texts in their bank of information. A few days after the quake, Digicel, one of Haiti's leading telecom companies, agreed to offer a free short code (4636) for SMS texts in service of the relief efforts, with the help of InSTEDD, a technology focused humanitarian organization. The four-digit code enabled cell phone users to send free messages to central information centers about missing persons and emergency needs. SMS messages and direct reports from Haitian citizens began to flow within four days of the quake.

OpenStreetMaps, an open community of volunteer mappers, joined the effort to create online maps of Haiti's improvised and unnamed neighborhoods. These maps became the standard reference points: Users included not just information technology platforms such as Ushahidi, but also large providers of humanitarian services, such as the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) and the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC).

Not Necessarily a Success Story

However, the CDAC Report cautions against calling the Haitian experience a "new media success story," as some of the approaches -- attempted for the first time -- faltered. The crisis threw together volunteer technology communities and professional humanitarian organizations, without a common language and operating procedures. A lack of coordination and understanding of how to use and integrate the new tools into existing disaster relief structures further complicated efforts on the ground.

In addition, new media efforts did not preclude the importance of traditional media. As in past crises in the developing world, radio continued to be the most effective tool for serving the information needs of the local population. With Haiti's newspapers and television broadcasters knocked out of production for the first few weeks after the quake, radio provided a heroic lifeline. One Haitian station, SignalFM, was able to broadcast continuously throughout the crisis, and worked closely with both international relief organizations and the digital innovators in support of the population. Popular radio host Cedre Paul reached his audience via Twitter as well as on the air.

"We have always known that one of the best ways to communicate with affected population in crises is through radio broadcasts," said Mark Frohardt, vice president of humanitarian programs for Internews, a media development organization. "We found in Haiti that innovative technologies not only had an impact on information delivery on their own, but also greatly enhanced the reach and effectiveness of radio."

Still Work to be Done

For all the welcome innovation, the report makes it clear that digital humanitarian action has a long ways to go. One of the big obstacles to the Haiti effort was the lack of pre-existing connections between the large government and international institutions and the new tech activists. Large institutions tend to mean weighty protocol, some of it based on long and bitter experience. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), for example, has strict rules of confidentiality, which has allowed it to play a uniquely useful role in conflicted and tense situations, while the open source community's hallmarks are spontaneity and transparency.

Nonetheless, the connections among the various sectors advanced in Haiti, stimulated by a common desire to help, and there are many signs that new synapses are emerging. For example, CDAC has made some progress bridging the gaps between the humanitarian and media communities. The report calls for more of this kind of cross-sector collaboration to improve future recovery efforts. Specifically, it recommends that media, new technology developers and humanitarian agencies (both UN and international NGOs) engage in joint preparation and simulation exercises for future emergency responses.

We should not forget that Haiti's crisis is far from over. Many donors have yet to fulfill their commitments for reconstruction funds, and much of the rubble remains. New digital initiatives are still appearing; one promising new effort from MIT is an online labor exchange for Haitians called Konbit.

Disasters will continue to occur. But their damage can be mitigated by relief efforts that are well-planned and executed in concert with the local population. Digital media technologies offer a unique opportunity to advance these goals with the right on-the-ground coordination. As the report notes: Haiti demonstrated "the culmination of a vision and the beginning of the hard work of implementation."

Anne Nelson is an educator, consultant and author in the field of international media strategy. She created and teaches New Media and Development Communications at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) and teaches an international teleconference course at Bard College. She is a senior consultant on media, education and philanthropy for Anthony Knerr & Associates. She is on Twitter as @anelsona, was a 2005 Guggenheim Fellow, and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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January 06 2011

18:51

Vietnam Fighting a Losing Battle Against Free Speech Online

Last October, I had the opportunity to spend almost three weeks traveling through Vietnam, from Ha Long Bay to the Mekong Delta. The breakfast rooms I dined in were always stocked with copies of the government-run English-language daily, the Viet Nam News -- and on its sunny front page, the news is always good.

One typical issue heralded plans from the Central Committee of the Communist Party for "improving the competitiveness of enterprises."

"Production forces must be developed to a high-tech level while improving the production relations and socialist-oriented market institutions," it said.

Digital media occupy a critical position in the party's "high-tech" plans. The government has been building out the country's media infrastructure at a rapid pace. Internet subscriptions leapt from 200,000 in 2000 to 8 million in 2010. By 2020, they are projected to rise to more than 17 million, and the Ministry of Communications hopes that the country will break into the world's top 60 countries for web penetration.

But the same issue of the Viet Nam News sounded a darker note on media a few pages later, warning that young Vietnamese were using "creative measures" to dodge a new law that "aims to limit online gaming." According to the article, Vietnamese teens favored violent games such as Red Alert, Left4Dead, and Call of Duty: Black Ops. (One can imagine why Vietnam's elders might not favor a first-person shooter game that sends virtual CIA agents to targets in Cold War theaters including Vietnam...)

"The curfew was issued following complaints about the negative effects online games were having on youth, including addiction and rising school violence," the story read. On the following page a survey reported, "Social networking is fine, but do not forget the downside."

Playing Both Sides

I had long been aware of government crackdowns on the country's online media, but when talking to Vietnamese I learned of fine points missing from the general debate. Like China, its giant neighbor to the north, Vietnam has tried to play both sides of the fence on the questions of media development and censorship. As Simon Roughneen's post for MediaShift pointed out last month, the Vietnamese government has invested considerable time and resources in restricting the impact of Facebook.

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At the same time, it's a mistake to imagine Vietnam as a living under total media control. Instead, a combination of rapid technological and economic advances have opened vast new avenues of information for the new middle-class -- even as the government pursues its cat-and-mouse game with online dissent.

After the U.S.-Vietnam War ended in 1975, the country went through a period of devastating famine and hardship. Vast expanses of Vietnam's territory were blighted by lethal defoliants, military contamination and landmines, and new victims of this bitter legacy still emerge every day. But the economic disaster proved more tractable; within a few decades it gave way to a phase of astonishingly rapid growth.

The Vietnamese Communist Party may have maintained a tight grip on local news outlets, but at the same time it laid the groundwork for an educated consumer society with a hunger for information. Government projects included a national literacy campaign that boosted adult literacy from under 75 percent to over 95 percent within 20 years.

Many media outlets are booming -- but this category does not include the state-run, propaganda-based newspapers. In a forthcoming study from the World Association of Newspapers, Catherine McKinley reports that these publications are losing circulation and advertising revenues at the same time they are experiencing increasing pressure to become more independent of government subsidies.

Cable TV Growth

Cable television, on the other hand, is growing rapidly, especially in the cities. I spoke about it with Ly, a Hanoi intellectual from a Communist Party family whose name has been changed to protect him from government retaliation.

"What do we watch? Everything! CNN International, the BBC, the Discovery Channel -- you name it," he said.

Ly explained that the Vietnamese government permitted news and information on most international topics, but blocked information related to the area of greatest concern: criticism of the Vietnamese government and its policies, especially from exile communities abroad. To accomplish this, cable operators work with a five-minute delay that allows government censors to filter offending content.

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Ly's point shed some light on the great Vietnamese Facebook controversy. During my trip to a half-a-dozen Vietnamese cities, I was able to pull up Facebook in some places (including noodle shops with WiFi), but not in others. When I checked online comments, I saw that the blocked materials included Facebook groups organized by Vietnamese exiles in the U.S. On the other hand, even from my noodle shop outposts, I was able to access an in-country Facebook group that promoted environmental protection as a government-approved youth project.

Unauthorized environmentalists have met a different response. As Roughneen pointed out on MediaShift, the government took harsh measures against two Vietnamese blogs, Blogosin and Bauxite Vietnam, that criticized its plans for a China-led bauxite-mining project in the Central Highlands. (China, which occupied Vietnam many times over the past millennium, appears to be far more unpopular among today's Vietnamese than the U.S.) Investigations of the incident have contributed more details on the full scope of the attack.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists's Shawn Crispin, "Vietnam's government actively promotes Internet usage to modernize the economy, but at the same time cracks down on bloggers who post views critical of the government and its policies."

