• 10 Years of Indymedia: Where To From Here?

last modified August 17, 2012 by strypey

by Danyl Strype

November 30, 2009 is the tenth anniversary of the founding of the global indymedia network. This seems like a good time to remember how it all came about, take stock of where things are at, and strategize for the coming years. Commentary by Danyl Strype of www.disintermedia.net.nz

"Don't hate the media, become the media."

The groups that formed the indymedia network were originators of what is now called 'citizen journalism', the idea that ordinary people can research and write about issues that concern them, and publish their articles directly to a global audience, through the world wide web. They put forward the idea, and set about creating free tools to make it possible.

These days, internet users take it for granted that they can set up a blog using a free online service and publish their writing to the world, and upload their photos and videos to the web. In 1999, however, most web users were relegated to the role of passive consumers of primitive static HTML sites, which were difficult and time-consuming to create. Enter media activists from a range of groups, who began to communicate and pool their resources, telling allow anyone with criticisms of corporate globalization, "don't hate the media, become the media".

Birth in Seattle

(i)

10 years ago, on the streets of Seattle, a range of activist groups opposed to corporate globalization mounted a combined protest against the annual ministerial summit of the World Trade Organization.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/country_profiles/2430089.stm


(ii)
The activists had learned by bitter experience that existing mass media organizations would not give the protesters or their messages a fair hearing, owned and controlled as they were by corporate empires, and governments in the thrall of neoliberal ideology.

(iii)
To break this corporate media blockage, a coalition of independent media groups from around the world decided to set up an Independent Media Centre (IMC) in downtown Seattle, where people could come in off the streets, report what they had seen, and share their photographs and videos of the demonstrations.

(iv)
An accompanying indymedia.org website included open source software written by hackers from a public access media collective called Catalyst, based in Sydney, Australia. The Active sites, for which the software was originally written, allowed activists from different groups to publish articles about their issues, announcements of protest events, and reports on how they went.

(v)
The Active scripts underlying the indymedia.org website allowed media activists to upload these reports to an innovative 'open-publishing newswire', hosted on a remote webserver named Stallman (after the Free Software Foundation founder). This open-publishing function served three purposes; firstly, it ensured the reports from the streets could not be confiscated and censored by a raid on the IMC; secondly, it allowed anyone in the world with internet access to follow the events in Seattle as they unfolded, and comment on them; thirdly the reports formed a permanent archive of how the events in Seattle looked to those on the ground.


Global growth

(i)
The IMC site and indymedia website combo was such a successful model in Seattle that they were reproduced for a series of protests against major summits of corporate globalization advocates. The www.indymedia.org domain would be pointed at a new, open-publishing site for each anti-summit mobilization, beginning with protests against the IMF and World Bank in Washington,  April 16, 2000. Previous sites were left active, accessible using a subdomain eg seattle.indymedia.org.

(ii)
Once these local sites were in existence, it seemed only sensible to activists in those localities to continue using them as the Active sites had been used in Australia - as a neutral communication channel and rallying point for an informal coalition of local activist groups, and as a way of reporting their activities to the world.

(iii)
For the global MayDay2K demonstrations of May 1, 2000, there was no central location, so a global indymedia.org site was created to ghather protest reports from indymedia activists around the world on the day. This site remained the hub of the emerging indymedia network, featuring news of global significance from local sites. For later anti-summit mobilizations, new sites were set up using local subdomains (eg melbourne.indymedia.org) and prominent feature articles on indymedia.org would combine their coverage of the day's protest around the summit with other coverage from around the world.

(iv)
As the Stallman server began to fill up with indymedia sites, the tech volunteers declared a moratorium on setting up new sites until a process was established for evaluating groups proposing new indymedia sites. A network-wide consultation was launched, resulting in the drafting of Principles of Unity, and Membership Criteria, for a more formalized Global Network of Independent Media Centres. More servers are set up, and the number of indymedia sites explodes, eventually reaching over 200.

Contraction and refocus

(i)
As the focus of protest shifts from corporate globalization summits to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the indymedia network, like the global justice movement from which it emerged, experienced an identity crisis.

(ii)
The antiglobalization movement united a collection of activist groups and organizations on the basis of what they were all against, despite their differences on what should replace it. The antiwar movement attempted to do the same, but many of the more moderate groups who had been convinced of the evils of corporate rule were harder to convince of the ethical bankruptcy of the 'war on terrorism', especially US-based groups, reeling from the shock of the events of 9/11.

(iii)
Differences among individuals and groups working together on indymedia sites - which had originally been a source of diverse ideas, tactics, technology, and resources - now became a source of disagreement, despite general agreement with the Principles of Unity. Conflicts became serious enough to cause some indymedia sites to close (eg Melbourne), and prompted many activists to leave the indymedia fold and join other organizations, or create their own new groups and projects.

