A conversation on the politics of literature
When political points can be scored by tearing up children’s books that are deemed too tolerant, what is a writer to do? Should they become an activist?
Africa’s blogger community is still in its infancy, but it has already demonstrated its importance in mobilising opinion in Kenya and Nigeria and promises to be a significant player in the fight for democracy and free expression across the continent.
The contribution of political weblogs in shaping public opinion and mobilising society is much discussed around the globe – at least, in so far as it concern Europe and the Middle East. But what of Africa? In truth, despite the impact of a growing number of politically orientated blogs from Cairo to Cape Town, the continent is all but non-existent on the Web 2.0 map. What potential does this type of Internet communication have in supporting and advancing democracy, particularly in countries with fragile democratic or other participatory structures?
An Internet connection is the precondition for any web-based activity, but the prohibitive cost means that only 11 per cent of African households are connected to the Internet, far below the global average of 23 per cent. However, thanks to improvements in infrastructure, reforms in government regulation and the development of creative business models, recent years have seen a significant increase in Internet access in most parts of Africa. In particular, the rapid spread of mobile telephone networks and community-based Internet access has greatly improved the situation.
At the same time, the dissemination of so-called Web 2.0 applications – for personal, commercial and political use – has been increasing. These include social networking services such as Facebook, SMS-based services such as Twitter and, above all, weblogs. The blog aggregator Afrigator offers an insight into the African blogging community: in July 2009, it counted over 10,500 African blogs, 62 percent (approx 6,400) of which were in South Africa, by far the leading blogging nation, followed by 1,094 in Nigeria, 555 in Kenya and 325 in Egypt. Seven per cent – approx 780 – of the blogs listed cannot be categorised by country: they concern themselves mainly with Africa-wide issues and are categorised as cross-regional.
The African blogosphere is as colourful and diverse as anywhere else: love and sex, technology and business, music and animals as well as development and politics are all here in abundance. Bloggers also deal with subjects that may be censored by the state or that remain social taboos; corruption and homosexuality are two such issues. According to Afrigator religion, tourism, Robert Mugabe, social networks and the FIFA World Cup 2010 are the most widely covered topics. In other blogs, such as the Cape Town Daily Photo , the main subject is the normal goings-on of everyday life. While South Africa provides the greatest number of blogs, the newest and most striking example of their use as a means of political citizen journalism can be found in those African states with fragile government and media structures.
In general, weblogs can be divided into three distinct types: personal online journals, corporate blogs and citizen journalism blogs. In the latter, the consumer becomes the producer of content and a correspondent in his or her own right independent of traditional media structures. This form of non-professional journalism, and the network of like-minded writers it brings together, is a vital tool of political involvement and participatory, democratic activism.
Africa’s vast diversity of languages and cultures, together with the sheer size of the continent, makes communication and networking across borders difficult. Nevertheless, Internet activists from different regions, such as Sokari Ekine from Nigeria or Ory Okolloh from Kenya, see themselves as part of a dynamic and growing African online community. Ekine emphasises the existence of “a growing number of Internet-connected people who are familiar with blogs and social media. Compared to the overall population this number may still be small, but the growth rate is remarkable”.
When Ekine started blogging in 2004, this form of communication was still new and not widespread. At the time, few blogs were dedicated to discussing African affairs so Ekine focused on reporting those countries outside the international media spotlight. Currently, her focus has shifted to women’s rights, homosexuality and social justice. In Okolloh’s view, the ready collaboration and cooperation of bloggers was crucial for the establishment of Kenya’s lively blogging community. “Particularly in the beginning, when our numbers were still small, we made sure that we commented on each other’s blogs so that we could get to know one another.”
Bloggers see these new technologies as a chance to create greater openness and use them as tools for political mobilisation. Thanks to the simplicity of Web 2.0 applications, “users” can become “produsers” much more easily: they become the creators as well as the consumers of content. In countries lacking a pluralistic media or political environment, or for marginalised sectors of the population who are usually under-represented or absent in national and international media, the creation of these new and instant channels of communication is particularly important.
An example of this is the Nata Village Blog in which the inhabitants of a small village in Botswana report on the tangible impact of the HIV/Aids pandemic. But this is no mournful saga of despair or helplessness: the blog’s subhead reads “Nata: a village of hope”. The blog compiles information on various treatments and self-help opportunities, and facilitates exchanges between those affected. Another example is the blog Voices of Africa. Here bloggers present and discuss their visions of ecological, economic and social development. Their global reach enables these new forms of media and journalism to correct common stereotypes of the African continent and replace them with more authentic views from within.
But the dissemination of information is not the only objective of Web 2.0. The exchange of news and views is equally important, and this is as true in Africa as elsewhere: only a regularly updated, constantly read and commented on blog is considered “alive”. Many bloggers consider themselves journalist-activists as they try to engage others in lively discussions on issues such as social justice.
More and more, traditional media outlets are being driven by the blogs to use their own communication tools more effectively. The Nigerian daily The Vanguard actively creates a dialogue with its readers by inviting them to comment on online articles, delivering video and audio content, and allowing content to link into social networks. The international media has also begun to react to the growing blogosphere in Africa. In 2007, when Reuters news service started to work with “Global Voices”, an international blog aggregator of bloggers and citizen journalists outside Europe and the US, it included links to African weblogs on its new Africa website.
The proliferation of weblogs is having an interesting impact on other media. Their interaction with the rapidly expanding mobile telephone networks, for instance, enables bloggers to reach those people still without access to the Internet; the coupling of SMS messages with blogs plays an important role in what has come to be seen as a ‘bottom-up’ process of collecting information that can subsequently be used in Internet and radio broadcasts.
