Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

A world roundup

Some other stories I’m trying to follow, in addition to the news from Bahrain:

There’s very little news from Libya, as protesters take to the streets, especially in the eastern city of Benghazi. Libya tightly restricts press coverage, and the New York Times observes that while Libya hasn’t been able to prevent news from Tunisia and Egypt from inspiring protesters to take to the streets, it has been pretty effective at restricting news from Libya from reaching the global press. There are reports that Libya began blocking access to social media sites, and last evening, Libya disconnected from the internet.

libyapullsplug

This graphic from Arbor Networks showing two sharp drops in Libyan internet traffic during the day, and a thorough shutoff at night. Heading forward, we’re likely to see reporting via land line phones, and perhaps some computer users dialing into modem banks in Joran and elsewhere, but the shutdown is likely to make what little reporting from the ground we’ve had even harder to get.

I argued previously that there’s great danger for protesters who are inspired to take to the streets in countries where the media isn’t paying attention – Libya is a special case of this scenario, as it’s extremely difficult for anyone to report, via traditional or social media. As Twitter user @EnoughGaddafi puts it, “For all those frustrated by reporting on #libya understand this. There is Zero indpt media on the ground. Nothing at all.” In the absence of coverage, it sounds like suppression of the protests has been quite brutal, with a death toll of at least two dozen, perhaps as high as 70.


My friend and former colleague Dewitt Clinton offers a decidedly geeky perspective on the Libyan unrest – a reminder that the bit.ly URL shortener (which I’ve been trying out the past few weeks) is located on a Libyan domain name:

In case it isn’t obvious, I’m still not a fan of URL shorteners. They’re a bug, not a feature.

And then things like this happen: http://goo.gl/fx3iA. Bye bye bit.ly? That’d be a lot of dead links.

I felt a great disturbance in the Web, as if millions of URLs suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.

As far as I can tell, Libya Telecom (http://goo.gl/SsMAi) runs .ly. Willing to bet that they’d shut it down plenty fast if Gaddafi said to.

He’s not the first to observe that bit.ly’s domain is connected to a country that’s not exactly amenable to free speech. is.gd advertises itself as an “ethical URL shortener“, in part because they’re not vulnerable to shutdown by the Libyan government, which has previously shut down vb.ly, a “sex-positive” URL shortener. I suspect that if bit.ly has trouble, they’ll rapidly move everyone over to j.mp, which uses a domain name from the Northern Mariana Islands, which as of yet don’t appear to be experiencing street protests.

Despite the Libyan internet shutdown, bit.ly is still working. The site’s not hosted in Libya, and according to the CEO of the company that runs bit.ly, only two of the five root servers that control .ly are in the country. So while we should worry about people being massacred outside of the eyes of the media, at least we don’t have to change URL shorteners.


Given the dramatic developments in Tunisia, Egypt and now throughout the Arab world, it can be hard to remember the extent to which Wikileaks dominated online conversation late last year. While there was an interesting conversation about whether Wikileaks could be blamed or credited for protests in Tunisia, Wikileaks appears to be releasing documents in reaction to protests these days. Today’s dump of cables includes a wealth of dispatches from the US Embassy in Manama. It’s helpful, as it gives reporters another possible angle in analyzing the situation on the ground, and an extremely media-savvy way to keep Wikileaks in the news, even if the releases in the cables are following, not moving, the news.


While Gabon and Sudan may be the first sub-Saharan African nations to hold protests inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, the implications of those successful revolts are being felt across the continent. Trevor Ncube, publisher of South Africa’s exemplary Mail and Guardian, and publisher of two opposition newspapers in his native Zimbabwe, has been reflecting on the possibility of a popular revolt against the Mugabe regime. In an interview two weeks back, Ncube argued that it was unlikely that Zimbabweans would follow in Egyptians footsteps, in part because the army was so closely identified with the ruling party, and not with the country as a whole. Today, Ncube continued along these lines, arguing that the long history of state-sanctioned violence against the general populus makes it harder for Zimbabweans to decide to take to the streets in protest. While he wasn’t directly addressing Bahrain or Libya, I can’t but help read these comments in that light – when does evidence that a government will use deadly force against dissent convince people to stay at home, rather than taking to the streets?

Committee to Protect Journalists points out that Zimbabwe’s state controlled media has been scrupulous about avoiding mention of protests in Egypt and Tunisia… except to criticize the US’s role in “interfering” with those protests…! The protests are a sensitive matter in Ethiopia as well, where a prominent government critic was taken in for questioning after writing about matters in Egypt and Tunisia.


If so much of the world weren’t on fire, Uganda’s elections would likely be a more high-profile affair. Yoweri Museveni, who came to power as a rebel leader in 1986, is seeking a fourth presidential term, challenged by his former physician, Kizza Besigye. Polling went relatively smoothly today, though controversy is possible when the results are announced this weekend. (No one expects Museveni to lose – the question is whether protests about the fairness of the elections will erupt into a serious challenge to his re-appointment.)

Again, if we weren’t all watching North Africa and the Gulf, I suspect this story about Uganda blocking certain keywords in SMS messages would have gotten more attention:

The Uganda Communications Commission Friday released 18 words and names that it has instructed mobile phone short message service (SMS) to flag if they are contained in any text message. They are then supposed to read the rest of the content of the message and if it is deemed to be “controversial or advanced to incite the public”, will be blocked.

The words are ‘Tunisia’, ‘Egypt’, ‘Ben Ali’, ‘Mubarak’, ‘dictator’, ‘teargas’, ‘kafu’ (it is dead), ‘yakabbadda’ (he/she cried long time ago), ‘emuudu/emundu’ (gun), ‘gasiya’ (rubbish), ‘army/ police/UPDF’, ‘people power’, and ‘gun/bullet’.

I got a fascinating tweet from a Ugandan friend, who reported that SMS was also being used in a viral campaign to support the President. “Another Rap. Vote Museveni. Send this 2 7 pple 2 receive 7000 worth of airtime” If the “another rap” part of that message is obscure to you, I point you to this wonderfully absurd video:

Museveni is reciting a pair of traditional Kinyankole rhymes – between the two, he announces, “You want another rap?” It’s been remixed into a catchy song that now serves as his campaign anthem. I suspect that his “re-election” will have more to do with crackdowns on the press and intimidation of the opposition than his musical skills.


And, in matters of a world on fire, let’s not forget the Ivory Coast, still locked in a battle between an elected president and one who won’t let go. Desperate to continue paying the soldiers who are keeping him in power, Laurent Gbagbo has nationalized the banks, many of which were in the process of shutting down or pulling out of the country. Not a good sign, but it might point to the beginning of the end for a standoff that’s seemed intractable up until now.

2 Responses to “A world roundup”

  1. Kwasi Appiah says:

    Ethan , was that you I just heard “On the Media.” First time I have heard your voice. It was fascinating to hear your views on the evolving nature of the internet, and most especially how you did not allow the definitions of terms thrown about by the moderators to hem you in. The show was said to have been recorded on Feb 15, 2011 – live.

  2. Henok says:

    Thanks Ethan.. on this sensitive matters. unfolding future for most county.

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