Media standards and events

The media nationally everywhere exercise discretion on matters of public morals and taste, but the standards for these are culturally specific. Equally there are zones within national culture where different standards apply. Can we have global definitions of civility, perhaps as an understanding to agree to disagree agreeably on contested issues that might otherwise become more threatening to all involved? What are the new structures of offence against public morals in a globalised world? And are there non-national zonings of taste? Can the Internet and blogs provide more ‘globalised’ global conversations? Kaldor (1999: 126) introduced the term ‘spectacle wars’. The Make Poverty History campaign and demonstration prior to the G8 Gleneagles meeting in July 2005 was ‘spectacle civil society’. So, too, was the globally viewed football World Cup in June 2006, validating national rivalries through a competition that serves also as a focal point for the thousands of NGOs worldwide engaged in using football for social development (see David Goldblatt in Chapter 7).

Sociologists such as Dahrendorf (1994) remind us that conflicts are manifest tensions that arise from perceived disagreements, as opposed to latent tensions where parties may be largely unaware of the level of threat and power capabilities. Once conflicts are manifest, the conditions for communicating, mobilising and organising are critical for their process and outcome. It is precisely the wider availability of information technology such as the Internet, combined with a steep decline in communication costs, which facilitates the transformation of latent into manifest conflicts. Political entrepreneurs, activists and ideologues of many kinds find access to means of mobilisation easier than in the past. At the same time, the capacity to keep movements in check and violent-free has not kept pace.

On the face of it, Indymedia is a clear recent example of global civil society: a global network that links various new sites of news, opinion and debate on political issues within a global frame, and in a way, as Pickard illustrates, that was in principle impossible without the Internet. Indeed, the Indymedia network deepens global civil society in two ways, as Pickard shows: first, by offering a new type of media practice, a new type of ‘newsroom’ much more open to the contributions of non-media professionals; second, by a highly de-centered process of policy making and decision making, which encourages local initiative and adaptability. But this initial success generates major questions for the long-term: how far will Indymedia’s implicit challenge to traditional news production values be taken? Under what conditions is Indymedia’s distinctive media and political practice sustainable and for whom in particular? These questions become even more acute when, as Pickard notes, we recall that only one fourth of the 150 IMCs worldwide are based in the South, just as ‘global civil society’ has from the outset been dominated by the North (Anheier, Glasius and Kaldor 2001: 7).

‘It’s a war of perceptions’, Army Brigadier General John Custer, head of intelligence at Central Command, told CBS News’ 60 Minutes. ‘They [the insurgents] understand the power of the Internet. They don’t have to win in the tactical battlefield. They never will. No platoon has ever been defeated in Afghanistan or Iraq. But it doesn’t matter. It’s irrelevant’ (Pelley 2007).

How? On the screen. Television, Ignatieff wrote, ‘is the instrument of a new kind of politics’, one in which NGOs seek to circumvent bilateral governmental relations and institute direct political contacts between far-flung people. This notion, exemplified in the paradigms of ‘mobilizing shame’ and ‘global witness,’ today dominates the ‘third sector,’ from relief agencies to human rights organisations and community movements. For us, that new politics has been generalised and radicalised. Global civil society is unthinkable without media, without a virtual public space and access to its means of production and distribution. Indeed, under the banners of opening-democratic-spaces and overcoming-the-digital-divide, creating and defending those media zones has become one of the chief preoccupations of the new political movements of our time. The current concern with information and communications technology for development is just one indicator of this phenomenon. But civil society – and the new people politics – is not what it used to be.

These images were so powerful that aid agencies felt obliged to consider their use carefully and even to develop ethical codes to help protect against the risk of exploiting those whom they sought to help. Critics worried about ‘disaster pornography’. When television went global and live, as a matter of norm rather than exception, the effects multiplied. And so, a decade ago, it seemed impossible to discuss the international events of the day – Rodney King and the LA riots, the Gulf War, famine in Somalia, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, genocide in Rwanda – without reflecting on the seemingly overwhelming role that televised images of violence and suffering played in shaping the way crises unfolded. But opinions were split on just what that role was.

In 2007, the most interesting frontline for investigating this phenomenon is what has been called the ‘global jihad’, with its dogged commitment to integrating highly professional media production, particularly on the Internet, into its core activities. The interest is both epistemological and political. Jihad media presents a basic challenge to the will-not-be-televised paradigm, and in doing so encourages reflection on what advocates of global civil society had hoped for, or expected, from a more accessible and pluralised media, whether television or the Internet.

North American Indymedia have undergone important changes as well. One shining example is the large Urbana-Champaign IMC, which conducted a years-long membership fund-drive to purchase the downtown Urbana Post Office building to provide space for a wide array of progressive community projects. Though it continues to court controversy for its non-profit incorporation, paid staffers, and its fiscal sponsorship of the global IMC network, the UC-IMC consistently produces vibrant community journalism via its website, a community radio station, and a monthly newspaper. A stark counter-example is the flagship Seattle IMC, which lost its prime downtown space and much of its membership. As IMCs rise and fall, the earlier rapid expansion of the network seems to have leveled out for the present.

