Crisis, media activism and protest: Radical Online Journalism and the State.

From  Cyberactivism on the Participatory Web, Edited by Martha McCaughey, written by Lee Salter

Media activism and protest is well reported through online radical journalists, but what constraints do they face in representing social movements?

The online environment has for a long time been described as a realm of freedom. As far back as the mid 1990s cyber-libertarian John Perry Barlow (1996) declared in his influential ‘Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace’, that governments ‘have no sovereignty where we gather’, that

We did not invite [governments to the internet]. You do not know us, nor do you know our world. Do not think that you can build it, as though it were a public construction project. You cannot. It is an act of nature and it grows itself through our collective actions … Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are based on matter, there is no matter here.

Ten years later Dean et al. (2006) argued that the internet and the networked society it created was bringing about the end of the state, which is unable to function in such an environment. Other writers argued that the ‘nature’ of internet technologies makes it impossible to regulate users. For example, John Gilmore famously suggested that the technological structure of the internet makes it impossible to censor because, ‘the internet treats censorship as damage and routes around it’.

            In journalistic quarters, the freedom afforded by the internet to anybody with internet access and writing skills to become a journalist has been celebrated as an outlet for dissent in authoritarian states, as seen in Reporters Without Boarders’ “Enemies of the Internet” list. On the other hand such freedom has been met with much consternation by many traditional journalists for threatening the status of journalism as a practise (see Jones and Salter, 2012, chapter 1).

            Celebrations by cyberlibertarians, media theorists and liberal journalists about the significant increase in communicative freedom afforded by the internet are well-intentioned. However, such discourses also tend to be blind to the concept, institutional reality and power of the state as such. Barlow’s claim above, for example, whitewashes the history of the internet – the internet was a creation of the US state, a public construction project, and it is still, contrary to popular belief, centred in the US state’s Department of Commerce. Indeed, the internet is not a ‘spontaneous order’ – it was developed as a result of conscious political decisions (Abbate, 2000; Barney, 2001; Salter, 2011).

            In this chapter we consider the state, the hegemonic order associated with it and how radical forms of online journalism media activism and protest challenge it. Here, “radical” online journalism is used in the tradition of studies by Downing (2000) wherein it presents an alternative to the institutional forms and discourses of corporate news, insofar as its production is organised non-hierarchically, it covers topics from the lifeworld of ordinary people struggling against institutionalised power, and that it usually employs modes of discourse that derive from the interests and languages of ordinary people. In much of the liberal West it is linked to anti-capitalist and anti-state politics, using a variety of media to construct counter-hegemony, an alternative interpretive framework through which the world can be understood. Radical journalism is, as Downing (2000) put it, rebellious. In contrast, corporate news operations are thought to maintain and reinforce the dominant hegemonic order (for a clear explanation of this latter see Allan, 2004: ch 3 and 4).

            In times of crisis the relations between publics, radical journalism and both the power of the state and the functions of corporate media come into stark perspective. As Habermas puts it, under conditions of crisis the background consensus, or hegemony, is shaken, leaving citizens to question taken-for-granted norms and values (Habermas, 1979: 3) in radical public spheres (Habermas, 1987, 1989, 1996). Whereas the state and associated institutions seek to maintain these norms and values, radicals seek to form ‘counter-institutions’ which challenge the state and capitalism’s domination over life and ‘return … “liberated areas” to the action co-ordinating medium of reaching understanding’, that is, to give control back to the people (Habermas, 1987: 396). To this end, radical journalism can facilitate criticism of the institutional order as well as providing and facilitating examples of alternative practices. The online environment is said to better facilitate radical journalism as, compared to broadcast and print media, it is cheap, less regulated, and provides for multi-directional communication (Atton, 2004; Atton and Hamilton, 2008; Couldry and Curran, 2003; Dahlberg and Siapera, 2007; Meikle, 2002; Platon and Deuze, 2003; Salter, 2003, 2011; Wall, 2003). At the same time, crises expose the hegemonic and coercive power of the state and associated institutions, which defend themselves under the rationale of maintaining “public order”.

            In considering this challenge and response we look at the particularities of consent and coercion in liberal states such as the UK, Australia and the US, as opposed to the more directly coercive methods of control in authoritarian states. The case studies used here are drawn from the journalistic representations of crises, and distinctions drawn between corporate and radical representations. Much of the research underpinning this chapter is based on the author’s own fieldwork in radical online media projects and in social movements. As the research involves examples in which activists are currently being prosecuted, where I do refer to examples drawn from the field work, I have not included details.

Understanding the Liberal State as a Constraint on Media activism and protest.

