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GV Summit: Elections and citizen media

If you’re not with us here in Budapest, please join us on the video stream. All the coverage is archived, which means that if you’ve got a very dull weekend planned, you could spend at least 20 hours with us. If you’ve got a bit less time, but read Spanish, El Pais is here to help you out. Rosa Jíminez Cano has an excellent article on yesterday’s sessions on free speech online. It’s a great complement to an article on Rising Voices, reported from Colombia, a few days back, with a strong focus on our remarkable David Sasaki.

If there’s a single subject that gets bloggers excited, incensed and interested, it’s elections. Our beloved managing editor Solana Larsen points out that we know we’ll see a flood of posting from a particular country a few months before an election, and often for some weeks afterwards… or for months, in the case of a disputed poll. Four GV authors and editors look in depth at political blogging in their countries, spanning Kenya, Iran, Venezuela and Armenia.

Hamid Tehrani, our Persian editor, offers some thoughts on Yarane Baran, a pro-reformist association of bloggers. The name of the group is a reference to “a blessing like rain”, the idea that electing a reformist leader (again) would be a blessing as welcome as rain. The network is one in support of “serial losers”, a group of politicians who’ve lost municipal, parliamentary and presidential elections. The network functions almost as a support group, providing hope to the participants who are curently deeply marginal in Iranian politics. But he wonders whether it’s working, as the traffic to the network is quite light, suggesting less support for the movement than the involved bloggers might hope. On the other hand, it’s an interesting network inasmuch as it includes blogs from senior politicians like former vice-president Mohammed Ali Abtahi, who uses the online space to publish stories on subjects that are rarely covered in other Iranian media.

Onnik Krikorian, our Armenia correspondent, documented the power of digital media in Armenia’s recent presidential election. Krikorian explains that Armenia hasn’t had very many free or fair elections, and that many people saw the 2008 election as a coronation for Serzh Sarkasian, backed by serving President Kocharyan who was constitutionally banned from standing for an additional term. The opposition candidate, Levon Ter-Petrossian (the first independently elected President of Armenia in 1991), had strong support from bloggers, and when he polled very poorly in the election, some argued that the elections hadn’t been free and fair.

Those arguments were bolstered by videos posted to YouTube, and bloggers promoted street protests against the election. This led up to clashes in the streets on March 1, where ten people died. The government shut down all independent media, but – oddly – didn’t shut down online media. Bloggers used YouTube to call attention to videos of police shooting at demonstrators, which eventually forced the police to respond to accusations of excessive force and brutality. During the twenty days that blogs were the only media, the Armenian political establishment began to understand the importance of blogs. After Sarkasian took power, he requested a meeting through his press advisor with bloggers to ask how blogs work and what they can do. Krikorian tells us his blogger friends say, “We’re not really going to tell them, are we?”

Luis Carlos Diaz, who covers Venezuela for Global Voices, explains his country’s political situation with a number of one-liners. “We have a new hegemony in power, without blood,” referring to Chavez’s vision of socialism. “Our problem: we have too much petroleum,” which he argues is bad for government accountability.

Venezuela is well-wired by developing world standards. Of 27 million people, 16 million voters, 5.7 million have net access. And since Venezuelan life is filled with political discussion, so are the blogs… at least when in election season. (And we do mean season – Diaz tels us that there’s at least one controversial election a year, which means that “voting is a sport in Venezuela”.) Digital media, he tells us, is perhaps the strongest media in Venezuela, and projects like the Elecciones en 3D project from to2blogs have emerged as major sources of media information during Venezuelan elections.

Daudi Were, the godfather of the Kenyan blogosphere, father of the Kenya Unlimited blog community, offers some reflections on Kenyan blogs in the wake of the 2007/8 electoral crisis. He’s kind enough to reference a recent article of mine on the topic, and I’ll recommend that for anyone who needs background on the election.

Daudi argues that Kenya was especially prepared to cover the situation due to the richness and maturity of the blogosphere. There are at least 800 Kenyan bloggers, who are both fiercely independent and tightly linked together. “If you build a new Kenyan blog, if you put it into the webring, you’ll have a thousand viewers the first day.” Many of these bloggers were anxious to cover the elections. Daudi tells us he was out on the streets at 6am, photographing lines and polling places; other bloggers were out at 3am. Some bloggers were actually standing for election, others were embedded with foreign diplomats, visiting polling sites as election monitors.

Everyone was cognizant of the polarized political environment. Before the election, Odinga was polling at 46.6% versus 46.3% for Kibaki. SMS was being used to spread extremely scary political messages: “If we vote in this guy, he’ll kill your grandmother. So vote for the other guy, or we’ll kill your grandmother,” quips Daudi.

On December 30th, Daudi made a post titled: “Something is not right“. Voting counts were turning up odd discrepancies, and presidential election results had not been released. As optimism eroded, violence began. Bloggers quickly found themselves as citizen reporters, using twitter, photoblogging and other tools to document the situations.

Daudi offers some reflections on lessons learned from the coverage of violent incidents and the protested election:

– Kenyans often complain that digital media isn’t important because bandwith penetration is only 7-10%. That’s a mistake – radio DJs often pick up blogposts and read them over the air, potentially reaching 95% of all Kenyans.

– Kenya’s human network is critically important. Bloggers had support locally, nationally and globally through existing networks, and they drew a great deal of attention to protests.

– Reputation matters. Daudi reported an incorrect rumor one day, stating that two people had been killed. The next day, he went to a press conference and photographed the two people there. “Because I was being transparent, my reputation didn’t suffer.”

– “Bloggers aren’t aliens – we’re just a subset of society. If society has some crazy people, some bloggers are going to be crazy as well.”

5 thoughts on “GV Summit: Elections and citizen media”

  1. Hi Ethan,

    It was really nice to meet you. I alredy knew Georgia, but, Solana, Chris and you are doing such a good work…
    Hope to continue seeing each other in your events.
    Tomorrow in ELPAÍS.copm you’ll find another article. ;)

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