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Local Perspectives at Beyond Broadcast 2009

The opening panel discussion at BeyondBroadcast is titled “Local Perspectives” and it invites citizen media innovators from around the world to show off their work. Unfortunately for the schedule, the panel includes six terrific speakers, roughly twice as many as could fit in the allotted time.

Myoungjoon Kim of MediaAct in Korea, a community media center, tries to explain the unique features of the Korean media climate. Korea has a level of bandwidth that makes the US look pretty pathetic. Actvist media emerged at the same time as Korea reformed along neoliberal lines. Media was deregulated, and there was a recognition that community media couldn’t just include traditional broadcast media, but needed media education, community radio, and community centers that allowed people to create media. The work his organization does offers more than 200 courses to more tha 5000 members who work to create media in a South Korean context. He tells us that for his work to succeed, he’ll need broad alliances, need for reforms in policy structure and increased infrastructure to teach media.

Lova Rakotomalala, Global Voices correspondent for Madagascar, talks about the relationship between citizen media and the political crisis in his come country. 2009 has been extremely trying for Malagasy – the two cyclones that have left thousands homeless have barely made the news. Instead, the little international attention that focuses on Madagascar has focused on a political crisis – public protests which have led to a military takeover. Not only has there been little reporting on the crisis – media companies have been providing divisive propoganda, not helpful reporting.

This situation has led Malagasy to fear democracy – less than 24% of the popular now express enthusiasm for democratic government. There’s widespread resentment towards the international community for perceived meddling in Malagasy affairs. And it’s clear that Madagascar needs a comprehensive agricultural policy.

Lova was one of the founders of FOKO Madagascar – founded in the wake of TED Africa in Arusha by Harinjaka, a prominent Malagasy blogger, the goal of the project was to help Madagascar become more digitally literate and present, and to send the message that Madagascar is “open for business”. Lova quotes Mike Tyson – “Everyone has a plan until you get punched in the mouth.” As the crisis spread in Madagascar, Foko began documenting protests in the street, trying to fill the gap in international reporting.

Citizen media in Madagascar includes not just the FOKO bloggers on the ground, but a network of 55 bloggers living in five countries. They use blogs, Flickr, twitter and SMS to communicate, and their perspectives are aggregated on Rising Voices and Global Voices. By working with Ushahidi and Frontline SMS, the project is able to involve a much broader group than just the 160,000 internet users in Madagascar – it reaches 2.2 million mobile phone users. This work has led to international attention, including stories on CNN and in the Wall Street Journal. This is great, but there’s still only news coming from Antananarivo in mainstream media, while Foko reports from five different cities.

While the internet reaches very few Malagasy, it’s critical for the diaspora, and for the public perception of Madagascar. The current government wants international recognition and has proven willing to intimidate journalists and bloggers – there’s a desperate need for a structure to protect these reporters. But we’re also seeing evidence that social media helps organize social movements, like the movement to free Razily, which ultimately succeeded in releasing the young man who led Madagascar’s “Tiananmen moment.”

Juana Ponce De Leon of the New York Community Media Alliance talks about finding ways to amplify voices that must be heard. Her organization represents 350 weekly and bimonthly populations, representing 90 communities and 50 languages. The organization began as a set of programs for the New York independent press association, but took on special importance in the wake of 9/11, helping bring voices and stories from the Muslim world into the press during a tense and stressful time.

NYCMA doesn’t focus on original reporting – their work is primarily about translation. “It’s a forum for people who make this media” to bring coverage of communities to a wider audience. While the website doesn’t get overwhelming traffic – about 20,000 visits a week – it’s read heavily by NY city and state government agencies.

Ponce De Leon explains that the economic slump has hit her members hard. Little businesses that support community media are having financial problems, and they’re sometimes unable to support local media. There’s a shift from print to internet, but it’s much slower than in mainstream media. Roughly 39% of the organizations she works with have strong, interactive websites. Some are moving directly to internet radio, which is likely to serve as a hub to facilitate connections for diaspora communities.