Sovereign is he who decides on the exception” Carl Schmitt

The above quote from Carl Schmitt points to a crucial factor in considering the notions of freedom and autonomy, which, we are frequently reminded, are supposed to underpin journalism in liberal states. Explaining the point, Schmitt tells us, ‘The rule proves nothing; the exception proves everything: it confirms not only its rule but also its existence, which derives only from the exception’ (Schmitt 1934/2005: 15). Schmitt’s point, drawn with Weber’s (1946) concept of the state as the association that holds a monopoly of violence in a given territory, is that only under exceptional circumstances, rather than “normal” functioning, is the power of the state made evident. The most obvious example of the “exception” is the invocation of “emergency laws”, such as those enacted in South Africa in the 1980s and in Egypt from the 1950s onwards, but also in liberal states, such as in France in the 1960s and in 2005, in Ireland from the 1970s until 1994, and in the UK, where they were last used in 1974. Faced with both natural disaster and political challenge, only the state can declare a state of emergency which suspends normal constitutional limits, civil liberties and the like. It is in such times that state power can be seen in its rawest form. Outside the exception, one may consider public perception of state power in the context of McLuhan’s (2001) fish – they know nothing of water, since they have no anti-environment to enable them to perceive the world they live in. We are never outside the state, so its depth and scope is often difficult to perceive outside of exceptional circumstances.

            Writing some 80 years after Schmitt, Agamben argues that the “exception” became frequent throughout the twentieth century, with increases in surveillance, military and domestic and foreign “intelligence” expenditure, alongside increasingly flagrant human rights abuses, whether in Northern Ireland, Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Belmarsh prison or the “black sites” where kidnapped “suspects” are transported outside liberal jurisdictions to be tortured. Indeed, for him the anomie in which the state operates during the exception has become the norm. For Agamben

The state of exception has today reached its maximum worldwide deployment. The normative aspect of law can thus be obliterated and contradicted with impunity by a governmental violence that – while ignoring international law externally and producing a permanent state of exception internally – nevertheless still claims to be applying the law (Agamben, 2005: 87)

            If one considers Jurgen Habermas’s (1976) charge that Western liberal states have been facing “legitimation crises” since at least the 1960s, the notion of exceptionalism-as-normal comes into starker perspective. For Habermas, a legitimation crisis exists when states still have the power to rule but are unable to boast active support from populations, resulting in dwindling consent. The crises take place in three realms – the economic, the political and the socio-cultural. The capitalist economic system has an inbuilt tendency towards a declining rate of profit, which results in periodic crises. The political system faces crises as its inability to control the economic system and the contradictions between labour and capital are exposed, resulting in the withdrawal of mass loyalty. Faced with these inadequacies, socio-cultural crises emerge when faith in the economic and political systems is not maintained, thus resulting in motivational crises among workers and citizens. Together these crises may generate significant challenges to the economic and political order, resulting in the development of complex systems to manage the public, most notably in the form of public relations, a critique of which forms the foundations of The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere and The Theory of Communicative Action. It is, contrary to so many interpretations of Habermas’s work, during crises that public spheres are most effective. And it is radical public spheres that can act as a motor for political change (Negt and Kluge, 1993), especially in an online environment (Salter, 2011). This is to say, crucially, that it is as a response to systemic crises that mediated public spheres are produced with sufficient communicative freedom to challenge political and social hegemony.

            Unable to rely on whole-hearted consent of the people governments perceive a permanent underlying threat to their legitimacy and their authority. This threat is manifested, or at least becomes most notable, in times of explicit crisis, such as during war, recession, constitutional crisis, major scandal and so on. Furthermore, it is during such crises that systemic contradiction and political hypocrisy becomes most evident, further undermining the legitimacy of the political order. For example, the protests against the US/UK-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 were significantly aimed at apparent contradictions – nuclear armed powers complaining about the development of weapons of mass destruction by Iraq; the fact that the Western powers regarded undemocratic, brutally repressive Gulf states, such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia as allies in the fight against another undemocratic, brutally repressive Gulf state; the apparent role that oil played in stoking violence and so on. The complex relations between the corporate media and the state were brought into perspective when the invasion began, even the few corporate media outlets originally opposed to the invasion turned to “support the troops”.

