When the Music Stops: Media Development in Conflict

When the Music Stops: Media Development in Conflict

Danish Karokhel, head of Pazhwok News Agency. Kabul, June 2011

Talk of Afghanistan in Kabul, Washington and London is all about ‘transition’ – the handover to Afghans and the ‘drawdown’ and pulling back of the international community. Talk ofa 30 year commitment seems but a distant memory.

In Kabul last week Afghan journalists and those watching the media scene told me they were concerned about their future. They wondered what would happen to the now thriving independent radio, television and independent media sector when the money from the international community declines, and the the eyes of the world pay less attention to Afghanistan and the plight of journalists who work there.

The first  fear was that asthe international community pulls out, the decline in international investment will also pull the plug on the economy and leave independent media vulnerable. The massive investment in media development has created a strong media sector in Afghanistan, with over 170 radio stations and 70 TV stations. In 2010 alone USAID spent $22 million on building up independent media. But this wont continue. And it will leave the media that doesn’t depend on aid, military ‘hearts and minds’ money or advertising in a stronger position, dominating the Afghan public sphere. This is significant, as the biggest increase inAfghanistans media scene over the last few years has been in ‘political’ media – radio and increasingly TV stations funded by and representing political and religious parties and the protagonists of the Afghanistans last civil war. Since 2007 three religious stations – Kawsar, Tarmaddon and Da’wat – have appeared. They don’t take advertising or international donor support – but they do hire staff trained through media development programmes. Political parties are also launching TV channels. Rahbanni launched Noor TV in 2008, Mohaqiq launched Rah-e-Farda; Noorin, linked to Fahim and Ayna TV linked to Dostum.

What will it mean for Afghan public debate if the broadcast environment is dominated not by moderate, progressive media but TV stations that promote specific interests and agendas? In a country already fractured along ethnic, linguistic and other lines, might public frustration at physical and financial insecurity, lack of employment and fear for the future be channeled against specific groups? After thirty years of war and propaganda, Afghans are incredibly media literate, more savvy than friends back in the UK. But a story endlessly repeated, to a frustrated audience, can often find resonance. It did in Nazi Germany, inRwanda and in the Former Yugoslavia.

The second fear is that the independent media that does survive the inevitable shakeout will be under other, more deadly, threats. Afghanistan has always been a dangerous place to report from. Reporters Sans Frontieres ranked Afghanistan 147th out of 178 countries in the World Press Freedom Index in 2010 – ‘its worst state for six years’, while an Afghan media organisation, NAI, recorded an increase in violence against journalists of 70% in 2010. In 2008 a young Afghan journalist, Parvez Kambaksh, was sentenced to death for writing about women s equality and rights (his sentence was later commuted to 20 years in prison following international pressure). The same year Abdul Samad Rohani, head of the BBC’s Pashto Service, was abducted and killed for reporting on alleged links between drug-traffickers and the Taliban.

And its not just the Taliban. The new Mass Media Law, introduced in 2009, widely regarded as a significant improvement on the last one,  still grants the government sweeping powers. These have been used to ban programmes and shut down TV stations and websites – for example shutting down Emrooz TV, ostensibly for inciting sectarian tensions, though its tough anti-government stance may also have had something to do with it.

The broader point is that any negotiated settlement between the Afghan government is unlikely to to lead to greater media freedom. The fear is that threats, harassment, abduction and arrests or murders will increase and the space for independent media will be reduced. As the international community looks for a legacy to leave behind, what might it do to leave a space in which the voices of ordinary Afghans can be heard, and the power of the fourth estate continue to shine an already faltering light on the Afghan powers that be?

Social Media and Governance: Two different debates?

Last week I was at the Wilton Park Media, Social Media and Governance conference. It was a really good opportunity to hear presentations from a great number of really interesting people.

Things I liked:

  • Charlie Becketts presentation (here) on the future of journalism was stimulating. To my mind connected with the ideas of ‘networked public spheres’ that
  • Transparency and Accountability Initiative: their recent report on technology in transparency and accountability work provides a useful overview, and a helpful typology of efforts in this area (‘pull’ efforts that help citizens access data and ‘push’ efforts that promote citizen voice).
  • Global Voices: Always striking, Solana Larsen‘s presentation on the people behind the blogs was powerful because we heard real people’s voices (see below).

