Also read: Turning journalism on its head
The Internet is a medium that enables everyone to have their say; everyone with access to a computer and an Internet connection. The birth of the internet gave rise to much-hyped claims that it facilitated democratic participation like never before. These were soon punctured by the notion of the digital divide and the very real gap between info-haves and have-nots.
Then came diverse initiatives that tried to redress the injustices of the divide, for example, the development of the Simputer. The idea of ICT for development took hold and led to community development projects that integrated information and communication technologies.
Citizen Media Rendez-vous, a conference on the use of new media for collective benefit, showcased some examples of marginalised voices that have claimed space on the Internet. The event took place on August 23, 2010, in Montreal. The presentations pointed to a growing universe of web-enabled, alternative media.
Panelist Amanda Garcés is a researcher and community organiser with Mobile Voices (vozmob). Vozmob is an open-source IT platform that helps Latin American immigrant workers in Los Angeles create and distribute stories about their lives and communities, using cell phones. The project is a collaboration between The Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California and the Institute of Popular Education of Southern California.
Project goals are technological and social. Social goals include community-building, developing community media and providing alternatives to the negative images of Latin American day labourers that tend to get aired on mainstream, American media. Anti-immigrant voices have their net space and now the immigrants have theirs. On the technical side, the developers who work on the project customised existing software and continued to adapt it to evolving needs.
“Our work is on-line and off-line,” says Gracés. “Technology is only a tool.” Vozmob is well entrenched within a context of community organising. The content creators meet every week to plan, and provide input for technological development. People upload text, photos, video and audio content on this friendly-looking, Spanish-language site.
Though the labourers, some of whom are illiterate, have made good use of the tools, dealing with the technical aspects remains a challenge. “It’s the experts who maintain the site,” Gracés says. It is also not clear how the site will attract a broader audience in the future. That said the community empowerment and identity creation aspects of the project are working.
Panelist Shubhranshu Choudhary, who spoke at the conference via skype rather than in person, highlighted a project that has similar goals. CGNet Swara is an audio website where people can call a phone number to record news, and listeners can call in to hear the recorded news. It serves tribal people in remote areas of Chhattisgarh who speak Gondhi. See http://infochangeindia.org/201008248475/Technology/
Panelist Norman Cohen presented ISUMA TV, a Canadian, interactive network of Inuit and other indigenous multimedia that offers 2,000-plus films in 41 languages online, for free. On the site people can
- Upload and exchange multimedia content
- Interact, join channels, or connect with other users and members by text, audio, or video.
- Create their own channel, group, or blog to share their point of view.
- Import their existing blog from another source.
- Watch indigenous videos and contribute feedback using text, audio or video.
Cohen started years ago with the goal of giving Inuit filmmakers and communities, who live in Northern Canada, a chance to film their own stories. (Oral cultures translate well to audio-visual media.) Some of the ensuing films were critical and commercial successes and brought much needed employment into these communities.
But there was a problem. “Our films were being seen in Cannes, New York and Paris, but not in the Inuit communities,” says Cohn. There are no movie theatres so far up North, nor pay or specialty TV channels, and no highspeed Internet. A low bandwidth Internet connection is very expensive, even today.
“There’s a class system operating here; there’s colonisation,” Cohn reminds us. He is working with a community-oriented, Internet company based in Montreal to improve Net access in these traditional Inuit lands.
Cohn hopes that ISUMA TV will play a role in preventing the accelerating loss of the 4,000-year-old culture, language and identity of the Inuit people. The website boasts 7.5 million hits worldwide.
Priscilla Néri of Witness, New York, also spoke about the potential of visual media to bring social change, though in a somewhat different context. Witness was started in 1988 with the mandate of providing training and support to local groups worldwide to use video for human rights advocacy campaigning. More recently, the organisation has married the power of video to move people to action, to the immense outreach and interactive capacity of the Internet.
“We have videos of testimonies of women raped in Zimbabwe and elder abuse in the USA,” says Néri. She reminded us that YouTube did not exist five years ago. Today, 24 hours of footage are uploaded every minute on this site.
“We don’t have resources to build new functionalities on our site and our constituency is now using YouTube,” she adds.
There are pitfalls in using video for human rights campaigning, and putting the films on a site like YouTube. While the videos can inform people, pressure authorities and facilitate the delivery of justice, they can equally be used to identify and persecute people featured in the videos, as well as the filmmakers. Hence Witness pays a lot of attention to identity protection and allied issues.
A common challenge for these projects is economic sustainability. All the same, Mobile Voices, CG Swara Net, Isuma TV and Witness are updating community media by bringing them squarely into the brave new world of the Internet.
Check out the project website:
And here are the websites for the other projects mentioned in the article:
Mobile Voices - Vozmob http://vozmob.net/
This site is mostly in Spanish
Isuma TV http://www.isuma.tv/
(Veena Gokhale is a Canada-based independent journalist and researcher)
Infochange News & Features, September 2010