Indymedia Strengths & Weaknesses

While the strengths of Indymedia’s internet-enabled radical democratic practices are considerable, they are also fraught with inherent tensions. Indymedia’s sustainability issues are discussed in greater depth elsewhere (Pickard 2006b), but a number of other pressure points are well documented. For example, some democratic theorists are quick to note persistent hierarchies in consensus-based decision-making (Mansbridge 1983; Young 1996). Gastil (1993) observes that typical drawbacks in small group democracy include long meetings, unequal involvement and commitment, cliques, differences in skills and styles, and personality conflicts. Similarly, Michel’s (1915) ‘iron law of oligarchy’ argues that radical organizations – especially larger groups – tend to become more bureaucratic and conservative over time. In another important critique, Bookchin (1994) argues that beyond intimate small groups, consensus dissuades the creative process of ‘dissensus’ by pressuring dissenters into silence and thereby gravitating towards the least controversial, mediocrity, and defacto authoritarianism. Similarly, Freeman’s (1970) classic critique ‘the tyranny of structurelessness’ suggests such purported non-hierarchy masks power, allows ‘informal elites’ to arise, and renders unstructured groups politically impotent.

Indymedia first distinguished itself as a radical democratic experiment by its ‘open-publishing’ software, allowing anyone with Internet access to post his or her own news stories for immediate upload onto an IMC website’s newswire. Its user-driven news production, collective editing, and open source technology, placed Indymedia in the twenty-first century vanguard for experimenting with Internet-amplified democratic processes. Though the rise of the blogosphere and other facets of the web 2.0 now eclipse some of its early innovations, Indymedia’s radical participatory democracy and global reach continue to make it one of the more significant models to emerge from the Internet. Open source technology and collective editing via wikis further evidence Indymedia’s radical democratic model. But Indymedia’s most remarkable contribution is arguably its commitment to radical democratic practice, exemplified by consensus based decision-making at the local and global network levels.

The Rise of Indymedia

The November 1999 World Trade Organization protests, a series of events known as ‘The Battle of Seattle’, left an enduring institutional legacy in the form of the Independent Media Center (IMC, popularly referred to as ‘Indymedia’). Emerging from within the global justice movement, Indymedia’s roots trace back at least as far as the 1990s media democracy movement, inspired by alternative media groups like Paper Tiger, Free Speech TV, and Accion Zapatista. According to veteran media activist and scholar Dee Dee Halleck, with Indymedia, ‘Many different streams came together: the video activist community, microradio pirates, the computer hacker/code writers, the ‘zine makers, and the punk music world’ (2002: 417-418). Jeff Perlstein, one of the Indymedia co-founders, saw the original idea as using media, especially the Internet, as an activist tool for community self-expression, particularly in under-represented communities. Wanting to challenge the corporate news monopoly on telling their stories, Perlstein says Indymedia’s aim was to create ‘alternative networks’ and a ‘community-based people’s newsroom’ (2001). The original project, then, was to ‘be the media’ based on radical democratic principles and practices. In its expansion across six continents, the Indymedia movement has since merged with a broad array of local and global struggles and developed new variants, though many of its original objectives remain relatively constant across the evolving network.

Ultimately, the aim is to spotlight the influence of these media spaces on public debate and policy making, or on ideas about identity (whether national, diaspora or religious). To that end, key aspects of these communicative practices are examined: how they are constructed and how they function; the philosophies and values that inform them; the relationships with target audiences, mainstream media and other actors in civil society; and the extent to which they have reclaimed, created anew, or expanded the space for deliberation and debate.

The chapter eschews an exclusive focus on, for example, alternative media in Nick Couldry and James Curran’s sense of media production that challenges concentrations of media power (2003). Victor Pickard’s analysis of Indymedia does just that. But the chapter as a whole adopts a broader approach – of media spaces – to explore the extent and variety of global civil society’s communicative practices, not all of which have deliberate political intentions, and some of which pursue distinctly undemocratic ends.

In the West, alternative media has been established in response to the unwillingness of the mainstream media to provide spaces and voices to marginalised groups, or those perceived to be outside of mainstream public discourse. It is often articulated as a challenge to the perceived domination of media by international capital, or a set of narrow commercial interests hostile to citizen power (Chomsky 2002).

3. Alternative media and communicative power

As this Yearbook makes clear, the opportunities for civil society actors to create their own communication platforms – often called alternative media – have never been greater. Many examples of these, such as the Indymedia movement (see chapter 10 of this volume), are well documented.

In Latin America, the concept of communication rights provides an important source of inspiration and impetus for the revival of community radio (outlined above), concepts shaped by civil society and academia. At the same time, the recent establishment by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez of Telesur in Venezuela, the ‘new television station of the South’ represents a clear challenge to the dominance of private media on the continent and, with an advisory board comprised of intellectuals and academics, is often described as an attempt to realise communication rights. Many of the same tensions that characterised the NWICO debate are re-emerging around the Chavez’s attempts to ’rebalance’ the media (not least in the government’s withdrawal of the licence to RCTV and perhaps other commercial television stations that are accused of inciting rebellion in the country).

The history of attempts to establish such rights is contentious and occasionally bitter. The right to communicate was proposed in the 1981 MacBride Report (MacBride 1981), which initiated a global debate around what became known as the New World Information and Communication Order initiative (NWICO), led by UNESCO. The MacBride Commission pointed to the extreme dependency of developing countries on Western news sources, the concentration of Western media ownership that exerted increasing influence in developing and small countries, and the growing information and communication technology gap between the West and the rest (in other words many of the same issues – although often in different form explored in this chapter). At this time, developing countries (the Non-Aligned Movement) were in a critical phase of nation building and consolidation or creation of national and cultural identities. They protested that new forms of cultural imperialism (or what could be reasonably termed communicative power) were replacing and augmenting the old forms of military and political power (CRIS 2005).

