Cyber-activism an extended mission of journalism: Fredrick Noronha

 Goa-based journalist cum cyber-activist Fredrick Noronha sees himself primarily as an info-activist. His goal is to dig out information that could bring about a greater degree of social justice in societies. He is interested in issues like the Right to Information, cyber-activism, information-activism, Web 2.0 tools that create more space for expression of views online, Free Software that empowers its users.

 

“Call me an armchair-activist!’Social media is becoming an important tool for the people to bring about change in India. The media (specially the ‘social media’, Web 2.0, and the participative power of the Internet) is growing in power in all fields. It’s only natural that it increases in relevance to a field like activism, of which collaborative campaigns are already an integral part,” says Noronha.

Last week, he conducted his second cyber-activism workshop of the year, in Pune city, an idea of Open Space. A two-day workshop, attended by a dozen activists, who got a chance to combine the techie and the activist to create thought-provoking and effective e-campaigns. Earlier this year, he was the key resource person for another workshop in Bangalore organized by TacticalTech.org.

He advocates the need for more people to take advantage of the power of the internet and says that it (net) is an extended mission of journalism.

“I believe more in trying to encourage others to leverage the power of the Net. I think it’s an extension of the mission of journalism, by which one creates space for people to express themselves. Thus, you could say my ‘cyber-activism’ is of a once-removed kind. I’ve always strongly felt that people need space to express themselves, the mainstream media often doesn’t provide this, and cyberspace could fill the gap.”

“The good part about cyber-activism is that it can indeed have an impact, sometimes in the most unlikeliest of ways. The bad part is that the impact can sometimes take years to come, there is a lot of skepticism about whether cyber-activism works, and grassroot activists are either skeptical about it or see it as a luxury which we can’t really afford!”

Noronha who started his journalism career with Goan English daily newspaper Herald in 1984 says some of the core issues involving journalism, of a news reporter being “colourless, tasteless, and odorless” should not always be the case.

“Journalism today requires the news reporter to be colourless, tasteless, and odorless—in the sense, of not taking stands over issues. This was not always the case, and we need to recognise it as a recent trend, dating back to a few decades at most. When I was in active news reporting, I used to feel a bit apologetic about my views too. “Activism” is almost a bad word in journalism, and looked down upon. Never mind that one may not be taking partisan political stands, but just interested in positive social change.”

“In the 1990s, I moved into doing more environmental journalism. This helped me lose some of my hang-ups, because one can’t do environmental journalism without feeling strongly about issues. There are clear sides of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ here, though with a lot of shades of grey. Later on, my writing focussed on information technology and cyber-issues, which gave me more space to take a stand on the issues I was interested in.”

Using cyberspace, the ordinary citizen’s reach gets widely extended, and anyone can work to change in their own way. And that is happening in India in several campaigns atonally the Pink Chaddi campaign. But Noronha says India has to go a long way.

“I think we need to acknowledge that India is still a long way away from widespread Net access. But the situation has still improved quite significantly, say, compared to how many people could afford (and manage) to access the Net five years ago. In the next few years, we could find the numbers growing sharply, and then the Net could be even far more influential,” he adds.

One must say that Net access costs in India are pretty decent, and becoming more affordable all the time. Going down the memory lane Noronha recounts his first experience with the net connections and the bottle necks they had to face to check his emails way back in 1994.

“Way back in 1994,thanks to a network called IndiaLink, I got access to the Net. IndiaLink offered NGOs and journalists the chance to use cyberspace, but it was only basic email access, and we had to dial-up all the way to Bombay (600 kms from Goa) to access our mailbox! Yet, in those days, this was a big boon, as otherwise one couldn’t buy Internet access, even if you had money. The commercial service providers like VSNL came to places like Goa around 1997. The only option was ERNET, the educational and research network, but I was not an academic and could not access that.”

“Via IndiaLink, we used the learning’s from Goanet (set up in 1994, by a 17-year-old expat Goan, Herman Carneiro) and launched some mailing lists. The most successful of these was IL-Environment, an environment-related mailing list. It was amazing to see how simple technology and an almost-free-to-run service could link environmental campaigners across India, very effectively. I recall the country’s environment minister-to-be Maneka Gandhi was also part of that network. It must have been around 1995 or 1996,” he recollects.

 With Goa seeing an increased level of activism he says “more communication would help. Whether blogs, mailing lists, wikis, Facebook groups, or whatever”.

