Civil Networking in a Hostile Environment: Experiences in the Former Yugoslavia
Methods of media resistance the example of Radio B2-92
I have often heard questions such as: 'How have you managed to survive and develop the independent media in spite of the oppression Milosevics regime has been conducting for the last thirteen years?' As well as curiosity, the question often conceals a reserved attitude towards the authenticity of the local media scene. The answer is quite simple: the devotion to the original principles of human rights, the principles derived from the best tradition of journalism and readiness to make changes in spite of the level of oppression. Nevertheless, I have to emphasize that without the use of new technologies, continuous experiments and endless efforts to connect the media and the entire network of independent organizations, mostly by creating new media, it would never be possible to develop the media networking and to keep them alive. A number of situations have demonstrated the role of the Internet in overcoming prohibitions, as well as in strengthening and intensifying the democratization process within the media, because now almost everyone can have their own electronic media thanks to the Internet. However, the Internet is not capable of finding the solution by itself. On almost every occasion it is necessary to merge the super-sophisticated technologies with traditional media techniques.
A long time ago I used to write about the time after the Berlin wall had been overthrown and democracy established in Eastern Europe, where the main necessity was to turn the cold war infrastructure into an infrastructure for democracy, freedom of the press, human rights and so on, which meant beginning to use the war infrastructure for democratic and pacific purposes.
This actually meant that the local forces which had shown a high level of democracy in their work, a professional attitude to journalism and, most of all, outstanding aspiration to establish and consolidate peace, were supposed to be given the use of the transmission structures for radio stations such as The Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty.
Instead, the budget for some territories has been cut and increases given to the war areas. Very little has been changed within the structure, and the efficiency of such a method of distributing information, which had been relying on the cold war approach, could not be increased in a way which would indicate a serious qualitative program.
Because these ideas were ignored, I suggested creating a parallel transmission structure which would serve local stations which have often been under oppression, bans and disruption, and which would be used for providing information in extreme situations. The emphasis is on enabling the existing influential media structures to overcome prohibitions, banning attempts, etc. The idea was put into effect, but as an extension and a development of the existing cold war infrastructure. The only change was broadcasting the VOA, RFE/RL, and similar programs, on FM as well as AM frequencies and via satellite as well. Local media were also offered a rebroadcast, which would mean loss of credibility without a fresh quality.
At present, we are trying to begin from the beginning. The Pact for Stability in Southeast Europe has presented a usable model. An increase in local cooperation among media could lead to the development of structures which would help to eliminate border barriers in distributing free information when free speech is radically choked.
The interconnecting of regional media is a need which results from attempts to solve the banning problems as well as the oppression problems. The connection between political and economic events within the region is extremely high and the effects of radical political events cause substantial interference. The attempt to clog the 'infected' space from the outside has not given the expected results, while it has produced even bigger problems, spreading them from the 'contagion' epicenter. Because of that, an inverted 'therapy' has to be applied a broad opening. This can be achieved, above all, by increasing the range of broadcast information.
After the information epicenter of Radio B92 had been banned four times, along with a number of stations within the Association of Independent Electronic Media (there are more than fifty of them), we were forced to resort to distribution using a combination of many methods. It is of prime importance that the editorial staff remains in Belgrade despite the daily menace. At present we have three dominant ways of broadcasting: radio, television and the Internet, and we combine them all.
The radio is broadcast on the Internet in RealAudio and MP3 formats. Text-based news is distributed on the Internet in Serbian, Albanian, Hungarian and English. They are designed in such a way that they can be immediately printed and distributed as bulletins in areas where there is no access to the Internet (which has been done in a number of cases). Apart from the news, the site offers both analyses and daily discussions of several topical issues.
