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Citizen media: Global, independent and rising

I was in the hotel lobby waiting for my room to be ready and madly typing on my computer when a wide-eyed woman peeped around the corner, looked expectantly at me and smiled. I smiled back, and the penny dropped when I overheard her talking about her excitement for the Global Voices Summit that I would be attending the next day. I’d obviously looked the part — and I was happy for it. I’d joined the Global Voices family for just three days and I wasn’t going to be missing a beat.

Global Voices had brought 80 of its editors and volunteer contributors to Budapest to talk about online freedom of expression, citizen media and the role of Global Voices in the next year as it continues efforts to bring to the world’s attention voices that are generally not heard in the mainstream media.

Founded by Berkman Centre, Harvard University, fellows Ethan Zuckerman and Rebecca McKinnon, Global Voices is one of those wonderful internet success stories where a good idea was taken up by great people who recognised the need for this initiative and ran with it — engaging new volunteers, starting new projects and growing the network that Global Voices covers to reach marginalised communities throughout the globe.

Blogging is a fascinating phenomenon as it is a highly individualistic act but also requires community for success. In fact, community is so important that it can even save your life.

When the Belarusian activist Dzianis Dzianisau was detained for nearly two months on charges of “taking part in manifestations which disturb public order”, the Belarusian blogosphere successfully organised an online (and offline) campaign to raise the bail (15 500 000 Belarusian roubles, or $7 300) and got the young political prisoner out of jail.

In 2006, Egyptian blogger Alaa Abdel Fatah was arrested during a peaceful protest that spoke out on behalf of an independent Egyptian judiciary. His arrest, along with that of several other bloggers and democracy activists, spurred a protest by others around the world, some of whom created a new blog, Free Alaa, devoted to calling for his release from jail. He was released after 45 days in prison.

Closer to home, Kenyan blogger Ory Okolloh, who covered the recent election, felt safer because of her vast global network and said that it was reassuring that there were so many people watching as she blogged almost every hour during the post-election violence — posting stories of violence and events from news sources who didn’t feel comfortable with posting themselves.

For Rising Voices — an initiative by Global Voices to bring marginalised voices to start blogging — support by other bloggers in commenting and linking to posts is the best kind of support people can give.

With the tagline “It takes a village to raise an idea”, FOKO wants to help Madagascar by bringing the world’s attention to Malagasy people. Prison Diaries in Kingston, Jamaica, teaches inmates to blog and podcast in order to present the realities of the Jamaican prison system with the hope of challenging popular “badboy veneration”, and Repacted in Kenya is training refugees living in Nakuru’s displacement camps — who were forced to leave their homes during the post-election violence in January — how to tell their stories online.

Talking to your community and engaging in conversation is probably the biggest lesson for young bloggers to learn. But bloggers shouldn’t only converse with people that they “like”. In a panel on the recent fuelling of violence and antagonism between the Western and China blogosphere during protests against Chinese rule in Tibet earlier this year, participants talked about linking to diverse views and subscribing to views that you don’t necessarily like. In the current rift between Western and Chinese media epitomised in the site Anti-CNN, the Global Voices team sees the need to encourage bridge-building bloggers like the Chinese poet and documentary filmmaker Tang Danhong, and to make their own attempts at peace blogging.

The Global Voices Summit ended two days ago, and I still have such a palpable sense of this great emerging, truly global community that is discovering for itself just what a special role it plays in the world. I think we South African bloggers have much to learn from them — seeing our own community as extending much further beyond those who we know and like and meet for beers every Friday, to a community of bloggers who don’t even know they’re bloggers yet.