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2006-05-31

Citizen Journalism: A Look at How Blogging is Changing the Media Landscape from the Congo to Korea

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Democracy Now! is broadcasting from Stanford University in Palo Alto, California where the inaugural TechSoup NetSquared Conference is being held. The theme of this year’s conference is "Remixing the web for social change." It’s bringing together representatives from the technology and non-profit sectors to talk about new ways of using the web and technology for social ends. [includes rush transcript]

Today we host a roundtable discussion with three people who have been using the internet to help create a citizen’s media. From Brazil to Korea to all over Africa, they’re helping everyday people write articles, produce videos and maintain weblogs about what’s going on in their communities:

  • Hong Eun-taek, editor-in-chief of the International edition of OhmyNews.com, one of the largest participatory journalism news sites on the internet. The Korean site has about 40,000 citizen reporters that contribute their own stories. The International edition publishes articles submitted by 600 own citizen reporters scattered across 60 countries.
  • Ethan Zuckerman, blogger and activist. Zuckerman is a Research fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. He is co-founder of Global Voices, a project designed to feature citizen-created media from around the world. He writes about Africa, international development and the media at his website, www.EthanZuckerman.com.
  • Saori Fotenos, a Reuters Digital Vision Fellow at Stanford University. She is founder and director of Vamos Blogar ("Let"s Blog"). Vamos Blogar is a literacy program that teaches children in urban areas of Brazil about weblogging and other forms of media.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Joining us today is Hong Eun-taek. He is editor-in-chief of the international edition of ohmynews.com, one of the largest participatory journalism news sites on the internet. The Korean site has about 40,000 citizen reporters that contribute their own stories. The international edition publishes articles submitted by 600 citizen reporters scattered across 60 countries. We’re also joined by Ethan Zuckerman, a blogger and activist. He is a research fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, co-founder of Global Voices, a project designed to feature citizen-created media from around the world. He writes about Africa, international development and the media at his website, ethanzuckerman.com/blog. We’re also joined by Saori Fotenos. She is currently a Reuters Digital Vision Fellow at Stanford University. Saori is founder and director of Vamos Blogar, ("Let’s Blog"). It’s a literacy program that teaches children in the favelas, the urban areas of Brazil, about weblogging and other forms of media. And we welcome you all to Democracy Now! Hong Eun-taek, can you tell us about OhmyNews? For those who have never heard about it, what is this phenomenon in Korea?

HONG EUN-TAEK: We launched our site six years ago with four full-time staff members and 727 citizen reporters, and it has grown into a big operation with actually 43,000 citizen reporters.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean "citizen reporters"?

HONG EUN-TAEK: Our statement is that everyone can be a reporter, so news stories can be written by citizens who are expert on their lives, so they can write about their lives and what they believe and what they want to see in the society.

AMY GOODMAN: And then, what happens? They submit it to OhmyNews, and what happens to it from there?

HONG EUN-TAEK: So, then our copy editors take a close look at the stories, and we decide whether it is published or not, and once it is decided to be published, then we can place those articles on the main page and the section pages.

AMY GOODMAN: How popular is this website on the net?

HONG EUN-TAEK: Every day we have 400,000 visitors a day.

AMY GOODMAN: How many?

HONG EUN-TAEK: I’m sorry, 500,000 visitors a day.

AMY GOODMAN: Half a million a day go to your website.

HONG EUN-TAEK: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: One of the more popular websites.

HONG EUN-TAEK: I guess so.

AMY GOODMAN: And when was it founded?

HONG EUN-TAEK: Six years ago, so February 2000.

AMY GOODMAN: You have reported from Iraq?

HONG EUN-TAEK: Iraq? Yes, they are citizen reporters, so they don’t belong to us on a payroll, but they send stories from time to time.

AMY GOODMAN: And have you, yourself, been to Iraq?

HONG EUN-TAEK: Actually, I went to Kuwait to cover the Iraq war, so I was kind of coordinating stories, which our reporters sent to me.

