[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]
“The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”
This statement was first uttered in 1993 by John Gilmore, Internet pioneer and co-founder of the Electronic Freedom Foundation. Since it was first quoted in Time magazine, it’s become axiomatic, an unanswerable trump card to be played whenever the issue of Internet censorship arises.
There’s a good reason for this. Numerous efforts by governments, institutions and organizations to impede the free flow of information have achieved mixed results at best and, more often than not, failed. Only in places like Tibet and Burma, where the government owns and closely controls the information networks, has any kind of comprehensive censorship been successful.
The Internet was designed as a ‘network of networks’ – that is, a communications medium that effectively had no centre of control. While it never completely achieved that aim, it’s still a vast departure from the monolithic telecoms networks that we used to have.
The presence recently of Sulu Censors (so called for the skirt-like traditional dress many of them wear) in all television, radio and print media outlets has largely neutered Fiji’s traditional media. But the flow of information has simply found a route around this ‘damage’. In recent weeks, Fijians at home and abroad have flocked en masse to the Internet to get their fix of national and local news, uncensored by the Bainimarama regime.
Internet Pioneer Mitch Kapor’s assertion that “[Internet] architecture is politics” has never been more true.
New Zealand journalist David Brooks, writing for Agence France Presse, reports, “With Fijian journalists contributing material, these blogs are filling the gap left by the muzzled media.”
Countless blogs have sprung up like flowers across the Internet in reaction to the media crackdown. With names like Coup Four and a Half, Fiji Coup and Fiji Uncensored, they’ve made their raison d’etre clear. While a few leave no doubt that they have very particular axes to grind, the majority are replete with well-sourced, insightful news, commentary and analysis.
Their posts run the gamut from solid investigative journalism, detailed commentary and analysis to often ambivalent personal narrative and opinion.
Perhaps most surprising is the generally balanced, often quite nuanced understanding of the situation that many of these sites display. There’s relatively little knee-jerk polemic on the most popular sites.
The public seems grateful for the continued provision of useful news. The Pacific remains largely forgotten by researchers studying new media and communications, so there’s little relevant data to be had, but the few available tidbits indicate strongly surging interest in their content. According to the Alexa web analysis service, fijicoup.org has seen a 210% increase in traffic recently. It also reports that the Coup Four and a Half blog (which has been online since George Speight’s 2000 coup) now has over 430,000 incoming links to its material.
Some of the material is attributed to known and reputable commentators, while a good deal more comes anonymously. It’s therefore necessary to carefully parse the data for hidden agendas and bias. But that’s true of nearly all online content, precisely because it’s so much easier to disseminate information through the Internet than by any other means.
Separating the wheat from the chaff is not usually a difficult task. It’s pretty easy to glide past screeds lamenting “typical ignorant … coupsters in their coup coup world…” and on to more rewarding content.
The contrast to engaging and thoughtful analyses by people such as Father Kevin Barr, an economic and social justice coordinator of the Ecumenical Centre for Research, Education and Advocacy, could not be greater. Father Barr’s commentary reflects long familiarity with the events and people that led Fiji to its current impasse.
Interestingly, Fijians’ engagement with the online world seems to be limited to finding news and information.
As I write this column, I’ve seen no indications of uptake by politically concerned Fijians of social media – that is, websites designed to allow friends, relations and like-minded individuals to communicate and collaborate. I could find no coup-related groups on the immensely popular Facebook website. An online petition to voice opposition to the Bainimarama regime had garnered only 99 digital signatures when I visited.
In the short term, at least, it appears that there won’t be anything like the so-called Twitter Revolution, where thousands of Moldovan political activists apparently organised themselves using SMS and the Twitter short message service as they took to the streets in protest.
Indeed, the bulk of the content being posted to the various coup-related blogs is being copied straight from traditional media outlets located overseas. People, it seems, simply want the news they’d been accustomed to getting.
It seldom pays to speculate too much about technology and the countless ways in which people interact with it, but in the absence of anything better than a smattering of anecdotal data, I’m left with few alternatives. With that proviso, I’ll make a few observations about the way in which Fijians seem to be reacting to the sudden dearth of uncensored news via traditional media channels.
First, it seems clear that, far from becoming outraged or even particularly angry, people seem simply to have worked around the Bainimarama regime’s attempts to squelch unwelcome news and then got on with their lives. Scattered reports of discontent in certain locations or among elements of the Fijian Armed Forces notwithstanding, people seem to be willing to acquiesce to the regime, at least for the time being. They do not, however, appear to be willing to tolerate any reduction in the information they use to judge the situation.
The amount of online personal interaction seems to be quite low. I strongly suspect that’s due to the lack of personal computing devices with ready Internet access. If your only source of Internet access is the café down the road, you’ll hardly want to do more than scan a few pages for the latest news. Writing a 500 word screed against the current regime or engaging in heated discussion in an online forum would be too expensive and quite possibly more than a little risky.
Underlying everything, I suspect, is the distinctly Pacific tendency to sit and listen patiently and at immense length to others before venturing an opinion of one’s own. In the decidedly un-scientific survey I made of coup-related content on the Internet, very little of it offered any explicit opinion on events being reported.
I take great comfort and encouragement from the fact Pacific islanders have taken up the communications tools available to them, used them to work around the shortcomings of their environment and – most important of all – made them distinctly their own.