Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Day 1 in Bucharest for #wbf2009, Blogs and Citizen Journalism

(Note: This entry was written Tuesday night; WiFi not cooperating at the hotel again)

With the opening political and celebrity remarks out of the way at the first World Blogging Forum in Bucharest, Romania, the first panel of the day was up and the topic was Blogs and Citizen Journalism, and the influence of blogs on the civil society.

An interesting topic, and I found out last night (after a few glasses of Romanian wine) that I’d been tasked to give a speech as part of this panel. So I made some notes last night and this morning, and as I listened to the first two speakers my notes began to look less and less relevant and interesting.

Zhou Shuguang

The first speaker was Zhou Shuguang from China. A self-taught IT guy and former network administrator, Zhou is a veteran blogger who has had many run-ins with the Chinese government for reporting on news the government doesn’t want covered and helping people get around the “Great Firewall of China” the government has built to keep non-government approved foreign news from getting into the country. Zhou was even arrested at one point by the government for his work.

He noted that China has 40,000 police that monitor the Internet full-time, it has over 500,000 sites blocked in the country, last year some 80 people were jailed things they’d written on the Web, and in early June this year, on the anniversary of the Tienanmen Square massacre, Web access evaporated all together.

To get around government censorship, some in China use a VPN or a proxy to connect to outside networks, but that’s not an option that’s available to most Chinese people. Twitter and Friendster are both blocked, but Zhou said people are using RSS subscriptions and RSS feed tools such as Google Reader to get around the blocks. He also described a network he hopes to build that will help more people get access to free and open news and information, and to communicate with each other free of censorship.

Wael Abbas

I had read about the Chinese Great Firewall and its attempts at censoring the Web, often aided and abetted by Western companies looking to stay on the good side of the Chinese government to get access to the lucrative market, but I’m sad to admit the situation in Egypt described by the next speaker, Wael Abbas, was completely new and shocking to me. Abbas is a blogger and human rights activist who was named Middle East person of the year by CNN in 2007.

In Egypt, said Abbas, there’s no protection for journalism, there’s censorship on supposed security grounds, copies of papers are often confiscated and presses delayed or closed, tapes confiscated from videographers, TV stations raided by security officials and tapes seized, all leading to an environment of self-censorship by the media to avoid confrontation with the government.

As a result, he said there was a dire need in Egypt for an alternative form of media to support civil society and provide real, uncensored news to the Egyptian people. The government had been blocking the Web but ended that practice when it wanted to encourage telecom investment. Instead, said Abbas, the government doesn’t censor blogs, but instead harasses, detains and arrests bloggers within the country instead in an attempt to intimidate then into ceasing their activities.

Blogging and citizen journalism first came into its own in Egypt when the mainstream media weren’t covering protests against President Mubarak, election rigging and police violence. Bloggers stepped in to fill that gap and while sometimes the barrier between blogging and activism blurred, the objective approach bloggers tried to take found public support. They presented video and pictures of what was happening and asked people to draw their own conclusions. The media were actually spurred-on by the bloggers, being encouraged to report more of what was actually happening, and publishing blogger content. Opposition parties also reached out to the new media.

Abbas himself drew negative government attention when he published photos of hired thugs that arrested female protestors, and exposed paid pro-Mubarak protesters, and posted controversial video. He has had his Facebook, YouTube and Yahoo accounts shut down under government pressure for his activities, and the government has accused him of being a criminal, a homosexual and having converted to Christianity in attempts to discredit him.

While at its peak around 2005, Abbas said bloggers helped push the envelope for press freedom and political freedom by the opposition, its still under attack and the government’s counter-attacks are working, causing him to lose optimism that real change will happen in Egypt.

It’s hard to see change without international support and that’s hard to get for the situation in Egypt, said Abbas, because there’s not much awareness of the situation internationally. Mubarak is viewed as a moderate friend of the West but people don’t know that Egypt has fake press freedom, fake opposition parties and fake elections, it’s all a mirage.