AMY GOODMAN: And you also have reported from the United States.

HONG EUN-TAEK: Yes, but at the time I worked for one of the major Korean daily newspapers, not OhmyNews.

AMY GOODMAN: This was before OhmyNews.

HONG EUN-TAEK: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: Ethan Zuckerman, you have been looking at the internet blog landscape for a long time. Can you talk about the significance of the level of participation we’re seeing and how it relates to social activism?

ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: What’s really incredible is that over the last two or three years, we’ve seen blogging take off to just an unprecedented degree. At this point, we believe that there’s something like 40 to 50 million blogs worldwide. We no longer believe that English is the dominant language of the blogosphere. We actually think that there are probably more Japanese and Chinese language blogs, but what really excites me about this is that you can find people putting together text blogs, audio blogs, video blogs from literally every corner of the globe.

We started Global Voices Online about 18 months ago to try to feature content from these blogs from all over the world, and early on in the process we discovered that there were people in the Democratic Republic of Congo who were discussing the upcoming elections. There were people throughout the Middle East who were engaged in dialogue between Israel and Palestine or between different Arab nations. We find activists in Cambodia. We find people even in Belarus, taking videos with cell phones of the protests going on around the elections. People are finding ways to use these very, very simple tools to put information online and to share it with a global audience.

Part of what’s so amazing about it is that people are very aware the extent to which it is a global audience. You will often see people writing very explicitly with the notion that the world is looking and the world is watching, and our job over at Global Voices is to try to actually bring the world to these blogs, to put them in context, in some cases to translate them. We use a team of editors from around the world who find some of the most interesting voices, help explain what’s going on in those stories and then put them together on a website.

AMY GOODMAN: And the website itself is?

ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: Globalvoicesonline.org.

AMY GOODMAN: What about bloggers who are found and imprisoned? This is a cause that you have taken on.

ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: This is a cause that we have been forced to take on for the simple reason that two of our key staff members right now are in detention, unfortunately. Our North Asia editor, Hao Wu, was detained by police in Beijing in late February. He is a blogger, a journalist — well, he’s a blogger and independent filmmaker would be the way to say it. He wouldn’t identify as a journalist, but he had done some work for us editing the North Asia section. He has a weblog. He was making a film about underground churches in China, and he has been detained.

He is being held without a lawyer. His family hasn’t been able to speak to him, and we got very active in setting up a campaign for his release. If you go to freehaowu.org, you’ll find some information about it. What’s honestly been most interesting in his case is that the most passionate advocate for his release, unsurprisingly, is his sister, Nina Wu, who has a blog in Chinese, and we’ve been translating that on a daily basis and putting that up on the FreeHaoWu site.

More recently, our friend Alaa Abd El-Fatah, who often reports on the Egyptian blogosphere for us — he’s a democracy activist, an open source activist and blogger from Egypt — was detained as part of the protests for an Egyptian independent judiciary. What’s incredible is that Alaa is actually blogging from prison. He’s writing notes in English and in Arabic on scraps of paper. He’s passing them to his lawyers and to friends who come to visit with them. They bring them to his wife Manal, who is posting them on their joint blog.

AMY GOODMAN: And how are Egyptian authorities dealing with this?

ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: Well, it’s an interesting thing. Egypt is one of the countries that has gone after bloggers in the past, and so there have been a number of bloggers who have been arrested or detained. I suspect part of what’s going on in Alaa’s situation was they arrested him for presence at this protest but hadn’t realized what an outcry there would be in the blogosphere. What’s quite amazing is that we’ve got bloggers, both bloggers from the Middle East and actually bloggers from around the world, who are putting up badges, who are writing about the situation. Many, many more people are aware of this judicial protest in Cairo than would have been aware had the situation not come about. And this is the hope, to sort of activate this whole network of bloggers around the world, to give people sort of a sense of solidarity that, because we’re all sharing our opinions and sharing our views, we’re all invested in this notion that we want to be able to speak freely in this online space.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about open source? You mention that word. A lot of people don’t know what that means.

ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: Open source is a way of licensing software so that people can look at the underlying code of the software and make changes to it, if they wish. A lot of the software that makes blogging possible, and frankly, a lot of software that makes the internet possible is open source software. Many bloggers use open source tools to run their blogs. We use an open source tool called WordPress, which has allowed us to customize it, then turn a fairly simple system into, actually for us, a very complicated newsroom management system.

Alaa, as it turns out, is a Gerbil hacker. He’s involved with the open source Gerbil content project, and so the people who are supporting his release are this sort of wonderful mix of bloggers who know his blog work, open source developers who know his work within the Arabization and internationalization of open source software, and democracy activists. It’s a really fun little coalition.

AMY GOODMAN: Saori Fotenos, talk about what you’re doing in Brazil.

SAORI FOTENOS: We’re teaching children in the favelas, or slums of Brazil, how to blog, and it’s an educational program, and we teach them not to just blog with text. With the advent now of very cheaply available multimedia blogs, video, audio, as Ethan mentioned, we can teach children who are not necessarily functionally literate to start contributing their voices without being able to type and actually write words. They have shots of — they use a webcam to stand in front and sing a song. They do actual video productions, and we, you know, have taught them how to do that, and interestingly, one of the things that they like to do a lot is to take drawings and paintings that they’ve done, paper and pencil, not electronically, and scan them in and actually put them on the blog, and then what that entices them to do is to — once they have this knowledge that this information is on the web, they go back — they are willing and eager to go back to the blog and read the comments that people leave about their artwork and then write back, and so it engages them into actually doing reading and writing, which otherwise they are not confident in doing, they don’t do enough of.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to come back to this discussion, so please stay with us. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. We’re at the NetSquared Conference. Right now, we’re at Stanford University. The NetSquared Conference is in San Jose.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Our guests are Saori Fotenos. She is currently a Reuters Digital Vision Fellow at Stanford University, and she’s director of Vamos Blogar ("Let’s Blog"), teaching kids in the favelas of Brazil how to blog. We’re also joined by Ethan Zuckerman, who is a well known blogger, an international blogger, and particularly focuses on Africa. He’s a research fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, co-founder of Global Voices. And we’re joined by Hong Eun-taek, editor-in-chief of the international edition of ohmynews.com, one of the few successful participatory journalism news sites on the internet, having 40,000 citizen reporters and 50 staff reporters around the world.

Ethan Zuckerman, the digital divide. I mean, some people might be listening right now and say, well, you focus on Africa. How do people get access to the internet, let alone be blogging on it?

ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: It’s a great question. One of the things that we found in Africa is the role of shared computers, particularly cyber-cafes, is much more profound than it is, for instance, in the United States. And so a lot of people who don’t have a net connection at home actually have a regular cyber-cafe that they go to, have a regular relationship there, are likely to go there and do their blogging from there. So the barriers are significantly less than you would suspect, but they are still substantial.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, that would also tend toward urban —

ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: It tends towards urban, and it also tends towards literate, and it tends towards wealthy enough to afford cyber-cafe time. Even if that cyber-café time is under $1 an hour, as it is in many places in Africa, that’s still a relevant amount of money. When you’re looking at bloggers in the developing world, you are not getting sort of a representative sample voice. You are getting, you know, elites of society, in one fashion or another, but at least you are getting voices that you otherwise wouldn’t be getting. You know, if you’re getting news from Kenya, at least you’re getting news from Kenyans, rather than sort of news about what’s going on in Kenyan politics, and it can be really good to get that sort of diverse view, but it is really important to remember that this is not necessarily sort of a man on the street or a woman in the street interview when you’re reading bloggers.

AMY GOODMAN: Give us some examples that you’ve been highlighting.

ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: Well, Kenya’s a country that I’m perpetually fascinated by the blogosphere. Kenya has taken to blogging, in a very political and very journalistic fashion, with events like the Githongo dossier, which basically exposed widespread government corruption. Bloggers were quite critical in keeping the story alive and actually distributing some of the government documents and in forcing some very uncomfortable questions to the government.

