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Digital democracy

by Adelheid Schultze
The internet and mobile telephony allow people to network more effectively than any traditional medium did before. The political impact is already felt in many countries. [ By Adelheid Schultze ]

In countries with freedom of the press, the media served as the fourth estate in the 20th century. The large number of independent newspapers, especially, provided fora for public debate and opinion shaping, and thus contributed to monitoring democracy. Thanks to digital media, this public sphere has grown considerably in the early 21st century.

Premesh Chandran, the chief executive of www.malaysiakini.com, one of the most popular websites in Malaysia, believes that those who don’t read what’s on the web don’t know what’s going on in the country. What newspapers don’t have the courage to publish is made available on the internet. Of every 100 Malaysians, 56 use the web, which is more difficult to censor than the press. Moreover, it reaches the mainly young population.

Consequently, web communication has become a political factor. The biggest group of voters in this Southeast Asian nation are people below and around 30 years of age. They have grown up with mobile phones and the internet.

Websites have been competing with traditional mass media – newspapers, radio and television – for a long time. The citizens of Malaysia no longer depend on a single dominant medium that would shape public opinion. Rather, a counterbalance to the government’s information policy and to monopolistic newspapers has emerged. On the Internet, every user can gather information from difference sources and exchange views in blogs and forums.

Beyond the mere gathering of information, interactive communication is playing a growing role all over the world. Digital media are therefore also referred to as “social” media. What the classic media know only as an extra – involvement of the reader/listener/viewer – is the prevailing philosophy on the internet: everyone can be both producer and consumer at the same time.

Accordingly, there are new possibilities for political participation of citizens and politicians alike. This matters in particular, where infrastructures for information and communication technologies are still weak. Africa is experiencing high growth rates, though merely a quarter of the population had a mobile phone in 2008 and even fewer had access to the Internet. Mobile telephony, however, expanded by an impressive 32% from 2006 to 2007.

Useful cell phones

Mobile phones serve to monitor democratic procedures, says Harry Dunmore, a professor of media and mobile communication at Rhodes University in South Africa. For instance, political activists recently used short messaging to observe elections in Zimbabwe, Ghana and Kenya. The internet and SMS also play an increasing role in the run-up to elections, to mobilise followers and supporters, for example. Indeed, they are sometimes misused to incite violence in the context of elections, but critical coverage of such attacks also relies on “mobile reporting” (transmission of videos, sound and photos via mobile phone). The growing suitability of cell phones for Internet applications is boosting this trend – even across borders.

One website to benefit from this trend is www.sokwanele.com. Members of Zimbabwe’s opposition have set up an online platform to document state violence since the parliamentary elections in March 2008. A map on the website shows the locations and types of attacks. This information is supplemented by witness statements, photos and analyses. Websites like this can be run from abroad, so authoritarian potentates cannot reach the people in charge.

However, there is also clear criticism of quick, immediate reporting. Werner D'Inka, editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), argued that many people no longer can tell the difference between reporting and opinions at a conference on the ways in which digital media influence politics and elections that was hosted by InWEnt’s International Institute for Journalism (IIJ) and the FAZ in Berlin.

Indeed, the journalistic quality of digital media is not always up to scratch, as Dele Olojede admitted at the event. He is the editor of the Nigerian online newspaper www.234next.com, executive board member of Timbuktu Media and Pulitzer Prize winner. From his point of view, professional standards of digital media deserve special attention. “next” works with blogs (regular opinion posts), videos and tweets (brief, up-to-the minute statements via SMS), without systematic checks on whether all facts mentioned in the blogs are correct.

Olojede emphasises, however, that diversity in itself leads to a kind of objectivity. For the 2011 elections, he wants to link up 10,000 citizen reporters in Nigeria to report from all around the country from internet cafes and via SMS in order to prevent election fraud.

According to South African Professor Dugmore, such approaches make sense. He speaks of new opportunities for so-far marginalised groups that never had means of expressing themselves in public and exerting influence. Dugmore says that two thirds of Africans will own a mobile phone by 2012. He considers this a reason for hope, not only in South Africa. Access to alternative sources of information and wider communication among citizens will make it increasingly difficult for politicians to run election campaigns along the lines of ethnic resentment, he argues, and more issue-based politics should accordingly carry more weight.

Pakistanis have also had some positive experiences. Faizullah Jan, lecturer at the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Peshawar, noted a tremendous boost for digital media after the state of emergency was declared in November 2007. At that time, incumbent President General Pervez Musharraf banned independent newspapers because the media had consistently criticised his dismissal of a top judge (note essay by Rubina Saigol in our Tribune section). Digital media immediately filled the gap – and the dictatorship did not survive.

While roughly 3 to 5 million of 165 million Pakistanis have direct access to the internet, it is estimated up to 90 million have a mobile phone, and many of them can watch YouTube videos on their phones. Political criticism can also be spread by this means and it is made full use of, thanks to reasonable tariffs.

The costs of digital services are low wherever there is competition between different providers – that is, where the private sector invests. Another factor for the success of digital services is the level of state regulation. As far as Africa is concerned however, Dele Olojede, the Nigerian online journalist is optimistic. The private sector has invested such huge amounts in mobile telephony and the internet that governments have no chance to “put the jelly back in the glass” and to restrict digital media’s scope for action, he believes.

The conference held by the IIJ and FAZ illustrated how politicians can make use of digital media. Nancy Scola, editor of the online publication techPresident and lecturer on New Media and Politics at New York University, discussed the US example. Barack Obama’s election campaign skilfully used direct communication via e-mail, blogs, videos and SMS, taking advantage of interactivity and personal linkages – the special advantages digital media have over conventional ones.