“Villages need such networks too, as do urban localities, professional groups, activist organisations and NGOs, campaigners, alumni networks, social work bodies, trade unions, religious organisation and just about everyone that needs to stay networked in real life. Expats have, in the past too, played a key role in building cyberspace in Goa. That’s why our tiny state got a VSNL node among the first ten regions in the country to do so. I think they can do more.

And the long-standing journalist has a few suggestion for Goans. “The challenge is (i) for people to realise the power of sharing (information, news, whatever) (ii) for us to give up the Goan infighting gene which seems endemic to our population and (iii) for us to involve more people, use more languages to communicate in—specially local languages. We can’t assume that everyone is comfortable in using English alone.”

Noronha is credited with starting the BytesForAll.

“In 2001, I thought of doing something at the intersection of my interest in IT and journalism. Basically, India was then already claiming an IT prowess, but the fact was that this was being used almost wholly to earn export dollars, and very little of the claimed skills were being used to meet the needs of the common (wo)man.

“So, using basic journalism tools and volunteerism, some of us tried to collate information about IT projects that are being used to primarily benefit the people. I thought this would last for three to four ezine issues (compiled and shared online). But Partha Sarkar, from Bangladesh, pushed the project forward, created a website and we did more. Today, it has a mailing-list that still shares useful information about ICT-for-D (information and communication technologies for development) initiatives in South Asia.”

“We got far more response than we ever expected, and now have about 2100 readers at: http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/bytesforall_readers/. At one point of time, it had about 15 volunteers in six South Asian countries, with India, Bangladesh and Pakistan working closely over this via citizen-driven initiatives.”

And he sees a bright future for cyber-activism in the coming years.

He says: “Broadly speaking, I think cyber-activism will get more influential, more relevant, bigger, and also more prone to misuse. We can already see party-linked individuals trying to skew the debate by entering public fora (like mailing lists) and sending out one-sided, biased messages meant to electorally help those they are close to. Most readers wouldn’t even notice such nuances.”

Richard M Stallman, the father of the Free Software Movement, is the person he looks up as he struggles to cope with my daily mail.

 

“I’ve been active on a number of mailing-lists in the past, and yes, that does make me struggle to cope with my mail sometimes. When we invited Richard M Stallman, the father of the Free Software Movement  to Goa, I realized that he spends about eight hours a day just replying to his email!”

And email is another extension of form of contact for him.

“Well, I think email contact is another form of contact, though some see it as impersonal an un-humanlike. We need to adapt to new forms of communications. Why not if it is effective?, he says.

His use of RTI help expose the scam of repeatedly crashing of Sea Harrier planes. It was amazing to see the impact created by the Sea Harrier story.

“After years of having my doubts, I did manage to take the help of a Kerala-based RTI activist (Haribabu) and an editor of a prominent paper to help break the scam of repeatedly crashing Sea Harrier planes, each one costing crores of rupees! While I have a lot more yet to be done on using the Right to Information tool in India. I sometimes feel gratified by the results gained by Right to Information attempts, for instance. It was amazing to see the impact got merely by "playing postman" in helping to bring out information about Goa’s plans on SEZs. I merely circulated this information, which a friend, Leroy Veloso, had dug up. But it did have a big impact in the local press.

And he does not see a day when Indian government may well crack a whip on the social networking site by blocking them.

 “Our IT laws are already among the most bizarre and stringent, and these were passed without even any significant debate about their impact on free speech. And you may see a day when the Indian government may clamp down on the social networking sites, by blocking them. It’s going to be tough to do this, but this is not to say it won’t happen,” he adds.

 

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ABOUT Fredrick Noronha is a cyberjunkie, Journalist, photographer, FOSS advocate and copyleft
supporter.

 

Info-Activism is an approach which helps rights advocates tactically utilise information, communications and digital technologies to enhance advocacy work. Tactical Tech believes that new technologies have significant potential to enhance the work of campaigners and advocates, giving them the tools to gather and analyse information and the means to turn that information into action. In this website, we would like to introduce you to our new initiative – The Info-Activism Camp was held in Bangalore, India between the 19th and 25th of February 2009. More about our approach to Info-Activism can be found at http://www.informationactivism.org/whatisinfoactivism His goal is to dig out information that could bring about a greater degree of social justice in societies.