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May 3, 2012, 12:40 p.m.
Mobile & Apps
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On World Press Freedom Day, the spread of mobile and publishing technology shifts the playing field

As we honor journalists who struggle in oppressive environments, the definition of “journalist” keeps expanding.

It’s World Press Freedom Day, when we set aside time to think about journalists around the world who struggle under repressive conditions to report and tell the truth.

With 44 journalists killed so far this year, 2012 is on track to be the deadliest year for journalists since the International Press Institute began tracking such deaths in 1997. (The exact toll depends on how you count. Reporters Without Borders, for example, puts the count at 22. It only includes deaths that are “clearly established” to have been caused because of someone’s activities as a journalist.) Both counts increased by one overnight with the murder of Somali radio reporter Farhan James Abdulle. He’s the fifth journalist to be killed in Somalia this year, which Reporters Without Borders ranks 164th in the world in press freedom.

But while we honor those working journalists who continue to battle their governments, it’s also worth noting how technology is shifting the playing field of press freedom. The boundaries of the press are expanding — and yet working to guarantee press freedom requires the notoriously slippery undertaking of defining what it is that makes someone a journalist. NPR’s Andy Carvin, who famously tweeted (and retweeted) the Arab Spring, is a professional journalist. But what about all of the citizens on the ground — some professional journalists, many not — who helped populate his Twitter feed with information about what was going on?

Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, has given these kinds of questions a lot of thought over the years. In 2005, he founded Global Voices, a network of hundreds of bloggers around the world who work to redress “inequities in media attention by leveraging the power of citizens’ media.”

“It’s really hard to organize a campaign for every blogger who gets in trouble with the law,” Zuckerman told me this week. “In part because often you don’t get arrested for blogging, you get arrested for something else.”

Working on a global scale, and without the formal backing of a news institution, it can become very difficult to determine whether such an arrest was motivated by the person’s journalistic behavior or by some other alleged activity.

Increasingly, there are groups willing to fight for the person being silenced — regardless of whether she’s a professional journalist, and regardless of whether she’s communicating “on paper, by broadcasting, or writing in bytes,” Zuckerman said.

As the power to publish spreads, World Press Freedom Day becomes about more than just “the press” as we’ve traditionally defined it. Zuckerman suggests it’s time to update the way we characterize what we’re trying to protect. Okay, so his alternative might need a bit of marketing polish, but he’s thinking something like “World Digital Public Sphere Freedom Day” or “World Network Public Sphere Freedom Day.”

“This notion of ‘the press’ holds onto this notion that there’s this specialized professional class to inform us about things,” Zuckerman said. “That institution is expanding to the point where the press is really the network public sphere or the digital public sphere. It’s incredibly important that we talk about the ability of journalists to do their jobs safely and without government harassment…But when we think about whether a country has a free press, under my definition, it’s what are the constraints on journalists? What are the constraints on nonofficial journalists [like] bloggers and activists? What are the constraints on the tools people use to discuss the issues of the day?”

Issues of Internet freedom are often framed around information consumption — whether someone in a country can get access to a given website, say. But it’s also about freedom to publish, a capacity that technology continues to spread. “There’s an enormous amount of common ground between the Internet freedom folks and the press freedom folks — and in many cases we’re looking at the same people,” Zuckerman said.

And then there’s mobile. As phones get smarter, the line between Internet users and mobile users blurs. According to the International Telecommunications Union, there were 2 billion people using the Internet at the start of last year. At the same time, there were 5.3 billion mobile phone subscriptions.

“It is absolutely unbelievable how rural a village you can be in, and the only things for sale will be yams, ground nuts, and phone cards,” Zuckerman said. “This is bringing in hundreds of millions of people who were not online previously. It’s a really crazy change, and what I think all of us are sort of predicting is, in the next five years, the distinction between those numbers — are you online or are you on the phone? — it’s just going to disappear. It’s going to be an irrelevant number.”

What’s good from a connectivity standpoint is not always good from a digital freedom standpoint, and this discrepancy goes to how the very structure of the Internet differs from how mobile networks are built.

“The Internet has this incredibly radically decentralized architecture where there are points of potential control, but there are a lot more of them, and it’s often possible to evade that control,” Zuckerman said. “On the mobile phone network, that’s a very different story. They tended to be built with the ability to wiretap and eavesdrop.”

When two Western journalists were killed with rockets in Syria earlier this year, The Telegraph reported that the Syrian military had tracked them down using their cell phone signals. In countries with weak legal systems and strong governments, mobile networks very quickly become a tool for government intelligence, so being an independent reporter “becomes a very difficult thing to do,” Zuckerman said.

It’s part of why groups like Mobile Active set out to educate people about the inherent security risks that mobile networks entail. Its Safer Mobile initiative includes guides and training on text-messaging risks, apps to block wiretappers, secure chat mechanisms, information on satellite phones, tips on how to safely file stories from the field, and more. The bottom line: True anonymity on a mobile network is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible.

“The approach that people are taking right now is just trying to get people to understand these networks much more thoroughly: ‘Here are ways you might be safe or might be unsafe,'” Zuckerman said. “The problem is, we often end up saying, ‘You shouldn’t use that.’ But that’s crazy thing to say because for most people, that’s their main information device.”

Photo by Superstrikertwo used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     May 3, 2012, 12:40 p.m.
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