            More recently the economic crisis that began in 2007 had the potential to prompt serious political upheaval, as it did in Greece and Spain most notably. The task states faced in retaining if not mass loyalty then at least apathy was enormous. Despite the blame for the crisis initially being laid at the feet of the banking sector (and some rumbles about broader economic problems), blame was soon turned to “public debt” alone. Citizens were told by politicians, economists and other “experts”, and journalists that crisis was not the fault of an economic system facing a crisis of profitability, exposed through increasingly risky investment decisions made by banks. Neither, apparently, was the problem that of an impotent political system unable to manage international capitalism without deepening the crisis. Rather, the problem was that governments had spent ‘too much’ on the people who allow them to govern (rather than even the multi-trillion dollar invasions the West had embarked upon in the early twenty-first century). Thus, beyond the economic and political crises, there was the risk of a huge socio-cultural crisis, necessitating careful management.

            The delegitimation of the economic system had been an undercurrent for many years, manifesting itself in protests against G8 meetings, World Bank, World Trade Organisation meetings like. The realisation of the undemocratic nature of such organisations, and their clear objectives of broadening and deepening capitalism, meant that the 2007 collapse of the economic system had the potential to strip the last vestiges of legitimacy from capitalism.

Corporate Media, Hegemony and Counter-Hegemony

Under these normal-exceptional circumstances corporate media has a crucial role to play. For instance, in the UK BBC News Online was a key pillar of support for the dominant hegemonic discourse on the “debt crisis”, promoting the Conservative-dominated coalition government’s “Spending Review” uncritically, with no apparent sense of the difference between outright propaganda and providing public information. BBC News Online dedicated a whole section of its web site to guiding citizens through the economic crisis – exclusively defined through capitalist economics – providing only one option for its resolution, cuts to public spending. The site allowed its audience to consider the political options and “interact”. The options were laid out, giving choices of where people would like the cuts to “fall”. There was no option not to make cuts, to increase taxes on the rich, or to change the economic system. BBC News Online had chosen to use its interactive features to deepen management of the public by narrowing political choices to a greater degree than even a single political party would do. The notion that the BBC – or any of the corporate media online or otherwise – would undermine what little legitimacy remained in the economic system by positively suggesting any number of alternative economic models appeared to be out of the question.

            One of the few occasions the BBC did allow consideration of a quite reasonable alternative, it was ridiculed by the presenter as “cloud cuckoo” (The Daily Politics, BBC2, 15 Sep, 2010). On The Daily Politics show Professor Greg Philo of Glasgow University presented a policy his research centre found would receive the support of around 75% of the population. He suggested that a one-off tax on the super-rich would raise enough money to pay the entire debt in one go, hurting in the short term a very small number of people who would remain well-off, instead of damaging millions for a generation. The complete dismissal by the presenter was telling.

            Had it been for the corporate media, then perhaps public consciousness of alternatives would have been repressed completely. However, political alternatives did exist. But these alternatives had to rely on their own media, their own networks of communication, and the internet played no small part in facilitating this. Of crucial import in this respect is the way in which the internet provided an outlet for ideas, debates and actions that the corporate media had hardly allowed. To suggest that the journalists working in corporate media had intentionally dismissed alternatives would be to miss the point. Rather it is the structural relations of corporate news to the institutions and ideology of state and capital that restricts its purview, albeit with political objectives tending to guide the overall organisational view.

            The dominant message from corporate media was to stay calm, to deliver trillions of dollars of public money in the US, UK and elsewhere to the banks that had caused the crisis, and to trust the same political elites whose “liberalisation” policies had allowed speculation and private debt to spiral out of control. In the early days of the crisis it was right-wing libertarians in the US, alongside,, and that maintained the banks have failed in the free-market, and should therefore be allowed to collapse. Despite the odd expert economist, such as Nobel economist, Joeseph Stiglitz, appearing in the corporate media to call for the market to work as it is supposed, the corporate media message was clear – the banks and stock markets needed to go back to “normal” at any cost to the people. The supposed need to stabilise capitalism was used ideologically to intensify the neoliberal agenda that had been developing since the 1970s – in the UK and elsewhere the policy was to use the crisis to cut back on public services. As we have seen, the ability to penetrate this dominant discourse was limited in the corporate media.

