Indymedia: Between Passion and Pragmatism
Who wants to be design coordinator this week?" The question comes from Nandor, a red-bearded trollish man moderating an evening meeting of New York City's all-volunteer Independent Media Center. He is composing the table of contents for the next issue of the collective's biweekly newspaper, the Indypendent.
A pair of fans swish warm air around in the low-ceilinged Manhattan loft. The thirty members of the print committee sit in a circle beneath an upside-down American flag and pass around a packet of trail mix. Someone named Jed, not present at the meeting, is finally nominated to be design coordinator, partly because no one else seems to want to do it: "What about Jed? He's unemployed, isn't he?"
The meeting lasts one hour and five minutes; Nandor clocks it on his watch. Like all things at the center, the process has been precarious, democracy teetering on the edge of anarchy. There are some rules -- people raise their hand to speak -- but the collective believes everyone should have his or her say. Tony wants to report on union labor and summer fashions. Someone else knows a columnist who has a piece to contribute "It's about the deportations, but it's really funny." Don, in his seventies and by a few decades the oldest member of the collective, has an idea for a historical piece about the Spanish-American War. "It's about how we have been misled into past wars," he says. Everything makes it in. There is no editor to say otherwise. At least not yet.
Meetings like this one, experiments in democratic media, have been taking place all over the world in increasing numbers. New York City's Independent Media Center is just one piece of the rapidly expanding Indymedia movement, a four-year-old phenomenon that grew out of the trade protests of the late 1990s, and now encompasses a constellation of about 120 local collectives from Boston to Bombay. Each collective has a diverse palette of mediums it uses, including radio, video, print, and the Internet. Each is driven by political passions its volunteers don't find in the mainstream press, and each struggles to make the process of covering news as inclusive and empowering as possible for the community in which it exists.
Although the individual collectives have their political and cultural idiosyncrasies, they are united through their Web sites. To join the worldwide collective, a new Independent Media Center must have an online presence. This is the kernel of the experiment, the clearest expression of the movement's vision. The concerns and interests of these activist-journalists are immediately apparent on any of the local Indymedia sites. Go to the Melbourne, Australia, site, for example, for an article about aboriginal elders protesting the dumping of nuclear waste on their land; or to the Washington, D.C., site to read about the USA Patriot Act's many alleged violations of the Bill of Rights; or to the United Kingdom site for a piece titled, "New EU Constitution Threatens Free Education."
The sites all have a similar format and feature a newswire that employs a technology called open publishing. This allows a writer to post a story directly to the newswire from his or her own computer, without going through an editor. Using a simple form on the site, you merely paste in your file, click "Publish," and immediately see a link to your article appear at the top of the Web site's wire.
The open wire usually appears on the right side of the homepage of the local sites, while the center column is reserved for particularly relevant stories off the wire that a committee of volunteers has decided to highlight. The network of collectives also maintains a global site (www.indymedia.org) that pulls content from all the local sites. More than any other element of Indymedia, the accessibility of open publishing has allowed activists from Brazil to Italy to Israel to Los Angeles to answer the revolutionary demand that inspired this grass-roots movement: Don't hate the media. Be the media.
But Indymedia volunteers are also learning that being the media is not so simple. An open, representative form of media may be a worthy ideal, but in reality is often a messy thing. As the collective evolves, the volunteers are faced with difficult decisions many members never contemplated -- about their Web site's usefulness, about editorial policy, about money. Whether they thrive or fade into irrelevance will ultimately depend on how well they keep their most extreme tendencies at bay. It won't be easy. Pure democracy can be chaotic, spontaneity can tip into incoherence, absolute independence might just mean poverty.
At their best, Indymedia Web sites serve as a sort of activist bulletin board and a space to report on and support a wide range of left-leaning causes from environmental extremism and anarchism to fair-trade advocacy and universal health care. One IMC in Urbana, Illinois, for example, relentlessly reported about the detention of a local pro-Palestinian activist, Ahmed Bensouda, who was being held by the Immigration and Naturalization Service after 9/11 for a minor violation. After a few weeks of constant attention, he was released. Because each posting can be followed by potentially endless comments, Indymedia sites have also facilitated difficult debates within the activist community. A graphic photograph posted on the Prague IMC site of riot police being hit with a Molotov cocktail during that city's September 2000 International Monetary Fund/World Bank meeting inspired a contentious online discussion about whether violence was an acceptable form of resistance.
Indymedia's reporter-activists believe that no journalism is without bias. They criticize the mainstream media not simply because, in their eyes, the networks and newspapers work to maintain the status quo, but because they believe the mainstream's claims to neutrality mask these biases. Indymedia journalists say they are not afraid to admit their own bias: journalism in the service of upending the status quo. They make the argument that this unabashed commitment does not conflict with fairness and accuracy. At many collectives, Indymedia reporters are advised not to participate in direct action at protests they are covering. But as a whole, this journalism is argumentative, angry, and often written without the basic journalistic concessions to attribution and balance. A recent issue of the Indypendent, for example, was headlined "Liar!" next to a photo of President Bush.