Government Hacking

Danny O'Brien, CPJ's Internet advocacy coordinator, told me that the government launched "a directed hacking attack on Blogosin, which crashed the site and led to its creator announcing his retirement from reporting."

According to O'Brien, "The sophistication of surveillance and attacks on Vietnamese online media already exceed anywhere else in the world, including China. In early 2010, websites covering the bauxite issue were taken offline by denial-of-service attacks (DDoS)." The thousands of computers used in this attack were controlled by a large domestic "botnet" of computers infected by a specific kind of malware. Investigators at Google and McAfee discovered the source: A Trojan concealed in the software downloaded by many Vietnamese to allow them to enter native text accents when using Windows computers."

George Kurtz, McAfee's chief technology officer, said the attackers first compromised www.vps.org, the website of the Vietnamese Professionals Society, and replaced the legitimate keyboard driver with a Trojan horse.

From the Vietnamese news consumer's perspective, the danger lies less in accessing proscribed sites than in the later repercussions. According to Ly, the government monitors both home computers and accounts used in public spaces to see who is accessing the critical sites over time -- and then takes action.

"They follow your usage over a period of time, and then the police show up at the door," he said.


We can't underestimate the suffering -- to say nothing of the nuisance -- inflicted by Vietnam's cyber-cop crackdowns. But at the same time, it appears they're fighting a losing battle. Vietnam's media audience is moving online rapidly, partly because they are constantly learning new techniques for outmaneuvering the authorities -- and partly because the Communist Party's traditional news media have failed to hold on to their audience and advertising base.

Furthermore, technology is accelerating change: Vietnamese cell phone penetration already stands at over 111 million (in a country of under 90 million), and news will be even harder to control as it continues to migrate on to mobile platforms.

As one Vietnamese newspaper editor put it: "Things are changing. We have more freedom in our online edition, and that's where our readership is going. We just need more skills to produce the stories."

Anne Nelson is an educator, consultant and author in the field of international media strategy. She created and teaches New Media and Development Communications at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) and teaches an international teleconference course at Bard College. She is a senior consultant on media, education and philanthropy for Anthony Knerr & Associates. She is on Twitter as @anelsona, was a 2005 Guggenheim Fellow, and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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December 26 2010

23:30

Online Censorship Grows in 2010, Showing Power of Netizens

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Despite some good PR for online freedom this year, online censorship grew and became more subtle in 2010. Online propaganda remains strong within countries like China and Iran, where media censorship is everywhere and the governments have mastered online censorship tools. These countries are as efficient as hacktivists when it comes to controlling information.

China and Vietnam remain among the most repressive countries, with 77 and 16 netizens in jail, respectively (read our recent report on Vietnam here). Thailand is unmerciful when it comes to lese-majeste laws (also read our recent report about how this law is being abused). And a new player, Venezuela, is on the verge of adopting a bill that will introduce Internet filtering and a range of penalties for online media for vaguely worded offenses.

Democracies such as France are also taking further steps to implement a legal framework for online filtering. The French government is working on an ineffective and dangerous online filtering system that could jeopardize the work of journalists and bloggers in the name of fighting child pornography.

Overall, netizens continue to be victims of threats and unfair trials and arrests. In just one example, a 28-year-old Egyptian human rights activist was beaten to death by police in Alexandria on June 6.

But along with the setbacks, 2010 saw a few high profile cases that hinted at an improving state of affairs for online freedom. The positive developments include Egyptian blogger Kareem Amer being set free in November after completing a four-year jail sentence, Turkey ending its two-and-a-half-year ban on YouTube in the spring 2010, and Turkmenistan, which has been called the "European North Korea," began to slowly open up to the Internet.

As of today, 112 netizens are in jail. This is an improvement over the 151 that were arrested in 2009. So does that mean things are getting better?

Netizens and the Public Interest

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Despite the strengthening of online propaganda and the growing expertise being developed by what we at Reporters Without Borders call the Enemies of the Internet, netizens keep finding ways to practice online freedom of expression even in the most repressive countries. In 2010 netizens proved the essential role they play in repressive societies. In China and Russia, netizens denounced corruption by local authorities and made important information available to their fellow citizens.

Overall, the environment, corruption, health care and politics remain the main topics focused on by the netizens defended by Reporters Without Borders. For example, in China, the activist Zhao Lianhai created a website to detail the effect that contaminated milk powder sold from Chinese company Sanluon had on young children. An estimated 300,000 children in China were made ill, 50,000 were hospitalized and at least six newborn babies died as result of consuming the milk powder. One of Lianhai's children was made ill by the milk powder, and he used the website to urge parents to bring a class action suit against those responsible. In the end, Lianhai was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison for "inciting social unrest."

Netizens and the Law

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Because the Internet is still a vague legal notion in many of the countries, it has always been easy for repressive regimes to convict netizens on vague charges. As an example, netizens belonging to minorities can be accused of "separatism," and using the Internet and social media can be considered activities aimed at overthrowing the government.

2010 was no stranger to legal absurdity. In Azerbaijan, two well-known bloggers Adnan Hajizade and Emin Mili were released after spending more than a year in jail for "hooliganism." This was because they went to the police to report after they were assaulted in a restaurant by two men. In Egypt, blogger Ahmed Hassan Basiouny will be tried by court martial for creating a Facebook page that offered advice and information to young people thinking of enlisting in the Egyptian army.

Internet Companies: Accomplices?

When Google decided to withdraw its email services from China after being a victim of cyberattacks, the issue of corporate responsibility gained worldwide attention. Later in the year, Research In Motion (RIM), the Canadian manufacturer of the BlackBerry smartphone, was involved in a situation that showed we cannot expect technology companies to respect human rights. The company has been under intense pressure from several governments to allow access to encrypted BlackBerry communications, among other requests. The nature of the agreements made between RIM and these governments remains unclear due to conflicting statements from the parties. Reporters Without Borders has called for more transparency so that users know exactly what's going on.

Compared with the past decade, authorities and governments have never put as much energy into attempts to control online content. But this is good news. It illustrates that online free speech is spreading and netizens are winning. The battle is not lost in advance, but it is still far from being lost.

Photo of tainted milk event by jiruan via Flickr

Note that on December 30 Reporters Without Borders will publish its annual round up for 2010, which presents the number of bloggers attacked, arrested and jailed, as well as the number of countries who practice a form of Internet censorship.

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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December 21 2010

17:05

Vietnam Pushes Facebook Clone to Control Online Speech

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Social Media content on MediaShift is sponsored by the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships, a program offering innovative and entrepreneurial journalists the resources of Stanford University and Silicon Valley. Learn more here.

HANOI, VIETNAM - Inside one of Hanoi's more than 3,000 online gaming houses, gamers clad in coats and scarves pass the hours shooting at each other on their screens, oblivious to the wintry gray and 10 celsius evening outside. This is southeast Asia, but the French colonial architecture and the proliferation of tourist-market socialist kitsch -- all covered by a wet blanket autumn gloom -- give the place a slightly European feel.

With the Vietnamese economy growing at an average of seven percent per year over the past decade, and companies such as Microsoft and Intel announcing major investments, there is a limit to how European the ambiance is. There's no downturn or recession here. Although average per capita incomes are little over $1,100 per year, Vietnam is moving up the international economic ranks.

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The growth of online technology and Internet usage in the country is a signal that change is taking place. According to the government, about 25 percent of Vietnam's nearly 90 million people use the Internet. By comparison, I found it extremely difficult to find cafés or bars with WiFi access when walking around Rome last April. In a stretch from the Colosseum to St.Peter's Basilica, the well-worn tourist and pilgrim hub of the Eternal City, I counted five places with WiFi. Yet in downtown Hanoi, almost every decent-sized hotel or eatery has fast and free WiFi. It is a flip of a coin as to which place has the better food, however.