            The media challenge to the dominant discourse emerged in the UK online. One of the first and most important groups to challenge the cuts agenda was False Economy, a campaign group set up by online journalists, community groups, activists, economists and trade unions who set about challenging the foundation of the public debt explanation for the economic crisis and the solution in cutting public spending. The group’s key actors included blogger Clifford Singer, former Bank of England economist, Duncan Weldon, journalist and owner of the Pickled Politics blog, Sunny Hundal, a number of bloggers from Liberal Conspiracy and other activists and trade unionists. The web site was used to help citizens understand the scale of the cuts and their impact on a variety of services, illustrating it with video, data and statistics, analyses by Nobel economists such as Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, Martin Wolf and David Blanchflower, and, crucially, by prioritising the voice of citizens – allowing ordinary people to upload short reports – in the style of vox pops – on the impact of cuts on their lives. The site used an array of social media to communicate its information, via blogs, Twitter, YouTube, Vimeo and Facebook. As opposed to BBC News Online’s attempts to coax people into a discourse about where to cut – and of the bulk of the corporate media’s attempts to persuade people to accept their “share of the pain” – False Economy used its data to dispel the myth of excessive debt and then – in the tradition of radical media – to inspire readers to take action against what it perceived to be unjust cuts to public services.

            Another challenge came from the Robin Hood Tax group. Whilst it had been in existence since before the crisis, the billions of pounds of public money given to the British banking sector had given it new impetus. The group was set up by War on Want in 2001 and has since received the backing of key economists, including Jeffery Sachs, Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman, George Soros, Dani Rodrik and Warren Buffet. The aim of the group is to raise awareness of the existence of untaxed and minimally-taxed international financial transfers, which is not only an untapped source of public income but also contributes to international economic instability. As with False Economy, the Robin Hood Tax group has utilised the full array of social media and online technologies to report alternative information on the economic situation, providing data and statistics usually associated with financial news providers, but in an easily digestible form. The group utilised Facebook, Twitter, blogs, YouTube, Flickr and other social media to communicate this information.

            Perhaps the most visible and active group to raise awareness of alternative information and alternative economic discourses was the UK Uncut movement. UK Uncut not only challenged the economic data on the need for cuts to public spending, but very consciously challenged government rhetoric echoed by so much of the corporate media – they paid particular attention to the way in which authoritarian and quasi-fascistic concepts of citizenship and political choices have been championed by government representatives and allies in the corporate media – such as “we are all in it together” and that “there is no alternative” to cuts. Interestingly UK Uncut emerged directly out of a Twitter account, rather than the other way round. Its first action took place to close down a Vodafone shop on Oxford Street in London in October 2010, which aimed to raise awareness of that company’s tax avoidance in the UK at a time when the government was arguing that there was no public money to support government spending. Other significant targets included shops belonging Sir Philip Green’s Arcadia group, for which there was particular ire given that Green and his company were avoiding paying taxes while he was charged with reviewing government spending. In contrast to the other movements, whilst UK Uncut was providing crucial information that largely escaped the corporate media, it straddled the divide between awareness-raising and direct action. To this end, its online communicative resources were employed to inform but also to coordinate actions. The actions coordinated through UK Uncut took place frequently in towns and cities across the UK, often successfully shutting down shops, turning banks into libraries and medical centres, and occupying offices, and so on.

Maintaining Order: A tale of two rebellions

The formation of counter-hegemony is not a simple process, for it exists in relation to the dominant hegemony sustained by state power. But this exercise of power differs from state to state. Whereas authoritarian states may impose strong restrictions on journalism and media structures to mitigate their threat, liberal states are apparently reluctant to do so. Indeed, whereas authoritarian states are concerned with the maintenance of “state security” and rely on a plethora of rules, regulations and coercive laws for this purpose, liberal states are interested in “public order” and are apparently more permissive. Whilst there are more provisions for freedom in liberal states, such provisions are rather ambiguous. In a sense, the very freedoms on which liberalism is based can be used as a control mechanism.

            Journalists are restricted in liberal states both indirectly through the routines and institutional relations of news organisations, but also legally, through laws around contempt of court, libel, anti-terrorism legislation and the like (for an account of the array of legal restrictions on journalists, see Jones and Salter, 2011, chapter 9). But it is “public order” that presents a key restriction, not just due to its elasticity as a legal concept, but also due to its hegemonic status within the state and in news discourses.

            The “public” is produced by and through the state (and associated institutions) through its management of the mediascape, the education system, national events and so on. “Order” is particular to a given set of institutional and legal arrangements, serving particular interests. This is to say that there is nothing inherently good about keeping “public order”, and that to suggest it is worth maintaining as such implies a believe in the legitimacy and basic justice of that order. The police and corporate media – on and offline – take it as given that it is important to maintain public order, and thereby necessarily imply the legitimacy of that order, its laws and institutional arrangements.