"The majority of IMC people I know don't believe in objectivity," says Chris Anderson, twenty-six, a volunteer at the New York City collective. "They think everyone should have an opinion and make it known. In this way, Indymedia goes back to the partisan press of the nineteenth century."
Indymedia first went online amid the tear gas and tumult of the Seattle World Trade Organization protests in 1999. The belief that the mainstream media were never going to explore deeply the downside of globalization, and the story of the various groups trying to fight it, had taken root throughout the mid-'90s. Activists concluded that if they wanted their story told with nuance and depth, they would have to do it themselves.
Early inspiration came from deep within the jungles of the Chiapas region in southern Mexico, where Subcomandante Marcos, the ski-masked leader of the Zapatista movement, articulated the case for an independent alternative media. In a videotaped message to a 1997 gathering called the Media and Democracy Congress, he made the argument that would have the greatest influence on the founders of Indymedia. "The world of contemporary news is a world that exists for the VIPs, the very important people," Marcos said. "Their everyday lives are what is important: if they get married, if they divorce, if they eat, what clothes they wear and what clothes they take off these major movie stars and big politicians. But common people only appear for a moment when they kill someone, or when they die."
Instead of simply conforming to this reality or becoming paralyzed with cynicism, Marcos proposed a third option. "To construct a different way to show the world what is really happening, to have a critical world view, and to become interested in the truth of what happens to the people who inhabit every corner of this world."
As the WTO meeting neared, a group of Seattle activists began building this "different way" in a 2,500-square-foot space that was donated to the group by a local nonprofit housing advocacy group. It became the first Independent Media Center, a place where reporters could bring their articles, as well as video and radio reports, to be uploaded to a central Web site.
The activist community in Seattle coalesced around this center. Unlike previous efforts to coordinate the often fractious groups, the IMC became an energetic hub of collaboration. "It was like we were high," says Sheri Herndon, forty-three, one of the founding members of Indymedia. "The right people came and we plugged them in. And one of the things that was pretty powerful is that we weren't really fazed about working together. We had a short-term common goal. The smaller differences, you just let them go."
The use of open publishing made the Seattle Indymedia experiment revolutionary, even though the original motivation for the technology was practical. It would take too long to upload all the reporters' accounts manually in one location. The solution came from an Australian computer programmer involved with Indymedia who, three weeks before the protests, adapted an open-source code that enabled the activists to use any computer to simply post accounts or photographs of what was happening on the streets. "With open publishing, your experience of the news is different," says Jay Sand, thirty-one, another of Indymedia's early volunteers. "You really feel like you were there, even more so than TV. On TV, you are seeing one image at a time. Real life is more confusing and this comes through on the IMC site."
The result was a street-level collage of text and image: a photograph of a legion of police in riot gear. An account of a protester whose nose had just been broken. A video of the anarchist group Black Bloc smashing the windows of a Nike store. An analysis of the trade talks over fishing rights happening that day inside the convention hall. An explanation of the cause that drove activists to dress up like sea turtles.
Unwittingly, the Indymedia organizers had found a technology that fit philosophically with their ideas about how to transform the media. Everyone was now empowered to contribute to the creation of the news.
In the four years since the Seattle protests, it wouldn't be farfetched to say that Indymedia has become a brand, although that might not be the word activists would choose. From the time the first Web site was set up, Independent Media Centers have proliferated at a rapid pace, about one new one every eleven days. It soon became clear that the Indymedia format was attractive to activists around the world, not just as a way to cover protests but as a day-to-day accounting of the local and global concerns of social-justice and antiglobalization advocates.
Evan Henshaw-Plath, one of the crucial "tech geeks" of the Indymedia network, has seen Indymedia grow from the Seattle collective to a universal prototype that can now be found even in Montevideo, Uruguay, where he is temporarily living. "It blows my mind sometimes how much Indymedia has spread," Henshaw-Plath says. "In every place I have gone to present Indymedia, it's not been something I have ever had to convince somebody of. The first thing people say is, 'We want to start one.'"
The ideal of creating a media source that would be totally inclusive has had to endure tremendous tests. Open publishing, the purest form of the idea, has become, in some instances, Indymedia's greatest liability.
The New York City IMC is typical. It was started in the spring of 2000 in anticipation of that fall's UN Millennium Summit for the world's heads of state. A space in midtown Manhattan was donated to the group. In the three years since its founding, the print committee has been dominant, putting out the 10,000-circulation Indypendent. And the collective has grown exponentially. Financially, it scrapes by, as most collectives do, by putting on benefits and selling merchandise like T-shirts and U.S. maps featuring nuclear power plants and army bases, what the volunteers call the United States' "infrastructure of terror." The volunteers are also typical of American IMCs. As John Tarleton, thirty-four, one of the founders of the New York IMC, who supports himself by picking blueberries during the summer, says, "Volunteers are mostly in their twenties and thirties, unmarried yet largely college educated, predominantly white, struggling to make ends meet, underemployed or unemployed."