2. Communication rights in the twenty-first century

A growing international movement – which has sometimes been at odds with those in the freedom of expression movement – is coalescing behind the ‘right to communicate’. Such rights go beyond freedom of expression and extend to areas such as democratic media governance, participation in citizen’s own culture, linguistic rights, the rights to enjoy the fruits of human creativity, to education, privacy, peaceful assembly and self determination. Central to the right to communicate movement is the right to create one’s own media (particularly important for community radio, which continues to be banned or discouraged in many countries). Such rights are also aimed at countering the concentration of media ownership, control of intellectual property and exclusion of minority voices. In effect, the movement is attempting to establish a right to be heard and be listened to.

New technologies and the fragmentation of the public sphere

The Internet has created a limitless matrix through which ordinary people can exercise communicative power, establish shared spaces for discussion and dialogue, and where tapestries of communication between old and new media, traditional and twenty-first century communication networks are constantly rewoven.

Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in China. Two decades ago the principal function of media in China was to provide the critical instrument of state control by framing and limiting news and information available to its people. Today, its principal function is the provision of advertising platforms to fuel the country’s huge consumer boom, exercised through a media environment transformed by an explosion of television and other media channels. Freedom of the press remains heavily curtailed and while a debate continues within the country about the role of a more open media in exposing corruption and providing a more stable business climate (Hilton 2006), the evidence suggests strong reluctance to accept such openness. In such a climate, media focuses mostly on entertainment, beauty, sport and of course state-controlled news.

At the national level, concentration of ownership has long been a feature of mature markets; for example, following the US 1996 Telecommunications Act, Clear Channel acquired 1,200 local radio stations across the country. And the trend continues in regions such as Latin America where, for example, in Guatemala, four out of six television channels are owned by one businessmen, a Mexican citizen based in Miami. These trends are being challenged, often controversially such as in Venezuela (referred to later in this chapter). The same trend is taking place in newly democratic countries, as competitive pressures increase broadcast licences, other operational costs rise, and media markets mature.

Such advocates argue that the constraints on press freedom arise from new anti-terrorism and official secrets laws, criminalisation of speech judged to justify terrorism, criminal prosecution of journalists for disclosing classified information, surveillance of communications without judicial authorisation, restrictions on access to government data and more strict security classifications. ‘All these measures can severely erode the capacity of journalists to investigate and report accurately and critically, and thus the ability of the press to inform,’ according to WAN (2007: 1).

1. Freedom of the media is under renewed assault

The number of journalists killed or imprisoned each year is reaching new records, according to Reporters Without Borders (URL). The war on terror is increasingly cited by advocates of media freedom as a cause of media censorship and intimidation. According to the World Association of Newspapers, there is:

a legitimate and growing concern that in too many instances tightening of security and surveillance measures, whether old or newly introduced, are being used to stifle debate and the free flow of information about political decisions, or that they are being implemented with too little concern for the overriding necessity to protect individual liberties and, notably, freedom of the press. (2007:1)

Online public interest journalism is no longer new, with some of the leading online public interest sites demonstrating a capacity to sustain themselves over time, establish a strong brand rooted in public respect and trust and a lasting influence. is an independent investigative journalism site in India, founded in 2000, which has been targeted repeatedly by the authorities and equally repeatedly made mainstream news through its exposés. Malaysiakini, another online political website, attracts 160,000 visitors each day, and is celebrating its eighth birthday despite several attempts by the authorities to close it down, including an incident in 2003 when its offices were raided and 19 computers were confiscated, allegedly for a breach of the country’s Sedition Act. When was founded in 2001, there were fears this respected web-based fora would prove unsustainable; such anxieties have, at least for now, been dispelled.

Never before have new territories for claiming (and possibly confining) public space emerged as rapidly as they have over the last two decades, with the emergence of the internet, and the allied technological revolutions of mobile telephony, satellite broadcasting and communication, and the host of other applications (blogs, vlogs, wikis etc.) that make up what is termed Web 2.0. These issues have been discussed in previous editions of the Yearbook (see Castells et al. 2006; Naughton 2001) and elsewhere in this publication; here attention will be paid to the links between new and traditional media in opening public spaces and enhancing communicative power.

While commercial media has benefited most from liberalisation, new policy environments in many countries have also sparked a mushrooming of community media, a trend also facilitated by falling technology costs and a substantial decrease in the price of entry into the radio market (see AMARC URL). The community radio movement in Latin America, which has a long tradition, is experiencing an unprecedented expansion, with hundreds of new licences being issued and the number of community stations reaching perhaps 10,000 across the continent. Peru alone has 4,000 community radio stations and Colombia has issued 500 new licences (Gumucio, forthcoming). In Africa, particularly in Francophone Africa (Sow, forthcoming), the growth in community radio has been almost as dramatic, with thousands of community radio stations across the region.

Commercial FM radio has revolutionised broadcasting in many developing countries, transforming broadcast environments from monolithic monopolies to a panoply of new actors. For developing countries, the role of radio in underpinning and enriching democratic debate and processes has been especially significant. Within a decade of liberalising its broadcast policy in 1993, the number of radio stations in Uganda increased from two to nearly a hundred; and the country’s FM sector has become famous internationally for its muscular political talk shows and for Ebimeeza – public discussions on political issues that are broadcast live.

