Archive | May, 2009

Madagascar: an SMS away from the news

12 May


Foko Ushahidi screenshot

Foko Ushahidi screenshot

The growing community of bloggers in Madagascar is using the Kenyan web interface Ushahidi to report from the ground about the current Malagasy power struggle. Using SMS text messaging and online mapping tool Google Maps, bloggers are capturing witness accounts of social unrest, giving the global blogosphere an insight into life on the island, that is not all the Disney movie makes out.

Bloggers who started the Foko Blog Club (several bloggers around the country have been trained) are behind the new Foko alert system, which aims to empower ordinary Malagasy people who are increasingly growing to distrust the mainstream media. These citizens can now upload reports of unrest around the country and have them added immediately to an online map.

But what does this easily accessible new media technology mean for journalism?

Kenyan elections

The alert system is powered by Ushahidi (meaning ‘testimony’- in Swahili), which was used to map in real-time results of the Kenyan presidential election. It allowed for a bottom-up citizen spotlight on riots and violence that could be done easily from a mobile phone especially when cyber cafes were under surveillance.

It meant Kenyans did not have to rely on the foreign media for their own news and information could be disseminated in the many unofficial dialects spoken in Kenya. Blogging was intended to ease tension and promote peaceful resolutions in the election aftermath and content was not motivated by the need to supply sensational stories to an editor.

Potentially dangerous

However, this highly accessible form of citizen journalism also showed its sinister side. Text messages were used to threaten and intimidate journalists. Inboxes were infiltrated with messages that fanned ethic hatred and violence between the Kalenjin and Kikuyu tribes that echoed dissemination in Rwanda that was ultimately a catalyst for the genocide.

Citizen journalism

Ushahidi has provided a fantastic participatory media tool, but the events in Kenya are a warning sign of the undermining possibilities.

Does the title ‘citizen journalism’ actually deserve the latter word? The use of online media opens the back door to unethical and unprofessional content. How does the Malagasy system propose to moderate alerts?

Working behind the scenes is blogger Tahina Rak told Global Voices Online that Ushahidi is “a kind of platform where everybody is invited to submit reports. The main objective is to find real facts, and to distinguish rumours from truth.”

The hub through which the SMS messages pass is monitored. A team of bloggers check reports for accuracy, but only after they have been posted. In the case of an influx of a high frequency messages, say when a major event occurs, some reports could run the risk of going unchecked. Is there a proper code set out for moderation? Moderation and amendments at one’s own discretion could simply be classed as censoring. This new media is also at risk of being hijacked with ‘planned’ messages all at once.

Tahina said:

[W]e have bloggers on the ground and will be counting on them. But we will also use all media – newspapers, television and radio to help verify. We also have Twitter now, where we can compare and contrast information. We won’t verify reports unless we are sure of them.

Technical challenges

Foko Ushahidi has faced technical challenges.

  • Phones that are compatible with Ushahidi’s Front Line SMS software are not easy to find in Madagascar. SMS is important because it does not require internet connection.
  • Many mobile phone stores were closed during the unrest.
  • Slow internet connections mean it can take up to 15 minutes to reach the Udahishi platform.

I feel we must be wary of the role these technologies play in journalism, especially when there is inter-conflict or government tension involved. They could become a tool to rock the political boat for people who want to legitimise their own causes. But then cyber-activism is another role altogether that has an important part to play in democratic governance.

Ushahidi is a great platform for an island like Madagascar where environmental disasters and cyclones are recurrences that would not see the light of day in the mainstream headlines because of their unsexy and frequent nature. There are also great possibilities when used alongside networking tools such as Twitter and Facebook, providing there is appropriate moderation.

But then who monitors the moderators?


Sri Lanka: voicing ‘damaging’ truths

10 May

In the midst of the civil war between the Sri Lankan army and the LTTE, Channel 4 News reporter, Nick Paton Walsh was yesterday told by Sri Lanka’s Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, that he would be deported, as a result of the a piece that was run on Tuesday concerning the internally displaced person (IDP) camps in Vavuniya.

Tuesday’s report carried allegations that dead bodies were being left in camps, children were separated from their parents and even seriously, women were being humiliated by having to bathe in public and also being sexually abused supposedly by Sri Lankan soldiers, according to aid workers.

So why has this not been picked up by the Sri Lankan media? A number of factors could be involved. The most obvious is government censorship – the media has to be guided by the army in IDP camps. Channel 4 managed to get cameras into certain zones of the camps and produced the first independent pictures of them.

