Civics in Difficult Places

Thursday, April 15, 2010
5-7 pm
MIT Stata Center


This global call-in show will feature a number of journalists, advocates and programmers who utilize new technologies to gather information in contentious geographic regions. Ethan Zuckerman of Harvard's Berkman Center will host live video reports from speakers in such countries as Zimbabwe, Pakistan, Madagascar, Liberia, Haiti, Mexico and Korea.

Speakers include Brenda Burrell and Bev Clark (Zimbabwe), Huma Yusuf (Pakistan), Georgia Popplewell (Haiti), Lova Rakotomalala (Madagascar), Cameran Ashraf and Mehdi Yahyanejad (Iran) and Ruthie Ackerman (Liberia).

Co-sponsor: Center for Future Civic Media

MIT News Office story


An audio recording of Civics in Difficult Places is available.


A downloadable podcast of Civics in Difficult Places is available.


Video of Civics in Difficult Places is availabe.


[this is an edited transcript, not a verbatim transcript]

Ethan Zuckerman

Noting the enormous interest in the promise of digitally driven participatory media as an agent for positive social change, Ethan Zuckerman began his interviews with Cameran Ashraf. Ashraf provided a website to aid the dissemination of video during the Green Revolution, a massive public protest that followed In-ran's 2009 controversial presidential elections.

Cameran AshrafAccessNow (Iran)

Zuckerman: What is the function of AccessNow and what was its role in the Green Revolution, the protests sparked by the 2009 elections?

Ashraf: AccessNow is a global movement for digital freedom.  We do a lot of things.  One is a video project to provide a link between citizen media and the mainstream media.  We protect dissident blogs from attack, destruction or defacement.  We provide a proxy cloud that can float above challenging places to provide the means for digital freedom.

Zuckerman: So, AccessNow was born to support activists.  What was the importance of video during the election in Iran?  How did the video get out?

Ashraf: Information is very segregated in Iran.  From city to city people didn't know what was happening.  The videos showed people what was happening around the country, they let them know that they weren't alone.  The videos were also used to counter government propaganda.  When the government claimed there were no protests, the videos showed otherwise.  They also served to inform the outside world of what was happening in Iran and helped change people's perception of Iranians.

Zuckerman: I knew of the importance of the videos outside Iran but it's interesting to hear they were important inside the country as well.  Why do you think the government let the internet stay up?

Ashraf: Iran has a high level of internet penetration so a suspension of the internet couldn't be sustained.  It's too much a part of business, government and civic culture.  This would have outraged people.

Zuckerman: What was seen was a degradation of connections but not a cut off.  There were also stories of Western organizations providing pen cams to allow people to capture and share video.  What can you say about this?

Ashraf: I saw some video that was purported to be shot on pen cams.  Most of the  videos were recorded by regular people with their own phones or cameras to capture content and sharing it with the outside world.  There was no externally organized program.

Zuckerman: The Green Revolution was witnessed and supported by many outside Iran.  Now we hear it's essentially underground or has been squelched.  What's the status?

Ashraf: The big protests are not happening.  But now there is a culture of resistance.  Changes have happened in the heart.  Opinions and thoughts have changed.  And that's harder to squelch than protests.

Zuckerman: Do you see the movement returning in the future or is this a more  subtle change?

Ashraf: This is a longer and deeper change; a long-term change.  It's a long and gradual shift.  I don't think there's a rush.  People will be patient.  As word gets out across the country it will snowball.

Zuckerman: AccessNow, which was built as an emergency media, is shifting to meet the needs of a long-term struggle.

Ashraf: Democracy movements happen on their own time.  We'll stand with the Greens.  It's just part of what we do.  We're not just going to be there when the revolution is cool and trendy.

Audience Member: I'm curious about the details.  How does the government go about shutting down the internet?

Ashraf: Socially, the internet is a central part of the Iranian culture so shutting it down is socially undesirable.  That's the main issue.

Zuckerman: There are very few examples of any society shutting down the internet for more than 24 hours.  It's just too disruptive. Can you say something about the role of YouTube?

Ashraf: YouTube was a fantastic partner for AccessNow and the Green Revolution.  For example, YouTube loosened the limits on violent content.  Very proactive about dealing with account shutdown and helping keep channels open for activists.  The interest in general has waned in some ways but on YouTube it continues to get a lot of visibility.  They've been incredible behind the scenes in helping digital activists around the world.

Mehdi Yahyanejad Balatarin (Iran)

Zuckerman: You have created what some have called the Iranian version of, the social news website that lets users vote stories up or down, called digging and burying. Tell us about the site.

Yahyanejad: Balatarin is a social news aggregator.  It allows people to find out what's important and going on right now.  Blogs are central to alternative voices in Iran and Balatarin helps increase traffic to blog content.