Radio remains the most accessed medium in the world, and it is arguably this form of media that has undergone the most profound revolution in structure, content, audience and diversity, with profound impacts on the public sphere in many countries (Girard 2005). In 2004, there were more than five times as many radio sets per hundred people in low income countries than there were television sets. More people in the world have access to a radio signal (96%) than to a television signal (83%) (ITU 2003). According to a major recent study of African media, radio is the most accessible of all media, with both television and newspapers concentrated mostly in urban areas (AMDI 2007).

A decade ago, with some exceptions (for example in large parts of Latin America, and in South Africa), television was largely the preserve of industrialised countries and the rich in developing countries. Today, satellite dishes are a prime consumer item in some of the most conflict-ridden areas of the world, particularly the Middle East, where the new channels (most famously al-Jazeera), have profoundly impacted the public sphere in the Arab world, providing spaces for people to gain insight into political and state actions, and engage in debates around them. Educational soap operas, such as South Africa’s award winning Soul City, are broadcast to townships where television ownership is common. In Asia, even among the poor, television ownership is rising exponentially; and in many regions of the world it provides the main source of information for people, particularly in industrialised countries. While there remains a gap in television ownership between rich and poor, and urban and rural, these gaps – at least in terms of access – are shrinking rapidly.

Although the Chinese authorities are stepping up their regulatory efforts, some elements of Chinese society have nonetheless started to use pagers and cell phones for alternative or even oppositional political organisation. Despite the lack of systematic examination, it is likely that three social groups may have used wireless technologies to further their political ends. First is the Falungong group that Beijing denounces as an ‘evil cult’. Second, there have been constant demonstrations by laid-off urbanites or pensioners, such as the massive protests of workers in the petroleum and machinery industries in north-east China in 2002 (Associated Press 2002). Third, in the countryside there have also been protests against the misconduct and corruption of local officials (Duffy and Zhao 2004). Some members of these movements, especially the organisers, may have used wireless technologies (especially the low-end applications such as prepaid phone cards and Little Smart) for small-scale coordination. However, this technical adoption is yet to have any significant impact upon the existing power balance, because so far all these perceived challenges to the state have been kept under control at the national level despite sporadic outbursts in certain localities.

Mobile Communication Without Social Mobilisation: Japan and China

There are other cases where wireless communication was not used for social mobilisation, such as in Japan, or where initial political developments were crushed by the state, such as in China. While our discussion of these two additional cases is less detailed, due to the lack of studies of them, they do demonstrate that, in line with our earlier claim, the particular usage of wireless technologies is shaped by the social context and political structures of a given society.

Wireless communication, especially text messages, featured prominently as a means of coordinating the activities of protesters and sending out alerts about ongoing activities, such as spontaneous gatherings or police arrests, at least from the perspective of news coverage of the protests. For example, text messages were used to call a spontaneous rally on 1 September at the pier where arrested protesters were being held by the police (Simon 2004). Other people used text messages to decide which protests they would attend, or to avoid ‘hot spots’ where police brutality was taking place. Especially prominent were warning messages about where police were located and whether they were arresting protesters (see Box 8.1).

The Mobilisation around the Republican National Convention in New York

The Republican Party held its 2004 National Convention (RNC) from 30 August to 2 September amid heightened expectations of disturbances caused by anti-Bush activists. The run-up to the New York convention was characterised by reports and rumours of planned and potentially spontaneous protests and of how the police and security agencies were preparing to deal with these incidents (Carpenter 2004; Gibbs 2004; Shachtman 2004; Terdiman 2004). Comparisons were made to the battle of Seattle in 1999, when over 40,000 protesters descended on the city from all over the world to protest against the policies of the World Trade Organization (WTO), leading to scenes of violence and contributing to the breakdown of the WTO talks. What was particularly interesting about these reports was that the central role of wireless communication was taken for granted, not just in the protests but in all aspects of the convention. In the event, several (mostly non-violent) protests were indeed coordinated primarily via wireless communication and the internet, leading to over 17,000 arrests. The convention itself was hardly affected by the protests apart from a few minor disruptions. In fact, President Bush experienced a bounce of two percentage points in the polls (among likely voters) after the convention (The Economist 2004; Jones 2004). These events occurred too recently for any judgements to be made about their immediate or long-term impact. Preliminary examination, however, indicates that this was a case where the use of wireless communication technologies served to enhance efficiency but not to effect change.

The context provided by the mainstream media was also meaningful. Major television networks were very soon ignored as unreliable sources of information. Through their hesitancy newspapers made themselves unreliable, although La Vanguardia in Barcelona, printed in its front page on Saturday an article supporting the claim that Al-Qaeda was responsible for the attack. On the other hand, SER, the major private radio network, on the initiative of its journalists, immediately looked for evidence elsewhere than on the Basque trail. Sometimes it did so too eagerly, as it diffused some inaccurate information; yet most of its reports proved to be accurate. As a result, many people treated their radios (including their portable radios) as their source of information, and then interacted with SMS and cell phones calls. People used voice communication for direct discussion with close friends, and SMS for diffusing personally crafted messages or for forwarding received messages that they agreed with.

