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Exploring Communications: From Iranian Blogs to Community Radio in Africa

The diverse and novel ways of communicating important messages in developing countries – from internet campaigns against stoning to radio reports about fish prices – were explored at a workshop at LIDC. The political and practical benefits of marginalised communities accessing information and contributing to the media were discussed by members of LIDC and representatives of media and development organisations on 4 February. The presenters focused on the phenomenal growth of blogging in Iran, the innovative online response to post-election violence in Kenya, the significance of community radio in Ghana, and the empowering impact of participatory photography. Searching questions about the ethics of seeing and not seeing suffering in the media were also posed during a compelling talk which challenged how and why NGOs use photographs of children in their campaigns.

Iranian bloggers
Professor Annabelle Sreberny, Director of the Centre for Media and Film Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), spoke about the irrepressible rise of blogging in Iran - Persian is now one of the top five languages in the blogosphere.  She explained how blogging embodies the paradoxes of the country’s political and social system. The authorities are repressive, yet internet cafes are growing and censored websites can be easily accessed by hackers. Also, journalists and bloggers are imprisoned for speaking out, but it remains unclear exactly what is unacceptable to the authorities from day to day. Although internet posts are highly political, they do not generally represent organisations, but individuals. Some blogs do represent groups, including newspapers which migrate to the internet once they are banned, and women’s rights groups. Women’s Field Maydaan.com campaigns against stoning and for female access to football stadiums.

Post-election violence in Kenya
Guy Collender, Communications Officer at LIDC, showed how bloggers and web developers responded in new and varied ways to the aftermath of the Kenyan elections in December 2007. At times they were able to provide information which could not be gathered or broadcast by the mainstream media due to the difficulties of reaching insecure areas and because of broadcast bans. Collender described how Ushahidi.com (ushahidi means ‘testimony’ in Swahili) charted where the violence was occurring in Kenya by using Google maps and information received from text messages and emails from citizens on the ground. This technique, described by Ushahidi.com as “crowdsourcing crisis information”, has subsequently been used to document xenophobic attacks in South Africa and the war in Gaza. The presentation,  partly drawing on the work of Michelle Osborn at Oxford University, also referred to how text messages were used to spread rumours during the troubles in Kenya and how the interaction of traditional and modern communicative processes exacerbated such destabilising rumours and hate speech.


Community radio, Ghana
Alex Hyde, Overseas Communications Officer for the TARGETS Consortium based at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) spoke about her experiences at Radio Ada - a flagship community radio station in Ghana.  The station broadcasts in the local Dangme language to the fishing and farming community.  It provides local, national and international news, as well as specific programmes for fishmongers and farmers, and its output challenges social attitudes, stigma and gender roles. Radio Ada is seen as “a pillar of the community” and its programmes emerge from the community, feature members of the community, and refer to subjective experiences (editing is kept to a minimum). This is to ensure the station is trusted and accountable. The programmes are produced with low tech equipment and broadcast family and community news to a wider audience (funeral announcements etc). Such insights from experiences at a grassroots organisation reinforced  how content from media outlets should be tailored to the community they serve.


Participatory photography
Tiffany Fairey, Co-founder and Project Director of PhotoVoice, described how her charity uses participatory photography as a catalyst for social change. PhotoVoice has undertaken projects in 25 countries with marginalised groups, including street children, disabled groups, and people living with HIV/AIDS. It is a “highly flexible” NGO, not bound by particular ways of working, but it has three core aims:

·         To promote self-development (empowerment, therapeutic benefits)

·         To support advocacy/awareness-raising

·         To raise income for participants/partners


PhotoVoice’s  photos are accompanied by testimonials by the photographers to provide some context, and the strongest feedback has been received from public audiences saying that the images challenge stereotypes. Fairey also raised concerns that images can be re-interpreted and re-used countless times in ways which were not originally intended, and highlighted the limited amount of research on the long-term impact of participatory art for social change.


Representations of children in NGO campaigns
Dr Karen Wells, Director of the International Childhood Studies Programme at Birkbeck,  challenged how and why NGOs use photographs of children in their campaigns. She criticised the NGO image-related agreement which forecloses suffering by repressing pain, and said it epitomises a politics of good taste which undermines political action.  Wells explored the NGO phenomenon of focusing on a lone child, devoid of any context, and portraying such a subject as apolitical, innocent and vulnerable in an effort to raise funds.  She reiterated this argument by showing the child-centred Disasters Emergency Committee’s Gaza appeal, which she said misrepresents the reality of wider suffering and its political roots (in total 1200 were killed, 280 of them being children).  Wells added that sanitised images of lone children are effective at raising money, but much less effective at mobilising political action, which is all-important in development. She also asked broad, searching questions, including: “What is an ethical response to suffering?” and “How do we generate political consciousness?”

Future workshops
Communications and Development Workshops will take place every term to build on the knowledge sharing and networking which began at the first workshop. These meetings will provide an opportunity for other researchers to share their experiences and to discuss future cross-College collaboration. Discussions could include generating new inter-College research proposals, producing material for the media (print, broadcast), and holding a conference about the media and development.
By Guy Collender, Senior Communications Officer at LIDC