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Hopes and fears before the DRC elections

My friend Sokari Ekine has an excellent overview of the situation in the DRC leading up to Sunday’s elections. She points out the complexities of the situation: less violence than anyone expected, perhaps due to the presence of 17,000 UN troops, but real concerns that some sectors of Congolese society will view the results as legitimate.

Some of the most concerning violence has centered around Jean-Pierre Bemba, one of the 33 presidential candidates in a race likely to go to Joseph Kabila, the incumbent interim President. Bemba’s party headquarters suffered a suspicious fire – some speculation ties the fire to French jets flying above Kinshasa, part of the multinational peacekeeping force. Clashes between Bemba’s supporters and police have been deadly, and observers report that Bemba’s supporters – who’ve allegedly been involved in rebel activity in the CAR – are armed with Kalishnakovs and RPGs.

One narrative of the elections in DRC is a hopeful one – a nation, torn apart by corruption and international war will be transformed by democratic elections, will see support from the global community, and will emerge as a stable, democratic heart to a rising African continent. The fact that 25 million people – more than half the population of the country – have registered to vote is an amazing achievement given the logistical obstacles to holding elections in a country almost the size of Europe with very few roads.

Another narrative is more complicated, skeptical and worrisome. It suggests that the election in fait accompli for Kabila, the coronation of a leader who originally took power as the son of an assasinated leader. The presence of UN and French troops legitimate the transition, which is likely to have some major electoral problems: possible fraud due to the massive overprinting of ballots, the influence of bordering and regional powers on the elections, widespread accusation of abuse of state power on Kabila’s part to ensure his election. Paule Bouvier and Pierre Englebert take this stance in an article on foreignpolicy.com: “In short, the DRC is likely to revert to the predatory and personal rule that has characterized so much of its history. National elections after decades of warfare and autocratic rule should be a momentous time in a country’s history; in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, they will mean more of the same.”

The cynic in me tends to side with the second view, with one caveat: if DRC became a rallying point for international attention and involvement, I think the slide into “big-man” kleptocracy could be combatted. Elections in DRC should be a hopeful moment for the whole world – the chance for a nation whose instability has helped perpetuate conflicts all over the continent to move towards stability and prosperity. If global attention, assistance and aid flooded to DRC the way it did to South Africa whith the end of Apartheid, is it possible that the “more of the same” narrative could be avoided? Or is that hope – the hope for attention and aid to Congo – roughly as unlikely as hoping that Kabila will be a fraction of the leader Mandela was?


Credit Where Credit’s Due

Dear readers,

I could use your help.

Every so often, someone asks me to nominate smart people to speak at a conference, win a prize, or generally get some sort of public recognition. I know a lot of people who do amazing things and deserve to be more widely known, so I’m often able to make these suggestions just by fipping through my Rolodex. But it occurs to me that there are at least as many cool people I don’t know about as those I do know about, if not vastly more.

I need to nominate three cool people for an honor… about which I can’t say very much, except that this honor would be a very, very nice thing to win. I’m looking for:

- People who live and work in the developing world
- Who do innovative work in information technology or online media
- Who’ve already had some measurable success (results, not just ideas)
- Who have big, big ideas that they need recognition and publicity to bring into being
- Who haven’t yet been widely recognized for their work.

In other words, suggesting I nominate Bono, Nicholas Negroponte or Angelina Jolie isn’t very helpful. More helpful is helping me find people like Dwayne Bailey, who does brilliant work on localizing open source software with Translate.org.za and is now working in cooperation with Khmer.OS to build a tool for translation of software anywhere in the world.

Anyone who fits these criteria and who you think deserves recognition? Let me know – much appreciated.


Kunda Dixit on internet publishing in Nepal

Kunda Dixit, the publisher of the Nepali Times, mentions that it’s an appropriate time for him to be speaking at this conference, “as my country is in flames.” He notes that it’s a bit embarrasing that he was able to leave Nepal – “Anyone who is anyone is being arrested these days in Nepal.” He wonders if Roby is right and his feminine-sounding first name has helped protect him.

Since February 1st, 2005, Nepal has been in a state of emergency. The King sacked the prime minister and started an information blackout, which focused especially on the news media. Community radio, a major source of information for most Nepalese, was shut down for four months. The King’s spokesmen made the absurd assertion, “Nowhhere in the world is FM radio used to broadcast news”.

As a newspaper, Nepali Times faced classic censorship tactics – Kunda shows us his newspaper, heavily censored by government authorities. They chose to run their stories with big, empty whitespaces so people would know the words had been removed – the government demanded they not run whitespace, so they ran later editions with those parts of the story filled with gibberish. It’s sometimes better to ridicule the government, Kunda argues, that confronting them directly.

In the spirit of ridicule, radio stations began singing the news (because music is legal on FM, while news is not…) or holding their “broadcasts” in the street, reading the news to crowds that would gather.

While Kunda is optimistic about the Internet’s role in opening up Nepal’s information environment, he’s cautious as well. The net can mobilize the diaspora, can let the world know what’s happening locally, and can reach a new, younger audience. And it’s virtually impossible for the government to shut down. On the other hand, it doesn’t make any money for the Nepali Times – it’s purely a PR and activist project for the paper – and online publishing has major credibility issues, as many people abuse online spaces to publish false information. Furthermore, while it’s very difficult to shut down net access as a whole, individual ISPs are vulnerable chokepoints within Nepal.

