Two blockades were erected around Melbourne’s Crown Casino on the 11, 12 and 13 September. There was firstly the blockade of peaceful protesters surrounding the Crown Casino and partially ‘shutting down’ the World Economic Forum, and secondly what activists in Prague (hosting their own protest on 26 September against the International Monetary Fund) have dubbed the corporate media blockade. The perceived misrepresentation of events within the mainstream press, radio and television led protesters to adorn walls with slogans such as ‘the media tells lies’ and ‘don’t hate the media – become the media’. The message was clear – the kind of participatory, democratic and sustainable social system the various groups involved in S11 stood for had to include a space for effective public communication. In response to the perceived need for independent media coverage of S11, a coalition of individuals and people from different community media organisations formed Melbourne IndyMedia – an on-line media channel which allowed and encouraged everyone to be a journalist.
The idea of the corporate media being a barrier to democratic discourse is not new. However, with the emergence of the Internet, debate has been renewed in recognition of the need for a public sphere separate from the corporate and public sectors. The ability of on-line media to network and enhance the organisational activities of groups and individuals has suggested the possibility of a greater degree agency from civil society and its citizens. Creative applications of the Internet technology during the S11 protests demonstrated the ability of the Net to not only function as an organisational tool but also as a form of civil disobedience in cyberspace. The tongue-in-cheek link to John Farnham’s ‘You’re the Voice’ – chosen as the S11 song – and the clever ‘hactivism’ which redirected users from www.nike.com to www.S11.org, generated considerable discussion within the press, radio and television media. This publicity alerted new audiences to the existence of the site incrementally increasing the number of hits the site received. The old media was important in publicising and drawing attention to the new, highlighting the fact that, although the Net is an important new tool, activists still largely rely on coverage in the traditional media and cannot rely solely upon the emerging communications networks.
Initially developed out of a synergy of public, civil and private co-operation, the Internet has enabled this reformulation of political dynamics. However it is quickly becoming more and more privately driven. IndyMedia, an initiative of shared technologies, ideas and knowledge, has carried on the tradition from which the Internet emerged. As Rhonda and Michael Hauben note in their history of Usenet and the Internet ‘the development of the Net was the result of the work of many computer pioneers from the academic, government and research sectors working cooperatively to produce a significant public resource.” The researchers had no proprietary products to support and no commercial deadlines to meet. They did not develop products that commercial sector could (and would) develop. Interestingly most news media, during the S11 protests, highlighted what they saw as an apparent contradiction in the use of ‘corporate’ technology by an ‘anti-corporate’ movement. Both the IndyMedia and S11 sites provide useful examples of creative and effective uses of a technology when in the hands of citizens. This new movement of technological application, radicalism and creativity – dating back to the urgent postings of the Zapatistas (EZLN) of Chiapas, Mexico in 1994 and the international campaign against the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) – has gained momentum in the wake of the protests against the World Trade Organisations in Seattle of last year.
Seattle saw the inception of the first IndyMedia ‘channel’ aimed at providing up to the minute independent coverage of the anti-WTO protests. IndyMedia centres have now sprung up all over the globe using a common html code and format created by Sydney’s Catalyst computer geek collective. Within minutes photographs, text, video and audio material can be uploaded for all to see, reply to and add to within the one website. Unlike radio, television or newspapers, where feedback is slow or non-existent, electronic forums such as this ensure quick interaction among all participants. IndyMedia has been successful in empowering citizens by generating spaces for interaction at the local, national and global level rather than being constrained to the specific representations offered by large media institutions. Such an initiative proceeds from a logic of engagement founded upon notions of production and involvement rather than consumption and spectacle. Witnessing the rapid postings of breaking news and first- hand accounts uploaded every few minutes during N30 in Seattle, A16 in Washington and S11 in Melbourne may suggest directions for a more participatory media environment. The world has never witnessed the ease with which news and information is transferred at amazing speed and with excellent results.
