YouthExchange in Budapest: Kyrgyzstan, African Hip Hop, Citizen-Proposed Legislation

This weekend I was in Budapest for YouthExchange 2010, “the coolest thing in spring”, as my friend Marietta said. It was a gathering of about 100 (mostly George Soros-paid) people from all over the world working in youth engagement. Here’s a short roundup of what I’ve heard and seen:

Kyrgyzstan: Revolution, social media, activism through contemporary art

The event was attended by a small group from revolution-shaken Kyrgyzstan. Tolkun Umaraliev highlighted Central Asia-centered group blog NewEurasia and social media news site and blogging platform Kloop.kg has valuable sources during the coup d’état. Eventhough only 14% of the population have access to the Internet, Tolkun sees citizen journalism in an important position.

He also told the story of Timur Toktonaliev, a 16 years old blogger who is the youngest journalist ever accredited to the Kyrgyz parliament. Working after school, he reports from the ongoings at the parliament. Readers of his blog can also pose questions to their deputees, which Timur will then try to get answered in interviews with the politicians.

Nellya Dzhamanbaeva of ArtEast told me about how they use contemporary art to raise awareness for social issues. While censors – mostly older people – did not understand contemporary art, the young audience they aim at would get the message, she told me.

As for the current situation in Kyrgyzstan, both Tolkun and Nellya seemed unsure what to expect. Visibly shocked by the second bloody revolution within five years, Nellya told that she doesn’t see a coup d’état as the right way for the country. Tolkun, while praising interim president Rosa Otunbajewa as a “very intelligent person”, said he wasn’t sure what to expect for the future, as the promises of the new leadership could turn out to be populism again, as were those of the revolutionaries of 2005’s “tulip revolution”.

Citizen-proposed legislation in Thailand

Niw Wong spoke about her work at iLaw.or.th, a Thai website that aims to promote citizen-proposed legislation. Since 2007, Thailand’s constitutions requires only 10.000 signatures to bring citizen-proposed legislation into parliament (first introduced through the constitution of 1997, 50.000 signatures were required before). iLaw.or.th collects ideas by citizens and helps them in drafting valid proposals.

Citizen-proposed legislation is, in my eyes, a great concept. Yet no draft has made it into the parliament since the opportunity was introduced more than ten years ago. Niw points out the complex process required for supporting a proposal as a key problem, which includes providing an ID card at a local . A more simple process, probably similar to Germany’s ePetition system, could make it easier for people to support drafts, thus making citizen-proposed legislation an effective tool for participatory politics.

Preparing for violent elections in Uganda

Next year, Uganda, a country that has not seen a single peaceful change of government in 48 years, will have only the second multi-party elections in its history. Gerald Karuhanga of the Justice and Development Council fears that the country will experience the same post-election violence that in 2009 left thousands of Kenyans dead.

An initiative called “PRESERVE” aims to reduce and document violent events before, during and after the elections through regional workshops, information dissemination, debates, public dialogues and “research based advocacy”, mostly trying to reach out to youth leagues, but also police and women’s organisations.

As tools for information dissemination, Gerald named mostly broadcasting tools such as TV, radio and newspapers. Asked about the use of mobile phones, he presented two ways of using mobile phones for information dissemination, namely through sending out SMS and voice mails. The latter is especially interesting because through voice messages, the huge illiterate part of the population (32%) could possibly be reached as well.

Still I think that mobile phones could also be used as a back channel, i.e. for information gathering. E.g. Ushahidi was developed as a crisis mapping tool during Kenya’s after-election riots, and in Ghana activists have used mobile phones to monitor elections and document possible evidence of vote rigging, one of the stated goals of PRESERVE.

Hip hop spreads political messages in Africa

Parker Mah held an enlightening talk about political hip hop in Africa. “Hip hop is booming in Africa”, he said, asking “why hip hop and why Africa?”. I can only recommend you to check out his presentation on Prezi. The slides are mostly self-descriptive and contain most of the content of Parker’s talk, including some great examples of African conscious rap.

As a personal educated guess, I have made up my own answer to Parker’s question. In the West, for several hundred years we have been used to see political criticism presented in written form (i.e. newspapers). Africa, on the other hand, has a longstanding history of oral information dissemination (e.g. Mali’s griot tradition). So hip hop, in my eyes, can be seen as continuing this tradition.

Hungarian elections

Visiting Hungary on election day (April 11), I got a devastating image of a democracy where young people see no (liberal) politicians they can trust in as an antisemitic, antiziganic, neofascist party – Jobbik – gets nearly as much votes as the currently governing social democrats. My German readers may be interested in my article for Spreeblick where I describe my impressions.

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“TV or it didn’t happen” – on Russia’s media landscape

I am currently back in Novosibirsk for a week-long exchange organized by djo, Sibirischer Bär and Jugendbund dealing with “freedom of media and the press”. Special thanks to Ira for the invitation!

Today was packed with talks on both main stream media and the blogosphere in Russia. While the country’s blogosphere is extremely huge – a count by yandex registers 12 million blogs – the internet is still of minor importance relative to Germany. This is also caused by the fact that only about 40% of the people have access to the net.

TV is still king in the information business. As Evgenij Mezdrikov quoted from a movie title, “if it was not on TV, it didn’t happen”. At the same time, online media outlets seem to lag behind in the adoption of new technology compared to Germany. According to Mezdrikov, allowing user comments and using multi media is still relatively new.

In fact, Russian journalism seems to be in a bad shape. Viktor Juketschev even announced to talk only about “the living parts” of the media landscape, i.e. the privately owned outlets. According to Mezdrikov, “media don’t produce facts”, but only distribute them. Investigate journalism is therefore hard to find.