Facebooking Vietnam

Back inside the gaming house, I asked the manager (who requested his name not be published) how to access Facebook. I saw that a few of the gamers take a break from shooting down Japanese World War II soldiers in order to log in to the social networking site. Facebook is blocked in Vietnam, though no official explanation has been offered by the authorities as to why. Nonetheless, the gamers on downtime were doing any of a number of things that apparently all Facebookers do, such as paying undue attention to pictures of cute young women among their contacts, or posting insulting remarks on their friend's pages.

The manager's answer came with with an air of incredulity, and a good measure of self-satisfaction. "We just change the DNS," he said.

The likely reason for the blocking of Facebook is the upcoming Five Year Congress of the ruling Communist Party. A one-party state, the Vietnamese government harbors no dissent, and over the past two months, 20 activists, lawyers, bloggers and religious minority figures have been arrested or jailed for various forms of alleged sedition or threats to national security. Some were denied access to legal representation at what looked like little more than show trials. Human rights groups and overseas Vietnamese say the government is trying to shut up any and all opposing voices in advance of the Congress, when a new leadership could emerge.

Removing Facebook from the equation could be a help to the government's agenda. Blogging has become increasingly popular in Vietnam, and one cause celebre has been a controversial bauxite mine in the country's Central Highlands. Writers criticizing the government's policy have been arrested, while others remain under surveillance. The government has tried, unsuccessfully, to close down one vocal website featuring blog posts flaying the authorities for allegedly kowtowing to China over the project, while anonymous cyber-vandals launched distributed denial-of-service (DDOS) hack attacks on some of the critical blogs and websites.

Mainstream media in Vietnam is affiliated with the government or the ruling Communist Party, and state censors control what can and cannot be said. So online content offers a new, more nimble and fast-paced challenge to the authorities.

Government-Run Facebook Clone

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In trying to take on Facebook, the government has launched its own social networking website, which is said to be the country's biggest-ever IT project. Users have to register with their official ID details, meaning that the government can monitor content and activity on the site.

Vietnam currently has 1.8 million Facebook users and the number of account holders has doubled in the past six months. In absolute and relative numbers, Vietnam is well back in the southeast Asian social networking league. Indonesia has the world's second-biggest Facebook user base after the U.S, with over 32 million users, while almost 20 percent of the citizens in the Philippines are on Facebook. That said, Vietnamese seem to be taking to the social networking giant, meaning that the government faces a challenge to get people away from Facebook and onto go.vn.

I asked the gaming room manager what he thought of go.vn. Nose and brow furrowed, he asked, "What is that?" I asked around the shop, and all but two of the nineteen gamers said much the same.

Big brother might have to work hard to make new friends here.

Photo of traffic in Hanoi by Simon Roughneen

Simon Roughneen is an Irish journalist currently in southeast Asia. He writes for Financial Times, Los Angeles Times, Asia Times, The Irrawaddy, ISN, South China Morning Post and others. He is a radio correspondent affiliated to Global Radio News and has reported for RTÉ, BBC, CBS, CBC Canada, Fox News, and Voice of America. He has worked in and reported from over 30 countries.

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Social Media content on MediaShift is sponsored by the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships, a program offering innovative and entrepreneurial journalists the resources of Stanford University and Silicon Valley. Learn more here.

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December 20 2010

20:52

Brazilian Public Media Faces Tough Digital Transition

Belém, BRAZIL -- At the mouth of the Amazon river, vendors at the Ver-o-Peso market display the region's fruits, fish and crafts on splintered tables and rusting carts. They hail prospective buyers who pass by their closely packed stalls. Just a block over, behind the security gate of the Estação das Docas, a collection of renovated waterfront warehouses, eco-tourists stroll in air conditioned comfort past many of the same goods, which have been marked up and packaged as artisanal delights. The night I visit, one of these former warehouses is dedicated to a pop-up fashion fair for rising designers; a female DJ spins club tunes and ironic T-shirts mock souvenir gear.

Such cheek-to-jowl contradictions are common in Brazil, where income disparities are among the highest in the world, and megacities like São Paulo compete for national resources with tiny towns tucked deep in the rainforest. That reality makes it a challenge for the country's strapped public broadcasting outlets to create content to serve such a wide range of publics. This was the topic of an early December conference, TV Pública: Forum Internacional de Conteúdo, held in Belém's state-of-the-art Hangar Convention Center.

Public Broadcasting Coalesces

Public broadcasting is relatively young in Brazil. While TV Cultura, a private, foundation-funded channel offering arts, kids, documentary and sports programming has been around since the '60s, it was only in late 2007 that the government launched TV Brasil, a federally funded public broadcasting network. It airs Brazilian films, regional and educational programming, and sports. The channel's national over-the-air reach is limited, but it is available via cable, satellite and online.

Locally, public stations perform a variety of functions -- such as providing access to legislative proceedings, educational content and community outreach -- but they are not networked together via shared programming, as PBS member stations are. Now they are centrally administered, as in the case of the BBC. This lack of coordination, and the limited resources allotted these stations via local government funds, will soon be compounded further as the country undertakes the switch from analog to digital broadcast.

The conference, organized by the Brazilian Association of Public, Educational and Cultural Broadcasters, explored these challenges from a variety of perspectives, including content, program coordination and scheduling, infrastructure, funding, management, unwelcome government interference in program choices, and training of a new generation of public media makers. One key question is how stations might possibly hope to fill the four digital channels they will soon acquire in exchange for their one analog signal.

While some independent and non-profit content is broadly available from sources such as
Itaú Cultural
, a cultural institute which subsidizes the distribution of regional arts and music programming to stations, few syndication or rights-sharing arrangements have been developed. Many of the attendees had been to previous conferences to tackle these issues, but this was the first international gathering designed to bring perspectives in from other countries about how to manage such a thorny transition.

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Digital Disruption

Simultaneously, Brazilian communications and cultural authorities are working to figure out how to harness online and mobile technologies for the public good. Just weeks before, the Digital Culture conference issued a "declaration of Internet rights," which asserted "diversity and freedom are the foundation [of] democratic communication. Internet access is a fundamental right." At the TV Pública conference, one speaker described NavegaPara, a project to provide Internet access in the state of Pará, including remote areas of the Amazon.

Questions about how to use the pending digital broadcast signal to provide interactivity or web access via TV dogged the conference. The digital divide is much wider in Brazil than the U.S. While nearly 95 percent of Brazilians have access to television, high taxes and low incomes make electronic device purchases steep; wiring this large and sometimes rugged country has so far proven difficult.

Of course, none of this has stopped citizen reporters from putting the latest technologies to work. As Global Voices reported:

Young residents in the Complexo do Alemão favelas in Rio de Janeiro have begun using social and citizen media to chronicle the recent wave of violence spreading through the city. Seventeen-year-old aspiring journalist Rene Silva has set up a Twitter account, @vozdacomunidade (voice of the community), to monitor the police occupation of the favela complex, with the related hashtag, #vozdacomunidade, already beginning to trend. Meanwhile, @Igorcomunidade is also offering updates of what he calls "a guerra do alemão" (Alemão's War), and another group of young locals has started streaming footage of the occupation.

As in the U.S., producers with one foot in the old and new media worlds are growing a bit weary of discussing the myriad transitions, and are now eager to start building multi-platform public media models that can thrive. Francisco Belda, the director of a local newspaper near São Paulo that is considering ways to transition from print to digital is also a professor at São Paulo State University. He led a workshop at the TV Pública conference on how to create a new programming grid for public stations. We discussed his impatience with the pace of both industry and policy change.

"I'm tired of all this talk," he told me. "We are ready for action."

Jessica Clark directs the Future of Public Media Project at American University's Center for Social Media, and is a Knight Media Policy Fellow at the New America Foundation.

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December 14 2010

16:47

WikiLeaks and the Power of Patriotism

A narrow patriotism -- the psychological equivalent of a knee jerk -- is an under-recognized force in modern journalism ethics.

It distorts our thinking about the role of journalism as soon as journalists offend national pride and whistleblowers dare to reveal secrets. Narrow patriotism turns practitioners of a free press into scolding censors. Suddenly, independent journalists become dastardly law breakers.

