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).
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.
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.
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.
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.