The  debate that stayed with me after the conference:

There were so many interesting discussions and debate, but there seemed to be one that didn’t really happen. It was almost as if there were two separate discussions happening at the same time – the impact of new communications technologies on communications for development and the impact that new technologies have on what people choose to do.

Communications for Development (C4D) focusses on planned uses of the media to achieve specific, and measurable, changes. To me the most interesting examples of this at the conference were the uses of new technologies in governance initiatives profiled by the Transparency and Accountability Initiative. There were examples of using technology  to map information, provide citizen feedback and hold government to account. But nearly  all were examples of projects – mostly projects dependent on aid for their operation and for the definition of their purpose.

The other debate focusses on the impact that new communications technologies have on the information ‘ecosphere’. What happens when information flows through social networks faster than ever before? Google’s Sarah Painter talked about her work, emphasising the importance of maintaining an open and accessible internet (no doubt referencing both the ‘walled garden’ phenomenon of non-searchable/linkable sites like Facebook  and the rise of internet apps) for citizens and activists. Solana also showcased the work of bloggers and tweeters such as  sillybahraini girl and Amira al Hussaini. And although the conference was conceived of over two years ago, long before the Arab Spring blossomed, it was the role of new technologies in social uprisings that somehow didnt feel really addressed – or rather what the implications of new communications technologies were for spontaneous civic action, or to put yet another way, to respond to the question of when the way people communicate changes what, if anything, changes?

Whilst I think the hyperbole of technologies’ role in causing the Arab Spring uprisings is clearly misplaced (see Shirky et al, who’s position has been somewhat painted into a straw man), its worth asking when social structures and the flow of information and communication changes, does anything else change? Zeynap Tufekci’s work on the sociology of technology has some interesting ideas, particularly her post Faster is Different – where, referencing network theory and epidemiological mapping, she argues that the many to many communication characteristics enable populations to outmanoeuvre the traditional ‘whack-a protest’ response.

Im also really interested in the infrastructure that these technologies and communication processes rest on. The internet service providers and particularly the mobile network operators play a crucial role in enabling networked communications. Of course, mobile phone operators are first and foremost businesses, and face political pressures (to accomodate monitoring, shut down networks, filter key words etc). Within those constraints, what might operators do that would further enable the free flow of information? And what might the international community do to support, or pressure, the operators to maintain that open flow?

Could Vodaphone, Bharti, or Telenor be the next Nestle and open access to communications the next babymilk?

Although I know that the GSMA is engaged in discussions on these issues, it was a shame that they weren’t at the conference.

Getting the balance right in mobiles for development

Ken Banks of Kiwanja.net and FrontlineSMS recently asked whether development projects using mobile technologies should be led by mobile technology experts or by development practitioners – Who’s best placed to run a successful “m4d” project – the m‘s or thed‘s?”.

This question has been sitting at the back of my mind over the last week as Ive been working with Panos and D-Net in Dhaka, developing an assessment and design tool to help people figure out how mobile phones can help development projects.

The idea behind the tool was to respond to issue underlying Kens question. In our experience too often development practitioners recognise that mobile technologies could help their programmes, but they dont have the technical expertise. Similarly, well meaning technologists often get frustrated because they dont have a clear sense of what the problem is, and we have all seen sophisticated solutions that don’t receive rapturous reception from development practitioners – leading to wasted efforts. As a result technologists feel frustrated by the lack of interest from the development community in new ways of approaching old problems.

So how to realise the potential that mobile technologies have for addressing intractable development problems? What came through so strongly in Dhaka was that ideas flowed best when both development practitioners and mobile technologists worked together. The trick was to recognise that both had different but equally important roles. Wayan’s Venn diagram outlines this well, showing how the two sectors can find common ground:

The different worlds of mobile, ICT and Development

The role of the development specialist was to identify and keep focus on what the problem was, and what needed to change (and the tool we developed specifically identifies needs in a way that technology and communication specialists can engage with). It was also very helpful to give the technologists ideas a reality check and stress test their practicality.

It was an incredibly rich experience, with mutual learning and collaborative design at the heart of the process. Key to its success was technologists respect for the insights of the development specialists, and to recognise that they knew best what would work in a specific context. On the development practitioners side, being open minded to new ideas and tools was critical to fruitful discussion.