            The political nature of the concept of public order can be read from its initial use in justifying the establishment of the police. The “threat” posed by working class people to the state in the nineteenth century was not expressed in class terms, but, as with all law, in terms of the national interest. The “threat” was therefore not faced by a particular class or system, but to the “nation”, which stands above any particularity. The threat of working class people took the form of protest, organisation, association and riot. As Robert Reiner puts it,

up to the early nineteenth century, riotous protest was an accepted and mutually understood means by which the politically unrepresented masses communicated grievances to the ruling elite: “collective bargaining by riot”. But with the spread of industrial capitalism, riot came to be regarded as … as fundamental threat to the social and political order (Reiner, 1998: 37)

As the class basis of the state faced the challenge of the extended franchise, so the “social and political order” had – at least ideologically – to include the interests of all “the public” or “the nation”.  The “masses” were hegemonically aligned with the interests of capital and the state. The police had hitherto been regarded with suspicion, as agents of the state, by working class people, to such an extent that when in 1833 a policeman was stabbed to death whilst policing a protest by the National Union of the Working Class, the jury, celebrated at the time as “heroic” returned a verdict of “justifiable homicide” (Reiner, 1998: 41).

            The means of maintaining “public order” give us an insight into the ambiguity of control. Whereas order was initially maintained by the police through coercion from the inception of police forces in the mid nineteenth century up to the 1930s in the UK. As Waddington (1998) shows, the twentieth century saw the strategy of the police prioritise consent over coercion. Thereby police began to see themselves as professionally arbitrating disputes, facilitating protests, and policing demonstrations fairly, even handedly, and without prejudice. Police opinion on political issues would not affect their professional capacity to perform. They came to see themselves as performing a crucial role of upholding the democratic right to protest, at times facilitating protests that governments had tried to ban.

            However, this non-confrontational, facilitative strategy is not wholly driven by a commitment to democratic principles. Rather, it has a pragmatic purpose, it is a better way of maintaining “public order” (Waddington, 1998). For the British police, facilitating protest by offering assistance in route-planning, negotiating with local authorities, allowing minor criminal infractions, keeping a friendly face and a low profile, gives them the opportunity to guide and manage them. The purpose of this is to ensure that protests are as minimally disruptive to “public order” as possible. It is the very process of allowing and facilitating protests that renders them impotent; they are disciplined through consent. It is by facilitating the freedom to protest that their effectiveness in curtailed.

            The appeal to public order by politicians, police and journalists is difficult to deny without taking a radically oppositional stance, that is, without counter-hegemony. Indeed it is the disruptiveness and disorderliness of protest and direct action (in the West at least) that frames reporting on them. The academic research on the mediation of protests has shown this to carry in reporting across space and time (Barker, 1997; Chan and Lee, 1984; Halloran, et al, 1970 McLeod, D, 1995; McLeod and Detenber, 1999; Murdoch, 1984; Neiger and Zanderberg, 2004)

            There has been some evidence that protesters are increasingly able to influence news reporting of their actions (Anderson, 2003 Cottle, 2003; Cottle, 2008; Davis, 2003), especially by the use of online technologies (Pickerill, 2003), as we have seen with the anti-cuts movements, but ultimately, the state and corporate ‘information subsidies’ (Davis 2000) given to financially constrained corporate news organisations allow sources with greater financial resources and institutional affinity to better influence the news agenda (Davis 2000a, 2000b).

            Accordingly, with a politically and economic system only interested in system maintenance and a media system interested only when actions spill over into violence, violence becomes a crucial vehicle for criticism, ideas and change. However, given the hegemony built up around the concept of public order as McLeaod and Detenber (1999: 6) explain, ‘the incidence of violence at a protest attracts media coverage, but often results in news stories that focus on conflicts with the police, obfuscating the issues raised by the protesters’. Indeed, dominant sources lead the agenda.

            As Mawby (2010: 1073) found in his research, even when allowing for complex relations and contesting definers, ‘The asymmetric police–media relationship … endures and has become more pronounced in terms of police dominance of the relationship’. McLeod (1995) shows that even when there are subtle differences in the reporting in different outlets, the overall impression of audiences the general frame of protesting remains – protesters are a threat to be managed by police. Indeed

            at times of national crisis (for example wars or large-scale industrial action), the concerted             application of all types of resource results in a virtual monopoly of official sources (Davis,             2000: 54)

All this we can see as a historical trend. In 1932, as hunger marchers arriving in London were cavalry charged by the police, British Paramount News explained the reason for the assault was that ‘the hooligan element was getting out of hand’. When citizens rose up against Thatcher’s regressive Poll Tax in 1990 on the back of a decade of state violence against citizens, corporate media were almost unanimous in their assertion that the violence of the “Poll Tax Riots” was exclusively the fault of a small group among demonstrators intent on ‘wanton destruction’. After the May Day 2000 anti-capitalist protests in London, UK, the supposedly “liberal” Independent newspaper (all articles from May 3 2000) amplified Tony Blair’s call for ‘Families to name May Day rioters’. The Daily Mail told of ‘An outrage that demeans Britain’, also amplifying Blair’s call for ‘”thugs” families to name and shame them as parents tell of their sickening missile ordeal’. The Mirror and other newspapers published photographs of dissidents wanted by the police, along with a police number for informants to call. The main actions of that day were planting vegetables in Parliament Square and smashing up a McDonalds.

