Monday, July 13, 2009

Free press, gas pipelines, and jailed activists

I came across a provocative post on this blog today, following a link from Facebook. You can read it for yourself, but the author states her position clearly in the headline: Why Facebook Hurts Democratic Movements. She objects to the recent activity on Facebook, as sympathizers protest the arrests of Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizada.

I have to disagree respectfully with the author. I believe that in the struggle to improve democratic governance and safeguard human rights, every peaceful tool should be used. It appears that the author of the post believes that the activists of the Internet are not incurring enough risk to validate their activist credentials. In fact, as we can see the young people who are using the Internet to discuss democracy in Azerbaijan do incur significant risk.

Every peaceful tool should be used if we are to effect political change. We don't know which ones will be most effective. Also, not everyone has the same tools to use. For some people, attending a demonstration in Baku is possible. For others, circulating information about the human rights abuses in that country is a more feasible action.

In other news, I was glad to hear about this agreement being signed, even though many of the details remain to be ironed out. I am a supporter of democrats in Russia, and so I am all for creating some competition to Gazprom. Azerbaijan pay provide gas for the pipeline. It is one of the many details for Nabucco.

Finally, I expect to be reading this report tonight. The report was produced by Free Press, a media reform group started in 2002 by media scholar Robert W. McChesney. The article that John Nichols and McChesney wrote for the Nation earlier this year was thought-provoking and well argued. I expect that the new report will contain some similar suggestions.


Christy said...

Thanks for your post, but I'll pose the same question here I posed in a hot debate on my FB page (of course!).

My main criticisms of FB activism remain: it encourages activists to talk only to each other -- which is their natural inclination anyway -- and diminishes the chance of creating a national movement. It creates the illusion of activity, and when the stakes are as high and the challenges as great, who can afford that?

To be clear, this criticism can be leveled at most FSU opposition parties (Georgia comes immediately to mind). It is not specific to AZ youth activists.

I'd like to hear ways that FB activism moves the ball down the strategic field in FSU democracy promotion or accomplishes something other than making people feel good. FB and social networking are tactical tools, not strategy. Confusing the two is a common error and it happens in the US as well.



Eric said...

Christy -

You raise an interesting point, although I disagree with your criticism of FB in this case. I understand your point about the difference between strategy and tactics. While I know some Azebaijani bloggers quite well, I cannot say I am familiar with a clearly enunciated "strategy" for political change. Such a clear strategy could be useful. It could also be dangerous, giving the government concrete "evidence" for more serious charges against the bloggers.

In poking around the subject a little, it appears to me that the area in general is under-researched. I could be the topic of a good doctoral dissertation, but I already am working on a different topic.

Here is an abstract from one of the few articles to address the issue:

"Although the mainstream media and education systems are key institutions that perpetuate various social inequalities, spaces exist - both within and beyond these institutions - where adults and
youth resist dominant, damaging representations and improvise new images. In this article, we address why educational researchers and educators should attend closely to popular media and democratizing media production. We analyze and illustrate strategies for engaging with and critiquing
corporate news media and creating counter-narratives. We explore media education as a
key process for engaging people in dialogue and action as well as present examples of how popular culture texts can be excavated as rich pedagogical

Like I said - the article by Michelle Stack & Deirdre M. Kelly doesn't exactly address your question - but it is one of the few I found that even touches on the matter. (Canadian Journal of Education 29, 1 (2006) 5-26.

I particularly liked this quote from Howard Zinn, included in the article:

"Understand that the major media will not tell you of all the acts of resistance taking place every day in the society, the strikes, the protests, the individual acts of courage in the face of authority. Look around (and you will certainly find it) for the evidence of these unreported acts. And for the little you find, extrapolate from that and assume there must be a thousand times as much as what you've

So - I think this might be the closest I can come to an answer for you: FB & other Internet tools are a ways to resist what Chomsky would call the "manufacturing of consent." With such tools, activists can make it clear that they do not CONSENT to the current status quo. FB by itself will never result in real political change, you are absolutely right. But it can be useful as a networking tool, and as a means for citizens to express their fundamental disagreement with a regime.

scaryazeri said...

Very interesting debate! In short, I must say, I saw some logic in both arguments. As someone said... only time will show.

Onnik Krikorian said...

I would say there is no indication that these guys are talking only to themselves. Indeed, they're spreading the message far and wide.

Besides, these ideas of national movements are all lovely and good, but in actual fact none exist in the region with or without Facebook.

What there is the making of, however, is the start of a coordinated and established group that could be instrumental in changing mentalities and values.

Without those changes, there's not going to be any democratic development anyway. Meanwhile, on Facebook, they set by example, they are in touch with people throughout the world.

Without Facebook as a tool they'd be in a worse situation than they already are, and from what I can see, they've been using these new tools well inside and for outside Azerbaijan.

As with Armenia and Georgia, however, there is no alternative on offer to what exists and anyway, there is no democratic culture among the population. To being with, it will be activists like this who will change that reality.

Unfortunately, however, it will take generations. There is no doubt in my mind that in lieu of a mature or reliable, trustworthy media, Facebook and other new media tools in place or to come will be crucial in that.

And that, after all, is probably why the two were stuck in jail.

Onnik Krikorian said...

BTW: Christy, unless you're actually on any of these guy's Facebook pages you're anyway unable to see what they're doing and how they use it. Same with any Facebook user. Meanwhile, as for the groups, they are effectively just a mailing list.

Maybe you use your Facebook page in a certain way, but do others you don't know and can't see? On mine, for example, people politically and geographically detached have come together and overlooked past or current hatreds.

That's more than any international donor funded "peace-building" initiative has managed to achieve in the region to date. Meanwhile, it's like giving someone a paintbrush and telling them to go off and paint a masterpiece.

Thing is, the brush is still a brush. It depends on how you use it and that's usually what people who react so strongly against new tools forget to realize. Just because they don't use it in one way or to its fullest potential doesn't mean others can't and don't.

So, until you can see how all these tools are being used (and I suspect your impression with FB is only based on their groups) you really have no idea about all the other things which might be going on.

Meanwhile, they managed to attract 1,300 supporters in 2 days. That's bloody good for this region. In countries such as Armenia and Georgia where there is an opposition which claims itself as a national movement they can't manage anything close. Not even remotely close, in fact.

Basically, what matters is ideas and proper use of ANY and ALL tools at your disposal. That's what activists in the region are trying to do. In Azerbaijan, however, they are setting the example for others to follow.

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