June 2004: The Indymedia Phenomenon

The revolution won’t be televised, but it might be uploaded
June 1, 2004

Wih the rise of “networked” society, we have seen the emergence of democratic social movements with a distinctly global orientation. Such movements are increasingly informed by, and dependent upon, information technologies and computer-mediated communication for their organizational activities, their ability to disseminate information, mobilize action, and further develop net-based “cyberactivism.”

In some ways, these movements are similar to earlier democratic mobilizations that sought to challenge dominant political or economic regimes, since many of them also utilized communication technologies, in varying degrees, to advance their causes. To some extent, political projects and social movements in the “modern” era have always been mediated by technology—dating back to at least the printing press, which enabled the earliest rudiments of movement networks. But recent activist movements are distinct in a number of ways.

First, since many contemporary movements owe their very existence to the Internet, it may be appropriate to call them “internetworked social movements” (or ISMs). ISMs tend to be more diffuse, flexible, and decentralized than their traditional counterparts. Their members tend to eschew conventional, centralized, and hierarchical movement organizations and traditional notions of leadership. Their political structures have led observers to liken their loose, fluid structures to that of the Internet itself.

Secondly, the speed and ease of information transfer and the increased connectivity made possible by new technologies and computer networks have also altered the way in which social movements are themselves formed and constituted.

Finally, one of the notable aspects of recent activist formations (particularly those associated with “anti-globalization”) has been the powerful integration of the movements with the development of “alternative” media.

In many respects, activists involved in contemporary social movements have heeded the call of the Zapatistas to “become the media” and to cultivate networks of alternative communication rather than relying on established media forms and organizations.

In this sense, the boundaries “separating grassroots activists and radical media-makers” are increasingly blurred. Moreover, the use of new communication technologies has also opened up new terrains of political struggle for voices and groups typically marginalized and/or excluded from the mainstream media. Through “alternative” media networks, those involved in social movements are increasingly able to “speak for” themselves, to articulate and document their own experiences directly.

One of the most instructive and unprecedented examples of the use of the Internet in political struggle and movement media occurred in the weeks and months leading up to the infamous “Battle in Seattle” in 1999. Prior to the demonstrations, many activists and organizations generated websites teeming with information about the World Trade Organization (WTO), its agenda and proposed policies, and the excesses of corporate-driven global capitalism. The result of the Internet campaign was the mobilization of tens of thousands of activists from around the world, who converged on Seattle. Once assembled, many of these activists/journalists played a pivotal role in providing coverage of the demonstrations from the point of view of the protesters.

One of the most fertile venues for the dissemination of eyewitness accounts, police actions, and reflective discussion on the WTO and corporate globalization, was the Seattle Independent Media Center (also known as Indymedia). Given the subsequent significance of Indymedia in global justice movements, a brief historical account of its meteoric rise is warranted.

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A Brief History of Indymedia

“Let’s make a network of communication among all our struggles and resistances. An intercontinental network of alternative communication against neoliberalism . . . [and] for humanity. This intercontinental network of alternative communication will search to weave the channels so that words may travel all the roads that resist . . . [It] will be the medium by which distinct resistances communicate with one another. This intercontinental network of alternative communication is not an organizing structure, nor has [it] a central head or decision maker, nor does it have a central command or hierarchies. We are the network, all of us who speak and listen.”

—Zapatistas’ proposal, 1996.

The Zapatistas, of course, were among the first to acknowledge the importance of using emerging communication technologies, particularly the Internet, to circumvent corporate media and reach audiences sympathetic to their cause. Shortly after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect on January 1, 1994, the insurgent group staged an uprising in Chiapas, Mexico, and used computer databases, guerilla radio, and other forms of media to circulate their objections to the agreement.

In January 1995, when they were attacked by the Mexican army on orders from the government, the Zapatistas and their supporters used computer networks to inform (and mobilize) individuals and groups throughout the world of their plight. As a result of pressure from journalists, human rights groups, and others who had travelled to Chiapas, the Mexican government was forced to abandon its repression of the movement and entertain the idea of negotiations.

