Is communications equality an essential route off the information superhighway for the progression of the developing world? Is it merely an academic discussion that will continue to be bypassed? Is this techno revolution even relevant in the most impoverished societies across the world?
Information and Communication Technology (ICT) as a tool for ‘digital democracy’ has been widely lauded by media theorists since the dawn of its revolution. In this paper I intend to look at how this is being promoted by a UK-based broadcasting corporation and if the foundations for their project are ethical.
Communications equality is discussed most thoroughly, perhaps, in Manuel Castells’: ‘The Rise of the Network Society’ (1996). ‘The premise of his work, of course, is that the Internet has more or less created a new era by providing the technological basis for the organisational form of the information age: the network’ (Ginsburg 2008: 291). The Network Society is a model that sets out the necessity of worldwide free information-exchange. Another proponent of the Network Society, Jan Van Dijk, who has written more recently on this model, states ‘new media technologies which first have revolutionary promise, are later moulded to existing social processes’ (Van Dijk 1999: 220). In this paper I hope to show this is no longer the case.
In order for the internet to be truly democratic – as a horizontal tool for information creation and dissemination – it depends on limitless access. As proliferation of users has grown during the Internet’s 20 year lifespan, censors have inadvertently hiked up their controls.
Take ‘The Great Firewall’ of China for instance. Cisco, the multibillion dollar American telecommunications and IT company developed an internet filtering system that has been used by the Chinese regime along with operations with Microsoft, Google and Yahoo!, to crackdown on accessibility for nearly a decade. Through research at the University of Toronto and the OpenNet Initiative it has been shown that if someone located at an IP address in China types ‘the Tiananmen Square Massacre’ into Google’s search engine, they will receive limited hits (Chlupata 2005) (Garvie 2007). “…it is puppet theater, internet governance is being decided somewhere else (Microsoft, Cisco, IP internet regulation…)’ (Interviewee 2 2007 cited in Hintz and Milan 2009: 32). These corporations provide the technologies for regimes to filter what material is available to internet users on an ‘it’s out of our hands’ basis; political repression in its most advanced (and profitable?) form.
This same censorship taking place globally has an extremely depressing irony, in the countries where these regimes carry out internet censorship; there is an overt correlation with lack of press freedom. But, with the aid of new technologies that counteract these systems, it would seem another revolution is on the rise – circumvention of Internet censorship to disseminate community media. Evidence of this is can be seen in UK-based Kashmir Broadcasting Corporation’s (KBC)’s work in Kashmir.
Mobilising the technology for the voiceless
The hostile situation in Kashmir means it is a hot spot for censorship, given that it has been divided and controlled by two of the most media-repressive governments in the world – India and Pakistan for over sixty years (Freedom House 2009). To give the people inside Kashmir a ‘voice,’ KBC has sent its staff over to train citizens inside the territory on Skype. ‘Skype is software that enables the world’s conversations. Millions of individuals and businesses use Skype to make free video and voice calls, send instant messages and share files with other Skype users’ (Skype 2009). The ‘trainees’ use an encrypted Virtual Private Network (VPN) linked with a computer in Manchester KBC studios where their reports are then broadcast worldwide via satellite television. VPN technology was initially ‘targeted at small and mid-size businesses (lawyers, real estate, and education etc) for browser-based access to remote resources or corporate resources by just using their web-browser’ (Netgear 2007). Whilst this avoids censorship for KBC and the trainees, it is thrusting community-media worldwide.
For ease of comparing the KBC project with academic research already done on the subject, I refer to them as a Civil Society Media (CSM) organisation. A useful description of this term is written in the introduction to a special edition of the International Journal of Media and Cultural Politics:
‘Though used in some contexts since the 1990s (for example in Serbia), the term only began to be theorized in research on the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) as an umbrella term for radical alternative, community, citizens’, tactical, autonomous, social movement, indigenous, aboriginal, activist, free and feminist media’ (Hadl and Hintz 2005).