The Web site (www.nyc.indymedia.org) became a place were the city's diverse activist community could inform itself about coming protests and events. Stories about police brutality or unfair housing laws appeared side-by-side with leftist political analyses of the war on terrorism. But the site was also deluged with posts that had nothing to do with the people's struggle; anti-Semitic rants, racist caricatures, and pornography all competed, democratically, for space on the wire. Although an editorial board of volunteers decided what stories to highlight in the center column, the wire itself became almost unusable. "That wasn't what Indymedia was set up for," Tarleton says. "Many people stopped using us as a place to post."
Because the network had grown so fast, there was no process or editorial principle to mediate what went on the newswire. "Personally, I started out as a total free-speech libertarian," says Chris Anderson. "My thoughts were that people were smart enough to know what's trash and what's not. Is it our business to tell them what is acceptable? Two years later, I was the one pushing for more moderation of the wire. So I guess there was an evolution, which does mirror the evolution of the movement."
In response, the collective came up with a compromise of sorts -- a hidden folder where all unacceptable posts could be dumped without being erased. Eventually, a policy emerged that defined what was prohibited. This was a painful process, since it seemed to highlight the tension at the heart of the Indymedia experiment: Was the site a place for free speech or was it a place to express the views of the antiglobalization movement? "It is maybe a slippery slope when you start hiding posts," says Tarleton. "But we are already heading down a slippery slope when we turn our newswire over to crackpots."
In the end, a piece of the democratic ideal had to be discarded to save the rest. But it is a shift that many watching Indymedia from the sidelines saw as inevitable. Robert McChesney, author of "Rich Media, Poor Democracy," says he always believed that "the Indymedia movement is not obliged to be a movement for every viewpoint under the sun. They need to make tough editorial decisions, and that's not something to be despondent about. The problem is not that you have to make decisions. The important thing is that you make them based on principles that are transparent."
A similar clash of values came in the middle of 2002, when the global Indymedia network, desperate for funds to maintain aging equipment and to help local collectives pay rent, was awarded a $50,000 grant from the Ford Foundation in response to a proposal submitted by a few volunteers. What should have been a boon to a struggling organization was a cause for consternation among Indymedia activists. There was no process yet for reaching a consensus on whether to accept the money and, if it was to be accepted, how to distribute it. To some extent, the global network -- run by a committee composed of at least one volunteer from each collective, who communicate via list-servers in more than a dozen languages -- had outgrown its founders. As with the creation of the "hidden folder," process generally followed crisis. Now the network was on the verge of receiving much-needed resources, and the only decision-making method available was one of passive consensus, where if no one disagrees, it is assumed everyone agrees.
Suddenly, the democracy so treasured by the network -- now grown to at least 5,000 volunteers -- became its greatest handicap. A number of IMCs outside the United States, including Brazil, Italy, and Argentina, were opposed to taking money from the corporate world. Although many of the American volunteers thought the collective should take the money as long as no strings were attached, the bitter arguments became too much for the network to bear. In the end the grant had to be returned because no consensus could be reached and the debate threatened, as Sascha Meinrath, a volunteer at the Urbana-Champagne IMC, put it, to "create fissures in the network that would take years to fix."
Slowly and carefully, Indymedia organizers are beginning to deal with the internal tensions that made this crisis inevitable. A consensus seems to be building that Indymedia will survive and grow only if it becomes more organized, efficient, and useful for the activist community. In the sticky domain of financial issues, Meinrath has helped form fund-raising group called the Tactical Media Fund, independent from Indymedia and able to make decisions without a network-wide consensus.
For the newswire, new technology is being developed by the tech geeks to make it easier to sift through the information and find the news a reader is looking for. Instead of deciding which posts are acceptable and which are not, Indymedia volunteers can be librarians, categorizing posts so that at a click one can find everything having to do with bioengineering, for example. The idea is to make the sites easier to use. The next step is to create themed Indymedia sites (about the economy, Israel-Palestine conflict, environment, etc.) that would include all related stories funneled from local sites.
There is a surprising amount of talk about the need to expand the rules and processes and guidelines that govern Indymedia. "The ideal has not been abandoned," Chris Anderson insists. "But the great thing about Indymedia people is that they are not ideologues, they are pragmatists, not hung up on things. They have ideals but are also very practical."
This flexibility will be necessary to confront the challenges that lie ahead. IMCs continue to multiply. A group of young Iraqis are trying to set up one in Baghdad. They have begun work on publishing a newspaper, and British activists are helping the Iraqis with their Web site. A radio station in Amman, Jordan, has sent people to get them started in that medium. All this would have been impossible a few years ago
But to build something truly alternative and useful will require discipline along with the creative joy that was so manifest that winter in Seattle. Sheri Herndon, who has observed Indymedia's evolution, was referring to the content as much as the attitude that drives the network when she said, "Ultimately, it's not enough for us to talk about what we are against. We have to articulate what we are for. It's not enough to slow the rate of destruction. We have to increase the rate of creation."
Gal Beckerman is an assistant editor at CJR.