Engage, Ignore, Suppress: How Governments Respond to Citizen Media

I am grateful to Malaysian blogging pioneer Jeff Ooi and all the members of the ALL-BLOGS alliance for inviting me to speak in Kuala Lumpur about how various governments worldwide have responded to the opportunities and challenges posed by the rise of citizen media and the outspoken citizens and citizen groups it has empowered.

I tried to frame the talk between the years 1989 and 2007 and between the competing perspectives of cyber-utopianism and digital chaos paranoia. It’s worth noting, as Bill Clinton does in his well-practiced presentation, ‘The Struggle for the Soul of the Twenty-first Century’, that when he assumed the presidency of the United States in 1993, there were only 50 sites on the World Wide Web. By the time he left the White House eight years later, that number was over 350 million.

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But I didn’t start my talk with Bill Clinton. I reached back earlier, to Ronald Reagan who said in 1989:

Information is the oxygen of the modern age. It seeps through the walls topped by barbed wire, it wafts across the electrified borders, the Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip.

This is what today we refer to as cyberutopianism, the notion that a bit of tweaking the code, of extending broadband penetration, will inevitably bring with it corruption-free democracy and fair free-market capitalism. So, that was the first bookend of my talk. The second came from a lesser-known man, Alexander Lukashenko, who is officially the Prime Minister of Belarus and unofficially, ‘the last dictator of Europe.’ Thanks to Sami Ben Gharbia’s ever-excellent reporting on Global Voices Advocacy, I discovered this recent quote from Lukashenko:

It is time to stop the anarchy on the Internet. We cannot allow this great technological achievement of man to be turned into an information garbage heap.

Lukashenko is not alone in his condemnation of what the Internet has become. I think we can all relate to it a bit. For all the praise poured upon what must be the 20th century’s greatest invention, the Internet is also this: child pornography, celebrity gossip, rumors, lies, slander, illegal gambling, conspiracy theories, terrorist plot planning, and piracy. The internet is a collection of the best and worst of humanity. It is a mirror of who we are, not just who we hope to become.

So then, how does a government – municipal, state, federal – negotiate this new immense availability of both good and bad? How does it encourage political participation while maintaining what Chinese President Hu Jintao so frequently and insistently refers to as ‘Social Harmony’?

I started by offering examples of the bad: an Egyptian blogger jailed for four years for insulting President Mubarak and Islam; two Thais arrested in Thailand for comments posted about the much-revered Thai king; in China, over 50 known jailed cyber-activists; in Myanmar, the Internet has been severed to suppress protests; in Turkey and Thailand, WordPress and YouTube Blocked; in Barbados, calls for government regulation of blogs; in Malaysia, intimidation and lawsuits against bloggers. This list, unfortunately, goes on and on.

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But there is also the good: in Argentina the city of Buenos Aires has an official blog and an official blogger (Argentina is said to have 260,000 bloggers); in Chile’s 2001 presidential elections, candidates were forced to respond to bloggers’ questions on their own campaign blogs; in the USA ,Democratic and Republican presidential candidates respond to videotaped questions submitted to YouTube; in Iran, President Ahmadinejad’s personal blog is translated into four different languages; in Ecuador President Correa has his own blog and YouTube channel; in Brazil both the Ministry of Culture and Agencia Brasil are strong supporters of citizen media despite the criticism they’ve endured from Brazil’s buzzing bloggers.

Fortunately, this list also goes on and on. Present at the forum in Kuala Lumpur was an attaché from the UK High Commission who emailed me a link to the new blog of UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband. Check out his reflections after the UN General Assembly. And this isn’t just soap-boxing – he also responds to comments, such as, “What has the UN ever done for us?” Brilliant. Where is Condi’s blog? For all of the Bush administration’s complaining that they are not cast in fair light by the mainstream media, you don’t see them making any effort to tell their side of the story.

And this, I argue, is exactly the view that government’s should be taking when it comes to citizen media: it’s not a threat, it’s an opportunity. A government, like any large organization, is a brand. Use blogs to engage your constituents, to answer their criticisms, to educate them about your strategy.

Just like most major newspapers have traditionally hired ombudsmen (ombudspersons?) to serve as a bridge between journalists and readers, it’s time for more governments to follow Buenos Aires’ lead and hire ombudsbloggers to serve as a bridge between bloggers and politicians. Of course there will be accusations of these ombudsbloggers serving as propagandists, but everyone in the blogosphere knows that propaganda is the most surefire way to lose credibility and no group is more desperate for credibility than government. Every city, every state, every country – hell, every city council member – should employ an ombudsblogger to negotiate the interests and objectives of 1.) citizens and 2.) their elected leaders.

