In mid-2009, when thousands of Iranians took to the streets amid allegations of fraud in the June presidential election, the images of the protests that reached the West were almost exclusively those captured by ordinary citizens on cell phones and digital cameras and disseminated over the Internet, circumventing the government’s information clampdown. So Iran was a fitting place to begin the virtual tour of the world that took place last Thursday evening at MIT’s Stata Center, under the auspices of MIT’s Center for Future Civic Media and the title “Civics in Difficult Places.”
Hosted by Ethan Zuckerman, a fellow at both Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and the Center for Future Civic Media, the two-hour event was a series of interviews, using the Web-based videoconferencing software Skype, with activists around the world who are helping create grassroots media networks in countries with hostile political environments or scant resources.
From the diverse experiences of the participants, a few common themes emerged. One was the sometimes-surprising resilience of new-media networks. Georgia Popplewell, a blogger and podcaster based in Trinidad and Tobago who works with Zuckerman’s organization Global Voices, said that while the recent earthquake in Haiti knocked out almost all of the country’s radio stations, Haitians remained able to communicate with each other and with the outside world — and prominent radio personalities could still reach their audiences — over Twitter and other social-media services. Ruthie Ackerman, who created the blog Ceasefire Liberia as a bridge between Liberians in Liberia and those in the diaspora — and particularly the large Liberian community in Staten Island — assumed that Liberians in the U.S., with their vastly superior Internet connections, would post updates to the blog more often than their counterparts in Liberia, where Internet service is “virtually nonexistent” outside the capital, Monrovia, and even there, it’s expensive and slow. But the reverse proved to be true. “I think that the reason why is that there’s this sense of urgency in Liberia,” Ackerman said, “that they really want to get their stories out there, and that, if they don’t tell their stories, they won’t be told.” And Cameran Ashraf of AccessNow, an organization born of the Iranian protests that, among other things, helps Iranians read and contribute to dissident websites without leaving any digital tracks, pointed out that even as the Iranian government shut down news outlets, arrested journalists and tried to filter Facebook and Twitter, it stopped short of cutting off Iranians’ Internet access entirely. Ashraf believes that, in a country like Iran, where 30 percent of people have Internet access, local economies are already so dependent on the Web that shutting it down would have been “adding fuel to the fire of an already tense situation.”
Another recurring theme was the ingenuity with which people in “difficult places” use new technologies. Huma Yusuf, a reporter for Pakistan’s largest English-language newspaper Dawn, is involved in a project to set up local radio stations along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, where literacy rates are so low that new-media networks would have limited reach. Cell-phone calls in Pakistan are expensive, Yusuf said, so reporters for the radio stations have established a code where multiple hangups convey different information — such as an imminent encounter with the military that could make communication difficult for a few hours. And Brenda Burrell and Bev Clark, who provide an uncensored outlet for news in Zimbabwe, discussed their new project, Freedom Fone. Like Yusuf, they’re trying to create community radio stations; unlike Yusuf, they haven’t been granted access to radio spectrum. But cell-phone plans in Zimbabwe are much more affordable than they are in Pakistan. So Burrell and Clark have created a virtual radio station that allows the user to select and listen to programs using a cell phone’s ordinary voice connection. “Local people adapt technology and make use of it and hack it and play with it in ways that are completely unexpected,” Yusuf said, “and it’s really important to start from the bottom up.”
The final conversation of the evening was with Lova Rakotomalala of Madagascar, whose organization, Foko Club, has a short but extraordinary history. Foko Club began as a way for Malagasy high-school students to learn English, and one of their projects was an English-language blog. But that quickly evolved into a site where the students reported on their local communities using audio and video as well as text. In early 2009, when protests against the government led to deadly clashes with police and, ultimately, the ouster of the country’s president, the teenage members of Foko Club were there with their cameras, despite Rakotomalala’s attempts to dissuade them. Adults and even some experienced journalists joined the club, which rapidly became the most reliable source of information about the unfolding events, both inside and outside the country.
At the end of the conversation, Zuckerman asked Rakotomalala to say goodbye in Malagasy, and Rakotomalala obliged, unleashing an effusion of liquid syllables that lasted four seconds. “So one of the things I’ve been learning about Malagasy,” said Zuckerman, “is that it has more syllables than I could ever possibly imagine.”
“Even I am filled with respect,” said the Center for Future Civic Media’s director, Chris Csikszentmihályi.