Radio B2-92 is downloaded from the Internet and distributed via satellite as analogue broadcast from the BBC satellite, and digitally using commercially leased satellite time. (The frequencies are enclosed.) Both the satellite and the Internet have two simultaneous functions: to provide information directly, as well as to be a 'prosthesis' and a link with the possibility of being rebroadcast in a simple way, because for most citizens it is the only way of accessing the media. Therefore, the radio program is being rebroadcast by thirty radio stations in the country and by ten or so within the region. The stations cover parts of Serbia, including Belgrade, and in this way they compensate for the lack of free electronic media in Serbia. The idea of free regional program transmission has been practically accomplished, and it is important for freedom of speech, for democracy, for resisting war and terror and so on. The entire distribution is administered by media structures within the country, in cooperation with partners in the region. This increases independence, the best strategies are used and the imposition of other strategies and distribution systems is avoided.
Apart from receiving the signal through ground transmitters, there are numerous alternative ways of distributing the signal: a great many independent television stations broadcast the B292 current affairs programs covered as teletext from the web site http://www.freeb92.net , a huge number of non-governmental organizations arrange public access to the program by receiving the signal from the Internet and rebroadcasting it through public address systems in city squares, coffee shops and clubs. This has been the radios destiny for the past five years an ongoing combination of both super sophisticated and primitive ways of transmission. Such a range offers a myriad of combinations depending upon local possibilities and imagination. The production centers have been organized flexibly: if the police storm the offices again the program can be immediately produced from different locations already connected with ISDN and from sites where journalists trained in editing and distribution live, so that they can send their material to the main server which is located at a place where nobody from the staff is located. The server is controlled remotely. In the case of Internet traffic or the telephone lines being disconnected, the most important locations have wireless connections (this has already been established as a parallel network) and the broadcast will be resumed within ten minutes.
Television broadcast can be organized in various ways. Since the technology is quite sizable, it is pretty difficult to conceive strategies and protect the production centre. For the time being, production is based in various mini-centers. As for the main news, each centre, each branch office and local transmitter has equipment which enables them to broadcast their material through ISDN to the co-ordination centre where it is packaged into the integrated current affairs programs. At the same time, a PC dish allows the downloading reports from other television stations. The central sends the packaged news program via Internet through a rented tunnel to the centre abroad, from where it is forwarded to a satellite and to local stations, which later transmit the program via ground transmitters. In the same way, the program reaches stations within the region from which it has been rebroadcast, so that it can be watched in Serbia, including Belgrade. In this case too, we are forced to combine the sophisticated and primitive, so the program is sent, often by car, to a centre for satellite distribution because of possible interference and frequent telephone traffic cut-offs.
In addition to the ground rebroadcast, the program is screened on video projectors in squares, coffee shops, and clubs or at specialized video projections in cinemas. Some private cable systems also rebroadcast the program. The television program uses the site http://www.freeb92.net and its news services and converts it into teletext format. The content of other sites is also presented, which enables users to obtain very full information. This is extremely important, as it is common knowledge that few people can afford to buy newspapers, while independent newspapers are suffering newsprint shortages, limiting their circulation. In some cities with no local television stations, rebroadcast via video senders is being used. The program is received via satellite dish, recorded onto a VHS tape, and later, by means of a video sender is distributed among the entire neighborhood at a scheduled time published on leaflets which are distributed as part of the scheme. In this way, it is possible to cover entire towns with the program depending on the topography.
An additional level of communication and information provision is a regular information service distribution through mobile telephone short message services. SMS is free of charge in Yugoslavia and the most important news from the site is packed into adequate packages and sent to interested mobile phone owners. SMS is also used as means of communication in extraordinary circumstances, during protests, violence and so on. In addition, a lot more citizens in Yugoslavia own mobile phones than computers. Thus this form of information infrastructure is of major importance, and can be averted only by preventing all SMS distributors from accessing the local mobile telephone system. In this case the web site is a central news checkpoint which, beside being a regular web site, provides information to the classical distribution systems: radio, television, satellite, micro-transmitters, SMS, print, public address systems, cinemas and so on.
Since the regime has threatened to take over control of the Internet or to supervise Internet communication more rigorously, developing a secure web mail with the help from XS4ALL and MDLF is in progress. All appropriate organizations and individuals will be able to use the freeb92.net domain services, and traffic among those supplied with an address will be absolutely safe, which is of great importance in Serbia nowadays. The only requirement is Internet access through any provider. A possibility for alternative access is being prepared in case the state blocks the classic Internet access (although this is very hard to carry out, it is always necessary to have couple of alternative options in order to prevent panic and to provide safety.