KBC is broadcast in over 150 Countries around the world, their mission is to ‘…fill the gap left by the main stream media and deliver, information, entertainment, educate and empower the marginalised communities across the UK, Europe, South Asia in general and Jammu Kashmir in particular’ (Butt 2009). Talat Butt a worker at KBC who was involved in training the reporters in Kashmir explained the premise for the channel and the hopes and aims of the project to me in an interview:
‘All the people that work for the channel have been involved in the Kashmiri independence movement since before 1990, one way or another we were feeling ‘what is the missing part?’ The missing part was the media, because the media was out of our control… We have failed the movement that we started in the early 90’s to get a free independent Kashmir. Now we’ve got the media, I think we can achieve in a different way. The media has become the new battleground’ (Butt 2009a).
The project has been a natural progression of the channel and its mission. Moving from representing the international diaspora to representing the Kashmiri peoples still living in their motherland. ‘During the 1970s, as satellite-based television made its way into the Canadian Arctic, Inuit people began exploring the possibilities that these combinations of media forms offered for local productions that could be distributed over vast areas of Canada’ (Ginsburg 2009: 295). The Inuits innovated and advanced their culture by using the tools that were available to them to make acclaimed films in much the same way as those trained in Kashmir by KBC are using their skills to ‘amplify their voices and expand their power’ (Alia 2009: 39).
There are ethical issues, of course. Three key censorship factors that can potentially harm the project are, ‘…formal and informal mechanisms, including laws, licensing, and self-regulation…technical methods through which Internet filtering and blocking can be implemented…[and] Internet surveillance technologies [which] are routinely deployed in order to monitor and track online communications’ (Villeneuve 2007: 72). Tracker technology used by governments under the guise of surveillance policies such as the data retention act (which is in use in the UK), all impinge on the safety of citizens in Kashmir to engage in this kind of journalism (Hintz and Milan 2009: 29). If it should be called journalism, it seems more like political activism, or, ‘cyber dissent:’ ‘Well it is dangerous yes. We never use their names and never show them’ (Butt 2009a).
KBC is broadcast with the intention that it ‘empower[s] marginalised communities.’ One of their overt agendas is to see the self-determination of Kashmir, meaning that they want India and Pakistan to give back control of the land in order for it to gain complete independence.
‘While ongoing struggles for self-determination play a complex role in the drive to bring the information age to indigenous communities… around the world, it can be argued that self-determination within one system may well be a further buy into another… The issue that needs to be raised before and question of indigenous usage of the Internet is addressed is: whose information infrastructure of “info-structure” determines what is valued in an economy – whether in the local community or the greater global economy which they are linked to?’ (Ginsburg 2008: 288).
The “info-structure” consideration for the KBC project is how these people are chosen. Are they friends of the corporation? Are they politically like-minded? Or are they simply those brave enough to speak over the censors transmitting their reports worldwide?
‘We’ve trained four so far. We’ve trained people that we know. It is politically motivated. We don’t want to pick professionals which would mean we have to pay a lot of money; we want to give training to our own people. The people who understand the background, they are all Kashmiri’s and pro-independence people who are politically motivated already so they will provide double or triple for less money. What we want to do is give training to the people who are already politically motivated for a free independent Kashmir’ (Butt 2009a).
Even though their mission statement says it should have been otherwise – KBC ‘is not to propagate any specific political, religious or sectarian viewpoint’ – the choices of people for the project were based on the notion that they support the struggle for the self-determination of Kashmir (Butt 2009). For the Kashmiri diaspora who want a two-state solution for their homeland, this TV network may not be for them, which may present a new kind of information inequality. However, the reason overrides this:
‘We won’t branch out to people we don’t know, as we cannot trust anyone we don’t know. They could be influenced by intelligence agencies, there’s so many in India and Pakistan and a lot of different agencies work in Kashmir from both sides, so we have to be very careful’ (Butt 2009a).