My friend Ory Okolloh, who is involved with us and periodically writes for us from Kenya, is involved with an amazing new project called Mzalendo, which is attempting to take records coming out of the Kenyan parliament and the arguments about the bills, what was discussed on any given day, put it up on the web and then have bloggers write about this, in part to encourage the mainstream media to pay more attention to this. You can make the argument in some ways that it’s not useful to have a free press if that press is free but lazy. And if the bloggers can sort of spur on the mainstream newspapers — the bloggers may only be read by a few thousands Kenyans, but the newspapers are read by millions of Kenyans, and we know that the newspapers are reading the blogs — so if the blogs can help increase transparency, it’s a great way to go, and if it works, it could be a model really for all over the world, as well as across Africa.

AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned Congo before.

ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: Congo is really fascinating. We have a terrific new Francophone editor, Alice Backer, who is based out of New York, but who is editing all of the Francophonie for us and finding different pockets of blogs. She recently found an amazing story in Senagal with people talking about migration and migration policies, but a lot of the blogs that we follow in Africa, in Francophone Africa, are from the Democratic Republic of Congo. And Congo now has elections coming up, and we’re hoping that this is going to be the end of extended civil conflict in Congo, but the elections are crazy: lots and lots of different candidates, incredible strife between candidates, political violence, ongoing violence. And Congolese bloggers are giving us an amazing view of sort of democracy being born out of an extremely chaotic situation. And it’s fascinating to have the chance to watch, and you can watch even if you don’t speak French, because she’s translating as she goes.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about AIDS activism there?

ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: AIDS activism is a topic that we hear a decent amount about, but what’s very interesting, Americans always ask about AIDS in Africa, and when you sit down with Africans, Africans will often tell you, "That’s not the main topic we want to talk about." There’s much less discussion about HIV and AIDS activism than you would expect. Part of this, of course, is the U.N. over-reporting of AIDS, and we know that UNAIDS has now said that in many cases the numbers were quite over-reported, as far as the crisis across the continent as a whole, still extremely acute in southern Africa, but over-reported in many, many nations.

A lot of our bloggers work on HIV and AIDS issues. Some of them write directly about it, particularly the bloggers who are in southern Africa, like Botswana. But you actually find much more discussion of economic development, international trade. How does Africa transform itself into a member of the world of nations as a whole.

AMY GOODMAN: Hong Eun-taek, OhmyNews, how is it dealing with the issue of globalization? Certainly Korea has very much stood out, in terms of the major protests at WTO gatherings, at World Economic Forum events. In Cancun, a Korean farmer killed himself in the midst of the protest, committed suicide.

HONG EUN-TAEK: Actually, Korea is not exceptional in terms of being influenced by globalization. Globalization makes the world polarized between who are benefiting from globalization, who are not getting any benefit from globalization, so in that regard we are not exceptional. But I think globalization brings up a question of globalization obviously in journalism. So, I mean, we can make globalization move in a positive way with mass participation of civilians. So that’s why we operate the international version of OhmyNews, to make it a global platform where people voice their ideas and interests.

AMY GOODMAN: Is the international edition in English?

HONG EUN-TAEK: Yes, that’s right. So it is English that’s on ohmynews.com.

AMY GOODMAN: And that’s ohmynews.com.

HONG EUN-TAEK: You can be a reporter for us. So everybody can be a reporter for us. And we have about 1,000 civilian reporters from 89 countries. What I respect from the [ globalvoicesonline.org] is that they’re first to get —- to [inaudible] in the information-poor and information-rich is to give -—

AMY GOODMAN: You’re saying information-poor and information-rich countries.

HONG EUN-TAEK: — is to give [inaudible] access to the people who live on the other side of the digital divide. Next step is to give them voices, platform that they can use to voice their own minds and ideas, and we need to hear them.