In 1996, the Zapatistas held the first international encuentro gathering for humanity and against neoliberalism. It was there that they called for a network of international solidarity that would communicate autonomously and horizontally. As the quote above suggests, they perceptively envisioned the centrality of alternative communication for such a global movement. After the first encuentro, more conferences that engendered projects like the Direct Action Media Network and TAO communications were held. But the “dream of an international network of networks” came closest to realization with the Seattle protests and the founding of the Independent Media Centre movement (IMC).”

The first Independent Media Centre was established in1999 just prior to the WTO protests in Seattle—an event that many have identified as both a watershed moment for independent media and as representing a significant shift in the configuration of contemporary social movements. Inspired by the communicative and political philosophies of the Zapatistas and suspicious of the corporate-owned mainstream media, a core group of media activists took steps to create a participatory, multimedia network that would provide alternative coverage of the planned protests and various issues stemming from the WTO agenda.

As momentum began to build in the fall of 1999 in anticipation of the anti-WTO protests, a group of activists began working furiously to secure a location that could potentially serve as a media “convergence centre.” According to one account, two Seattle attorneys rented a vacant storefront in downtown Seattle, and local activists then installed a web server and configured 25 donated computers. A neighbourhood church loaned the space for an editing centre, and a local progressive gallery donated darkroom facilities for interviews. By the time the protests began, the Seattle IMC had a budget of $75,000, including a hefty donation from an ex-Microsoft employee. A number of social justice organizations had also donated cell-phones, video cameras, and other equipment to the IMC cause.

Initially, the Seattle IMC “tech” collective began to design a website that would serve as a newswire service for protesters and journalists covering the demonstrations —text, audio, and video reports would be uploaded at the convergence centre and displayed on the site. About four weeks before Seattle, the tech team was inspired to switch course as a result of a chance meeting between a Seattle organizer and media activist from Free Speech TV and Matthew Arnison—a founding member of Community Activist Technology and an instrumental part of the collective that had created a Linux-based “open publishing” software called “Active.” One day before the demonstrations began in Seattle, the “open publishing” code was installed and the rest, as they say, is history.

During the week-long protests, the Seattle IMC facilitated and coordinated media activists who were producing news and analyses in every conceivable media format—including traditional newsletters, microradio, and video. The most significant innovation was the distribution apparatus set up on the website, which combined photographs, text, and high-quality audio and video streaming. This enabled virtually unedited content to reach Internet “audiences” as events were occurring in almost “real-time.” Serving as a clearing-house of information for hundreds of journalists and activists and providing up-to-the-minute reports of protest activities, the website logged more than two million hits and garnered the attention of CNN, BBC Online, America Online, Yahoo, and many other sites.

The Seattle IMC’s innovative deployment of digital media technologies, coupled with a non-hierarchical organizational structure, evidently captured the imagination of other activists worldwide. Since 1999, the IMC has grown rapidly, and certainly beyond anything anticipated by its founders. Indymedia has multiplied itself, branching out into a decentralized global network that now boasts more than 90 sites worldwide (including 11 in Canada) on every continent, with more in the planning stages.

While Indymedia has been referred to as a “media resource for the international movement against corporate globalization,” and has often been deemed as part of that broader movement, it should be acknowledged that Indymedia is a social movement in and of itself—albeit a complex and multifaceted one. It is virtually impossible to estimate how many people are involved, as participation in the network runs the gamut from those who work full-time to keep the infrastructure operating to those who volunteer their technical expertise and media savvy, and countless others who contribute journalistic reports, pictures, video, and the like on various events and protests worldwide. Nonetheless, these activists, “techies,” and volunteers have worked together to make Indymedia the “fastest growing, international alternative media network in the world.”

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Since its inception, the IMC phenomenon has been informed by the belief that an innovative media/political project had to entail more than “a site for creating and distributing progressive content.” Rather, IMC founders aspired to create physical and virtual spaces for interaction, dialogue, and political mobilization. Part of the rationale for creating the Seattle IMC was to provide an “avenue for underrepresented groups to tell their own stories in their own voices, and to get those voices out to the world quickly.”

In the words of Shane Korytko, a volunteer at the Vancouver IMC, the model modestly conceived by pioneers of Indymedia constituted a “paradigm-shattering” experiment in the free and open exchange of information, knowledge, and resources.