The second concerns self-censorship. As well as gaining access, a Sri Lankan journalist would face the ethical dilemma of whether to fulfill his or her truth-telling duties – will it do more harm than good? Will I be preventing aid coming to the country? Or more simply, will I be putting myself in life-threatening danger? A relativist ethical approach of printing “all the truth that is fit to print” is discussed in Who is a development journalist?.

Nick Paton Walsh: Asia correspondent, Channel 4 News

Nick Paton Walsh: Asia correspondent, Channel 4 News

The report will now also be open to scrutiny from people who question the credibility of the aid worker sources and those who feel it has undermined access to camps for any other Western journalists now. 

Paton Walsh said the Sri Lankan government are sensitive, as they are partly looking to the international community, including the UN, to step-in. Rajapaska told him that Channel 4’s reports of the IDP camps “damaged the image of Sri Lanka”. In his blog today, he said:

“There is a reason why the government is so extraordinarily sensitive about this topic, bar the usual protectiveness of a nation for its armed forces. They need western money to fund these IDP camps – places government officials openly accept are “technically” internment camps. They will hold part of the country’s ethnic Tamil population for as long as three years, many involved say.

The government has spent a lot on the war and needs the UN to fund and manage this “resettlement” project – ostensibly the detention of up to 230,000 people for long enough to filter out any remaining militant sympathisers…

But there is a broader reason why deportation, not rapid rebuttal, was the chosen method in dealing with our allegations. The government is intolerant of a critical press. Journalists get killed – most notoriously Lasantha Wickrematunge – an editor assassinated in January.”

Now the UN has called for need to protect women and children in the camps to make them safer.

IDP Camp in Vavuniya about 160 miles north of Columbo, Sri Lanka

IDP Camp in Vavuniya about 160 miles north of Columbo, Sri Lanka

Celebrities and aid: Will hunger strike hard enough?

6 May

Hollywood actor Mia Farrow is now in the tenth day of her hunger strike in protest for the refugees of Darfur, whose lives have been put at risk by the Sudanese government through Omar al-Bashir’s expulsion of aid agencies from the region, including Oxfam UK and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

Hunger strikes aren’t a new form of protest against government regimes and have been employed by Mahatma Gandhi to the suffragettes.

But to what extent will Farrow’s efforts along with celebrity status help in raising awareness for the humanitarian crisis in Darfur?

So far, 75 people have signed up on her website Mia to join her fast. An ambassador for Unicef, she has been a high profile activist for Darfur since 2005.

Scepticism is inevitable.

Khaled al-Mubarak at the Sudanese embassy in London told the Guardian: “She is a good actress and a good human being, but as a politician she is only a beginner. She is like George Clooney, who has also got involved in the Darfur question. He is good looking but ignorant. She is ignorant too.”



Indeed, Farrow herself is also aware that her attempts may be in vain. She told reporters before she began:

“I’m not presuming anybody will care whether I starve to death or whether I go on a long hunger strike or what. But it’s a personal matter.”

With the now ubiquitous role of of the western celebrity ever more frequent in aid, their efficacy and even motives are under scrutiny… Whose profile are they trying to raise – the country in crisis or their own? Their faces are icons of modernisation – why not get global recognition with a deep and meaningful reality check thrown in.. adopt a cute black kid while at it?

In a London conference in February, Professor John Street, who dubs it ‘charitainment’, quoted the Washington Post, which seriously reported in coverage of Angelina Jolie in Darfur that she was ‘monitoring the crisis’ there.

The western media has to put its hands up when it comes to covering development issues from a charitainment angle. Journalist, Ann McFerran said in London that whilst getting “privileged access” to celebrities, she is better equipped to get an unsexy issue such as infant mortality in Sierra Leone into the press if David Beckham was on board.

Of course you’ll raise your profile as a celeb getting involved in aid, but what harm can that do if it is getting an issue in the mainstream media? Is ‘branding’ today’s NGO the way forward?

MoyoMSF’s Kris Torgeson said the water crisis in Angola would “never have got half an hour on MTV” if it wern’t for rapper Jay-Z involved.

But, Zambian economist and author of the controversial Dead Aid,  Dambisa Moyo, says it’s all ‘glamour aid’:

 “Long, long lines of people [in Africa] have stood in the sun to vote for a president who is effectively impotent because of donors or because glamour aid has decided to speak on behalf of a continent.

How would British people feel if tomorrow Michael Jackson started telling them how they should get out of the housing crisis?”

Here she speaks at the Carnegie Council:

The stark contrast of a pampered celebrity stood in a sea of black faces paints a dire picture of Africa. Moyo says there should me more emphasis on the positive.

Meanwhile, Farrow toils on..

You can listen to the full LSE conference featuring John Street, Ann McFerran and MSF here: Celebrities and aid: Humanitarians or just another fad?