Witnessing the rawness of a tragedy

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a London ICT4D Meetup, where Janet Gunter delivered a presentation titled Silencing of Dissent & Proactive Tactics in ICT4D. Her presentation covered the following three themes.

  1. Taking on digital surveillance across borders [Ethiopian exile cases in US and UK courts]
  2. Creating live reporting platforms in a post-Tahrir age [Licadho in Cambodia; Central 7311 in Angola]
  3. Turning inwards for support: using domestic digital fundraising to increase legitimacy and buy-in [Agência Pública and Mídia Ninja in Brazil]

This post is about the second theme in particular. On this very blog, I also wrote something about live reporting in 2008, in the context of anti-American beef protests that were taking place in South Korea at that time. Looking back at it now, the tone was clearly celebratory – celebratory of ordinary citizens’ innovative and resourceful ways of using digital ICTs to circumvent and push back against oppression. In that ‘beef protests’ post, I also cited a member of Nosamo I interviewed in 2006, who passionately explained to me how the Internet and mobile phones had enabled the disregarded and marginalised voices to be heard and how things would have been different if such technologies had been available in Gwangju in 1980 where he eye-witnessed a military-led massacre of civilians.

Similar observations can be made about how 16-year-old Farah Baker has been described both in mass and social media (“sudden Gaza spokesgirl” in Aljazeera America, for example) and how her real-time tweets have been considered as a rare source of true reporting (especially when mediated news proves to be reinforcing biases).

And about #Ferguson. It’s being said that we wouldn’t have known anything was happening in Ferguson if it had not been for Twitter. Indeed, many, including 100+ journalists, are tweeting from the ground as things unfold and are fighting for news visibility and, furthermore, against algorithmic filtering.

Where technical filtering is even used as means of government censorship online, individual users have demonstrated their resourcefulness – like, for example, Chinese netizens using ‘May 35‘ to refer to the Tiananmen incident of 1989.

All these cases resonate with what my aforementioned interviewee said. More recently, families of the victims of the April 2014 Sewol ferry disaster in Korea have set up a YouTube channel to live-stream their protests – peaceful protests in which they are asking for nothing more than a thorough and transparent investigation into the incident. For this reasonable, if not humble, request, some family members have been marching on foot across the country since and others on a hunger strike in central Seoul for weeks. Why? Because they are not heard otherwise. Or worse, maliciously false reports are spreading that the families have demanded huge monetary compensations as well as guaranteed places at universities for students who survived the disaster. Those reports are found to be unbelievably effectively smearing the families’ cause. So, the YouTube channel is their desperate attempt to get unmediated coverage.

Observing all these, a younger, more naïve me would have filled the heart with hopes. “Look how people push back, how creative they are!” I would have said. Now every time I encounter any such cases, my heart literally aches because I came to realise that they are putting the rawness of their tragedies out there to the rest of the world as they have no other choices for survival.


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