There is no doubt that the IMC movement has posed an interesting challenge to established ways of thinking about the communication model typically employed by “alternative” media outlets. That model, referred to as the “broadcasting model,” is defined as one in which a single media institution or “large entity sends its message out to as broad an audience as possible.” Unlike the broadcast model where representation tended to be centrally controlled and/or managed, Indymedia’s open communications model put the “means of production” and dissemination in more hands than ever before, and made it possible to experiment with a new, multi-point, multimedia network model and a more participatory media network. In other words, it created a forum that allowed the many from below to speak through a number of different channels in multi-media mode.

The economics and technology of the Internet enabled Indymedia to promote an “open publishing” format in which virtually anyone with access to the Internet could upload text, photos, audio or video to the site, unedited and unfiltered. While “alternative” media have not historically been known for breaking stories, during large international demonstrations such as those that took place in Seattle, Quebec City, and Genoa, it was Internet media networks like Indymedia that were providing reports about police actions, arrests, and the like long before mainstream outlets caught wind of them.

During such protests, the Indymedia newswire was updated every 10 minutes, and the open publishing format facilitated multiple accounts of events as they were occurring. Unlike mainstream media coverage of protest events where police intimidation and surveillance of activists barely register a blip, the eyewitness tales of those actively involved in the protests provided a refreshing—and disturbing—alternative. Such was certainly the case in Genoa when Italian carabinieri, working closely with U.S. and other police agencies, engaged in some of the worst police brutality in recent history. In addition to the fatal shooting of Carlo Guiliani that was explicitly captured in gruesome detail through photographs and video footage disseminated on the network, Indymedia also provided some of the most detailed —and accurate—articles on the police mayhem and repression that was rampant during the G-8 summit. A recent investigation into the G-8 events revealed that officers fabricated evidence against protesters and used excessive force—just as Indymedia had originally reported.

The method of information production and dissemination made possible by the technology of the Internet and the “open publishing” format has had a considerable impact on recent reportage of protest movements—reportage that would be largely impossible and indeed impractical in traditional alternative media because of limited newsprint space, inadequate resources, lack of funding, etc.

The Indymedia model, however, is not without its own limitations. Initially heralded as a revolutionary breakthrough, “open publishing” has recently become the target of condemnation and controversy. Critics have suggested that the “open publishing” system makes Indymedia nothing more than a forum for “incoherent personal rants,” “inaccurate information,” “conspiracy theories,” and a “mouthpiece for the activist community.” Moreover, it has been argued that the “amateurishness that is a direct consequence of Indymedia’s approach is one of its greatest flaws.”

While some of these criticisms are certainly warranted, one could certainly take issue with this type of simplistic dismissal.

First, while personal rants have certainly been part of the Indymedia repertoire, they are not the only “genre” represented on Indymedia. If anything, Indymedia is a mixed bag of activist dispatches, on-the-street reporting, and thoughtful analyses of issues and events.

The network also serves as an invaluable informational resource on upcoming events, protests, social justice organizations, and has become an integral part of the global justice movement’s mobilization apparatus.

Secondly, to suggest that Indymedia is nothing more than a mouthpiece for the activist community implies, perhaps inadvertently, that “the” activist community speaks with a monolithic voice—which it certainly does not. The cacophony of voices that constitute the many factions of the global justice movement are, for the most part, represented on the Indymedia network. As Naomi Klein notes, “The IMC is doing more than breaking the corporate monopoly on story-telling; it is inventing new media models that are uniquely equipped to mirror the international and diverse nature of this protest movement. This is media that crosses borders and issues like no communication network we have seen before.”

The voices—however diverse—are nonetheless united by their commitment to a “better world, despite corporate media’s distortions and unwillingness to cover the efforts to free humanity.” Furthermore, critics of the “amateur” journalism of Indymedia seem to cling too closely to established notions of what constitutes journalistic practice, who can rightfully be called a journalist, and the concept of “objectivity.” Indymedia activists, like a host of critical media scholars, have pointed out that “objectivity” is largely a myth. Unlike the mainstream press corps, Indymedia volunteers and journalists claim no pretence of value-neutrality and objectivity, but instead seek to expose such “professional” codes as ideological covers for the biased coverage offered by the corporate media.