Narrow patriotism is the view that "love of country" means not embarrassing one's government, hiding all secrets and muting one's criticism of foreign and military policy in times of tension. Narrow patriotism is an absolute value, trumping the freedom of the press.

The WikiLeaks saga proves, once again, that this form of patriotism is a powerful commitment of many journalists; often, more powerful than objectivity or independence.

For instance, as WikiLeaks rolled out the American diplomatic cables, Jeffrey T. Kuhner of the conservative Washington Times called for the assassination of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in a December 2 opinion piece. "We should treat Mr. Assange the same way as other high-value terrorist targets: Kill him"

One day later, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer said the WikiLeaks document dump was "sabotage" during a time of war. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder should "Throw the WikiBook" at the website, using every legal tool at his disposal.

These vociferous comments are not nasty comments made by anonymous online "patriots." They come from practitioners of a free press in the land of the free.

Critical Journalism as Patriotism

5238068866_3bb1aef717.jpgThe WikiLeaks controversy reveals tensions in our view of the role of journalism in democracy.

We believe in the idea of a free press; but we oppose it in practice when the press offends our patriotism, or works against some vaguely defined "national interest."

The same narrow patriotism was at work among major American media when President Bush decided to go to war with Iraq on flimsy claims. TV anchors put flags on their lapels and reporters accepted too easily the existence of weapons of mass destruction.

In times of conflict, the strong emotions of patriotism override journalists' in-principle commitment to critical informing the public and to impartiality. The word "patriotism" rarely occurs in journalism codes of ethics but its influence on practice is substantial.

So what's the right view of the role of journalism?

The role of a free press is not to serve the government or its diplomats. It is to serve the public who hold government accountable through information provided by the media.

Throughout history, journalists have caused their governments trouble and embarrassment. Journalists are properly patriotic when they write critically of government, when they reveal their hidden strategies, when they embarrass their government in front of the world.

Criticism and the publishing of important confidential data is the way journalists often serve the public, despite howls of outrage from some citizens.

Of course, Kuhner and Krauthammer don't represent all American journalists. Many journalists support WikiLeaks. For example, Anthony Shadid, foreign reporter for the New York Times in Bagdad, expressed enthusiastic support during a recent lecture at my university's Center for Journalism Ethics.

"I should probably be a little more ambiguous and grey about this, but I think it's wonderful," said the two-time Pulitzer Prize. "It's a wonderful disclosure, this transparency and this openness of public office. I find it incredibly refreshing and incredibly insightful, as well."

Two Things at Once

Shadid3.jpgLike Shadid, I think the importance of the cables justifies their publication. But I am more concerned than Shadid about the new power of "stateless" websites like WikiLeaks.

In my view, if we care about the freedom to publish we need to do two things at the same time: First, protest attempts to shut down WikiLeaks, which include denying it access to the internet and calls to arrest Assange.

Second, we need to urge Assange to explain the principles that guide his decision to publish. Is he committed to simply publishing any and all secrets regardless of the consequences? Or is he willing to adopt the responsible approach of the New York Times and the Guardian which seeks to minimize the harm of their stories by carefully vetting the data. Is Assange willing to balance the freedom to publish with the principle of minimizing harm?

Minimizing harm does not mean not damaging the public profile of government. It means not naming informants, human activists, or innocent third parties if that would prompt reprisals. It means not providing detailed information that would help terrorists attack a public institution.

Organizations like the New York Times are serious about vetting their stories. I am not so sure Assange or WikiLeaks has the same concern.

Public support for this form of whistleblower journalism will turn swiftly against it should future releases lead to the death of a third party, or lead to a terrorist attack. The best way to retain support for a free press is to act responsibly, and to be seen to be acting so.

Is 'Responsibility' a Declining Idea?

From an ethical perspective, what is significant about the emergence of WikiLeaks is not only that new technology allows citizens to gather and publish secret material globally, and these online publishers are difficult to control.

What is significant is that enthusiasm for revealing secrets undermines the idea of responsibility -- the responsible use of the freedom to publish.

In a WikiLeaks world, the principle of minimizing harm, first articulated by professional journalism in the previous century for another media era, may be dwindling in importance.

Up to this point, the release of WikiLeaks documents has followed a pattern: WikiLeaks supplies the secret data to major papers and professional journalists vet and write the stories. In the future, however, the role of responsible news outlets may decline.

As new websites spring up, each pursuing their ends with the passion of activists, the idea of a free and responsible press may come to seem irrelevant. The idea of ethically restraining the freedom to publish may recede into the rear view mirror of history.

I hope not.

(For more on WikiLeaks, check out the recent 4MR podcast with guest Jay Rosen.)

WikiLeaks poster by R_SH via Flickr

Stephen J. A. Ward is the James E. Burgess Professor of Journalism Ethics in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia (UBC). He is the founding chair of the Canadian Association of Journalists' (CAJ) ethics advisory committee and former director of UBC's Graduate School of Journalism.

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December 08 2010

18:25

How Calgary's Mayor Used Social Media to Get Elected

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Social Media content on MediaShift is sponsored by the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships, a program offering innovative and entrepreneurial journalists the resources of Stanford University and Silicon Valley. Learn more here.

Naheed Nenshi became mayor of Calgary at the end of October not by outspending his rivals or hailing from the incumbent political class in Canada. Nenshi didn't plaster his campaign message across the television, and he didn't even buy a single newspaper advertisement.

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Instead, Nenshi led a grassroots effort that mobilized soccer moms and utilized online activism on a Facebook page, on Twitter and on YouTube.

Other politicians have used Facebook and Twitter with success. So what was different about Nenshi's campaign?

Stephen Carter, who helped craft the online campaign strategy for Nenshi, credited "complete integration" for the success of the campaign's Internet efforts.

Integration

"It's one thing to have a social media policy, but frankly just having social media activity doesn't go far enough to actually making a campaign structure work," Carter said. "It's the integration of the online strategy, and we integrated our online strategy completely."

Calgary had just received a fresh batch of snow when I spoke to Carter, who runs the BBold PR new media public relations company in the city. During our phone conversation I asked him to elaborate on his integration strategy and identify what made the Nenshi campaign so special.

"If we were going to do something online, we would partner that online participation with everything else so that it was all supported," he said. "Our media relations strategy frankly became a social media strategy. If we wanted something to get really covered in the media, we launched it online. We wouldn't even send out a press release."

Carter said journalists now pay close attention to social media, which made a traditional press release a waste of time.

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"Actually, social media became the story more often than not," Carter said. "When we launched our iPhone app that became the story. It really wasn't that innovative. In every election there's this desire to look for the magic bullet. Was social media the magic bullet for us? Absolutely not."

Authenticity

So if the Nenshi campaign shouldn't be regarded as pioneers of social media, what was so special about what they did? Put it this way: They didn't just use social media -- they actually used social media correctly.

"When Nenshi and about six of us around the table were talking about social media, we talked about integrating the message into social media so that Nenshi would be always authentic," Carter said. "The only person who had the password to Nenshi's Twitter account was Nenshi. There was no second account set up for the campaign. Everybody was real. Every person that worked for the Nenshi campaign had their own Twitter account, which allowed us to have authentic communications across the medium."

Nenshi campaign staffers also worked hard at starting online conversations. Whenever anyone from the campaign posted a message on Facebook, they set goals to see multiple comments underneath it. And as often as possible, Nenshi himself would answer questions posted on Facebook or Twitter.

All About the Data

Being authentic is one thing, but how do you know if your authenticity is being well received? Another major component to Carter's strategy was to gather data and constantly measure and analyze the campaign's online efforts.

"We trended on TrendsMap [which we used to perform] local tracking of our Twitter trends from the first day Nenshi announced he was running and basically every day thereafter to make sure we were tweeting and retweeting and pushing out our message every single day," Carter said. "The beautiful thing about social media is that it is entirely measurable.