And at the end of it came a really simple yet potentially effective way of addressing a chronic problem in Bangladesh’s health care sector (which Ill share in detail once its up and running!

Mobile in East Africa

An interesting study on mobile applications in East Africa. It looks at whats limiting applications fully taking off, with conclusions aimed at recommendations for donors. Mobile Active notes:

While mobile phones are the main channel for information in East Africa, with mobile penetration covering over 40% of the population, sustainable, scalable mobile services for social and economic development are limited. The report is supported by secondary data, statistics, and field work carried out in Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania, along with numerous interviews, meetings and discussions with key stakeholders in EastAfrica. Major trends in mobile usage, barriers for increased use of m-applications, as well as opportunities for scaling are discussed.

Perhaps one of the most interesting innovations it reveals is how the Kenyan M-PESA money sending service M-PESA is being used to send money (in the form of airtime credit) between Kenya and Uganda. A Kenyan Safaricom sim card automatically roams on the Ugandan UTL network, allowing the transfer of credit between the two. Mr Michael Joseph, the Safaricom Chief Executive Officer, later commented the operation: “M-Pesa does not officially operate there [in Uganda]. We are investigating. It’s quite strange” (Telecom Africa 2009).

What does this mean for future remittance activities? Will expanding roaming agreements mean migrant workers can send home remittances cheaper than Western Union, and more directly than the Hawala network?

They also outline examples of mobiles for governance (without defining what they mean by governance). The report outlines aspirational examples of what mobiles could do to strengthen accountability, transparency (presumably with the aim of increasing more responsive political system). It goes on to give examples of how mobiles have supported service delivery such as water, electricity and basic health services.

For me, good governance is politicians and civil servants responding the needs and demands of their electorate. Driving this has to be the political will amongst both to recognise that their constituents needs come first – and not serving their political masters further up the chain as is so often the case.

The report is available here (pdf).

The mobile as printing press, but disrupting what?

In a stimulating lunch with Jon Gosier (dont believe his claims to be merely a techie – he’s a true social entrepeneur and a seeder of thoughts) I said it seemed like the mobile phone was the printing press of our time, disrupting existing systems. He said he saw the biggest disruption taking place in the banking sector (his eloquent post on that’s here).

The question that really stayed with me is what that means for people making that shift. What does it mean to choose a technology based financial system, as opposed to traditional, social based systems? What impact does it have on families, communities where financial transaction have been informal, and often ‘public’? Consider the following:

Migrant workers send $414 billion annually (with an additional 30-40% through informal channels) to their families every year. A common form is the hawalla system, an informal network of brokers who transfer money based on trust, the promise of reimbursement and direct to recipient transactions.

The interesting point for me is that the final receipt of cash is a fairly public transaction – the family and often community would know when the money had arrived, and often how much. And with that knowledge comes expectations about how that money is spent, expectations that must be met to retain ones social position.

Now if the remittance takes place through a mobile phone – either through transfer of mobile credit, through bank linked transfers or Western Union – the cash arrives on your phone. Only the recipient (and sender) knows, and suddenly there are a new set of choices about what to do with the money, choices that were previously unavailable.

What does that mean for communities defined by informal links? Do savings increase? Do relationships to other powerholders (landowners, rent-seekers and other forms of corruption) change?

Do mobile phone based financial transactions strengthen individual choice making? What might costs of that increased choice be? What value do those same informal networks hold that might make that choice to send money through a phone less appealing?

What was the cost to communities of giving up the Church as the gatekeeper of knowledge?

Echoes in the Public Sphere

The new ‘social’ communication of facebook, twitter and SMS social networks have been heralded as the new dawn of a global public, a market square of ideas in which all could participate. To listen to some, it seems to promise all the failed efforts of the 70’s to bring about ‘New World Information and Communication Order’ in which the voices of the unheard could speak with the many. But is this really true?

When Marshall McLuhan coined the term the ‘global village’ he imagine a world where everyone communicated, with everyone. Clay Shirky’s book ‘Here Comes Everyone‘ updates that vision for the modern internet age, painting a picture of global collaboration, protest (eg against the Catholic Church) and coordination. Indeed, in his second book Cognitive Surplus he suggests that the global attention of the always connected could yield a trillion hours of productive engagement.