The existing exchange of the material and the programs which has been done in a traditional way via satellite is moving to the Internet as well. Correspondents from the province have been provided with laptop computers and have been trained in editing and posting the material prepared for broadcasting. As well as the central studio, all individual stations will be able to use the material. In order to ensure security, servers outside the country will be used. This will increase the communication possibilities. Owing to similar projects developed by One World and Baltic Media Centre, this form of communication will cover the entire region which will also increase the transfer of free information and the possibility of media communications.
Sets of DV cameras and editing equipment have been provided to branch offices and material distribution is carried out as if it were radio: the material is directly sent to the central studio, but also posted onto servers so that the stations within the network may use them and download them by means of PC dishes. It is possible to combine DV cameras, laptops and satellite phones in cases when communication is unusually restricted.
Ongoing education is of major importance. Training journalists in using the Internet, computers and software, digital recorders and DV cameras makes an integrated system in which a journalist turns out to be a mighty medium for news production and distribution. Another aspect of education is connected with training representatives of NGOs and other organizations in using the Internet as a medium so that they will be able to create their own media which could be fitted into broader information systems. At the same time they would take responsibility for the information posted. Media decentralization like this creates a system, which can lessen the force and the influence of monopolies, and processes which highly marginalia minorities and marginal groups. Coordinating the central program with local programs by supplementing and synchronizing makes the question of local program survival senseless. A networked local media loses its mark of locality at the same time it is both national and regional, minority and urban.
The B2-92 development teams which make up OpenNet have a huge problem because of oppression of the energy invested in alternative strategies. If the circumstances were different, the energy would help implementing other development segments, which are intended to accelerate the building of the B2-92 Online Info System, which is the plan that we will work on in the near future.
- Virtual Private Network is being built onto the secure web mail project. The project will practically enable setting in motion a real 'jungle of Internet media and communications' in an enclosed space, which threatens to deepen the process of self-imprisoning. It could solve the problems resulting from continuous threats of closing or restricting Internet communications. Security is extremely important for combating regime and para-regime hacking which attempts to discredit the independent institutions.
The project is also important for all marginal groups and minorities, which are scarcely able obtain their own medium in a classical meaning. With a very small investment they could have a medium that would be distributed by the Internet and which could be accessed by a great many individuals through a portal site, but also by taking part in exchange projects formed by the Association of Independent Electronic Media transmissions via classical media. This is an extremely broad space, which could involve those more seriously handicapped when it comes to providing information, because the Internet offers numerous possibilities which in some way could be a prosthesis for information disabilities.
- WAP (Wireless Application Protocol). Newer mobile phones support the possibility of accessing Internet contents and seeing them on the phone display. With WAP support we provide access to all the information we produce no matter where the recipient is. The users can be also provided with other services (free e-mail) which would guarantee absolute privacy, and would be accessible by the phone.
- Mobile Net radio and a video streaming unit; each branch office and a correspondent can start broadcasting a program via Internet in the same way the correspondent packages are distributed. This is of high importance due to frequent local pages prohibits.
- Portal site which would help a lot of independent sector activities and non-governmental organizations to become transparent and to acquire a new usability. In this way, some NGOs can become a real media outlet with research activity which is easily comparable with the investigative journalism.
The possibility of carrying out these developing projects leads us to the conclusion that it is necessary to create a new kind journalist who, apart from the elementary journalism skills, has a high level of responsibility, has to know how all the media function, for it is necessary that he 'walks' through various media of a media system such as B2-92. It is in practice necessary to introduce the concept of a universal journalist, not an encyclopedic polymath who is informed in different fields, but a professional who is familiar with print journalism, radio and television, online journalism, information distribution mechanisms (of his personal product), who knows how to use all the technological possibilities of the equipment he possesses and how to use the information he has in the most efficient way.
Apart from journalists with these new abilities, with increased information transfer, the need for legal protection increases too, as well as the need for a legal interpretation of the consequences some information would produce, legal regulations, limits, expanding the freedom limits and so on. For this reason, a virtual network of lawyers and legal media experts is being created to enable faster protection of the journalists through the existing and real ANEM lawyers network, by regionalising the project, a more efficient cooperation network and monitoring the endangerment of media and freedom of speech.