Zuckerman: There are days that you get more traffic than IRNA, the official Iranian news service.  Does that expose you to shut downs?

Yahyanejad: We've seen a lot.  Four months after we started, the government blocked the site.  But we were still able to be found with proxies -- servers that act as intermediaries between users and websites.  We've also seen misinformation posted to blogs by government agents. 

Zuckerman: How many users are Iranians outside the country versus internal?

Yahyanejad: It's hard to say for sure because many people are coming through proxies; but we do get a mix from inside and outside the country.  Contributing content is more difficult for people going through the proxies.

Zuckerman: You started Balatarin because of the strengths of the Iranian blogosphere -- which happened because of the government crackdown on independent media.  You've ended up with bloggers with very different points of view.  Tell me about the diversity.

Yahyanejad: We saw a lot of interest when blogging became trendy.  Most of the blogs were about personal interests, everyday life and poetry.  Many of the topics of interest to people (politics, the war in Afghanistan, etc.) were not discussed.  After the election we saw a change in the blogs.  We started seeing political blogging.  But this continues to be only a portion of the blogs – less than 50 percent.

Zuckerman: When we looked at the tag cloud for Iranian blogs is was interesting – right, left and poetry.  We saw much more diversity than was expected.  There was an expectation that the bloggers were going to rise up and support the Green Revolution; but that wasn't the case.

Yahyanejad: When we started Balatarin blogging was very diverse.  Mostly posts on technology, poetry, life, etc.  The government blocked Balatarin and made crazy claims because the officials didn't understand how it worked.  The government's hostility led people that supported the government to leave the site.  Then liberals and opposition bloggers started posting more. In the past year, most of the content is from the opposition – mostly because of the government's actions.

Zuckerman: What's it like to work on such an important project from outside Iran?  Are there questions of your credibility?

Yahyanejad: There are various Iranian expatriate communities.  One that came in the 1970s, and a more recent one.  Balatarin doesn't post content – its users inside and outside Iran.  The government regularly highlights the fact that we're outside Iran.  They claim we're run by the CIA, Mossad, etc.  Where we are located doesn't matter, we'd still be accused of the same things.

Georgia Popplewell, Haiti

Zuckerman: Georgia Popplewell is a managing director of Global Voices, but rather than asking about that, I'd like to ask about her about citizen media in Haiti.

Popplewell: After the Haiti earthquake in January, we saw a surge in citizen media in Haiti – particularly on Twitter.  We wanted to look at the role of citizen media and see if we could build on the post-quake increase in activity. 

Zuckerman: What was the citizen media reaction to the quake?

Popplewell: It was very immediate on Twitter.  There were many quality tweets about what people were seeing and experiencing.  There aren't a lot of foreign correspondents in Haiti, and even without them there were quite a few people giving really good factual information.  Haiti doesn't have a very good internet infrastructure – but the internet stayed up and became a lifeline. 

Zuckerman: Whenever you see an event like this earthquake, you see a sudden shift in world attention to find out what's happening. It starts with social media, and then the professional journalist show up.  What happens to civic media when the pros arrive?  And then when they leave?

Popplewell: The mainstream media (MSM) dominated the scene as soon as they arrived.  There was a civic media side channel that continued to function, and citizen journalists were sometimes tapped by the MSM.  For the most part, however, the MSM voice drowned out the civic media voice.

Zuckerman: Why is it important to have and support civic media in a country like Haiti?

Popplewell: Haiti has very weak institutions.  The media there is not a powerful force.  What's happening now is what often happens after a disaster – the story becomes what is happening to the aid.  What's happening on the ground – day-to-day – isn't being covered.  Rebuilding the MSM here in Haiti is an issue. There's still a trickle of civic media coverage.  The story is still in the news due to the money at stake. 

Zuckerman: For many of us, the surprise was that there was civic media in Haiti to begin with – and that the internet stayed up.  Will Haiti have the media – mainstream or civic – to continue to monitor the aid money?

Popplewell: There's work to be done.  The media in Haiti isn't the best at using new media tools, and there's training to be done.  There are also translation issues.  Often things being written aren't getting out.  The media needs very basic things.  I try to be optimistic; but having been there and having seen the damage it's not easy to be optimistic.

Zuckerman: Do you see the relationship between civic media and MSM in Haiti being helpful, symbiotic, conflictual?

Popplewell: There's not much consciousness of civic media in Haiti.  So there's little conflict.  You're starting to see the MSM here doing some social media.  The antagonism of MSM and civic media doesn't really happen in Haiti.

Zuckerman: That antagonism has really fallen off over the past few years in general.

Audience Member: As a working journalist – and a citizen – it's hard to understand the idea of the antagonism between the MSM and civic media.  Haiti is a very poor country.  If people are producing civic content in Haiti, is it really for people outside the country? 