In the near future, the main focus is on the 2010 census. New York has at least 150 languages represented in the school system – it’s extremely worrisome that the census is being conducted only in seven languages.

Daudi Were, legendary Kenyan blogger, starts his talk with a story about Kenyan prisons. Every ten years or so, Kenya’s prisons explode in violence. Each time, the minister of home affairs is dispatched to the prison to write a study on what’s going on. Daudi tells us that, decades ago, a prisoner tried to hand the minister a letter – he turned away, not acknowledging it, and the prisoner was later beaten. Fast forward to today, Daudi tells us, when some of the ministers had been in prison in the 1980s. They can ignore what’s going on in the prisons, but video ends up being released and news gets out – newsrooms get mobile phone footage of wardens beating prisoners to death.

Digital tools, he tells us, are bringing people into conversations even when people are reluctant to address the issues at hand. Democracy is government by discussion, and Daudi tells us, it’s based around the idea that the other person has something to say that’s worth listening to. Decisionmaking by discussion is very African – if you marry a woman, you may end up spending a long day negotiating her dowry. You could probably complete the debate in ten minutes, but the discussion takes forever because you’re avoiding conflict. That’s what decisionmaking structures like Indabas are about – we have discussions until we can work through most conflicts.

Blogs today create a new space for discussion. “Blogging is probably the most African thing you can do online today. I’m pretty confident that if my grandmother had the internet, she would have been a blogger.”

It’s not content that’s king, Daudi tells us – it’s content and community. This is one of the strenghts of Global Voices, he argues – bloggers discover that there’s a community that has their back. This is also a strongly African idea – “Ubuntu means ‘You are, therefore I am'”. Identity and existence is a function of community.

The rise of new media in Africa is exciting, but it can be very scary. It’s fun to watch the Kenyan government put exam results online and have servers taken down from the load of proud grandparents in Canada logging online to read them. But when Kibaki declared himself the winner of the 2007 elections and began naming ministers, Daudi tells us, the new ministers’ farms were burning before Kibaki finished reading the statement. Violence can spread as well as opinion, information and news. The lesson, Daudi tells us, is that people want to be relevant and want to be heard – if we can’t find ways to let them speak, they’ll burn things instead.

Antonio Cruz introduces himself as being from the country of the country of Manny Pacquiao. If you don’t know who that is, you’re not a boxing fan, but you’ve got something in common with most of the folks in the USC audience. The Phillippines are an enormous country, the 15th most populous, and it’s a country that’s has a huge diaspora and a population scattered over thousands of islands. It should come as no surprise that the country has embraced the mobile phone, with 70 of 90 million residents owning phones.

TXTPower, the organizatio that Cruz helped to found, helps organize citizens and consumers via mobile phones. Huge demonstrations helped topple the previous government and bring President Gloria Arroyo to power… and a clever ringtone campaign almost toppled her. And major consumer movements are organizing against mobile phone tarrifs and taxes.

TXTPower’s methods are pretty funny. To protest a special SMS tax – which would affect the 2 billion SMS sent in the country per day – TXTPower circulated the Speaker of the House’s personal mobile phone number. The thousands of messages received caught attention from the most important local newspaper. In the wake of a fiscal scandal about vote rigging, an audio clip of the President (allegedly) asking a colleague whether an election had been correctly fixed became a hit political ringtone, and TXTPower’s server was taken down by the interest.

TXTPower turns eight years old this August, and “we’re confident of winning more battles.” One of the co-founders (Mong Palatino, the Southeast Asia editor for Global Voices) was just elected to parliament. And new campaigns focus on the costs of mobile phone service, on training people to learn how to get more out of their phones, and on a political campaign to ensure that Arroyo doesn’t turn into “an eternal leade” – actions on are being coordinated on Twitter, Plurk, Facebook and other social media.

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