My turn

I felt a little intimidated and out of place following these two speakers and having heard about the very real challenges and real dangers they face in their activities, and the real change and difference they are making with blogging and social media. It certainly put into perspective our political debates and what gets us upset in Canada, and just how good we really have it. The Conservative may leave nasty comments, but that's as bad as it gets here, by and large.

I gamely pressed ahead though and tried to give a quick overview of the state of blogging and citizen journalism in Canada. I said it’s not as well established here as in many other countries for a number of reasons. One: we don’t have the critical mass of both bloggers and blog readers, and with a free press and a democratic system of open governance we don’t have the same impetus as less free countries to use these tools to counter that and have that freedom.

We don’t have a lot of real “citizen journalism” in Canada but more so opinion and commentary, I said. Blogs tend to be built around communities of interest, and have been successful and useful in bringing those with common interests together, but their ability to influence civil society and public opinion is limited because readerships tend to be limited. In political blogging, for example, I said most readers tend to be very interested in politics already and largely have their minds made-up, so not many people are bring influenced by blogs.

Where blogs in Canada do tend to have the opportunity to influence, however, is via the media. I said that many journalists tend to follow blogs (and Twitter) for news tips, information, and to take the pulse of public opinion, so where blogs can be successful in influencing the narrative is if they can help shape the media narrative.

I did bring up one Canadian challenge around libel law and libel chill, with our law placing the burden of proof on the publisher. With bloggers not having the resources to fight nuisance complaints, this can lead to self-censorship in some fields. I also mentioned that, in addition to government watchdogs, bloggers also see their role as a media watchdog watching for and reporting problems or alleged bias in coverage, something people here found interesting.

In response to a question, I talks about how political parties and activists are investing much time and energy in social media, including officially, but that ability to influence seems limited.

I was asked why blogging isn’t as developed/popular in Canada, and I said I had the impression that blogging is viewed almost as old, as yesterday’s news, and that we’re by and large beginning to move beyond blogging. Micro-blogging and Twitter is where we’re largely moving to now, with its immediacy, simplicity and portability. I spoke about how most of our parliamentarians are now on Twitter, although usage varies, and some government ministers are even engaging with their constituents through tools such as Twitter. I spoke about my twitter exchange with Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, a particularly pertinent example given that the topic of our twitter-exchange was the visa requirements targeting Roma and Mexicans visiting Canada.

Overall, I think it went fairly well and while we lag in blogging I got the impression the use of twitter by our politicians impressed some. I really do think Twitter is a much more powerful tool for direct citizen engagement than blogging, so I hope we'll continue to see its use grow.

And more

Among the speakers to follow on this same topic, Ramon Stoppelenburg from Holland told a very interesting story of how he used his blog to travel around the world by finding people to stay with via his blog, and then blogging about them, their views, their countries and their lives. It became quite popular and he managed to visit 72 countries. He got offers for sponsorship but only accepted purchase of things he needed, such as airline or ferry tickets to get to his next stop.

It really opened his eyes to the other side of the Web, he said, the people behind the Web, and how the views we get of places and issues from the media are often very different from what the situation actually is. The lesson he learned, he said, is that the more we share the more we understand each other, so we should share more of ourselves online.

Form Finland, Andrea Vascellari told an interesting tale of citizen journalism. A few years ago he was out and about in town when he noticed police cars around a school and, calling his office, he learned there had been a major school shooting. He posted a short blog about it via is phone, and very quickly he was getting interview requests from the BBC and other international media. He began doing phone interviews from the site and, thanks to Finland’s advanced mobile communications and wireless infrastructure, uploaded pictures and videos directly from his site to international broadcasters.

He also set limits on his citizen journalism, however: when one organization asked him to interview students and friends of the victims about the shootings he declined; he didn’t think that was appropriate to do. It’s an interesting example of the differences in standards and morals between traditional and citizen journalism, and how with citizen journalism comes an opportunity to redefine the rules.

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1 comment:

sassy said...

Great reporting on this Jeff. This post in particular put me in mind of some of the reporting Reporters Without Boarders does on blogging.

I agree that hearing of the experiences/challanges of people from other parts of the globe does put things into perspective.

Romanian wine - perhaps you can do a short post on that, once the forum is over of course :)