Other posts from FEAC 2006:


The end of an era

This makes me a little sad – Western Union is no longer providing telegram delivery services. In the era of mobile phones and email, telegrams are more than a little old-fashioned and I suspect very few people will miss their disappearance.

Despite the fact that I’ve been using email since 1989, I’m one of Western Union’s few remaining telegram customers. For the last couple of years, Western Union has offered a web-based telegram service – fill in a form online, enter a credit card number and your telegram’s delivered within a day. I use telegrams to get concerns to senators and congresspeople – a congressman might get hundreds of paper letters and thousands of emails a day, but not many telegrams, which get hand delivered to congressional offices. Because they’re not cheap – about $20 – it’s also a way of letting politicians know you care sufficiently about an issue that you’re willing to spend money. (American Telegram offers a service specifically to deliver telegrams to politicians, but it’s signifcantly more expensive. Perhaps I’ll just send flowers in the future.)

For decades, Western Union has made money sending a different kind of information through the wires – financial transfers, which now represent the vast majority of their income. Unfortunately, they tend to charge extortionate rates to workers who are sending small amounts of money back to their families in developing nations. I have high hopes that some technological innovation will make expensive remittance services look as primitive in the near future as telegrams do in an Internet era.


Maidan and the Revolutionary Internet in Ukraine

Andrij “Andy” Ihnatov is the president of Ukranian non-governmental organization Maidan International, a key player in the Ukranian Orange Revolution. Started in 2002, Maidan is one of two key political websites in Ukraine. And Andy tells us that the other key site – Ukrainska Pravda – was one of the proximate causes of the Orange Revolution.

As Andy puts it, “2002 is the year the Ukranian transition to democracy stalled”. The government became increasingly corrupt and less transparent. And media was increasingly either censored by the government or self-censored – “media was operating in a mode so as not to outrage the government”. With rare exceptions, there was very little investigative journalism, especially journalism willing to challenge the government.

One exception to this was Ukrainska Pravda, a group website led by independent journalist George Gongadze. Gongadze attracted the attention of Leonid Kuchma’s government by publishing a story about a referendum that was fraudulently amended, giving increased powers to a centralized government. As Andy puts it, “The website was only being read by a few thousand people in the country. Marginal. But it became a daily newspaper for President Kuchma.”

In September 2002, Gongadze disappeared and was later found dead, and beheaded. Evidence pointed to government involvement and the government found itself involved in “Kutchma-Gate” as the government was questioned regarding their role in the death of Gongadze.

As the scandal broke, Ukrainska Pravda found itself as the leading political site in the country, and the cybercafes were packed with people looking for alternative sources of information.

Maidan grew out of a movement – “Ukraine without Kuchma” – that was born, in part, in reaction to the killing of Gongadze. Maidan served as the information arm of the movement, maintaining a group weblog with 70 volunteer authors that helped spread information from different parts of the country and mobilize protests against the Kuchma government.

In a nod to Zephyr Teachout, who’s organized today’s meeting, Andy mentioned that the Ukranians were closely watching the Howard Dean campaign, MoveOn.org and other US attempts that were attempting to use the net to mobilize political dissent.

Kuchma’s government tried to respond to online activism, attempting to take over an online forum – “Talks” – by posting hundreds of irrelavent, off-topic messages. It worked, briefly, but the forum responded by starting to moderate those discussions.

While Internet penetration was low in the Ukraine during the Orange revolution – perhaps 3-4% – the users of the net were largely influencers – journalists, government employees, people who worked with international agencies. Stefan Iwaskewycz, a Ukranian American blogger spent time in a rural village in Ukraine during the Orange Revolution points out that the Internet connected to an existing information network. Small villages in the Ukraine have small newspapers that are often better trusted than national newspapers, which are sometimes seen as propoganda organs. If a single journalist associated with that local newspaper was able to get access to the Internet, that information could be disemminated to rural communities.

Maidan continues its work in Ukraine after the revolution and has been organizing online campaigns and protests about police corruption and about zoning. In both cases, Maidan is soliciting complaints online and using their visibility to force ministers to take them seriously – in the case of zoning services, a local governor has taken to responding to complaints on TV as well as online.

Jeremy Drucker from Transitions Online (a fantastic source of information about countries of the former Soviet Union), points out that Ukraine was not a totalitarian state, but one with political debate and dissention, even if there were strong restrictions on media. It might be unrealistic to expect the Internet to have as transformative effect on a fully closed state, like Belarus.

I find myself wondering if there’s an Internet and politics “sweet spot” – nations where there’s some openness and debate, but real constraints on what can and can’t be said, where the Internet is an especially effective disruptive tool for democracy. In mature democracies, we might not expect the Internet to be a profound force for change as there are so many other ways to disseminate fact and opinion. In nations where control over information is quite thorough, net usage is almost always heavily controlled, meaning it’s less likely to act as a transformative force. In nations that are somewhere between – in nations like Ukraine – access to information worldwide and the ability to amplify it may well be able to be a major force for social change.


A side note: Andy mentioned a site – 3dway.org – is one of the few sites effectively publishing indepedent information from Belarus. According to the Maidan site, some of the organizers of Third Way have been having major difficulties with the Belarussian KGB as a result of their site.


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