(iv)
This reduction in participation, combined with the rise of the blogosphere and the ease with which activists and political groups could publish themselves online, made the remaining volunteers reconsider the core mission of indymedia sites, and the social function of the open-publishing newswire.

From reportage to advocacy?

(i)
The Aotearoa Indymedia (AIM), which the author was involved in starting up, responded to these changes by gradually abandoning the idea of the newswire as a completely open forum for political debate, and focusing instead on how to make their newswires more inviting to the marginalized groups that the new left traditionally advocates for; labour organizers, indigenous peoples, students, feminists, queer rights etc.

(ii)
Simultanously, there was a shift in the style of centre-column features on the AIM site. The traditional short, fairly neutral texts, peppered with links to newswire content and relevant pages on other sites, are replaced with lengthier editorials overtly promoting causes which the editorial volunteers themselves support.

(iii)
Promoting protests and other events was once left to separate sites like Radicalendar, and Protest.net, while indymedia sites were used to report on what actually happened on the day. AIM added an integrated events calendar while migrating the site to using the Drupal CMS under the bonnet, further blurring the distinction between the volunteers' roles as editors and activists.

(iii)
This approach is a gamble for an Indymedia site - sacrificing its potential as a neutral debating forum for ordinary people from vastly different political positions, and moving instead towards serving a left-activist networking function, similar to that of the original Active sites from which indymedia arose.

What happens next?

(i)
In an article published on Ireland Indymedia</a>, the author compares the upcoming Copenhagan climage change summit to the WTO summit of 1999, and proposes that the movement to stop anthropogenic climate change is analagous to the movement against corporate globalization.

http://www.indymedia.ie/article/94961


(ii)
Like the shift from protesting summits to protesting war, the shift to protesting climate change has alienated some potential allies, while creating new alliances with more mainstream groups who previously had little in common with the anticapitalists who formed much of the organizational core of the anti-summit protest movement.

(iii)
The key question for the activists and collectives still working within the indymedia network is do we want to continue to be the online mouthpiece of a series of amorphous movements AGAINST things?

(iv)
Broader coalitions may result in bigger, more exciting mobilizations, but are they actually moving us towards solutions to the problems indymedia has reported on for the last 10 years?

(v)
In short, considering the workload of maintaining the global technical infrastructure of indymedia, and keeping fresh news flowing through it, is this time well spent to document the views and activities of an arguably self-marginalizing global opposition?

(vi)
Two of the key slogans of the antiglobalization movement are,'another world is possible', and 'one no, many yeses'. Could we use the online tools at our disposal to start painting pictures of these other worlds, these other yeses, to envision the peaceful, healthy, abundant, just, sustainable utopia we want to move towards, as well as warnings about the corporate-ruled distopia we want to escape?

The bigger picture

(i)
So what has 10 years of indymedia contributed to changing the political climate? The proliferation of citizen journalist websites like indymedia has forced the mainstream newspapers and tv news organizations to create a useful online presence, reinforcing the idea that the internet is a valid source of news and commentary on matters of public interest.

(ii)
In Aotearoa, we face a neoconservative government with a clear parliamentary majority. It's hand-picked task force recently released a report proposing the same old neo-liberal medicine for the current economic ailment, the income disparity with Australia.

(iii)
Considering the current recession is the result of the collapse of US buying power, because US dollars are no longer the only currency countries can use to buy oil, it's hard to see why cutting government spending on social service, and selling public assets, would be helpful.

(iv)
Despite assurances that the proposals of the task force are far too "radical" for the National government to adopt, it seems likely that the parliamentary right hope to reinforce their majority in the next election, after which they would begin to implement exactly these more "radical" pillars of the agenda they have been pursuing since the Brash/ Key banking cadre took over National, as documented in 'The Hollow Men' by Nicky Hagar.

Public servers

(i)
In the 1980s, people believed that the neoliberal agenda of Rogernomics was unavoidable, and would help bring the country out of debt, and improve living standards. They lacked easy access to any other interpretation, and the tight control over mass media made it easy for corporate PR teams to demonize campaigners against the neoliberal agenda. Now, people have access to a much wider range of media, and information sources, including indymedia.

(ii)
The challenge in the coming years will be to put pressure on National, and the neoconservative lobby groups and corporate PR think thanks that support them, to explain exactly how policies that clearly punish the poor and enrich corporate shareholders are going to lift the incomes of working people in Aotearoa.

(iii)
While chipping away at neoconservative credibility, and exposing the emptiness of their arguments, we can also help people learn to use free and open communication and collaboration tools to start articulating shared visions of alternatives to the neocon perscription.

(iv)
Indymedia is one demonstration of how much can be accomplished using a loose, consensus-based, non-heirarchical organizational structure, even with minimal resources. Imagine what we could create with the resources of CNN or AOL/ TimeWarner at our disposal!

(v)
Having lived an example that showed people how to become the media, perhaps we could use some of the same principles and strategies to live an example of becoming the economy?

Originally published on Aotearoa.Indymedia.org (December, 2009)

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