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How Mobiles and Blogs Don't -- and Do -- Help Human Rights
Emily Gertz, 28 Sep 07
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Bloggers and mobile phone users have provided some of the most immediate, visceral accounts of the past month's pro-democracy protests in Myanmar (formerly Burma). "Images of saffron-robed monks leading throngs of people along the streets of Rangoon have been seeping out of a country famed for its totalitarian regime and repressive control of information," wrote Stephanie Holmes for The BBC on Wednesday, September 26. "The pictures are sometimes grainy and the video footage shaky - captured at great personal risk on mobile phones - but each represents a powerful statement of political dissent...Thanks in part to bloggers, this time the outside world is acutely aware of what is happening on the streets of Rangoon, Mandalay and Pakokku and is hungry for more information."

But blog accounts and mobile phone activism didn't stop the government's violent police crackdown on the protestors over the past few days, which has left at least several people dead (including Japanese photojournalist Nagai Kenji). Accounts of brave Buddhist monks dying in hospital emergency rooms after their heads were beaten in with the butts of rifles definitely shatter the "wow" factor associated with how networked communications were used to get out the story. And it's hard not ask ourselves what good a few jumpy videos and anxious first-person reports really are in the face of such determined, ugly repression of human rights.

In the world of online activism, expectations have not inflated to the level of a few years ago, when a wave of techno-utopian optimism swept the activist 'net that maybe a "technical intervention," that is blogging, could stop the mass killings in Darfur -- an effort which, on those terms, failed.

Still, could another such "failure," fueled by the dismay and anger about the Myanmar government's violent crackdown, undercut the momentum of mobile-enabled activism? It's a good moment to consider how networked communications don't -- and do -- help achieve human rights.

Mobile phones, in and of themselves, do not stop government violence, bring on democratic revolutions, or prevent human rights crimes. But when harnessed to existing organized political action, they can facilitate powerful and potentially revolutionary responses to injustice. For instance, mobile ringtones embedded with political information can go viral -- as in the Phillippines in early 2005. Although the government barred the media from reporting on a taped conversation between President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and an election official about tampering in the 2004 election, the information went public anyway: the recording was mixed with a pop song and swept across the nation as a mobile phone ringtone.

[Sept. 30 -- A particularly powerful example of harnessing mobiles to existing structures and networks to protect human rights -- one I ought to have remembered while writing this! -- is the work of Bukeni Waruzi in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Bukeni has been working within Congolese villages, giving some individuals mobile phones so that they can report children's rights violations to authorities more quickly, which in turn faciliates prompt investigation and action on the charges. It's a facet of his AJEDI-Ka/Project Enfants Soldats, which works in the eastern provinces of the DRC to demobilize and reintegrate child soldiers into the population. -- EG]

Blogging and other forms of online reporting do get information about human rights abuses out to the public (in the developed world, at least) that was once much harder to convey at all, much less quickly. A great example of this is the work of the group Witness, which has had online video about human rights abuses in Myanmar at the ready, thanks to ongoing work with the group Burma Issues.

Public opinion has been swayed: the world community is roundly condeming the brutal actions of the Myanmar government. But as in the past, outside censure is not moving this military regime to change course.

Which brings us to where the strength and benefit of mobile and 'net-enabled activism lies; be warned that it's cold comfort, though no less important for that. Images and reports transmitted from Myanmar by mobile phones (before and despite service cutoffs by the government) have made the peaceful pro-democracy marches by the monks visible to the world. The government's subsequent brutality has been made equally transparent as average Burmese (as well as others in the country) join journalists and government officials in creating the present and future record of abuses of their human rights. As Worldchanging co-founder Jamais Cascio wrote right after the 2005 bombings in the London Underground, it's the democratization of history:

From blog entries by people in the bombed trains, to cameraphone photos of the aftermath, to wikipedia accumulation of facts (and squashing of rumors), the globally collaborative, connected and (most of all) personal nature of the modern Internet gives us remarkably abundant documentation of how everyday individuals responded to history-making events. Millions of us have online journals -- or, at minimum, send email -- where we can take notes about what we've experienced, visible to anyone who is interested. Millions of us carry cameras with us wherever we go, allowing us to record events as they happen. Millions of us are now historians...[S]cholars who look back on events of the early 21st century will not have to rely solely (or at all) on the stories told by officials, or the images deemed sufficiently interesting by newspaper editors....[H]istory can now be written by those who experience it, rather than just by those who believe they control it.

It's only fair to ask what use this today, as people are terrorized, hurt and killed for opposing a dictatorship. One answer is that the full record needs to be made, so that the future can learn from the past. The recently published photographs of Nazi Germans at play together near the Auschwitz death camp are chilling, despite being over six decades old. They're powerful because this is the largely hidden side of the Nazi extermination operation: fresh faced young SS women auxilieries enjoying bowls of blueberries, strapping Nazi soldiers singing along to an accordianist, and more. Today we understand the almost inhuman meaning of these images -- all the more powerful for being the types of images so avidly suppressed at the time by the Nazi government. And history's judgements are not irrelevant to the achievement of social justice.

Will all the blogged, mobile phoned, emailed, and other immediate accounts from Myanmar prove to be equally valuable recordings of what's happening there? Probably not. Each is from one individual's vantage point, with all the happenstance and subjectivity that implies. But we're not going to have to wait more than half a century, or even a few months or years, to juxtapose the official record with the citizen history of Myanmar's pro-democracy movement.

Image: Monks protesting in Burma, Sept. 24, 2007. Credit: flickr/racoles

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Thansk for a thoughtful reflection on the promise -- and limits -- of technology.

Posted by: Jon Stahl on 29 Sep 07

Thanks, Jon.

The latest news seems to be that internet access has been totally blocked by the Myanmar military junta. Mobile phones appear to be the last means for citizens (as opposed to foreign journalists, who presumably may have recourse to other equipment and networks) to get information out of the country, per this (free and public) article in the Sept. 28 edition of The Wall Street Journal:

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 29 Sep 07

It looks like Myunmar citizens are going to need more than mobiles and blogs to gain their freedom ... they may need force of arms as well. Or at least patriotic sections of the military.

We can all hope for a Eastern Europe-style solution -- i.e., a popular but peaceful revolt so enormous that the entrenched power simply melts before it. But the Myunmar regime may not be as enfeebled by internal contradictions as Soviet power in Europe was.

Thanks for a great article. Very informative for those of us who don't closely follow activist movements in some countries.

Posted by: David Kline on 29 Sep 07

It's Burma not Myanmar.

Myanmar is the military dictatorship's name.

The name Burma might have a colonial hangover but at least it's not the name of those stopping democracy today.

When the people of Burma have a democratic government and decide to change their name then use the new name.

Posted by: Anonymous on 29 Sep 07

Hang on, so how do mobiles and blogs *not* help human rights? Emily: you don't seem to have covered that part in your article though the title says so.

Posted by: strangeknight on 3 Oct 07

Sorry if my writing lacked clarity. I'm suggesting that the technology can powerfully facilitate work that's already underway -- creating a more convenient and speedier communications method to tap into existing agencies and activist efforts, for example. Problems become more transparent because they're easier to report, say, and then there are structures, people in positions to do something about the problems. Structures and processes need to be in place , or the technology isn't very powerful at stopping human rights abuses, no matter how awful the truths that are revealed in the process. What's transformational there is long-term: many more people are contributing to the historical record than was possible before. This has an important impact on righting wrongs, social justice, however you wish to phrase it. It just may not help people in the present a whole lot.

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 5 Oct 07



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