After offering examples of governments that have both suppressed and engaged citizen media, I noted that there was a third tactic: ignore. Actually, in some cases ‘ignore’ is too strong of a word. I think that a lot of governments and public officials are taking a wait-and-see approach. Of course, every politician is most concerned about re-election. If they think that engaging bloggers will help their chances, then that’s what they’ll do. But many governments and many politicians are still on the fence. There is also the reality that in some countries internet penetration is less than 10%. Why invest time to learn a new tool and new culture of communication when you will only reach few constituents?

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Still, even in countries that have neither engaged nor suppressed bloggers, civil society groups are stepping in and leading some really inspiring projects that strengthen the democratic process. In Kenya, volunteer-led Mzalendo tracks every bill in parliament; in Santiago de Chile, Atina Chile transforms blogosphere discussions into petitions and then proposed legislation which is taken to parliament. And here in Hong Kong a journalism class is covering the local election on their blogs, allowing for non-journalist bloggers to chime in with comments and trackbacks.

Fear Factor Versus Tipping Point

Malaysia’s blogosphere is a unique case and a unique opportunity. First of all, many of its leading commentators are former, disgruntled journalists who were tired of being censored by their bosses and the government. Second, they’ve managed to build offline solidarity and support from their online activities. Because all Malaysian newspapers are either party-owned or heavily influenced by political party members, bloggers have managed to attract all readers looking for the story behind the story. Unfortunately, some of the most popular bloggers have been targeted by authorities in an effort to intimidate others. Nathaniel Tan was detained and taken in for questioning. Jeff Ooi and Rocky have been sued by the New Strait Times, a publication owned by the ruling UMNO party.

All of this has instilled a level of fear and apprehension among Malaysian bloggers. This is what we kept referring to as ‘fear factor.’ It seems to have worked. All Malaysian bloggers that I talked to say they self-censor on political issues because they don’t want to be the next person to be sued or to be taken in for questioning by police. Their concern is valid and it is because there are not nearly enough bloggers who are willing to take that first step and comment on politics without self-censoring. Once the Malaysian blogosphere reaches that tipping point where thousands (rather than a couple dozen) of bloggers are willing to discuss political issues, then they have nothing to worry about because the government couldn’t possibly detain or sue that many people for speaking their mind. Until then, the ‘fear factor’ will always be present.

Looking toward the future there are reasons for both optimism and pessimism. Again, starting with the bad, Tony Yew (who most definitely deserves his own blog post) shows the standard official response to cases of courageous whistle-blowing. Nothing encourages corruption more than discouraging whistle-blowers from coming forward. In this case, a high school girl wrote a post on her blog outing fellow students who she saw cheating. Who was punished? The blogger, not the cheaters. (Bernard Khoo has more.) A more official case of discouraging whistle-blowers comes from the federal government who has threatened to jail the messengers of a whistle-blower who leaked a video of judicial corruption. That videotape leaker, smart person that he or she is, will come forward only if an official inquiry is made. 10 years ago that video would have never entered Malaysian public consciousness. It would have been leaked to all the major papers and they would have all sat on it, too fearful of losing their government-issued press license. This time the video was leaked to YouTube, posted on blogs, and linked on email messages. Popular support is building.

More reason for optimism via Howsy: on October 24 all 711 ruling coalition representatives will attend a forum thought up by Prime Minister Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to discuss how they will go about fulfilling their campaign promises. Among the topics to be discussed:

how alternative media — such as online newspapers; blogs and SMS — are being used to create a negative perception of government leaders …

The forum is an opportunity for smart leaders to come forward and challenge the way that the Malaysian government has responded to smart – but critical – online commentary. They should start realizing soon that the more they suppress bloggers, the more they are feeding their popularity and importance.

You can see a 16 minute YouTube video of the presentation courtesy of film and multimedia magician (and all around good guy) Zan Azlee. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to see the video yet myself because of slow connections, but I have complete faith in Zan’s mad skills. (And I can’t wait to check out I’m Muslim Too as soon as I find some bandwidth.) I’ve also uploaded my slides from the talk to Slideshare. Jeff and Whattahack both have photos.

Special thanks to my co-panelists Rocky and Datuk A Kadir Jasin, both of whom, again, deserve/require their own blog posts. And thanks to the ALL-BLOGS crew for welcoming me as generous hosts and saying goodbye and great friends. I definitely look forward to returning to Malaysia.

1 Comment

  1. dude – that’s exactly how i would have worded it – but with more interjections of “dude” — kudos – in london right now with soph, about to hit the night w/o her, she tired, but luckily other peeps wanna go out. don’t get mugged. peas.

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