            When in 2009 riot police assaulted and killed a passer-by at an anti-capitalist demonstration in London, the Mirror (April 2 2009) described it as ‘Riot Mob Death’ and explained how ‘as police officers tried in vain to revive the man they were pelted with bottles by a screaming mob’. In December 2010 British police attacked school children, student protesters and trade unionists with a cavalry charge of at least 18 horses in London’s Parliament square, after which they illegally detailed thousands of protesters for several hours in a “kettle”. The Daily Mail explained that ‘youthful idealism ends in an orgy of mindless vandalism’. On the day that police battered a student to the point that he had to undergo emergency brain surgery, the Mail explained that the most ‘horrifying development of a genuinely shocking evening’ was people banging on the window of and throwing a little paint at a car containing Prince Charles and Camilla (December 11 2010). And in response to a wheelchair-bound blogger who suffers from cerebral palsy being dragged out of his wheelchair by police and dumped on the pavement, Ben Brown, the BBC journalist interviewing him, attempted to justify this particular act of brutality by saying ‘there’s a suggestion that you were rolling toward the police in your wheelchair. Is that true?’ (BBC 8 O’Clock News, December 13, 2010).

In contrast to the reporting of the protests in Britain, the “Arab Spring” of 2011, which saw revolutions take place (successfully or not) in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Syria, was welcomed. The revolutions witnessed the power of online media to carve out spaces in even the most authoritarian regimes. Activists used blogs, alternative news web sites, Facebook, Twitter, mobile phones and a whole array of online tools to report their struggle and the response of the state. Of note, the protesters were celebrated across the Western corporate media, or at least some of them were. Reuters, the Washington Post, the BBC, the New York Times, Current TV, in fact almost the entire corporate media celebrated these rebellions, and especially their use of online social media. Regarding Libya, the New York Times (2011) told of “Colonel Qaddafi’s supporters, who were using the state-run news media, and Libyan protesters, who were turning to social media and the foreign news media, to win over hearts and minds, inside and outside Libya.” In relation to Egypt the BBC (2001) noted that ‘Social media has played a crucial role in the unrest in Egypt, with many of the protests organised through Facebook. The Egyptian government reacted quickly by blocking social media sites but this act of censorship was spectacularly unsuccessful’.

            In contrast to corporate coverage, in many of the online spaces great attention was given to the less “favourable” (to British “national interests” – particularly Bahrain and Saudi Arabia) protests and rebellions. Many of those engaged in the British and European protests associated themselves with protesters in the Arab Spring, amplifying their communicative power. Indeed, whilst Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Yemen were less visible in corporate news reporting, they were celebrated causes among Western activists, who distributed images of repression, police brutality, army intervention, eye witness reports from mobile phones, cameras and camcorders via social media, blogs and web sites.

            Against corporate coverage, one of the key messages on blogs and some of the more radical online publications was that much of the power of the protests in places like Egypt came from trade unions and socialist activists, who had been agitating for years. Despite involvement of workers in strikes, occupations and demonstrations, their role was largely ignored in corporate news, leaving it for the web sites of the Coalition of Resistance, Counterfire, Socialist Workers’ Party, and innumerable blogs to carry the 19th February Statement of Independent Trade Unionists in Egypt. Indeed the only information on the enormous involvement of the workers’ movement came from blogs such as, and The Arabist. Alternative news reports erased the picture of peaceful protesters gathering in city squares to ask for subtle changes, replacing it with one of protesters storming and raiding police barracks and using the guns against the police in an armed revolution. The violent aspects of revolution were naturally downplayed when the Libyan army’s (or “Gadaffi’s army” as the BBC call it) attacks on rebels were described as attacks on “civilian areas”, but in contrast it seems that the rebels were using the same “clean” weapons at the Western powers were said to be using in Iraq and Afghanistan. Given the intensity of the challenge to “public order” presented by the protesters around the Arab world, it is perhaps unsurprising that one of the strategies used by those states was to disrupt the online communication flows (usually with little effect given the international solidarity).

