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As Indymedia (IMC) activist and researcher, I recently did an e-mail interview with Oiwan Lam, a researcher and organizer of inmediahk.net and Interlocals.net. A shorter version of this will appear in a book about the Indymedia network.
Gabriele Hadl: There is a lot of net-based activism in Hong Kong, but no IMC afiliated with the network. Why is that? There was an IMC in Taiwan (2003-5) but they had problems with the language barrier, both in communicating with the so-called ‘global groups’ and in adapting the software. Did you have a similar experience?
Oiwan Lam: Actually, I haven't tried working with Indymedia directly. Someone did suggest me to start up an IMC in Hong Kong back in 2000. However, since she was not an IMC organizer, she didn't have any concrete suggestions of how to go about it. Besides, the image of Indymedia is very much related to anti-globalization and that just is not attractive to people in Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, it has to be ‘marketable’ or we cannot make it into a popular independent media movement. We need to be ‘popular’ in both senses– ‘widely loved’ as well as ‘by for and of the people.’ I think we have to start from local people's habits and interests, and try to transform that into something more radical. For example ‘freedom of speech’ has been a popular concern (remember Hong Kong went governmentally from being a British colony to being ‘part of China’-- though in what sense is still up for debate)– and although it sounds empty and formalistic, it can be radicalized into a local independent media movement. ‘Citizen reporter’ is another concept that can be appropriated or radicalized. Also, ‘media activist’ was a foreign concept, but recently, because of the media activism of our citizen reporters, ‘activist’ is becoming a popular term even in the mainstream.
GH: What independent media projects are there in Hong Kong right now?
Oiwan: I’m involved in two important net-based media: IN-mediaHK , a Chinese-language independent media site, and Interlocals, a news distribution site. IN-mediaHK emerged in 2004 out of a post-July-First demonstration meeting where intellectuals and civil society activists brainstormed about the future of participatory democracy and citizens movements in Hong Kong. In this, we realized the need for a popular alternative media initiative on the Internet. A working group was formed and that became the future editorial team of IN-mediaHK. This editorial team has been to advocate citizen reporting, engaged journalism and other media activism.
GH: What does the name IN-mediaHK mean?
Oiwan: “IN” stands for ‘INdependent’ and ‘INvolved.’ The Chinese name is simply ‘Hong Kong Independent Media’. We provide a ‘public sphere’ independent from government, political parties and big corporations; involve local grassroots organizations, NGOs, intellectuals, activists and a wider public in framing a political and cultural agenda; and network with progressive people in other parts of the Chinese-speaking world. Actually, the site is blocked from being acessed in mainland China– we’re a little proud of that though! :) We manage to cycle some news through mailing lists into China. We also organize conferences and workshops on local social issues, media literacy, new media, etc. We also work a lot with progressive bloggers.
GH: What are some of the outcomes of net-based media activism in Hong Kong?
Oiwan: In the past two years, we have some successes, including the tree protection campaign which succeed in protecting more than 35 old trees in the Chinese University campus), alternative coverage of 2005 WTO ministerial conference, reporting on the Hong Kong Social Forum, and recently the of Star Ferry & Queen's Pier Anti-demolition Campaign. With the help of IN-mediaHK and other media activist tools, we have transformed the demolition issue into a large-scale citizen movement.
Apart from organizing reporting, we also organize conferences and workshops on local social issues, media literacy, new media, etc. We have also published/are publishing a book on reporting on the 2005 WTO Ministerial Conference in Hong Kong, with inside stories and reflections from mainstream and independent media workers. One of the conferences we organized was New Media and Social Transformation Conference in December 2005 parallel to the social movements converging to protest against the WTO.
GH: Yes, that was a great conference. Thank you for inviting my IMC Japan colleague and I to talk about Indymedia. You invited a lot of media activists and journalists from other networks and organizations, bloggers and commercial citizens’ news sites in East Asia. Actually, at this conference I first heard about the Interlocals.net project. What was the background for that?
Oiwan: Preparing to cover the anti-WTO movements in Hong Kong in December 2005, we realized that most local alternative media in the non-English speaking world are too localized. Information about movements cannot not be easily circulated among them. So we launched the Interlocals website for exchanging independent news, using English as an interface. The hope is that local independent media can get together from everywhere to maintain a platform for sharing news and information and translate them back into their languages and local media. However, Interlocals has not taken off so far, partly because the local alternative media haven't been communicating with each other, and even when they do, they don't know how to present/translate local issues into an interlocal/international context. Also, they are really busy with their local work and don’t have extra energy for interlocal exchange.
GH: I know. I want to help more but I have so many other commitments…. The goals, values and emergence and even the problems of IN-media and Interlocals sound a lot like Indymedia. I wonder if there are differences? E.g. Do you have an open publishing system? What about the organizing structure? Can anyone join the group?