One reason Mezdrikov gave is that the authorities in general act repellent towards journalistic requests, even though Russia’s freedom of information act is the only worldwide favoring media professionals over ordinary citizens. Officials are obligated to answer their requests within 7 days, while queue time for citizens is 30 days.

That was especially interesting for me because I recently attended a workshop on “Legal Leaks”, where we discussed the issue of privileges for journalists. There’s a very informative toolkit on using freedom of information requests in journalistic work.

Even though he highlighted their advantage of being eye witnesses, Mezdrikov agreed with me that citizen journalists cannot make up for professional investigative journalism. Viktor Juketschev later presented “Tak-tak-tak“, a “social network for civil rights” which aims to provide activists with a platform where to organize collaborative investigation and publication of issues of public interest. I am rather doubtful of its possible success, as activists lack both time and funding for bigger projects.

Elia Kabanov presented several cases of persecution of bloggers and journalists for their writing both on- and offline. Even though Russia has a bad reputation for press freedom due to a series of high profile murders of journalists, repression against bloggers is not as widespread as in other countries.

In some of the cases Kabanov spoke about, police intervention seems fungible, e.g. a fake amok threat. In general, sentences seemed quite harsh, even though prison sentences are rare. After all, local police seem to act independently, which means that there’s no national agenda for repression.

One reason for some of the arrests could be that “people think they can write everything”, as Kabanov said. In some people’s eyes, that includes threats, libel and publication of private data. Kabanov later talked very negatively about Russian blog comments, which he perceives as predominantly useless or even hateful, which could explain his argument.

On the other hand, there seem to be no examples of huge political campaigns driven by Russia’s blogosphere. I presented about Germany’s movement against internet filtering, which is sans analog in Russia. Blogs still need to bring issues to the attention of main stream media – especially TV – to make an impact, of which there are increasingly successful examples.

Or, as Elia Kabanov said, “100 years ago their was a saying, ‘the stone is the weapon of the proletariat’. Today, a blog is the best weapon of a free man.”

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Novoblogika Discussion: Regulating the Blogosphere

Our last day at Interra featured what I expected to become my personal highlight. A public discussion on “regulating behavior in the blogosphere – necessity and possibility” promised a great opportunity to exchange views on censorship. Since we just had – and still have – a huge discussion about internet censorship in Germany, I was eager to learn about the situation in Russia.

On Friday, Marco had already interviewed Ilia Kabanov. While at first planned as an interview on youth participation, the talk soon shifted to freedom of expression in Russia. “At the moment we are safe. But we don’t know what will be tomorrow”, Kabanov summed up the feelings of Russian bloggers.

In other words, this sentence popped up in the discussion as well. While there are cases in which bloggers have had quarrels with the authorities, up to now they could always get out of it safely – except for Savva Terentyev, who received a one-year suspended sentence for promoting the public burning of policemen (well, you could also say it was the punishment for extraordinary public stupidity). But as there are plenty of laws that limit freedom of speech in Russia, the bloggers have to live with the constant threat of being targeted by the authorities in future.

Right at the beginning of the discussion, both me and Ilia Staheev lashed out against all efforts to regulate the blogosphere. This provoked an incident that was both funny and useful. One woman, introduced to me as a professor from one of Russia’s best journalism academies in Moscow, angrily stood up to respond to our claims. My translator summed up the woman’s stance in just one sentence: “Why are you against the state?”

Indeed, neither Ilia nor me are against the state. I had spoken about how the social web means that for the first time there is a truly democratic media sphere, and how this makes it unacceptable that any authority may regulate the blogosphere from above. But obviously, the views expressed by us bloggers were far to liberal for this old school journalist. After speaking up a second time, lashing out against bloggers, she left the room – not without asking not to discuss her stances.

While this is a truly childish behavior, the incident was indeed a lucky one for us. As Ilia later told me, “if we didn’t have this woman in the audience we would have to invite such people”. Which is, as I’ve experienced quite regularly, nearly impossible.

To me, it is especially interesting that the woman as a journalist spoke out so broadly in support of the state. Should not journalism be independent from political authorities? In fact, if it is not, we can’t deem it anything else than propaganda. So why did she say so?

As I said later in the discussion, it is not the state that has to fear bloggers, and neither does media. Simply because we are the state, and we are the media. But elites do. And so, when supporting the state’s role in regulating the blogosphere, saying it was keeping up the order, I think the woman was defending her own position as a part of the journalistic elite.

There is a famous quote by German journalist Paul Sethe: “Press freedom is the freedom of 200 rich people to spread their opinion”. It is the fear of those 200 people that this old school journalist expressed: The fear that they will loose a freedom that is based on a monopoly. And indeed the blogosphere as a part of the democratization of media will lead to a downfall of journalistic elites, just as grassroots democracy would, if implemented appropriately, mean the end to political elites. But anybody who deems freedom of expression worth more than their individual power – and I can’t imagine a good journalist who doesn’t do so – will welcome this change.

From there on, the discussion decreased more and more to become what I would rather describe as a speech by Anton Nossik. The organizers spoke of him as “the most important Russian blogger”. Maybe that’s true. But certainly he would be a great hakawati. Talking for what seemed hours, switching from one topic to the other, lining up anecdotes like pearls on a necklace, Anton lectured audience and discussants. While there was little to say to contradict his positions, intellectual brilliance doesn’t make up for good manners.

In fact, the discussion desperately needed a moderator. That’s especially true because Marco and me always had to wait for the translation (the whole discussion, just as all other events, was held in Russian), making it impossible for us to interject the other participants.

After all, I was rather disappointed of the discussion, especially since most of it was none. Additionally, huge parts of the talk dealt with topics such as the subjectivity of statements deemed offensive. I had hoped for a debate that would center more on the relationship between political and economical powers and bloggers and deal with the measures that bloggers can use to defend themselves against censorship and repression.

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