WBF2009 Day 1: Blogs, Citizen Journalism and E-Democracy

The first day of the World Blogging Forum 2009 was all about empowerment and influence: since 99% of the participants are bloggers it's no surprise that we all agree on the total and complete deadness of old media – that's just a question of the vanishing point. But how to harness the power of the web to strengthen the civil society in dictatorial states? This issue is far from easy to tackle!

Blogs and citizen journalism

Wael Abbass kicked off the first session: The Egyptian blogger and human rights activists pointed out the various problems bloggers face in Egypt: Mubarak does not use direct censorship but rather relies on “informal” methods of incredible pressure. “I'm almost out of optimism”, Wael said in his very moving speech, as even though police violence and torture videos have been leaked and published, the situation hasn't changed at all – for 40 years. For us Western-European bloggers, the primary problem is how to monetize our blogs, while Wael has to struggle to just be able to continue his work – and when we talked last night, Wael explained that literally no brands want to advertise on his highly critical blog as they are afraid of the political consequenes.

Zhou Shuguang also has to face a quite restrictive government: China, famous for its “big Firewall”, does not fight the internet per se, but it's doing everything to wall the garden – yet nobody is sure if blocking e.g. is a political or an economic decision, pushing national copycat-service. For example: the fact that Twitter clients work in China is at least a partial proof that the “censorship” is not just about keeping thoughts, but rather about keeping the competition out.

Jeff Jedras vom Canada, Michael Reuter, the Bavarian founder of Germany's Yigg and Ramon Stoppelenburg from Amsterdam (“I've got a typical Spanish first name and a very typical Dutch surname – complain with my parents!”) run their blogs in countries where censorship is not an issue – but monetization definitely is. Michael thinks it's vital to turn (political) blogging into a sustainable business as well, and I totally agree with him in that this does not have to go hand-in-hand with any loss of credibility. Ramon talked about his “Let me stay for a day” project which brought him to 72 countries via invitations of private folks:

And then it hit me – this is what the internet is really about, to get in touch with people. […] So I can travel and also have an opportunity to open the eyes of people who can't!

This extension of virtual relationships to actually getting to know people from all over the world physically, to even stay at their place ( has about 2mio profiles by now) leads to a new quality of understanding, Ramon believes:

The more we share, the more we put online about each other, about ourselves, the more we understand each other.

Again: nobody in here (not even the Romanian president) believes in old media. They are slow, biassed and tend to overstretch the truth a lot – so it's always a good idea to take a look for yourself if possible!

Dob? M?ty?s from Hungary took a different approach: he stressed the importance of monetization possibilites, because in his opinion, economic freedom is the only safe road to stay free from interfering influences. I can hardly believe that it was me who had to add that money is not the only and not even the primary motivation for a lot of bloggers. The last keynote before lunch was very interesting: Andrea Vascellari from Finland told the story of his 5 minutes of CNN fame: after the infamous school shooting old media producers asked him to report, which he did and to interview people, which he denied:

I didn't want to interfere with people suffering, and I'm interested in creating a better web, so I cannot apply traditional old media strategies.

E-Democracy | Blogs and freedom of expression

Giorgi Jakhai became famous in Georgia when he started writing about the Russian-Georgian war. In his keynote he adressed the question: What is freedom? Having had to leave his hometown due to “ethnic cleanings” during the war, Giorgi has experienced the situation of helplessness first hand and made distributing information about the war his mission.

Parvana Persiyani from Azerbaijan talked about the situation of bloggers in the Baltic states – even though the freedom of expression does exist in theory, the wrong blog posting can have dire consequences – like getting kicked out of the university. And it's also about economic hurdles: if the price for internet access is too high, people simply can't afford this kind of communicative freedom.

Moderator Dumitru Bortun, President of the Honorific Jury, Romanian Association of Public Relations , summed up the two keynotes in a very concise way:

Both participants take part in a war – an information war. And the keynotes help us understand how this war works. What can we learn from that? Any kind of democracy requires infrastructure (i.e. Greek agora), which is easily overseen.

The follow-up sepaker, Stela Popa from Moldavia, is an atypical visitor as she is not a blogger – but she is defending two Moldavian bloggers who got into serious censorship troubles and it was fascinating yet spooky at the same time to hear about the wicked ways of the Moldavian (jailtime) censorship. Speaker Luca Sartoni from Italy, who works for 123people (he seriously claims that the company helps people with “reputation management” when the whole business model is just aggregating unwanted spam) is convinced that democracy means circulating any kind of information, not just political programs.

After the coffee break, Romanian journalist Mihaela Onofrei, who has seen a fair share of conflict areas from Azerbeidjan to Afghanistan presented her Transnistria-project and talked about the role of bloggers in changing public images. Petru Terguta vrom Moldavia repeated the well-known plot of “evil government” – and once again the blogosphere played and important role in circulating and publishing the kind of topics which would not turn up in Moldovian mainstream press.

Onnik Krikorian was born in the United Kingdom, but moved to Yerevan in Armenia 11 years ago. In his double-role as a writer and photographer for mainstream media on the one hand and as a blogger on the other, he presented some very interesting insights in the Armenian media system.

My upshot of the first day: #intense #challenging #different Why different? Because I immensly enjoy getting to know so many people I usually don't meet at the average 2.0 event. I'd like to say that I learned a lot and I laughed a lot, but even though the atmosphere was just great, there were not that many funny facts on such a serious topic. But the day brought an important insight for me: I strongly believe that we as bloggers, as part of an international network, do have the responsibility to figure out new ways of distributing information – not necessarily via a new hi-tech aggregator or via some complicated system, because maybe simply offering our blog-brothers and -sisters in dictatorial countries some space on our blogs to broadcast their messages might offer some relief as well as international awareness – I'll propose that tonight and I hope we can figure out something out that helps our friends in dictatorial countries.