Global Voices Summit and Internet & Democracy

This past week the Internet & Democracy Project was kind enough to sponsor my attendance at the Global Voices Citizen Media Summit in Budapest. It is an international gathering of the members and fans of the international blogging project Global Voices, which curates the world’s blogospheres in order to increase cross-cultural understanding.


This year, the summit focused on limitations of free speech online, both technical forms of censorship like filtering and offline forms of censorship like illegal imprisonment. This touches on the themes of the Internet & Democracy project in so far as freedom of expression is a key element of democratic societies. Without the ability to freely access information and discuss its relevance to public issues, it is impossible for citizens to make informed policy decisions and to determine where their own best interests lie. The online space, particularly blogs, present an opportunity for citizens to share and discuss information that is not available in the mainstream media, yet authoritarian governments are trying to close this loophole.

Also, as Egyptian digital activism Alaa Adbel Fatah mentioned during a Q&A session, the Internet is not only a place for citizens to share information and discuss its importance, but also to organize for action. Egyptians’ use of Facebook in organizing a general strike last month, is a vibrant example of the ability of the Internet to help citizens organize for collective action. The government’s reaction, which included the arrest and torture of activists involved in the online campaign, is a vivid example of the government’s desire to close off the democratic potential of the Internet to empower citizens.

The part of the conference which is most directly connected to the I&D project was the session on the wired electorate and emerging democracies. The session featured several cases about how bloggers are playing an important role in monitoring elections and providing reliable information to citizens when traditional media is shut down or censored. Panelists Onnik Krikorian from Armenia and Daudi Were from Kenya provided particularly useful case studies of this phenomenon. I will end by cross-posting Patrick Meier’s excellent post on that session, originally published on his blog iRevolution.

This panel included activists from Kenya, Armenia, Iran and Venezuela to discuss the following question: is citizen media having an actual impact on democracies in transitions?

* Yarane Baran is a pro reformist association of bloggers in Iran. They update their blogs twice a week but only have about 50 visitors per week.

* In Armenia, the Blogosphere became polarized around the recent elections. While the elections were pronounced fair on the day of the elections, YouTube videos appeared later that day revealing serious irregularities in the voting. The government proceeded in banning all print media but left blogs completely untouched. The government took note but didn’t move to block the blogs. Instead, the President had his own blog set up to address issues and respond to questions. Another video subsequently posted on YouTube showed policemen shooting at a crowd. This forced the police to respond publically on national television. 3G mobile technology is definitely going to play an important role in future elections in Armenia. The President (or rather his spokesperson) has recently asked bloggers for a meeting. For more information, see Onnik Krikorian’s blog here.

* In Colombia the problem is not about freedom of speech but rather freedom of communication. People at home do not talk about politics, they do not have confidence to discuss the issues, and therefore you do not have a sense of community. People are also tired of talking politics since nothing changes, much. Only 20% of the population have acess to the Internet. When elections happen, it’s like a national sport. Elections3D is a website set up to centralize blog posts, photos and videos about the elections. They also used SMS an Twitter for fast discourse. They used SMS to send text messages to more than 2,000 people in less than a minute. Luis Diaz concluded his presentation on Venezuela with some lessons learned: tagging is effecient, and needs exhaustive and universal keywords to be found by the greater public; blogs are the nerve center, but the richest platform is the diversity; the blogosphere is subjective and this is important since it contains the political rainbow in a nation withou diaologue. Luis showed a picture of an indigenous Colombian, in the middle of the rainforest, using his mobile phone. “This is important, this the future,” he said with an applause from the participants.

* Kenya’s Daudi Were gave a presentation on the Kenya elections. Before the elections there were SMS campaigns mainly used to intimidate people to switch sides. There was an “Obama effect”; Kenyans looked to the US and drew on the same tactics by using social media websites, Facebook, etc. During the election day, bloggers were out in force, blogging all day, taking pictures of the process, it was a formidable turnout. “The Kenyan bloggers really blogged the election,” Daudi proudly recounted. Some bloggers were embedded with officials from various embassies in Nairobi.Some challenges included limited bandwidth. There is only 10% Internet penetration in Kenya, but radio

“But then things changed and the situation turned. We could tell immediately that something was not right. Bloggers started reporting strange things going on. When the violence started and spread, people started to use different tools to keep up with the fast changing situation. Twitter started being used. We thought some of these tools were just for teenagers but we quickly came to appreciate their importance.”

“Some challenges: Bloggers in the blogosphere began raising funds online to purchase machetes. This is a problem: who guards the guards? Also, only 10% of Kenyans have access to the Internet but 95% of the population have access to radios. So many radio broadcasters had access to the Internet and therefore began to read out blog entries.

“Some lessons learned: The importance of having a global network is imperative; gives you support, lets you know you are not alone, and helps you keep a perspective on the local events. Citizen media was able to operate in almost real time. As bloggers, we need to protect our reputation, it’s all we have and we must do everything to keep our integrity. We need to admit our mistakes when we are wrong and stay away from non-constructive arguments. You do not have to be ‘on the inside’ to be significant. Finally, bloggers are not aliens. If society is divided, bloggers will be divided. We are part of society.”

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2 Responses to “Global Voices Summit and Internet & Democracy”

  1. solana Says:

    PS Luis Carlos is from Venezuela, not Colombia.

    Thanks for blogging the Summit!

  2. Bruce Says:

    Ethan Zuckerman also pointed me to a great post by Evgeny Morozov inspired by the GV conference:

    Well worth the read!