A parliamentary commission investigating the events of 11–14 March produced evidence that, without necessarily lying, at the very least the PP government had delayed the publication of some critical information, and stated as facts propositions that were still under scrutiny. There was clearly an inclination to favour the hypothesis of Basque terrorism and not to give priority to following the Islamic trail, in spite of the early leads of the police in this direction. But, regardless of the extent of manipulation that actually took place, what counts is that thousands of citizens were convinced on 12 and 13 March that such manipulation was happening, and that they decided to diffuse their views to the entire population through wireless communication and the internet. The main television networks, under the direct or indirect control of the government, were supporting the Basque terrorist hypothesis, as did most of the radio networks (though not the largest one) and most of the print media, after the Prime Minister personally called the editors of the main newspapers and gave them his personal word that the attack was carried out by ETA.

Terrorism, political manipulation, autonomous communication, social mobilisation, and political change: Spain, March 2004

On 11 March 2004, a Madrid-based, mainly Moroccan, radical Islamic group associated with Al-Qaeda conducted in Madrid the largest terrorist attack in Europe, bombing three suburban trains, killing 199 people and wounding over 1,000. The bombing was conducted by remote-control-activated cell phones. Indeed, it was the discovery of a cell phone calling card in an unexploded bag that led to the identification of the phone and the arrest of the culprits. Al-Qaeda took responsibility for the bombing later that evening. The attack took place in a very special political context, four days before the Spanish parliamentary elections, which were dominated by the debate on the participation of Spain in the Iraq war, a policy opposed by the vast majority of Spanish citizens. Yet the conservative party, Partido Popular (PP), was considered the likely winner of the election, based on its record on economic policy and its stand on Basque terrorism. However, in the last weeks before the election the young, charismatic Socialist leader Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero waged an impressive electoral campaign, so that on 10 March 2004 opinion polls rendered the result of the election too close to call one way or another.

As the day of the election dawned on 19 December 2002, Nosamo members were struck by a deep sense of crisis. With their main web site having been closed for the month preceding election eve, young activists started the day by posting online messages such as ‘Let’s go vote!’ (Rhee 2003: 96). By 11 a.m. exit polls showed that Roh was losing by a margin of 1 to 2 per cent (Fulford 2003; Rhee 2003: 96). At midday, ‘[h]is supporters hit the chat rooms to drum up support. Within minutes more than 800,000 e-mails were sent to mobile phones to urge supporters to go out and vote. Traditionally apathetic young voters surged to the polls, and by 2 p.m., Roh took the lead and went on to win the election’ (Fulford 2003).

Wireless communication and the ‘people who love Roh’ in South Korea

On 19 December 2002, South Korea elected its new president, Roh Moo-Hyun, a major part of whose victory has been widely attributed to Nosamo, an online supporter group known by this Korean acronym of ‘People who Love Roh’. The success of Roh and of Nosamo is now ‘a textbook example for the power of IT’ (Hachigian and Wu 2003: 68), which systematically utilised a combination of the internet and mobile phone-based communication While the internet-based campaign had lasted for years, providing the core political networks, it was the mobile phones that mobilised large number of young voters on the election day and finally reversed the voting result (Fulford 2003; see also S.-D. Kim n.d.; Rhee 2003).

News coverage of the demonstrations invariably highlights the role of new communication technologies, especially short message service (SMS) and the internet, in facilitating the protests. On one account, anti-Estrada information began to accumulate in online forums as soon as he took office in 1998, amounting to some 200 web sites and about 100 e-mail discussion groups by the time People Power II started (Pabico n.d.). A famous online forum is, which collected 91,000 e-signatures to support the impeachment through both the internet and SMS (Bagalawis 2001). Besides imparting pure information, many internet and text messages poked fun at Estrada, his (allegedly) corrupted life, and his poor English.

The Philippines: People Power II

In January 2001 thousands of cell-phone touting Filipinos took part in massive demonstrations now dubbed ‘People Power II’ (following the original People Power movement that overthrew Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos in 1986). This four-day event has become legendary as the first occasion in human history when the mobile phone played an instrumental role in removing the head of the government of a nation-state (Bagalawis 2001; see also Salterio 2001: 25).

Without prejudging on the desirability of political autonomy (because, naturally, it can be used to support very different kinds of political values and interests), we have observed a growing tendency by people in different contexts to use wireless communication to voice their discontent with the powers that be, and to organise protests by inducing ‘flash mobilisations’ that have sometimes made a considerable impact on formal politics and government decisions. To document this tendency, and to explore its implications, we analyse in this chapter four cases of political mobilisation in which wireless communication played a significant role. These are the ousting of President Estrada from the Philippines in 2001, the election of Korean President Moo-Hyun in 2002, the electoral defeat of the Spanish Partido Popular in 2004 and the organisation of a series of protests during the US Republican Party’s national convention in 2004. In the final section of our chapter we consider two cases in which wireless communication did not result in socio-political mobilisation, and emphasise the importance of political frameworks and institutions in shaping the uses of technology. Thus we briefly discuss the factors underlying the political apathy of mobile phone subscribers in Japan and especially in China during the SARS epidemic of 2003. In our view, any attempt to understand civil society, both global and local, in the twenty-first century will have to pay attention to the interplay between institutions, technology and values in the process and outcomes of social organisation and social mobilisation.