Being able to measure the impact of social media through retweets and shares on Facebook helped guide the campaign when things didn't go according to plan -- such as during a dust up with Rick Hanson, Calgary's chief of police, over a pre-approved police budget.

Advertising Using Social Media

The final piece of the puzzle for Carter was advertising on Facebook. The campaign put out several different Facebook ads and regularly tested which ones worked.

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"With our Facebook ads we decided we were going to try and appeal to middle aged women between 40 to 55, who live in the suburbs, have two kids and who have been or are soccer moms," Carter said. "Everyone has this impression that social media is a young person's medium. It's totally not. We knew that we could get social media activism from that particular group. We targeted them on Facebook and put out a number of messages that appealed to their demographic."

At the start of the Calgary election there was a total of 12 candidates. After raising about $60,000, Nenshi demonstrated he was a viable candidate. In August, Nenshi started at one percent support; he ended with 40 percent on election day.

Carter said the total amount raised during the campaign was about $300,000. Not bad considering how expensive large city elections have been for recent candidates.

"The biggest surprise was that the strategy was implemented exactly as planned," Carter said. "It is ridiculous. That never happens. We certainly didn't go into the campaign thinking that the strategy would work exactly as we wrote it, but it did."


Steven Davy is the web content editor at The World, a BBC, WGBH, PRI co-production. He is also the developer of Exploring Conversations, a multimedia website examining the language of music. He is the politics correspondent for MediaShift.

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December 06 2010

16:35

UBC Students, Globe and Mail Investigate Hidden Cost of Shrimp

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Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

Twenty-something university students usually head to Thailand in search of exotic adventures. But when a group of 10 University of British Columbia journalism students went almost a year ago, they were searching for the untold story of shrimp, a seafood delicacy that has become common in North America.

Led by associate professor Peter Klein, the students spoke to exploited Burmese migrant workers, documented devastated mangrove swamps, and visited labs where shrimp are tested for carcinogenic chemicals.

Their work was published recently in partnership with Canada's newspaper of record, the Globe and Mail, together with a companion micro-site to showcase the breadth and depth of the students' work.

"The Globe was preparing to do a series on global food, and we had just finished this reporting in Thailand, so we discussed with the editors the idea of a collaboration," said Klein, a former "60 Minutes" producer. "We shared transcripts of our interviews with one of their print reporters, and our students gave the reporter some advice on what we found in the field."

The project is an example of a growing trend of partnerships between major news organizations and universities, and it highlights the role of journalism schools as homes for investigative reporting projects.

This is the second project of UBC's International Reporting program. The first documentary, Ghana: Digital Dumping Ground, was produced in partnership with PBS Frontline/World and went on to win an Emmy Award in September for investigative reporting.

A Nuanced Story

The International Reporting program takes 10 journalism students abroad to cover under-reported international issues. The idea of looking at the real cost of those all-you-can-eat platters of cheap shrimp came out of a pitch by one of the students, Kate Allen.

mangrove.jpgShe suggested a general story about seafood, the ocean and fisheries. As the students researched the topic, the issue of shrimp aquaculture started to take shape.

"There are environmental concerns, human rights issues, and even health issues that can affect us back home in North America and Europe, where most farmed shrimp ends up," said Klein.

For the investigation, the students visited several sites in Thailand. They interviewed exploited Burmese migrants who are paid a pittance for their labor, filmed the underwater effects of shrimp runoff on the country's reefs and reported on how the clear-cutting of mangrove swamps by shrimp farmers contributed to the effects of the 2004 tsunami.

"It's a nuanced story," said student Kerry Blackadar. "We went there expecting a black-and-white story about run-offs from shrimp farms impacting reefs and mangroves, but realized the complexities of the industry when we were in Thailand."

Allen, the student who suggested the topic that eventually became this project, said,
"By the end of our Thai trip, we were left with a palpable sense of how North America's raging appetite for one tiny species of crustacean had done serious harm to this beautiful country."

Multimedia Treatment

The students produced a web video project for the Globe that offers a snapshot of the impact of cheap shrimp. The journalism school also produced a micro-site that highlights different aspects of the story, drawing from more than 100 hours of footage shot in the field.

shrimp_telephone.jpg"This project was really well suited for a multimedia piece," said Klein. "There are several distinct themes we addressed, and in a linear TV piece we would have had to do awkward transitions between these themes. In this project, we were able to separate out the themes and address them as individual video clips."

The website was created using WordPress, which is the content management system we use for our student online publications. I was involved in supervising the site, which was developed by student Erin Empey.

"This worked well as a multimedia project because of its complexity," she said. "By using several multimedia tools and breaking the video into chapters, we were able to present the nuances of the story clearly."

Here's one of the videos produced for the project:

Non-Profit Investigative Reporting

The website was the culmination of a year-long investigation that started back in September 2009, when the students embarked on the second year of a new course called International Reporting.

The course is an example of foundation-funded journalism. It was launched in 2008 thanks to a generous donation from Alison Lawton of the Mindset Foundation.

For the shrimp micro-site, the school also secured funding from the MITACS Accelerate internship program. The program provides federal and provincial funding to offer students the opportunity to apply their research to real-world issues.

Funding programs like these can help established media undertake innovative research and development projects. Last year, the UBC journalism school also received a grant from MITACS to partner with CBC Radio 3 to create a Canadian music wiki.

These kinds of partnerships are evolving as news outlets, foundations and journalism schools pool their resources, particularly at a time when established media are devoting fewer resources to investigative reporting

"This is classic investigative journalism, the kind of reporting that rarely gets done anymore on international topics," said Klein.

Alfred Hermida is an online news pioneer and digital media scholar. He is an assistant professor at the Graduate School of Journalism, the University of British Columbia, where he leads the integrated journalism program. He was a founding news editor of the BBC News website. He blogs at Reportr.net.
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December 01 2010

18:35

Suu Kyi Set Free But Media Still Held Captive in Burma

Burma has in recent weeks been one of the top world news stories. The country's November 7 general election was followed less than a week later by the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, one of the world's best-known political dissidents, whose appearance at her front gate on Saturday, November 13, was carried on news networks around the world.

However, getting news out of Burma is no easy task. As detailed by MediaShift contributor Clothilde Le Coz, foreign journalists were banned from entering the country to cover the elections. Though an estimated 30 to 40 managed to sneak in on tourist visas, seven were deported after being detained by the police. Fourteen media workers are currently behind bars, some serving sentences of up to 35 years. There are a total of around 2,200 political prisoners who remain locked up, despite the release of Suu Kyi.

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Still, high-profile reporters such as BBC's John Simpson managed to interview Suu Kyi after her release, with no apparent retaliation or punitive measures by the ruling junta. One reporter in Rangoon, who asked to remain anonymous due to the restrictions on foreign journalists operating in Burma, told me the apparent indifference to the journalists-posing-as-tourists was more due to ineptitude on the part of the police, rather than newfound tolerance.

Telecom Backwater

Chinese correspondents are the only foreign press permitted to work in Burma on a full-time basis; news agencies and wire services such as Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse are only allowed to deploy Burmese stringers.

The information challenge was heightened in the week before the November 7 election, when a moratorium on new SIM cards was imposed by the junta, pushing the price of black market SIMs to well over $1,000. Economics are another form of censorship in Burma, as the average wage is a little over $200 per year. Even if the release of Suu Kyi somehow galvanized the public into another confrontation with the junta, there is little prospect of seeing the SMS-organized mass protests that emerged a decade ago elsewhere in southeast Asia, such as when tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Manila to demand the ouster of President Joseph Estrada.

All told, only four percent of the population are wired up to telephone networks, one of the world's lowest telephone usage rates. There are rumors that various multinational telecommunications companies are seeking ways into the market, and trying to get around U.S., E.U. and Australian sanctions by setting up shell companies in Singapore and Hong Kong. However, the privatization of various state assets's-economy-and-investment-175390 over the past year appears to have only benefited a narrow cabal of Burmese businessmen affiliated to the ruling junta. There are 1.3 million mobile phones and 866,084 landlines in Burma, according to statistics released by Myanmar Post and Telecommunications. The country has a population of roughly 50 million people. In contrast, over half the population of neighboring Thailand has mobile phones.