KBC works with people they know and trust inside Kashmir so risk of infiltration from the authorities is decreased, the organisation of the network also maximizes legitimacy for both ends. ‘A popular view is that networks have no centre and that all those connected are more equal within the network because this is the nature of networks’ (Van Dijk 2005: 147). Here in the UK, they get the information ‘straight from the horse’s mouth’ and equally, the trainees inside Kashmir have their information broadcast to a global audience. The trainees are spread throughout different towns and cities in Kashmir and Pakistan in order for objectivity:
‘We get a couple of reports a week from the Indian side of Kashmir, and everyday from the Pakistani side. Mirpur and Kotli, these are the two cities where the most British Kashmiri’s come from, also there is Muzzafrabad the Capital and Islamabad and then Srinagar too’ (Butt 2009a).
With the inevitable growth of the TV channel, danger may arise in the Kashmiri authorities becoming alert to the network and cracking down on those that report for KBC: ‘Obviously they have threatened but we still have a low profile…It’s not just a TV channel for the sake of a TV channel. We make noise’ (Butt 2009a). Another tacit consideration is whether there is a want or need for a ‘universally democratic’ media. It has been argued that connection to the internet is irrelevant in comparison to food and water access in the least developed parts of the world, perhaps most famously by Bill Gates. Gates ‘was part of the group of U.S executives who, at the 1998 World Economic Forum in Davos, dedicated themselves to closing the digital divide’ (Ginsburg 2008: 292). Giving a speech at a conference called “Creating Digital Dividends,” in 2000, he said about sending computers to Africa: ‘The mothers are going to walk right up to that computer and say, “My children are dying, what can you do” They’re not going to sit there and browse eBay or something’ (quoted in Verhovic 2000 cited in Ginsburg 2008: 292). His contributions to development in Africa now lie strictly with more conventional aid such as health care and vaccines through the $21 billion ‘Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.’ Aid packages are needed in the developing world, however, with such a political tool as the internet, information can be disseminated globally to raise awareness and promote advocacy. The ‘5,000% [increase in mobile phone ownership] in Africa between 1998 and 2003’ would indicate that there is a very real want for universality in communications technology (BBC 2005) (Freedom House 2009) (Mudhai 2004).
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), Communication Rights in the Information Society (CRIS) and the UN have all set up commissions and forums in the hope of cementing a step towards global ICT equality, but insofar, have not achieved their goals (Ginsburg) (Hintz and Milan). The autonomous structures of CSM ‘form the basis of a new model of representation and legitimation of non-governmental input to global affairs’ (Raboy 2004: 349 cited in Hintz and Milan 2009: 27). CSM, whilst subverting governmental control, can work at grassroots level on small-scale projects such as at KBC. The basic rights of the internet user, which should also extend to media reportage, are the right to freedom of expression and to political dissent, which in Kashmir, along with many other developing countries and territories are curtailed by the state. The KBC project should act as a precedent for future citizen-journalism networks and CSM collaborations.
‘…modern society is in a process of becoming a network society…It is in transition from a mass to network society’ (Van Dijk 1999: 220). As well as predicting the rise in the network society which has been a digital progression from the global ‘public sphere’, Van Dijk argues that new media technologies ‘which first have revolutionary promise, are later moulded to existing social processes.’ This pessimistic outlook is proven to be outdated when the social processes themselves are revolutionary and are advanced by progressions in new media technology such as the KBC project.
The ethical considerations of the project extend to the safety of citizens inside Kashmir. With the new technology – encrypted network (VPN) and untraceable Skype connection, KBC is doing what it can as a growing corporation to ensure there are limited dangers of government tracking. As Butt said, ‘the media is the new battleground’, new technologies are being used to show and voice political dissolutions harnessing support and solidarity from the diaspora worldwide (Butt 2009a). With the rise of person-to-person ICT training and new media technologies to circumvent censorship reaching the developing world, step-by-step the information highway is becoming more equal across the economic, cultural and digital divide.
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