Introduction: civil society and communication technology

The structuring of civil society evolves with its institutional, cultural, and technological context. The more this context maximises the chances of autonomy vis-à-vis the state, the more civil society empowers itself. Interactive electronic communication, and particularly wireless communication, provides a powerful platform for political autonomy on the basis of independent channels of autonomous communication, from person to person, and from group to group. The communication networks that mobile telephony makes possible can be formed and re-formed instantly, and messages are received from a known source, enhancing their credibility. The network logic of the communication process makes it a high-volume communication channel, but with a considerable degree of personalisation and interactivity. In this sense, the wide availability of individually controlled wireless communication effectively bypasses the mass media as a source of information, and creates a new public space.

Media and the expansion of the public sphere

During the last two decades, for much of humanity, the public sphere has expanded substantially and the capacity to contribute to public debate increased. Three main trends have shaped this expansion of the public sphere: first, the wave of media liberalisation that, as part of broader democratic reform movements, swept much of the world after the fall of the Berlin Wall; second, the transformative changes wrought by new technologies; and third, how advocacy and the effective use of communicative power is increasing the pressure for social justice.

Providing an insight into the relevance of the media for public spheres in the twenty-first century within the context of the Global Civil Society Yearbook requires a global perspective. Mapping the complex, diverse and rapidly changing universe of the media on a global scale in a single chapter is clearly impossible, but some indication of how the media is reducing and expanding the public sphere can be provided. The chapter will focus more on the information, communication and media realities of people outside the industrialised world, which has been documented and analysed exhaustively – particularly on the two billion people on the planet who live on less than US$2 a day. Countervailing media trends will be examined, some of which contribute to an expansion and enrichment of the public sphere, and others to a contraction and stifling of it. Similarly, interactions between civil society and media that expand the public sphere, and those civil society actions that potentially undermine it, will be explored.

This chapter will explore how civil society and democratic engagement is mediated through the media and communication technologies, how this is changing and what is driving those changes. It will focus on the efforts – including those of various global civil society actors – to engage and challenge the media by creating alternative forms of mediated communication, and engaging with existing mainstream media. It will also describe how rapid changes in the media present new opportunities for communicative power and action, as well as many new obstacles to a democratic public sphere.

Hierarchical accountability can be seen in organisational roles such as supervisory relationships, standard operating procedures, and the monitoring of agency or employee performance. Obedience is the key concept here. Legal accountability implies supervision and monitoring activities by an actor external to the agency or organisation, such as an auditor or legislative review body. There is little room for discretion in these two types of accountability, but the monitoring that does occur is sporadic. Professional accountability comes from within the organisation or agency in terms of standards and expectations. Political accountability comes from external sources that have a low degree of control. These external sources/stakeholders have expectations of the agency, but the agency or individual can decide how much they want to respond to the expectations of such external stakeholders. The role of the media as monitor fits in the Radin and Romzek framework here.

The implications that this has on public expectations of accountability are profound. Though this type of media-based accountability offers certain benefits, especially because of the growing capabilities of globalising mass communication streams and technologies, relying on the media as the prime watchdog is not dependable, because media bodies themselves can have political and economic motivations, and can lack access to relevant information. Furthermore, reports from small media outlets may be ignored or overlooked, while larger, more politically embroiled mainstream media sources supply the bulk of accountability reports. The question of who should regulate the regulators comes into play here. Another complication is that while media-based accountability implies aspects of liability (because a public that is aware of corruption is more likely to act to punish the guilty party), it does not guarantee actual enforcement.

Citizen participation, civic culture and substantive democracy

In complex systems, order is not imposed from the top down by a centre of command and control. Neither does social change occur according to uniform and pre-established strategies. Change is an ongoing process that occurs simultaneously at multiple points. Personal freedom and technological innovation release creative social energy. Pioneering actions, innovative experiences, exemplary projects and unexpected interactions take many shapes, flow along multiple pathways and radiate at great speed. These decentralised initiatives produce an impact on the system as a whole, generating a critical mass of new ideas, messages, proposals, knowledge and experiences. Connectors and communicators amplify and re-transmit these innovations in a continuous dynamic of experimentation, learning, feedback, reorganisation and expansion. Power is moving from the centre to the periphery, from vertical command and control structures to horizontal networks and collaborative platforms. Communication is, increasingly, participative, interactive and collaborative.

Until recently, in Iran the Internet offered a freer space than the print media. By 2001 there were some 1,500 Internet cafés, and there are now between 70,000 and 100,000 bloggers. Some 7.5 million Iranians are estimated to surf the net, more as a proportion of the population than any other Middle Eastern country except Israel. The government has not been able to enforce its own regulations effectively for a number of reasons, including its own lack of expertise, and because the Internet is largely provided by commercial providers. In addition, the government uses the Internet to propagate its own Islamic discourse. According to several clerics the Internet is a ‘gift to spread the word of the prophet’ (Rahimi 2003).

Behind all this lies a significant factor that enables civil society to be ‘global’, indeed, may force it to be global: the changing nature of communications technology and practice. Transformation in communications technologies has always had implications for organisational strategies in the sale and consumption of goods, in the political process and finally in the large-scale formation of public attitudes. Changes in strategy are intensified when technology shifts are combined with large political upheavals, altered demographies and changed concepts of law. Satellites, the Internet and other methods of exploiting new production and distribution technologies are exactly the phenomena that undermine old cartels and are the predicate for forming new ones. Brands become global, films are conceived in a worldwide market, banks become massive and transnational, religions think of multi-state markets, nations see themselves in global competition for hearts and minds and even museums think widely across boundaries. Many groups – the International Committee to Ban Landmines and Falun Gong are examples that demonstrate the wide spectrum – increasingly have a global focus because they realise that a widely distributed consensus, among elites or among broader segments of society, is often essential for their growth and success.