But recent trends suggest that while increasing numbers may be connecting, this isnt quite the great global conversation we might imagined, nor is it leading to the revolution we might have imagined. Indeed, many of the examples of new media ‘revolutions’ are not all that they seem:

  • From Foreign Policy Magazine: But it is time to get Twitter’s role in the events in Iran right. Simply put: There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran. As Mehdi Yahyanejad, the manager of “Balatarin,” one of the Internet’s most popular Farsi-language websites, told theWashington Post last June, Twitter’s impact inside Iran is nil. “Here [in the United States], there is lots of buzz,” he said. “But once you look, you see most of it are Americans tweeting among themselves.”
  • From International Herald Tribune: My impression is that these new media today play a role identical to that played by Al Jazeera satellite television when it first appeared in the mid-1990s — they provide important new means by which ordinary citizens can both receive information and express their views, regardless of government controls on both, but in terms of their impact they seem more like a stress reliever than a mechanism for political change. We must face the fact that all the new media and hundreds of thousands of young bloggers from Morocco to Iran have not triggered a single significant or lasting change in Arab or Iranian political culture. Not a single one. Zero.

Clearly, there are many examples – from the Phillipines, Kenya, and of course Barack Obama’s election – where cellphones have been used to unite people with similar views in ways previously unimaginable. But thats the point. These are people who already care about corruption. In fact, though everybody may be connecting, we’re actually having the same conversation, only magnified. Our views arent being challenged and perspectives only reinforced. Ethan Zuckerman’s excellent TED talk demonstrates how narrow our world view is, pointing to arresting graphics of global TV content – and how its dominated by coverage of the US, a little of the UK and the broader ‘Western world’. Other continents are mere mentions, usually only when wars are fought. And the voices of the unheard are heard by only a very very few. Its worth watching in full:

This means that our world view, and perspectives on our global village, remain limited. Cass Sunstein, co-author of Nudge and Obama’s internet czar, writes in his book On Rumours how the dominance on the internet of social networking and blogging creates what he terms ‘ an echo chamber’ of ideas, where prejudices are exacerbated, to the extent, he argues in the Telegraph, that ‘if you want to be an extremist, hang out with people you already agree with’.

The point is that for most, the new media isnt bringing about a more vibrant public sphere. A healthy public sphere, as outlined by German philosopher Jurgen Habermas, is a free market place of ideas to be freely debated by people prepared to change their point of view. In this public sphere extreme perspectives would be perceived for what they are – extreme and certainly not the norm.

Instead our ‘imagined community‘ shaped by television, the internet and SMS serves up what we choose, and in the main we tend to choose information that confirms what we already thought, and reinforces our prejudices through connecting us to people who share the same prejudices. The new public sphere seems increasinly not a market place of ideas but a series of ghetto’s in which reveberating opinions are reinforced, driving out the possibility of change.

Our task must be, as Zuckerman outlines in his talk and the Global Voices initiative, to bring the voices of the unheard into ghetto’s and help the echoes reverberate in new spheres.

When enemies speak

Its a bit off topic from the focus of this blog, but the dialogue between Abu Walid al-Masri and Charles Cameron, is fascinating (Abu Walid al-Masri is a senior Arab Afghan adviser to al Qaeda and the Taliban) . Abu Walid al-Masri’s response makes much of the notion of chivalry:

I am reminded of Richard the Lionheart, who came to lead a big crusade to capture Jerusalem from Muslim hands. The bloody wars he led brought fatigue to everyone and benefited neither the religious or nor the day-to-day interests of either party. Leading the Muslim campaign was Sultan Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi (Saladin), King Richard’s peer in courage, chivalry and wisdom.

Both parties finally agreed that Jerusalem should remain in Muslim hands — hands which would guarantee its security and that of its people, and of both the Islamic and Christian sanctuaries, preserving their interests and protecting the sanctuaries of all, in peace.

Thereafter, King Richard retreated from Muslim lands, carrying with him a most favorable impression of the Muslims and of Saladin as he returned to his own country, while leaving a continuing memory of respect and appreciation for himself and his chivalry with Saladin and the Muslims — which is preserved in our history books down to the present day