The country has been deemed "an enemy of the Internet" by Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF), and Vincent Brossell, RSF's Asia representative, told me that "it is so risky to try to work with people inside Burma."

When it comes to the Internet, foreign news and social networking sites are blocked, though tech-savvy Internet users and Internet cafe owners in Rangoon and Mandalay can find ways around the wall using various proxies. However, just one in 455 Burmese were Internet users in 2009, according to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). Internet cafes in Rangoon and Mandalay charge around $0.40 an hour for access, which is far too expensive for ordinary Burmese.

Enhanced Online Surveillance

A new ISP regime is being implemented by the ruling State Peace and Development Council, the official title for the junta. The planned "national web portal" will split the military, government and general ISPs into separate services, meaning that the publicly available Internet can be closed down or slowed without impinging on the government or army's web access. Critics say the new plan will enhance surveillance and online snooping, and make the country's few bloggers more vulnerable than ever to arrest.

During the monk-led mass protests in September 2007, citizens used the web to send reports and video to the outside world, circumventing the ban on foreign media. Blogger Nay Phone Latt was a central figure in that effort, but he was given a 12 year jail term for his efforts -- a harsh reminder of what happens to those who use the Internet to speak out against the ruling junta.

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Any hope that the release of Suu Kyi signals even a tentative loosening-up appear to be misplaced. The military censors have stuck to the old ways, as evidenced by the fact that only ten of the country's 100-plus privately owned publications were sanctioned to offer coverage of the release of Suu Kyi. All publications in Burma must have their content approved in advance by the Press Scrutiny Board. Speaking at a seminar on post-election Burma in Bangkok on November 23, Aung Zaw, the editor of Irrawaddy, a news magazine based in Thailand but run by Burmese journalists, told me that "media in Burma are trying to push the envelope with the censor, since the release of Aung San Suu Kyi."

Shawn Crispin, southeast Asia representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists, told me there is a "yawning news gap" caused by heavy censorship and intimidation inside Burma. Burmese exiles try to fill the void, operating mainly from India and Thailand. Clandestine reporters inside the country take great risks to funnel information to editors in Chiang Mai, New Delhi and beyond.

Late in 2009, Hla Hla Win, a reporter for the Norway-headquartered Democratic Voice of Burma, was sentenced to a total of 27 years in jail for violating the Electronics Act, another draconian lever used by the junta to stop information from getting around the country or to the outside.

First Eleven's Cover

However, since the release of Suu Kyi, even the state-watched media in Burma have shown daring creativity to get their message out, risking the wrath of the regime in the process. Sports journal First Eleven led with a front-page story on the Tuesday after Suu Kyi's release that was a combination of headlines ostensibly about English Premier League soccer matches, but that also used colored lettering to discuss Suu Kyi's release. Three innocuous-looking headlines -- "Sunderland Freeze Chelsea," "United Stunned by Villa" and "Arsenal Advance to Grab Their Hope" -- read as "Su Free Unite & Advance to Grab The Hope."

First Eleven got the ruse past the censors by submitting the advance copy of the page in black and white, but were subsequently hit with a two week publishing ban after the military realized that they had been fooled.

Simon Roughneen is an Irish journalist currently in southeast Asia. He writes for Financial Times, Los Angeles Times, Asia Times, The Irrawaddy, ISN, South China Morning Post and others. He is a radio correspondent affiliated to Global Radio News and has reported for RTÉ, BBC, CBS, CBC Canada, Fox News, and Voice of America. He has worked in and reported from over 30 countries.

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November 11 2010

16:31

Burma Elections Include Throttled Net, Blocked News Sites

Japanese journalist Toru Yamaji, the head of the Tokyo-based news agency APF, was arrested over the weekend in the eastern border town of Myawaddy, Burma, after reportedly entering from Thailand.

He was taken by helicopter to the Burmese capital, Naypyitaw, for questioning by military intelligence. Yamaji was attempting to report on the ongoing elections in Burma, despite the restrictions put in place by the military junta that rules the country they call Myanmar. Fortunately, Yamaji was released yesterday.

Along with arresting and restricting the access of journalists, Burma also used the election as an occasion to downgrade Internet speeds and stifle the online press. Here's a look at the crackdown that accompanied the recent, highly questionable, vote.

Visa Restrictions

On October 18, Burma's election commission decided not to grant press visas to foreign journalists, reinforcing the impression that the military government intended to isolate the country during the election. The commission's chairman, Thein Soe, said that Burma did not need any foreign journalists or observers because it already had a lot of experience in holding elections. This, despite the fact that the country last had elections 20 years ago.

Several European journalists had their requests for tourist visas rejected by the Burmese authorities.

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"The Burmese diplomats have clearly learned to use Google and are rejecting applications by people who are identifiable as journalists," a French reporter whose visa was denied told Reporters Without Borders. Twenty-five Burmese journalists who work for foreign media and two Chinese correspondents were the only foreign media reporters allowed to cover the elections.

A report by Simon Roughneen at Irrawaddy, an independent newsmagazine and website that reports on Burma, quoted an official with China Radio International saying that "usually we cannot report on Myanmar," or on other "sensitive stories," unless specifically asked to do so.

The election commission also announced on October 18 that media would not be allowed into voting stations. The commission and the country's Press Scrutiny Board, which is run by a military officer, closely examines all articles about the election and the statements of the 37 registered political parties. As an example, Favorite News, a privately owned magazine, was recently suspended for two weeks for publishing a cartoon that referred to the elections (see picture at right).

Monitoring Journalists

The Burmese correspondents of foreign news media were also closely monitored by plain-clothes police and soldiers during the voting on November 7, and throughout the preceding election campaign. "According to testimonies from reporters on the ground, some of them have been followed and sometimes searched, while the police spend their time taking photos of them while covering a story," according to a recent report published by our organization, Reporters Without Borders.

Foreign journalists have for decades been finding it extremely difficult to obtain press visas for Burma and have been forced to travel under tourist visas. This heightens the danger for the Burmese who work as fixers or agree to interviews. Zarganar, the Burmese blogger, actor, comedian and political prisoner, was jailed after talking to the BBC in 2008.

Zarganar, who is nicknamed the "Burmese Chaplin," was arrested on June 4 after talking to the BBC World Service and other foreign news media about delays in the humanitarian relief organized by the military after Cyclone Nargis struck the country in May 2008. He also blogged about the activities of the country's Buddhist monks during the September 2007 protests.

Zarganar was sentenced to 35 years in jail during a closed door trial at Insein prison. An extra 14 years were added to his sentence less than a week later. His sentence was then reduced back to 35 years. He is not due to be freed until 2033.

Internet Issues

Burma is home to some of the world's most draconian media laws, and it ranked 174 out of 178 countries in the 2010 Press Freedom Index. We have also labeled Burma as an "Enemy of the Internet," a distinction it continues to deserve thanks to its actions during the elections. Out of the 2,150-plus political prisoners in Burma, around 15 are journalists, and the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists last year branded Burma the worst country in which to be a blogger.

It's therefore not surprising that Internet connections inside the country were noticeably reduced in preparation for voting. "I can no longer connect to my Gmail account using proxies," a Rangoon-based journalist said. "Accessing all the websites based abroad has become terribly slow."

According to Irrawaddy, Internet cafes in Rangoon were closed in advance of the elections. From a November 1 report on the website:

Burma's Ministry of Post and Telecommunications (MPT) has sealed off Internet access for Internet cafes and businesses, according to experts on Burma's Internet infrastructure.

Sources close to the ministry who asked to maintain anonymity have told The Irrawaddy that Internet access is normal at all government and military institutions serviced by MPT, but "access for businesses and Internet cafes" is shut down to control the flow of information in and out of the country.