Finally, changes in media systems are confounded with numerous other global changes, seriously complicating judgments about the effects of communication per se. The adaptation of new technologies is ongoing and ever evolving, with ICTs put to many different purposes by myriad users, advocacy groups and governments. This has produced a wide open field of experimental application. Anecdotal stories of success may be found, but these successful deployments of the new media are not easily separated from the larger, democratically oriented efforts in which they are embedded. Thus, the same ends might well have been achieved by other means. The effects of new communication technologies then, are difficult to disentangle from the effects of other ongoing processes, such as the liberalisation of markets, the reform of education, or infusions of foreign subsidies. Communication effects, even if they can be isolated, are also not constant over the course of diffusion. Complex systems are very difficult to observe, given changes in what is done (that is, the introduction of new behaviour), changes in how things are done (performing existing functions in new ways) and changes in who does things and with whom.

Third, the advent of highly flexible, multi-channel media systems, which in principle allow for greater circulation of public affairs information, may conceivably have the effect of reducing rather than expanding the broad distribution of news and information. Recent research by Prior (2002) and others suggests that increasing consumer choice, at least in the US media market, has come largely at the expense of news, the audience for which has been dwindling as entertainment-oriented outlets draw readers, viewers and listeners away in significant numbers. Tewksbury (forthcoming) finds a similar pattern in studies tracking users of news websites. With their newfound freedom to navigate media sites, users tend to seek entertainment and celebrity-related information in place of national or international news and public affairs. At the same time, the remaining audience for public affairs programming has fractured, as people look for news and opinions that match their own ideological commitments and judge the credibility of the press from their own ideological viewpoints (Pew Research Center 2004). Such findings fuel concerns about the centrifugal forces at work in new media systems, which may produce a pattern of one-sided information consumption and a widening gulf between the politically engaged and unengaged and thereby reduce the deliberative character of public opinion.

At the same time, it is unclear for a number of reasons whether recent trends in global media systems will have the hoped-for effects on publics or on the quality of public opinion. First, the deployment of new information and communication technologies (ICTs) will in all likelihood exhibit clear path dependencies (Pierson 2004). Innovation and the diffusion of political and communication practices are likely to follow lines of established cultural compatibility, locking-in on modifications of current practice and compromising potentially valuable alternative designs. Both scholars and practitioners in the new information society tend to carry a number of implicit assumptions in their largely technocratic and market-focused vision of the future (Pyati 2005; Sarikakas 2004). Emerging economic and structural relationships are viewed as inevitable, with many viewing private–public partnerships as a necessary part of the future. Thus, judgements are likely to be made about the democratic value of ICTs without due consideration of the paths not taken – for example, publicly controlled, rather than commercially developed and controlled media.

When combined with the liberalisation of media ownership in many nations, these trends have contributed to an apparent blossoming of alternative media willing to challenge mainstream news organisations, along with a growing sense of basic ‘rights to communicate’ around the world (see chapter 8 of this volume). The ability of ordinary citizens to publish online and to participate in creating and editing news reports using collaborative Wiki software has led to speculation about new forms of grassroots citizen journalism. The success of meet-ups and flash mobs arranged through the Internet or via mobile phones has fuelled predictions of revolutionary changes in social and political organisation (Rheingold 2002; Trippi 2004). An array of e-government and e-democracy initiatives has been launched, with the goal of improving government responsiveness to ordinary citizens and improving public accountability. Advocates of civic journalism and deliberative democracy have been working aggressively to advance a variety of media reforms, including active support for programmes of community discussion sponsored by news organisations, the growth of alternative, community-based and community-operated media and other ways of activating and engaging readers, listeners and viewers.

Against this backdrop of traditional doubt and concern, recent trends in media systems have given renewed hope for expanded public discourse, freer flows of information and newly invigorated publics. The past decades have witnessed dramatic declines in the cost of producing and distributing messages and, with satellite communications, especially dramatic declines in the sensitivity of cost to geographical distance. As communication bandwidth has expanded, multi-channel media systems have become the norm in many parts of the world, significantly reducing the gatekeeping authority of traditional broadcasting organisations. The social-networking capabilities of new media systems have also facilitated the organisation and coordination of political action across geographical boundaries.

Without some mass system of communication, only relatively small attention aggregates could ever form around particular objects, events, or issues. The broader the reach of media systems, the larger the potential scale of attention and interest aggregation. The more interactive and conversational the system, the greater its potential to facilitate interest aggregates that begin to talk, to form and to exchange opinions, that is, to form publics in the sense outlined above. The global reach and conversational capacities of contemporary media systems should, at least in theory, foster international or global public awareness, opinion formation and political participation – just as Cooley proposed a hundred years ago.

Central to the concept was the widening reach of political information and discussion though newspapers, pamphlets and other media, which brought an increasingly diverse group of non-state actors into closer familiarity with state affairs. Coupled with the growth of the merchant classes and a growing awareness of the monarchy’s dependence upon these classes for financial support, the reach of the political media fostered a growing awareness of a new, virtual assembly of citizens who asserted the right to have their opinions on state affairs taken into account. According to Peters (1995), the European Enlightenment transformed the classical, Athenian assembly of the people into a mass-mediated, fictive body constituted by newspapers that could bring people together, not in physical space, but in shared conversations at a distance. Today, such virtual assemblies are constituted by a wide range of media – radio, television, print media, the Internet and worldwide web as well as mobile telephony – and have consequently grown beyond national and regional dimensions, acquiring transnational and transcontinental scale.