Zuckerman: I can't agree with the question.  I think we're seeing a complementary relationship between traditional and civic media.

Popplewell: Rebuilding the media in Haiti is more important than getting people tweeting there.

Zuckerman: Global Voices sees both media types as important.  Popplewell was there in part to help rebuild professional media – and to understand the role of civic media.

Huma YusufDawn (Pakistan)

Zuckerman: Tell us about developing community media in pakistan

Yusuf: I've been working with radio stations here since the literacy rate and internet penetration are both so low.  In some ways, at the end of the day, it comes back to making better use of traditional media.  I've been excited by community radio.  Helping with scripting and networking.  These stations are taking advantage of some of the things we see online – SMS news and cell phones being used to feed news to the stations. This region (along the border with Afghanistan) has about 150 illegal stations. For the most part, I've been documenting rather than participating.  We've been helping community stations do programming to push back against the extremists.  It's a challenge because there are only 15 legal stations versus 150 illegal ones.

These stations are hyperlocal – people are using them as local content sources – Craig's List want ads, details on where military operations are happening, traffic, etc.  Journalists are using social tools to collect and share information that then goes to the radio.

Zuckerman: In many countries this is the case – that radio is the key source.  Is there a connection between the internet and radio?  How do people get news to the stations?

Yusuf: There is a lot of cell phone penetration – so we have a lot of call-in programs – a mix of news, politics, poetry -- but not text messaging due to the very low levels of literacy.  One interesting thing that's coming about based on the phone and radio is that women – who traditionally have had no voice – are calling in and participating.

Zuckerman: Is the work you're doing on the AfPak border associated with the work you're doing with Dawn?

Yusuf: The two are very disconnected.  Dawn is for the elite and the Pakistani Diaspora.  If anything, I've learned that what's missing from the professional media in Pakistan is the hyperlocal connection.  The power of the MSM in Pakistan is the national reach.  The local stations are much more unstable.  It would be good if there was some support or planning for these stations. 

Audience Member: How many people work with you at Dawn and how is Dawn supported?

Yusuf: Dawn is a privately owned media group and is the largest English-language publication in Pakistan with more than 300 employees. There are also a television station, a radio station and a website all supported – as most media are – by advertising.

Zuckerman: What's the biggest thing you'd want to tell people building civic media tools and programs.

Yusuf: Expect people to adapt and hack technology in ways that aren't expected.  Women came up with a community policing program to address domestic violence.  They bought phones and share them and then use a missed calls system to relay information.  If there was a domestic problem, they would call other women but not speak, and that would trigger someone showing up to help with the situation.

Journalists are also using the missed call system to provide information in sensitive situations.  One missed call means one thing, two missed calls another, three missed calls, etc.

Ruthie Ackerman Ceasefire Liberia (Liberia)

Zuckerman: What is Ceasefire Liberia and what does it do?

Ackerman: Let me start with a little history.  I'd been writing about Africa before I  came to Liberia – mostly about women.  I was excited that Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was elected president.  I was asked by a group of women at Harvard to visit Liberia and help train people on civic culture.

What struck me when I arrived were the challenges of the young people trying to rebuild the country and their lives.  When I got home I started to do more research.  I learned that one of the largest Liberian communities was in Staten Island.  I started spending time with them and writing their stories.

At that point, I applied for a grant to further document how young people were rebuilding there lives in Liberia and in Staten Island.  I was fascinated by the similarities of their struggles.  Then I thought about the fact that I was an outsider and wondered about providing a way for the youth to write their own stories.  That was the start of Ceasefire Liberia.

I also wanted to connect Liberians in the Diaspora with those still in the country.  People there thought that Liberians here were living the easy life.  People here thought that Liberians there were lazy and were just mooching off their relations in the US.  I realized that opening and maintaining a dialog could be a helpful thing.

Zuckerman: We just heard about the importance of media being able to serve a specific local community.  You're trying to serve two different communities. Can the same tools reach both?

Ethan Zuckerman and Ruthie Ackerman (on-screen)

Ackerman: When I started the project I assumed that there would be a digital divide; that the people here would be blogging more than the people there.  Outside of Monrovia, the nation's capital, the internet is basically non-existent.  The reality is that Liberians in Liberia are blogging a lot more than people here in the US.  I think the reason is that there's more of an urgency to get the story out.  In Monrovia at least those stories are being told.

That's not to say there wasn't a divide; but the one I found was based on gender.   I thought woman bloggers would be drawn to the site but that wasn't the case.  Why? Low rates of internet access, low literacy and women aren't used to having a voice.  I thought there would be something for everyone on the site – photos, video, etc. – lots of talk about women's roles there, but that has not translated to blogging.