On October 5, Reporters Without Borders reported the disruption of two news websites due to Internet-based attacks. The Democratic Voice of Burma and Irrawaddy magazine were temporarily knocked offline. Both provide independent coverage of current affairs in Burma. The attacks are believed to have originated from the Burmese government.

On Sunday, the authorities ordered the privately owned Eleven Media group not to update the special "Elections" sections of its website or Facebook pages.

As of today, 13 reporters and two Netizens are behind bars in Burma. The fear is that more could join them in the aftermath of these elections.

Photo of Bagan by druidabruxux 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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November 04 2010

19:03

5 Moments When Digital Media Transformed Australian Politics



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Recent years have seen significant changes in the way Australian politicians, political journalists and the public interact and communicate with each other. As a result, MediaShift asked me to identify the top five events in Australia's recent history where politics and new media intersected.

My shortlist, compiled with crowdsourcing assistance from my politically engaged Twitter and Facebook communities, includes a quintessentially Australian slogan that went viral; the demise of an opposition leader that played out via Twitter and demonstrated the transformative effect of the medium on political reporting; the Twitter-cast of the extraordinary political coup that ousted Labor prime minister in his first term; a bold High Court challenge to the curtailment of voter registration by an activist online media outfit; and the unmasking of a popular blogger and media critic by a political journalist in the aftermath of the 2010 federal election.

Here's a list that describes each event, and the impact of new media on Australian politics.

1. Kevin07

The 2007 campaign to elect Kevin Rudd prime minister of Australia was the country's first social media election. After 12 years of conservative government led by John Howard, a man who epitomized 1950s values, Rudd's campaign appeared positively contemporary and technologically cutting edge.

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The campaign incorporated a moderately interactive website, blogs, email, YouTube, MySpace (back when it was hip) and Facebook to generate political interest among young voters who slapped Kevin07 t-shirts on their backs and added slogan bumper stickers to their cars, while also posting badges on their Facebook walls.

The Kevin07 campaign couldn't hold a candle to Obama's groundbreaking social media strategy in the year that followed, but it highlighted the stark contrast between the tech-savvy Rudd and yesterday's leader. And it visibly contributed to the activation of the voters who ultimately delivered Rudd a landslide victory that even cost Howard his seat in parliament.

Ironically, though, it was Rudd's perceived disconnectedness from the electorate, perhaps fueled by his failure to live up to expectations of engagement generated by social media interaction during the campaign, that cost him the prime ministership in a bloodless coup, less than three years later (see #Spill2 below).

2. #Spill

The dramatic unseating of Australia's Opposition Leader, the Liberal Party's Malcolm Turnbull, in December 2009 was extraordinary for many reasons. One of them was the role of Twitter in the drama. (I reported in detail on this for MediaShift earlier this year)

The hashtag #spill was used to aggregate Twitter commentary on the Liberal leadership crisis by Australian Twitter users. At one point, it became the fifth most popular trending item worldwide.

The message was clear: There was a new electorate in Australia and it was on Twitter. It wasn't an actual electorate, of course, but it was an emerging homeland for politically engaged citizens and new territory to be invaded by political journalists. As members of Canberra's Press Gallery poured onto Twitter, the transformative impact of Twitter on journalism was demonstrated. It broke down the barriers that traditionally separated journalists from audiences, segregated competing reporters and filtered communications between politicians and their constituents. The potential for a new form of participatory democracy, one which provided opportunity for unmediated interaction between audiences, the Fourth Estate and politicians was on display -- in real time.

3. #Spill2

One Twitter-exposed leadership spill wasn't enough for Australia. When Julia Gillard usurped her leader, Kevin Rudd, as prime minister in June this year in a bloodless coup that unfolded at lightning speed, the story was broken on Twitter.

It was one of the most dramatic political stories in Australian history -- the first time a sitting prime minister had been ousted by his own party during his first term in office.
Here's how Chris Uhlmann, political editor of ABC's 24 hour TV news channel, alerted his followers on June 23 that a leadership spill was likely:

Kevin Rudd's leadership is under siege tonight from some of the Labor Party's most influential factional warlords. Watch ABC News. NOW!less than a minute ago via webChris Uhlmann
CUhlmann

Chief political correspondent for multicultural and multilingual broadcaster SBS, Karen Middleton tweeted that Labor powerbrokers had entered Rudd's office, highlighting the stunning speed with which events were unfolding: "NO confirmation that Gillard is willing to move against Rudd. Some frontbenchers oblivious."

By the end of the night, prolific Canberra Press Gallery Twitter user Latika Bourke tweeted: "Text from Labor MP: 'it's done. There will be a new PM tomorrow."

Less than 12 hours later, behind closed doors in Canberra's Parliament House, Rudd's fate was sealed. And the news broke first on Twitter via News Limited journalist Samantha Maiden who tweeted this:

Labor Mp text: it's Julia no ballot #spillless than a minute ago via Echofonsamanthamaiden
samanthamaiden

That tweet was re-tweeted over 90 times and featured in her competitor's news copy as the real-time medium trumped the immediacy of traditional media outlets - even the original real-time medium, radio.

As Sky News Digital News Director John Bergin wrote in the Walkley Magazine in the aftermath of the coup, "The breakneck pace of the strike on Rudd's Prime Ministership was only intensified by the immediacy of the real-time web."

The second #spill, which was variously tagged #spill2 and #spillard (a reference to incoming Prime Minister Gillard, cemented the role of Twitter in political reporting and further demonstrated its impact on journalism. It also highlighted the potential power the platform as a facilitator of participatory democracy.

4. GetUp! Wins in High Court

The online activist media group GetUp! achieved a significant legal victory in the interests of Australian democracy in the midst of the August federal election, which was so tightly contested that it resulted in an historic hung parliament.

With a suite of pro-bono lawyers, GetUp! joined forces with the Human Rights Law Centre in a public democracy campaign that ended in a High Court (Australia's highest court of appeal) challenge to restrictive voter registration laws introduced by the long-lived conservative Howard government.

GetUp! successfully argued that the changes, which resulted in the early closure of voter enrollment on the day a poll was declared, effectively disenfranchised young people, the homelessness and Indigenous Australians.

The win legitimized the enrollment of over 100,000 Australians who registered to vote within seven days of the August election being called, meaning their votes counted on polling day and ultimately helped deliver a minority government to the Labor Party, who had welcomed the High Court ruling.

5. Groggate

There's now a fork in the Twitter road to journalistic transformation in Australia, and it was signposted by what Rupert Murdoch's newspaper The Australian described as "the great blog war of 2011" -- a war that the newspaper started.

Eighteen months ago, I wrote [PDF] that journalists needed to be space invaders in the Twittersphere. What I meant by that was that they needed to be present and engaged. But some have seen the platform's rise and the leveling effect it brings to information distribution as a call to combat. They've adopted principles of trench-warfare, lobbing grenades at citizens who are encroaching into their territory.

This collision of a select group of tweeting professional journalists and their online critics came to a head in midst of the 2010 Australian election campaign thanks to a seminal post by the popular blogger Grog's Gamut. The pseudonymous writer stridently criticized what he described as the shallow, trivial campaign trail coverage by Canberra Press Gallery journalists and called for a greater focus on policy analysis in the coverage.

Some defensive journalists, threatened by the disruption of control represented by the traction of the Grog's Gamut critique, denied there was a problem with their coverage, while others reflected thoughtfully on the issues raised by the blogger.

Remarkably, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's managing director, Mark Scott, ultimately re-directed news coverage to emphasize policy in response to the public debate triggered by the Grog's Gamut blog.

The defensive members within the political reporting pack started a flame war with critics that continued on Twitter throughout the campaign and exploded with the retaliatory unmasking of Grog's Gamut as Dr. Greg Jericho, a federal public servant, by The Australian's James Massola. The newspaper claimed the unmasking was a matter of public interest. I argued at the time that it wasn't. The Twitterstorm that erupted in response to the unmasking was volatile.

The #Groggate saga, as I facetiously labeled it on Twitter, demonstrated both the cause of public distrust in journalism and the potential cost of eroding trust built on audience engagement. These costs were evident in the angry public backlash against journalists at The Australian, Massola's loss of Twitter followers in the immediate aftermath, and a further erosion of The Australian's editorial credibility.