            Where routinised corporate journalism tends to reproduce the dominant narratives of state institutions, framed around a concern for “public order”, it is radical journalists, especially online, who challenge the facts, the narratives and the dominant discursive structuring of such events. Whereas the former seek system maintenance, the latter tend to seek change. Indeed, those writing as radical journalists are often grounded in movements and activist circles, and thereby take on an advocacy role[1].

Producing Alternative Spaces

The celebration of the role of online social media in “good” rebellions in the Arab world did not extend in such positive form to the West, though online media were used similarly in the Arab world and the West to report on conditions on the ground and to spur people into action in the tradition of radical media (Curran and Seaton, 2007: 2-37; Downing, 2000; Atton, 2001). As such radical media projects place people and movements rather than capital and the state at the centre of reporting, thus forming counter-hegemonic networks. Indymedia (or rather the distributed network of autonomous Independent Media Centres) drew on the traditions of subjective, or pespectival, journalism as an antidote to the false neutrality of corporate media. Indymedia challenged the dominant model of protest reporting by allowing protesters to be not just key sources but also the key reporters. In contrast, the concern of corporate journalists for “public order” exposes their alignment with the state and its monopoly not only of violence but also of legitimate political activity. Indeed, at every turn it is the presumption of the legitimacy of the state that frames the othering of political opponents. The framing of these two elements are mutually reinforcing.

            Although Indymedia has come to be recognised as one of the most important online spaces for reporting from these lifeworld struggles, there has been a range of sites through which such radical activist reporting takes place, from the Zapatista’s use of newsgroups and email lists in the 1990s, through the likes of Urban 75 and GreenNet, to today’s plethora of blogs and collaborative web sites. In circumstances where there is a direct and active conflict with a state, radical activist news spaces become crucial, as there is little hope of corporate media understanding the situation from the position of the activists.

            In this respect, as spaces for “citizen journalism” develop online, the centrality of detached, professional journalism is challenged. Indeed, the motto of Indymedia, “everyone is a witness, everyone is a journalist”, speaks to this challenge. Yet at the same time that we may celebrate the claim that everyone is a journalist from the perspective of citizens, it does not yet hold from the perspective of the state. Indeed, even the most liberal states have been reluctant to extend journlistic protections to journalists unattached to corporate organisations, especially radical journalists who practice exclusively online and are associated with activism.

            Accordingly, there are many tales of radical projects facing direct repression in liberal states, though they are rarely reported as repression of journalism. Indeed, one of the reasons for this is that radical journalists tend not to adhere to the cosy relationship between corporate media and the state. Such relations are strong in authoritarian states, which may utilise directly political laws, banning political parties, newspapers and actions outright. In Malaysia, for example, journalists are expected to adhere to the principles of Rukunegara (the basis of the Malaysian state), which includes contributing to nation-building and upholding the standards of ‘social morality’. In Singapore, internet cafes may be held responsible for material uploaded or read in them, and libel is politicised. This has allowed its political leaders to fight and win libel cases against Bloomberg’s web site, the Far Eastern Economic Review (owned by Dow Jones), the Wall Street Journal, and the International Herald Tribune. Individual bloggers have also fallen victim to Singapore’s strict rules on defamation. For example, US blogger Gopalan Nair was arrested and tried for insulting a judge. Another blogger, Jiahao Chen, this time a Singaporean living in the US was forced to close his blog and apologised when a Singaporean government agency merely threatened legal action. The coercion used by the Chinese and Iranian governments is more well-known. Authoritarian states have a greater tendency to lock up online journalists than do liberal states. So, for example, in 2010 Hossein Derakhshan was jailed in Iran for nearly 20 years for insulting Islam and religious figures; Sakhi Rigi was jailed in Iran in 2011 on national security grounds; in 2011 Kaung Myat Hlaing was jailed in Burma for 10 years on explosives charges; also in 2011 Tal al-Mallouhi was jailed in Syria for 5 years for divulging information to a foreign state; also in 2011, four years after the first blogger was jailed in Egypt Maikel Nabil was jailed for insulting the military; as a response to their involvement in the rebellion, the Bahrainian state imprisoned bloggers Abduljalil Al-Singace for life and Ali Abdulemam for 15 years on terrorist charges.