This type of networking was particularly striking during Kenya’s presidential elections of December 2007. Since the early 1990s, Kenya has had a comparatively well-rounded and liberal media environment, but in the build up to the election, state intervention in the media increased dramatically. In response to the violence and rioting that followed the elections, Kenya’s rulers accused the media of abandoning its even-handed approach and actively fanning the flames of ethnic tension and conflict in the politically charged atmosphere. A comprehensive news blackout, plus a ban on live-radio reporting, followed. With press freedom under continuing pressure, political bloggers assumed a vital new role by filling the government-imposed information gap and shedding light on the ensuing chaos.
Daudi Were is considered a pioneer of Kenyan blogging. On the first day after the elections, he and other political bloggers kept each other continuously informed of developments in the different regions, particularly in rural areas, via their mobile “phones”. Were and Okolloh used their blogs to circumvent the media blackout: they spread information from the provinces and reported on events from Nairobi as well as maintaining discussions with their readers. They even identified and highlighted the discrepancies between government statements as reported by the conventional media and the information obtained by the blogging community.
The reach of Kenyan blogs spread even further when radio stations, following the end of the broadcasting ban, began to read out blog entries as part of their coverage of events. As a result of this exposure, information from blogs reached roughly 95 per cent of the Kenyan population rather than its usual 5 per cent.
But technology is only as good as those who are using it. While Were and Okolloh were using it to good effect, others were disseminating SMS messages inciting violence of one ethnic group against another. The use of the media, particularly radio, to incite mass violence against a perceived enemy had catastrophic effects years earlier in Uganda and Rwanda. However, new media has a distinct advantage in that it allows multi-directional communication and can react much faster to crisis than the conventional media. Despite the escalating violence, Michael Joseph, a company executive with Kenya’s biggest mobile provider, Safaricom, was able to persuade the government not to disable the nation’s SMS system and used it to counter those calling for violence with SMS messages to its 9 million customers calling for peace and calm.
The potential of SMS messaging in mobilising people was also recognised by bloggers. Within a week of the breakout of violence, Kenyan bloggers developed a technology that enabled information obtained via SMS or the Internet to be plotted on GoogleMaps and used to pinpoint outbreaks of violence and warn against them. This open-source-software was named “Ushahidi” , the Swahili word for “testimony” or “witness”.
From its origins in Africa, this crowdsourcing software has been developed and used in many different situations – in Haiti, for instance. The online project “United for Africa” uses the software to document violence against foreigners in South Africa and supports its users by disseminating information and providing assistance to those threatened or under attack. The website “Stop Stock-Out”, a campaign for access to medicine, uses Ushahidi to document where delivery bottlenecks and lack of stock of important medications are in Malawi, Kenya, Uganda and Zambia.
A further African-developed application encouraging political participation is the Nigerian Network of Mobile Election Monitors (NMEM), which was developed by the local NGO Help Foundation and the operators of FrontlineSMS. This technology allows election monitoring with mobile phones and, as with Ushahidi, facilitates networking by providing up-to-date data and local information. Following a test run during regional elections, the system was successfully implemented in Nigeria’s general election on 21 April 2007. NMEM received over 10,000 messages from citizens, directly or via mobile phone, reporting on situations at local polling stations. Reports covered various procedures at polling stations as well as irregularities and incidents on polling day. Contradictory reports from the same polling station were carefully compared and evaluated, leading to the conclusion that despite generally fair voting, many polling stations were marred by irregularities – an opinion later confirmed by other national and international election monitors.
Growing interconnectivity is increasingly used to organise political resistance and protest actions; Facebook has become an important platform for political campaigns. Following the arrest of Nigerian blogger Jonathan Elendu in October 2008 in Abuja, word of his incarceration was spread via the “Nigeria Curiosity” blog. The Facebook group “Free Nigerian Blogger Jonathan Elendu” was used to keep people up-to-date on the case and to call for support. Elendu was released several weeks later, in part due to public pressure created by the online campaigns.
Egypt is another example of the blogger community resisting authority, in this case constraints on press freedom and aggressive attempts to control the Internet. Facebook, Twitter and, in particular blogs, are monitored by the state; reports of repression against active bloggers are increasing. The arrests of US blogger Jeff Buck in 2007, the Egyptian blogger Malek Mustafa in 2008 and the four-day detention of German-Egyptian blogger Philip Rizk in early 2009 are all evidence of the repressive actions of the Egyptian authorities. In all three cases, online protest played an important role in the release of the bloggers. The micro-blogging service Twitter was particularly useful as an information and protest medium. In the case of Philip Rizk, more than 6,500 supporters joined the Facebook group protesting against his arrest. Rizk’s sister was able to use Twitter to keep supporters updated as the situation developed.
But Egypt is not the only country in which surveillance of blogs has been rising in past months. The governments of numerous other African states are attempting to control, silence or close what they see as unpredictable and dangerous information and protest channels. Intimidation is one strategy, as are the creation of technological barriers, censorship and digital surveillance, but the creation of government-inspired counter blogs featuring pro-regime information and views is an additional weapon. The Nigerian state is raising its own online profile in an effort to counteract the increasing online presence of critical journalism. A state-organised information campaign aims to enlist more than 700 Nigerians, nationally and internationally, in confronting this hostile blogging culture. Such campaigns bear witness to the growing importance and effectiveness of the blogger community in promoting democracy and freedom of expression, and in creating a space for social debate and political mobilisation in Africa. The African blogger community’s fight is only just beginning but its promising start gives grounds for hope that the political importance of this young and active community will continue to grow.
Published 15 April 2010
Original in German
First published by Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik 10/2009 (German version)
Contributed by Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik © Geraldine de Bastion / Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik / EurozinePDF/PRINT
When political points can be scored by tearing up children’s books that are deemed too tolerant, what is a writer to do? Should they become an activist?
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