It also highlighted the risks of disrespecting online community values, mores and ethics... along with some spectacular examples of professional arrogance by journalists at the center of the storm.

#Groggate was a case study in how to alienate online audiences and lose influence in the emerging new media spaces that are playing host to a vibrant Australian public political debate.

Disclosures: I am the Australian editorial director of Media140 and I invited James Massola to speak at the Canberra conference on September 23. I also invited Grog's Gamut to blog the event for Media140 with the promise that I would do my utmost to help preserve his pseudonymity during the conference. And I began the Twitter hashtag #Groggate as a facetious reference to the prominence The Australian gave the original story.

Julie Posetti is an award winning journalist and journalism academic who lectures in radio and television reporting at the University of Canberra, Australia. She's been a national political correspondent, a regional news editor, a TV documentary reporter and presenter on radio and television with the Australian national broadcaster, the ABC. Her academic research centers on talk radio, public broadcasting, political reporting and broadcast coverage of Muslims post-9/11. She blogs at J-Scribe and you can follow her on Twitter.

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November 03 2010

21:28

Canadian Murder Trial a Crucible for Real-Time Coverage

Late last month in a Canadian courtroom, Russell Williams, a former high-ranking colonel in the Canadian military, pleaded guilty to the murders of two young women as well as 86 counts of break and enter, sexual assault and other crimes. His sentencing hearing was widely covered by major Canadian media. Here, Canadian online journalism professor Robert Washburn explains how journalists tackled the story, in real-time.

Using social media in journalism is like watching lightning. It can be explained as a physical phenomenon using the laws of physics. Scientists study it and forecast when it will happen. But nobody can predict where it will hit. Nobody can predict the results. More than anything else, nobody can make it hit the same spot twice.

Social media played a significant role during the Russell Williams hearing, as it became a news ticker from inside the courtroom, sharing vivid, often disturbing details of his crimes.

More and more, newsrooms are recognizing the importance of the use of social media like Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and so forth. The American Journalism Review in March reported the influx of social media editors working with citizen journalists, engaging audiences. NYTimes.com and CNN.com, for example, experienced a 300 percent increase in unique visitors via these media.

Yet, social media continues to confound those who want to see reproducible results. Social media is viral and uncontrolled; messages get reworked, reshaped and retweeted, as Toronto Star columnist Antonia Zerbisias pointed out in her post-G20 analysis of the use of Twitter during the protests in Toronto in June.

Robert Picard, a fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, said it best in a recent article in Nieman Reports.

"So this may not be the ideal time to suggest that the social media landscape is continuing to be transformed in ways that journalists and news organizations will find confounding," he wrote.

Already there are analyses starting, looking into the ethical dimensions of the use of Twitter during the Williams hearing. It will be up to the media ethicists and other scholars to dissect the content and provide analysis. This article is meant to be an early examination of the role of social media technology and the lessons learned for future applications in journalism.

BlackBerry Ban Lifted

Immediately, it is important to understand the unique context of the Williams hearing. First, a judge lifted a BlackBerry ban and allowed reporters to bring laptop computers and smartphones into the courtroom. This is not always the case in Canada, and is determined by each judge for each case. Hence, this was unusual.

These tools allowed instant communication with the newsroom. It also gave reporters the ability to instantly publish what was going on. Twitter was a popular tool, as some organizations allowed reporters to post to individual accounts or to use aggregator technology like CoveritLive, where a number of reporters, commentators and editors were presenting a stream of information via text and images.

The content was very raw in some instances, as reporters became stenographers, passing along details with little -- if any -- context or forethought. Twitter technology constrains journalists in this manner, according to Mark Walker, business team leader at Toronto-based real-time content management system ScribbleLive. For one thing, he said in an email to me, messages are limited to 140 characters. It's also push technology, meaning the audience subscribes and then automatically receives information. It is unedited, unauthenticated and unverified, he argued, breaking three of the major protocols of good journalism.

Sure, the contents of the hearing were compelling. Certainly, there were members of the audience and journalists who found the content repulsive. Still, the way crown attorney (prosecutor) Lee Burgess walked the judge through the evidence, building layer upon layer of detailed evidence, made a word-for-word reporting pretty enticing. This, in turn, became more shocking as it unfolded. It was a challenge for journalists to stop and use news judgment due to the momentum created by this legal strategy. The evidence was presented in such a way as to create a very dramatic narrative as the nature of the crimes and violence escalated. While the technology made it easy to publish, the content smoothed the process as well. Neither the technology nor the news media needed to add anything to make this case sensational. It was inherently sensational.

Beyond Social Media

The high news value of the Williams hearing meant additional resources were given to the coverage. And the technology went beyond social media. While some reporters were alone in the courtroom, platforms like CoveritLive allowed editors and other journalists to contribute to the information stream. Reporters back in the newsroom included contextual background, uploaded photo galleries and provided filler when the streams were slow. In the courtroom, illustrators uploaded their drawings directly to the newsroom's live feed. CoveritLive also enabled news organizations to incorporate what readers and other Twitter and social media users were saying.

Screen shot 2010-11-03 at 1.34.51 PM.png

In other cases, CoveritLive was used to hold live, interactive chats with audiences to discuss aspects of the trial. For example, the CBC invited trauma specialists and psychotherapists to discuss the impact of the trial.

Another factor was the high public interest in the case. The coverage of the murders, the investigation, the arrest and the pre-hearing reporting laid the foundation for a large audience seeking more information. Social media was a good channel for audiences because it allowed them to follow details instantly and from anywhere.

Expect To Be Confounded

Twitter is useful to journalists as a form of news ticker, a steady stream of information for audiences. It is good at letting people know up-to-the-minute what is going on in the format of short snippets. But the use of CoveritLive by the Toronto Star, Globe and Mail and CBC (and ScribbleLive by the National Post), among others, mitigated some of the issues raised by using Twitter alone.

In these cases several techniques were used. For example the blending of several Twitter feeds provided varied points of view. In other cases, Twitter messages were combined with other journalists and experts outside the courtroom and in the newsroom, who were able to provide context, images and other information. This added context in some cases and other perspectives, as well. It also made for a single delivery platform for audiences, giving them one channel to receive a wide range of information.

Toronto Star reporter Joanna Smith, who distinguished herself as one of the better Twittering reporters in the country when she used the platform to report from Haiti, was quoted by her own paper in a story about using Twitter to cover the hearing.

Screen shot 2010-11-03 at 1.26.24 PM.png

"The immediacy of Twitter has a power that both news consumers and journalists are still getting used to harnessing,'' she said. "I think of my tweets from Haiti and how crafting a single 140-character tweet that worked as a complete narrative had a power that gave me chills, sometimes, in a way that the same amount of text in a newspaper story would not. I think many of my followers felt the same way about it. I think the same dynamics are at play here, but the content is so graphic that almost any tweet can blow someone away. We have to respect that, and work hard to check and balance ourselves accordingly."

Is Twitter a useful tool for journalists? No doubt. And, should journalists continue to use social media? Of course. But, as Picard rightly said, we must expect to be confounded. What is most important is journalists should be free to experiment with these new technologies. The Williams hearing was an important crucible to test the use of social media in news coverage in Canada.

We are in a period where innovation can happen spontaneously. New standards are yet to be formed. Journalists must remain open to the possibilities. Still, it should never be viewed as predictable or controllable. Like lightning, journalists will need to understand it, but also stand back and watch.

Prof. Robert Washburn instructs in the new Journalism: Online, Print and Broadcast program at Loyalist College in Ontario, Canada, where he teaches the uses of new technologies in journalism. He is the innovation editor for J-Source.ca, where he launched the Canadian Hyperlocal Journalism Project aimed at building resources to assist those interested in this emerging area. He has worked for more than 25 years as a journalist in newspapers, magazines and radio, and was the first post-secondary educator in Canada to teach in Second Life.

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