AMY GOODMAN: You spoke at the NetSquared Conference yesterday about a reporter, a citizen reporter from Easter Island.

HONG EUN-TAEK: Yes, Rapa Nui. Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain.

HONG EUN-TAEK: She writes about the life in Easter Island, because of the presence of internet, because of the concept of that everyone can be a reporter. She can write about her life in Easter Island.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the significance of Easter Island, for people who haven’t even heard of it.

HONG EUN-TAEK: So, I mean, it is not just exotic, but also it has universality of life, and it gives us diversity of the life to us.

AMY GOODMAN: In the headlines today, we were talking about Iraq and said that once Italy pulls out its troops, Britain and South Korea will be the only nations, besides the United States, to have more than 1,000 troops in Iraq. How have you been reporting on Iraq at OhmyNews?

HONG EUN-TAEK: I mean, it generates a lot of controversy in Korea, so many people protest against sending troops to Iraq. And OhmyNews is one of the few news media to oppose against that idea of sending troops to Iraq. So our citizen reporters send stories highly criticizing that decision, so they want to see government pull out our troops from Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: Ethan Zuckerman, can you talk about Iraqi bloggers?

ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: The Iraqi blogosphere has been active for a very long time. In fact, when we try to explain the concept of bridge blogging, the whole idea of people using their blogs to bridge between cultural differences, we often talk about Salam Pax and his blog, which was sort of the original citizen reporting from Baghdad. The Iraqi blogosphere is very politicized, and what’s interesting is that in many ways it’s politicized along U.S. political lines, which is to say there are Iraqi bloggers who the U.S. right reads and Iraqi bloggers who the U.S. left reads. And it’s actually — it’s very interesting. It’s the only country that we’ve seen where external politics has a lot of influence on who is writing about what?

AMY GOODMAN: Like?

ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: Well, Baghdad Burning, for instance, tends to be characterized as a blog read by the left. There’s a lot of sort of pro-U.S. intervention blogs that get pointed to a great deal by the right. They don’t point to each other very much, and that’s actually very different from most national blogospheres. In most countries, you go just over the border into Jordan, and most of the Jordanian bloggers get together once a month and have dinner together. You can’t really imagine that happening in the Iraqi blogosphere, both because it’s not possible, and second of all, because of the political polarization. But you do have a lot of people talking about experiences of daily life, talking about speculations on the new government. But they are also very conscious of the fact that they are being read by a global audience and that they’re being used to bolster arguments on both sides of the debate around the world about intervention.

AMY GOODMAN: Saori Fotenos, when you’re introducing kids who have so little of anything to the internet, to the blogosphere, how does it change them?

SAORI FOTENOS: Dramatically, in two ways, actually. The first way is that they become very confident about —- they start looking at themselves and their situation and reflecting on it, which is something that they rarely have a chance to do, because they have been neglected so much and they don’t feel that they deserve the attention. And the second thing, it just opens them up to so many possibilities. And you’d be amazed at how much creativity is in them that just becomes unleashed by their knowledge that they can start blogging it and get on the internet and tell the world about -—

AMY GOODMAN: Do they then communicate with kids in other countries?

SAORI FOTENOS: Yes, they do. They’ve been communicating with a lot of students at Stanford and going back and forth and doing a sort of cultural exchange over the blog, sort of a penpal over blog, which has been incredible for them to learn about life here, but also for the students here at Stanford to learn about what life is for these children in Brazil.

And another interesting thing about the opportunities that the blog gives is that two of the students who started blogging, mostly about their artwork and about the things that they do in their daily life, have really understood the global reach of the medium, and they have just now launched a little newspaper of their own school. It’s a blog, but it’s mostly based on news that they think is relevant to the general public, so doing that transition between the more private and self-motivated and self-fulfilling blog to a more public one.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you all for being with us. Saori Fotenos, Reuters Digital Vision Fellow at Stanford, working with bloggers in Brazil at Vamos Blogar. I also want to thank Ethan Zuckerman, and thank you to Hong Eun-taek.

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