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

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

We are redeeming the Internet,” Lawson says. “It’s a different
vision of what it means to have the world connected all

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

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