In their broad mission statement, the IMCs emphasize “accuracy” rather than objectivity in reporting. What they do may be aptly called “justice journalism”—an exercise that arguably breaks down the dichotomies between media and social activism. In the words of Lisa Sousa, a volunteer associated with San Francisco’s IMC, “today’s younger generation of media democracy activists challenge the corporate definitions of objective journalism. The watchwords of this generation might be: ‘The Emperor has no objectivity. Objective journalism is a huge myth’.”

IMC members have been compared to the early muckrakers, who were both journalists documenting events and issues as they unfolded and also activists passionately committed to the causes they reported on. As Robert McChesney has noted in Monthly Review, “Indymedia has developed a network of grassroots people’s journalists and covers stories people in power wish to be silent about—those that conventional journalists find difficult to examine without being accused of being ‘unprofessional’.”

Long before “outside” criticisms of Indymedia’s open publishing system began to surface, Indymedia “insiders” and staffers had already begun to debate the viability and appropriateness of the format. Citing disparities in quality and accuracy, the rudiments of an editorial policy began to emerge. Such efforts intensified after a number of “objectionable” posts—presumably submitted by reactionaries seeking to undermine the network—appeared online. Proposals to add “significant functionality to the Open Publishing system” and introduce a policy of “open editing” are currently being contemplated.

In keeping with its practice of transparency, the network has encouraged feedback and further suggestions on the various proposals for reform. While such debates are still ongoing, any changes will undoubtedly have broader implications for the changing trajectory of Indymedia as it seeks to generate a sustainable structure for the production of credible knowledge relevant to social justice movements.

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In the annals of alternative media experiments, the emergence of the Indymedia network will likely represent a bright spot for its innovative communications model, its global reach, and its ability to inspire a new generation of media activists. As an experiment in “media democracy,” it represents an important milestone, but it is imperative to recognize both its limitations and the obstacles it is likely to face in the future.

First, those concerned with the increasingly undemocratic nature of established media (in light of the commercialization and consolidation of the means of communication in fewer and fewer hands) must refrain from treating a development like Indymedia as a panacea. It is not. With global access to the Internet hovering around 6%, the questions of access and the “digital divide” are undoubtedly significant issues. While Indymedia activists have sought to address this problem by building deeper relationships with other alternative media, including community, campus, and microradio stations, fostering print media projects and training indigenous populations worldwide in the use of various communications technologies, its global reach is still limited when compared to the audiences for the global media giants.

Furthermore, while Indymedia is clearly part of the “media democracy movement,” it is not an adequate substitute for it. Sustained efforts to expose the inherent corporate biases of the mainstream media and campaigns to challenge the concentrated ownership and hyper-commercialism of global media empires are as necessary today as they were when they first emerged in the 1970s.

Indeed, such efforts have gained even more significance in the current climate of deregulation and media merger frenzy.

Finally, the question of government repression cannot be ignored. Various Indymedia sites have already been subjected to FBI raids, Secret Service visits, and in Canada to CSIS surveillance. In the aftermath of 9/11, draconian measures aimed at stifling free expression and monitoring the Internet have either been implemented or are being considered by a number of countries, largely at the behest of the current Bush administration in the United States. Since Indymedia has recently been identified as the “media special forces” of the anti-globalization movement, the chances of its being targeted for even more state-sanctioned tyranny are evident.

Despite these challenges and potential obstacles, it is crucial for those dedicated to “communications in the public interest” and democratic media forms to be cautiously optimistic about the potential that the Indymedia initiative has unleashed. While a “digital” network such as Indymedia cannot, in and of itself, “pose a threat to the status quo and corporate power,” its promise lies in its “organizational” apparatus and its ability to coordinate social networks of activists and improve communication between them. Hence, while the role of the Indymedia network should not be overestimated, neither should it be underestimated. In the global struggle against neoliberalism and for humanity, Indymedia is likely to remain a guiding beacon for the movement despite barriers, repression, and its own internal growing pains.

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(Valerie Scatamburlo-D’Annibale is an author, educator, and Assistant Professor and Chair of the Graduate Program in Communication and Social Justice at the University of Windsor, and Ghada Chehade is a graduate student in that university’s Masters Program in Communication and Social Justice. This article was adapted from their longer and fully referenced, footnoted and documented essay to be published in an upcoming CCPA book, Seeking Convergence in Policy and Practice, edited by Marita Moll and Leslie Regan Shade.)

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