A crucial moment in media history took place in 1991, when a private citizen with a camcorder taped three L.A. cops brutally beating an African American man named Rodney King. Thirteen months later, when a suburban jury acquitted the officers, Los Angeles erupted in riots, and activists around the world saw the power of video as a source of information and a tool of direct action.
Seattle saw the full potential of this new age of media in 1999 during protests against the World Trade Organization. By then, activists had taken to the streets equipped not only with video cameras, but with cell phones and laptop computers. Thanks to the Web, their images of riot police shooting rubber bullets at demonstrators was seen around the world—and directly contradicted the Seattle police chief’s denial of the fact on major network news shows.
As Anita Hayhoe notes in the University of Toronto’s Ryerson Review of Journalism, the phenomenon of protesters armed with media capacity—known as Indymedia, short for the Independent Media Centers (IMC) that have sprang up around the world—had arrived. “Mainstream news organizations like CNN and Reuters linked to the [Seattle] IMC Web site,” she adds. By the time the Battle of Seattle had ended, the group’s local site had gotten about 1.5 million hits.
There are now more than a hundred Indymedia branches connected through the IMC’s main site, including bases in Uruguay, India, and Nigeria. Operating on the basic premise of “open publishing”—that every reader is also a reporter—Indymedia allows users to instantly post their stories on the Internet, print, audio, and video, without any editing or filtering.
Like the New Journalism practiced by Tom Wolfe in the 1960s and alternative journalism pioneered by underground newspapers, the Indymedia movement scoffs at the idea of “objective” reporting. One goal of the movement is to encourage people to question their assumption that the mainstream media delivers unbiased news. “We believe that complete objectivity is impossible,” says Kevin Smith, founder of the Ontario IMC. “So all journalism is propaganda to some extent. We try to be honest about our biases, unlike the corporate media.”
But some would argue that Indymedia has its own credibility problems. While the open publishing system allows a freedom unavailable in mainstream media, many readers are turned off by inaccurate or offensive postings. Indymedia proponents reply that readers also have a means to voice their concerns by adding comments to any article on the site.
Though inaccurate information does get posted, Jonathan Lawson of the Seattle IMC believes the system engages readers to become more active media consumers. And after learning to be more critical about what they see and read, “we hope that readers will take that critical thinking and bring it to mainstream media,” he adds.
The greatest challenge facing the independent media movement today is bringing alternative media to poor communities where computer literacy and availability are low. Indymedia projects around the world have attempted to address these inequities by sponsoring computer workshops and labs. Still, Meggy of the Jakarta IMC in Indonesia worries that Indymedia’s focus on the Internet is a major limitation since “only students and middle class people” can access it.
For this reason, some IMCs have shifted their attention to more traditional media forms. In these cases, the Internet plays an important but secondary role, with Indymedia radio shows and print publications drawing heavily from Web-based Indymedia stories. In Buenos Aires, Argentina, IMC members printed out stories from the global Web site, then hung them on clotheslines in public squares.
We are redeeming the Internet,” Lawson says. “It’s a different vision of what it means to have the world connected all together.”
Lila Kitaeff has been an independent media activist for two years, working in the Twin Cities and Seattle IMC as a writer and videographer. She currently lives in Seattle.