Oiwan: I don't know how IMCs are organized, but here is how IN-mediaHK works: The inmedia community has around 4,000 registered users (for writing comments and receiving newsletters), 450 contributors (some are citizen reporters), around 30 are very active contributors. The organizing core is around 12 people, and we usually recruit them from the active contributors. We have an office and one paid staff. Joining as a content contributor is free- all you need is to provide a contact phone number.
GH: What’s the editorial process? IMCs are supposed to be very democratic, open and transparent. We usually don’t change the content of the posting, and we only select ‘features’ after discussion in the collective. How does information end up on the HK IN-media site?
Oiwan: We also use free and open content management. Contributors can open as many columns on different topics as they like. All posts appear on the front page (side bar) and editors can discuss and promote postings to the center column. We have around 12 editors. Usually one recommendation and one suggestion automatically promote the article, but if there is opposition, we have an open discussion via the email list. We have transparent criteria for promoting articles: Well written with social significance, good marks from registered users (we have a marking mechanism), and good discussion in the comment areas.
GH: That’s almost exactly the same as at IMC. The only difference is that we allow anonoymous posting. There is some debate about limiting that, but one argument is that its important for protecting people’s freedom from surveillance and censorship. Also, some people may not have a phone number or address, for example homeless. How about future collaboration with IMCs in the region and the global network?
Oiwan: Interlocals.net can be a bridge for independent media (including IMCs). In Northeast Asia, for example, we have diverse languages (Chinese, Japanese and Korean) and our understanding of each other is often distorted by nationalisms. So just aggregating local grassroots information is not going to work. We need cultural translation and contextualization. For example, we received a call for support for Osaka homeless. However, if we just translated and circulated it, it would not draw much support. So I researched the background information and cultural context and wrote an article at Interlocals (in English). The article was then translated into Chinese at IN-mediaHK and spread around in HK independent media and NGO circles. This is an example of how inter-local media exchange can work. It needs a lot of organizing work though, especially translators. We really need more people involved.
GH: I know what you mean! Always looking for more people, especially translators! :) Actually, I think it may be quite easy for IN-media HK to become afiliated with the IMC network, if you’re interested. In any case, let’s keep working together. I don’t know if it will help you get more people involved, but at least we can share our headaches and battles better :).
The Network of Independent Media Centers (NIMC or Indymedia)
The Indymedia network of alternative and radical media collectives emerged as a result of strong global resistance to corporate-led globalization. The first IMC was set up in Seattle during the anti-WTO demonstrations in 1999 and became the main newssource overnight, scoring more page hits than CNN’s site. Currently over 140 IMCs, publishing in 25 languages, form this network of autonomously run, non-profit media collectives. The network’s face to the world is its global site, with stories culled from the local sites. The ideological common ground between the network’s diverse local collectives is spelled out in the Principles of Unity and Membership Criteria . IMCs primarily present "news," with a special focus on social justice movement events, challenging traditional journalism and the concept of ‘objectivity’ by privileging firsthand accounts from activists. The network calls on its participants to “be the media” by becoming their own producers of news content. In Northeast Asia, there is currently only IMCJapan, though there was an IMC in Taiwan and efforts to start IMCs in Korea and Okinawa.
IMCs are committed to open publishing, free and open software and the consensus process. In open publishing, anyone with Internet access can publish instantly and with minimal "gate keeping." Registration is optional, and anonymous posting is welcome. Originally sites were not moderated at all, though attacks from spammers, rightwingers and weirdos made it necessary to adopt editorial policies. Process tools in he network include wikis and electronic mailing lists , most of which are open to anyone.
There is an informal distinction between "users" (content and discussion contributors, and audiences) and "volunteers" or "collective members" (regular contributors, editors/facilitators, techies, translators, network liaisons, etc.), though these roles are often blurred. Some IMCs are only websites maintained by a few people, while others involve a large number of volunteers participating in a variety of projects and different media, including audio, video and print.
Indymedia is not only a channel for information, but tries to ‘reinvent democracy’ in its organizing structure. There is consistent self-critique and internal debate in the system of mailing lists. Well-discussed problems include uneven participation, North-South tensions, gender bias, poor outreach and English language dominance. IMCs have minimal funding (being strictly anti-commercial) and rely almost exclusively on volunteers and donated time and equipment. Many IMCs have suffered attacks by governments, police surveillance, and right-wingers, and have been subject to the seizure of servers and a “continuing plague” of spam and hate speech. There has been a lot of research on IMC, though the growth of the movement has slowed recently- many IMCs have gone offline and fewer are being set up. It was hard to publish one’s own news in 1999, and the software developed for IMCs was innovative, but now there are many tools available. Many IMCs are now switching to newer software and reconfiguring their organizing structure.
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