Zuckerman: Why have images been so important?  [Referring to photographs of military personnel, buildings and wounded people Zuckerman displayed to the Stata Center audience.]

Ackerman: The images are of recent violence.  The violence started when a Christian girl was found dead near a mosque, and this led to a rise in  intercommunal violence.  One of our people went to the scene to shoot photographs and write stories.  No one else is covering this issue.  We're the only source for news on this.  That's what makes projects like this so important.

Zuckerman: What's the biggest Liberian story Americans should be aware of?

Ackerman: The fact that President Johnson-Sirleaf is running for a second term, despite promising to serve only one.  This has engendered anger that is starting to boil.  The rural communities don't feel their needs have been met.  The same is true of women's issues.  We're going to train more citizen journalist to prepare for the upcoming elections.

Brenda Burrell and Bev Clark – Kubatana (Zimbabwe)

Zuckerman: Calling in from Harare is a challenge. Not only is it the middle of the night there, but there are also frequent power cuts. Brenda Burrell and Bev Clark are struggling to build civic media in Zimbabwe.  Tell us about Kubatana and the Freedom Fone project.

Clark: Kubatana is 10 years old and the goal is to make the non-governmental organizations (NGO) sector in Zimbabwe more accessible.  We started small by reaching out to the various NGOs with a questionnaire.  We got amazing support from that community.  We now have an archive of over 16,000 documents, a 9,000-person mailing list, 10,000 SMS subscribers and 16 bloggers. 

We've also gone into print – especially around the elections.  Kubataba is an example of success in that we have developed a community that looks to us for non-partisan information. We feel we're creating a more empowered public.  FreedomFone, an interactive phone system, is designed to deliver audio content to the community.

Zuckerman: How difficult is the environment for doing community media in Zimbabwe?

Clark: Being in Zimbabwe and being an activist means exposing yourself and not being afraid to distribute information.  Today, I went to a demonstration by Women of Zimbabwe Arise.  They were protesting the poor service of the national power supply company.  I watched about 500 women waving yellow cards, an allusion to soccer, at the power company.  What I've learned is that no matter how many tools you have, if you don't have the passion and drive to communicate in difficult situations you won't make it.  The media here is essentially shut down.  No free paper or radio.  What's amazing is the amount of fear. 

Being engaged in civic media in a country like Zimbabwe forces us to innovate.  Also to be consistently courageous.  One success is our consistency. You have to be there week in and week out to build trust. 

[At this point the connection was lost and Zuckerman goes on to describe Freedom Fone]

Zuckerman: Freedom Fone is an interactive voice system. You call in and the system calls you back.  You can request all kinds of news and information.  The political environment in Zimbabwe is starting to change to the point that the Minister for Constitutional Affairs has agreed to participate in a Freedom Fone interview, answering questions from the public. 

Lova Rakotomalala – Foko Club (Madagascar)

Zuckerman: We've been on a crazy globe-hopping conversation about how civic media can help us get information from places we don’t usually hear about.  How is this happening in Madagascar?

Rakotomalala: We've trained 65 bloggers across the country.  We wanted to highlight what's happening in social change by providing a platform and an opportunity for feedback.  Then there was a coup.  The people we trained started to document the crisis.  Freedom of the press – which was bad to begin with – got even worse.  The bloggers we trained provided information onf what was happening.

Zuckerman: Who were the bloggers?

Rakotomalala: The very first bloggers were high school students.  They were simply interested in practicing English and learning about technology.  Now we have environmental activists, health care people, etc.  None of them were professional bloggers, they just wanted to learn.  The training we provided prepared them to cover the coup.

Zuckerman: So this was a club for students who wanted to learn English, technology and blogging, but they've become the most reliable voices to document this crisis?

Rakotomalala: Yes, but there is concern about the dangers these people face.  Our initial reaction was “why are you out on the street?”; that was what we asked them.  This wasn't the objective but they felt it was their duty.  They could see nothing in the MSM so they decided to do this on their own.

Audience Member: If we can have a conversation like this on Skype, why aren't we getting more information out of countries like Madagascar?

Rakotomalala: A major issue is language.  When we trained our bloggers we  encouraged them to blog in English to broaden their reach.  The technology, or lack of it, is also a constraint.  It's also that people don't realize that there are good stories to tell in Madagascar.  There might also be a lack of interest in Madagascar if the story isn't about the environment or lemurs.

Zuckerman: I wanted to close with you.  I've been astounded by the work people are willing to do to put their countries on the map.  Why is it important to bring news out in the Malagasy language?

Rakotomalala: We feel isolated from the conversation happening in the rest of the world.  Malagasy is an old language spoken all over the country.  We decided to bring news from the rest of the world here in Malagasy.  It's been a win-win for everyone.

Prepared by Greg Peverill-Conti and Brad Seawell. Photos by Greg Peverill-Conti.