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Civics in Difficult Places (MIT Communications Forum)

04/15/2010 5:00 PM 32"155
Ethan Zuckerman, Fellow, the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Harvard University Law School; Ruthie Ackerman; Cameran Ashraf; Brenda Burrell; Bev Clark; Georgia Popplewell; Lova Rakotamalala; Mehdi Yahyanejad; Huma Yusuf

Description: In a live demonstration of globe"straddling communication technologies like Skype, this forum connects to citizen journalists and activists around the world, some of whom frequently test the limits of governmental authority. Moderator Ethan Zuckerman wonders if these new digital forms are fundamentally liberating, providing users access to public spaces they might otherwise be denied. He pursues this line of inquiry in a series of internet conversations with correspondents covering some of the world's most ravaged or oppressed regions.

Cameran Ashraf makes the case that video distributed by internet and cellphone helped build and sustain efforts by Iranian activists protesting 2009's election results. The graphic images countered propaganda, and shook up rural parts of Iran and the rest of the world. The government ultimately could not shut off this flood of information, so demonstrations grew, witnessed by an international audience. What began as an emergency effort to circumvent censorship has turned into the AccessNow website, which now bolsters the longterm struggle for democracy in Iran and elsewhere.

Mehdi Yahyanejad began website Balatarin four years ago to support the diversity of Persian voices. Among 18"29 year olds, he says, blogging became "just fashionable." As social media content emerged, it was "not understood by Iranian officials over 30 years old." The government worked hard to block Balatarin, hacking, and searching for passwords. Iranians responded to this clampdown with indignation, and proxy servers kept the words flowing, fanning the flames of the green revolution.

Trinidad"based Georgia Popplewell went to Haiti after the earthquake "to see if we could build on the citizen surge." In spite of the total devastation, the internet stayed up throughout, and Popplewell monitored vivid coverage from people on Twitter, and from the sole active FM radio station. The scene changed dramatically with the arrival of the mainstream media, says Popplewell, which drowned out citizen voices. Popplewell sees a "great opportunity" to build up local infrastructure for both citizen and mainstream media in Haiti, a chance for "symbiosis."

In Pakistan, a country with a very low literacy rate, and even lower internet penetration, Huma Yusuf is developing a cadre of news reporters in community radio stations. Individuals "share nuggets of information" via mobile phone throughout rural areas beset by violence on the Pakistan/Afghan border. Yusuf is also monitoring a special community policing program involving women in a slum of Karachi. They have pooled money to buy mobile phones to report episodes of domestic violence.

Ruthie Ackerman has developed a project to serve Liberians both in Africa and in the U.S. (in Staten Island). Ceasefire Liberia is an online venue for Liberians to blog about how they are "rebuilding their lives" following wrenching years of civil war. The website offers an opportunity for both groups to connect, and potentially repair a relationship fraught with "myths on both sides." The Africans imagine "life is easy in the U.S.," and the expatriates think the Africans are "lazy and just want money from U.S. families."

Bev Clark describes Kubatana, a website she and a colleague launched 10 years ago to communicate the activities of NGOs operating in Zimbabwe. This website now houses 16 thousand archived documents, a directory of 240 NGOs, and a weekly newsletter that goes out to almost 10,000 subscribers, who "look to us for nonpartisan information that inspires them." In an extremely hostile environment, where independent media literally get shot down, Clark says there is "pervasive fear, and you walk around with a crick in your neck, wondering who's watching and listening to us." Kubatana "forces us to innovate and be consistently courageous." br>
In Madagascar, Lova Rakotomalala is training bloggers to describe their ventures in social and environmental change. Foko Club began with a group of public school students interested in technology, and environmental activists trying to save the forests. When a political crisis forced out the president of the country in March 2009, these bloggers were eager to take their coverage to the streets. Rakotomalala, who was concerned that students might be killed, says "they felt it was their duty to tell more about what was happening." In particular, they wanted the rest of the world to take an interest in Madagascar, when the subject "was not about the environment or lemurs. They feel because we're an island, we're isolated from the rest of the world."

About the Speaker(s): Ethan Zuckerman became a fellow of the Berkman Center in January, 2003. In 2000, he founded Geekcorps, a non"profit technology volunteer corps that pairs skilled volunteers from US and European high tech companies with businesses in emerging nations for one to four month volunteer tours. Geekcorps became a division of the International Executive Service Corps in 2001, where Zuckerman served as a vice president from 2001"04. Earlier, Zuckerman helped found Tripod, an early pioneer in the web community space. Ethan served as Tripod's first graphic designer and technologist, and later as VP of Business Development and VP of Research and Development. After Tripod's acquisition by Lycos in 1998, Zuckerman served as General Manager of the division and as a member of the Lycos mergers and acquisitions team.

In 1993, Zuckerman graduated from Williams College with a B.A. in Philosophy. In 1993"94, he was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Legon, Ghana and the National Theatre of Ghana, studying ethnomusicology and percussion.

Zuckerman received the 2002 Technology in Service of Humanity Award by MIT's Technology Review Magazine and named to the TR100, TR's list of innovators under the age of 35. Recently, Zuckerman was named a Global Leader for Tomorrow by the World Economic Forum.

Host(s): School of Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences, Communications Forum

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MIT Communications Forum

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