On-line journalism, the example: http://www.freeb92.net
- Radio B2-92 RealAudio and MP3 broadcasts
- Text-based news in Serbian, Albanian, Hungarian and English with the possibility of printing the news in a bulletin form (and vice versa the media and cultural groups of the community using the same language participate in the production of services in different languages);
- SMS news distributed to those interested. SMS is also used for sending the news to the central point from which it is distributed via other media as well as via SMS.
- discussion of current topics: elections, guilt and reconciliation;
- greater depth of information - analysis;
- broadcast according to the satellite distribution; analogous: Eutelsat Hot Bird 5, 13 degrees E, analogue. Polarization vertical, video 11114 audio 7.74;
digital: Eutelsat - Seasat 36 E frequency 12656, Polarization H, Symbol rate 2,963, FEC 3/4,
- video stream;
- soon: e-commerce;
- soon: safe and free e-mail;
- CyberRex project cultural action on the Internet; permeating the existing media and social scene with culture;
- Rec and ProFemina magazines engaging entire intellectual groups in media: writers and members of womens movements;
- as well as the RealAudio broadcast, freeb92.net enables reading news to be linked with other sources covering the same events, which allows confirmation of authenticity as well as participating in discussions, chatting and joining the program by phone which is afterwards multiplied through the Internet via the satellite and the terrestrial transmitters and text; it equally facilitates access to video material that cover the essential events, and for those who seek theoretical discussions, the electronic issues of the magazines Rec and ProFemina are available; a forum for a delicate discussion on guilt and reconciliation on the TRR site offers a dialogue among those who choose conversation, rather than conflict.
In practice: The B2-92 radio and ANEM reporter possesses a lap-top (model), mini disc (black box) and a mobile phone and therefore is able to send recorded information via SMS as a short message as well as the extended announcement. The information is used on the radio, web site and television (as teletext) If it is of major importance, it is sent via SMS to those mobile phone owners who have subscribed to the service. Afterwards the journalist sends an audio report and finally a written report.
We are making efforts to provide key journalists with satellite phones in order to eliminate line breaks.
The journalist kit also contains a supplement in the form of a DV camera and a satellite phone for television correspondents. We will gradually replace two correspondents with a single one who will be able to produce text-based material for the radio, television and web at the same time.
Functioning in this way requires serious training program. Since it is almost impossible to get the visas for trainers around the world, we are forced to organize individual seminars which will eventually merge into an all-inclusive training, tending to create a journalist capable of multiplying the force of the news through various media.
Radio networks, television networks, print media networks and the Internet media only come together as an integrated media system if they are connected with the Internet.
The controlling element which prevents this network of networks from turning into a dangerous media monopoly is the network of non-governmental organizations and movements network, especially the cultural and subculture institutions, which promote numerous progressive ideas, but are entirely neglected and pushed out from the main media arena and turned into complete media outsiders. This kind of networking is the only chance of establishing a balance with the monopolized media controlled by a few people. If we manage to preserve the media as channels self-reliant from business and governments, it will enable a diverse approach to presenting various social groups. It is extremely difficult to achieve among public, state-owned and ideological monopoly and any other private monopoly but in some periods, Radio B2-92 has managed to impose itself as a commercially successful medium without losing its basic characteristics: independence of politics and business. The ANEM network also demonstrates that it is possible to establish a dynamic and a firm communication between public and private media within the same network with the aim of initiating constructive cooperation in order to defend the universal principles. Interaction with other media networks and media from other countries is becoming necessary for media functioning, which makes media isolation of a society quite impossible.
We are aware of the difficulties this kind of utopian project will face in order to survive the period of transition and conflicts which will emerge from the free market once the authoritarian state and the sealed society are a thing of the past. We will do our best to preserve these models in spite of all the misfortunes the transition period brings. To do this we shall rely on the same subversive use of new media and new technologies as we now use in pursuit of freedom in a hostile environment.