One of the greatest achievements of the IndyMedia initiative has been in its ability to challenge the ideas of who is and who is not an authoritative journalist. Notions of legitimacy and credibility that go hand in hand with the tradition of journalism are disregarded in preference for a free dissemination of information. The Catalyst system allows anyone – with access – to publish to a global audience under the banner of IndyMedia regardless of political affiliation or persuasion. A high level of participation and the high quality of content, despite a lack of editorial control, has shown the open-publishing model to be enormously successful and useful to journalists and citizens alike when searching for information. Such independent coverage has been extremely important given the mainstream’s misunderstandings and misrepresentations of the S11 protests. The most notable examples were a number of print and television reports written using PR company, Hill and Knowlton’s ‘S11 background brief.’ The brief contained incorrect claims regarding the S11 and related movements. For example, both the Age and the Herald Sun reported that the Seattle protests had mobilised around a meeting of the World Economic Forum, as the Hill and Knowlton brief suggested, when in fact it was the World Trade Organisation. A degree of public confusion was to be expected after such passive journalism.
Both corporate and public media seemed to have difficulty grasping the concepts of affinity groups involving fragmented and decentralised ways of organising. S11 saw the emergence of pragmatic and creative groups – such as the S11 bicycle courier network (i)Xpress, Food not Bombs and IndyMedia – not easily confined to a system of rhetoric or totalising logic. The anarchic structure of organising which emerged was perhaps difficult for the mainstream media to document due to the common formula governing the construction of news items. The time limitations of the news format, demanding concision and the production of neat binary oppositions, does not lend itself well to a comprehensive coverage of something as diverse and complex as the S11 protests. Whereas there are clear difficulties in the format of mainstream news, oversimplification of the issues was inappropriate as both the political issues and the protesters themselves were multifaceted and resistant to basic explanations. The Internet technology, as applied by the IndyMedia news service, was much more conducive to permitting a proliferation of heterogenous voices.
In addition to this a perhaps basic yet important point was echoed by protesters throughout the three days – the bulk of Australian media is owned by members of the World Economic Forum.
The inabilities of the mainstream media to comprehensively document the issues and events surrounding S11 are contrasted by the growing number of community based, independent media outlets and individuals granted a forum for interactive dialogue through IndyMedia. The IndyMedia site provides a ‘channel’ for open discourse, free of editorial, as a simple click on the ‘publish’ button enables anyone and everyone to upload their stories. Rather than challenging or infiltrating the mainstream the objective of IndyMedia is to create a system outside of the dominant socio-political culture, empowering citizens by providing greater access and opportunity. Under this method of communication the traditional concept of the ‘audience’ is refuted – challenging the reader/writer to come to their own conclusions by wading through the diverse range of stories relating to s11 and other events. The sheer enormity and breadth of information available has lead to a greater level of engagement with both the issues and the other reader/writers. Creating this space for audience control has harnessed the inherent qualities of hypertext – unlike the majority of on-line news services, which remain overwhelmingly one-way in their transmission.
Despite the advent of such innovative modes of news delivery and more than 30,000 visits to Melbourne IndyMedia to date, the fact remains that the majority of news is gained from traditional television, print and radio media. With only half of the Australian population having domestic access to the Internet those involved in IndyMedia have always been well aware of the limitations of an on-line news channel. In light of these important shortcomings, a print version drawing on content from the site, Indy Bulletin, was produced daily throughout S11 to S13 and a SKA TV documentary, Melbourne Rising, was also produced drawing on footage from a number of independent film-makers. A screening of the documentary has already been scheduled to occur in Prague before the mobilisation against the International Monetary Fund who plan to meet there on S26.
The workings of the group were inhibited by a lack of permanent physical working space, economic constraints, and difficulty with securing publicity in the mainstream media. The Seattle IndyMedia Centre had a budget of over $70,000 (US) to cover the actions against the WTO in November last year – IndyMedia Melbourne worked unfunded. The positive response to IndyMedia in its short life span has demonstrated the need for more interactive, independent media with a view to enlivening the public sphere. IndyMedia will continue to fill this role as long as the public continue to produce and publish content.
Alex Kelly is a Swinburne Media student who was actively involved in the co-ordination of Melbourne IndyMedia
Jason Gibson teaches at Swinburne University of Technology in Media and Communications and Sociology