Even if what Cooley wrote a century ago was perhaps not entirely justified, such language may be appropriate in 2007. Developments in digital and network technologies have been particularly dramatic over the past several decades, helping to create widely dispersed and decentralised systems of communication that are nonetheless thoroughly interconnected, with media flows increasingly crossing national and continental boarders. The largely centralised, national, limited-channel mass media systems of the twentieth century have given way to much more variegated, multi-channel systems embracing a wide range of alternative media reaching across geopolitical borders. These changes in communication are generally viewed as significant for their democratising potential and are linked in various ways to a flowering of civil society on an increasingly global scale, and to an expansion of popular political participation.

‘In politics communication makes possible public opinion’, wrote the prominent American sociologist Charles Horton Cooley in 1909, ‘which, when organized, is democracy’. At the dawn of the last century, observing a rapidly developing system of global communication based upon ‘the telegraph, the newspaper and the fast mail’ (1909: 85), Cooley discerned an important connection between the revolution in communication and the rise of democracy, arguing that the latter was promoted, not because of changes in the formal Constitution, but rather ‘as the outcome of conditions which make it natural for the people to have and to express a consciousness regarding questions of the day’ (1909: 86). Ever the optimist, he opined that popular education and progressive developments in the media would enlarge and quicken social organisation, fostering an international consciousness in literature, science and politics, and promising ‘indefinite enlargement of justice and amity’.

It is in the practices of activists themselves where we find responses adequate to the challenge posed by that the unprecedented levels of the power of capital. For instance, as Victor Pickard describes in Chapter 10, Indymedia is committed to radical democratic practices in its networks both locally and globally, yet whether this is adequate to the task of democratising global governance is open to question when, as Clifford Bob shows, the same technologies are open to the National Rifle Association and, as Thomas Keenan describes, are central to the idea of global Jihad. Deane shows that activists are now going beyond attempts to practice deliberative democracy within their own spaces, to address global governance structures with the new norm of a ‘right to communicate.’ Yet that right has to be guaranteed in some way and the dilemmas around which the debate between Lippman and Dewey revolved, between management of information, individual participation and democratic decision making are ever more acute in a world confronted with global issues that require collective responses. Global civil society is forced to engage with state structures if it is to secure their democratisation. It has to take communicative democracy to the centre of state power if it is to build global governance and redress the inequalities that stand in the way of adequate action on a global scale.

The new social movements of the 1970s already showed some affinity with this ideal, causing Habermas to revise his view of the public sphere from something once briefly glimpsed in the Enlightenment that could never return, to a ‘less pessimistic assessment’ of an ideal for which one could strive in practice (1992: 457). Since then, the newer global movements that have emerged have even more explicitly sought their salvation in an alternative politics of communication. The ‘hacker ethic’ of the first generation of computer geeks launched a wholesale attack on the foundations of modernity: the work ethic, the notion of private property, and command-and-control structures of governance (Himanen 2001). But the most enduring characteristic of that ethic has been the emphasis on ‘open access’ and free flows of information and communication, which has to date determined the architecture of the Internet. Beside this paramount achievement, the broad movement has spawned numerous other civil society initiatives built on the same norms, including the early email networks, the free software and open source movements, the Indymedia centres, Wikipedia. These are all expressions of, and contributions to, ‘an emerging techno-political ethos’ (Juris 2005) in global civil society. This ethos has now spread far beyond the original western left-wing hacktivists: Box I.2 describes how the resistance of a single couple of Chinese home-owners to the property developers became a cause celebre by moving from the blogosphere into the Chinese and Western mainstream media.

The Saddam images fed into a debate that immediately became global. But it has no global institutional locus. Is this the new global public sphere, where a global public opinion takes shape? Do the new communication possibilities realise democracy beyond the nation state or does the very proliferation of media channels result in a fragmentation that undermines any public sphere? Habermas re-centred the issue of democracy in the nation state on the possibilities of full and free communication in the public sphere. We ask whether developments in the media of communication and their use now require us to rethink democracy for global society. If we do now have a global public sphere can we be sure that democracy will inspire its debates? These are our concerns in Global Civil Society Yearbook 2007/8.

Without that counterpart the democratic nature of global communication appears very open to question. Did the private video recording and global dissemination of the last living moments of Saddam Hussein, as he was led to execution, help to undermine the authority of the new representative democracy of Iraq by publicising the deep factional loathing that tears at Iraqi society? Or does it show that institutions imposed by force of arms are vulnerable to an even stronger force of global public opinion?

As Habermas stressed, the public sphere has been in a permanent state of transformation as underlying social and economic conditions have changed, and even as he wrote Marshall McLuhan (1962) was exemplifying that by writing of the ‘global village’ that the new media technology made possible. Since then, advances in technology have given us global mass media and permitted private worldwide communication. Along with those developments civil society has become global. At the same time, as Mary Kaldor emphasizes in Chapter 2 of this volume, representative democracy in nation states has advanced throughout the world. Yet there is no global counterpart to national democratic institutions.