            Whereas authoritarian states readily engage in direct repression against such “threats”, in liberal states the likelihood of a self-proclaimed journalist being jailed is rather slight, though there are notorious examples, such as the video-blogger Josh Wolf, who was jailed in the US for failing to provide the police with video footage he had taken of a demonstration in California, and dissident Austin Sherman, editor of who was jailed for a year in 2003 for linking to a web site that contained instructions on bomb-making. Sherman was “encouraged” to plead guilty in the knowledge that the US PATRIOT Act allowed for a 20 year sentence for “terrorism enhancement”. In 2011 the UK site, FIT (Forward Intelligence Team) Watch, sought to draw attention to abuses of police power and to provide evidence that state security in the UK was far more advanced than many had understood. The police ordered the host take down the web site. In the run up to the 2011 Royal Wedding in the UK around 50 left wing political Facebook pages were removed by Facebook. Rumours abounded that Facebook had decided to engage in political censorship at the behest of the police, though it is likely that they were taken down on the basis of technicalities – that they had used the wrong form of account. However as British police had raided a dozen social centres in the same period, and as Facebook had notoriously taken down anti-Zionist information pages, it did seem suspicious to many observers.

            In 2005 the UK’s Bristol Indymedia was raided, a journalist arrested and equipment seized a year after UK Indymedia’s main server was seized in an international security clampdown involving state actors from Italy, Switzerland, the US and UK (see Salter, 2009). In 2009 Kent (UK) police raided another Indymedia, again confiscating equipment. Appeals by Indymedia participants to journalistic privilege under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, were initially rejected, largely on the grounds that they do not work within the bounds of (politically) “acceptable” communication (see Salter, 2009 and Jones and Salter, 2012, Ch.9 for more examples of state challenges to radical media projects).

            When the state does use its coercive powers, Agamben’s concerns are brought into relief. The powers liberal states have awarded themselves since 2001 have threatened the capacity of both corporate and radical journalists to collect and disseminate information. The US’s PATRIOT Act and Homeland Security Act, the UK’s 2006 Terrorism Act and Australia’s 2005 Anti Terrorism Act have all served to prevent information entering the public domain if the state deems it problematic. For instance The Australian (2006) reported that in 2005 alone, Australian courts issued 1,000 ‘suppression orders’ attempting to prevent pertinent information getting into the public sphere. Under the Act, a person may be guilty of ‘seditious intent’ by bringing the Sovereign into hatred or contempt, or by urging disaffection toward the Constitution, the Government or Parliament. The law also forbids anyone to promote hostility that would threaten the peace of Australia.

            The US Electronic Privacy and Information Centre points out that the US PATRIOT Act (which was used to imprison Sherman Austin) allows security services to have general search warrants, that is, warrants which don’t specify an individual or a site to search, that persons and establishments can be searched without being informed, that no search is necessary to spy on a person’s internet activities, and that a person need not be made aware of the evidence used against them (Braman, 2006: 135).

            In the UK, free speech campaign group, Article 19 (2006), has continuously expressed ‘“grave concerns”’ over the impact of UK terrorism legislation on freedom of expression, specifically citing concerns over “the broad definition of terrorism”, “the use of anti-terror laws to stifle legitimate social and political protest”, and “prohibitions” on the “encouragement”, “other inducement” or “glorification” of terrorism’. In its submission to the International Commission of Jurists’ panel on Terrorism, Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights, Article 19 expressed concern that ‘together as well as individually, these vaguely phrased prohibitions criminalise the legitimate exercise of freedom of expression and have a real chilling effect on debate on matters of public interest’ (2006: 1). For Article 19, the vague terms used in the Act, such as ‘encouragement’, ‘inducement’ ‘indirect encouragement or other inducement’, ‘glorification’ and ‘justification’ prevent public discussions that attempt to understand the motivation of violent actors, and may criminalise criticisms ‘of the liberal western way of life’ (2006: 7). They remind us that ‘freedom of expression protects not only views that are favourably received; but precisely those that are controversial, shocking or offensive. The press and others have a right to air such views; and the public as a whole has a right to hear them’ (2006: 7).

            Even dissident sites that had escaped the jurisdiction of a state, such as Wikileaks, were not free from coercion. Although once the Wikileaks site had moved to Sweden there was nothing the US state could do, but its corporate allies ensured that they helped in areas that the US state could not legally operate. In this instance PayPal, Visa and Mastercard stopped processing donations,  Amazon withdrew its hosting service, and even Apple withdrew an app that mediated Wikileaks.

            Journalists in liberal states may be the target of arrest and prosecution, though rarely for journalistic activity. Rather, when journalists are embedded in radical movements, they may be arrested in respect of one sphere of activity (protest), which curtails activity in another. Indeed, there have been a number of cases known to this author where blogger-activists and other media workers who are also activists have had their houses raided upon arrest, and their computer, video and photographic equipment confiscated and searched. If we compare arrests in, say, the Arab Spring, many of the “journalists” arrested were activists too, yet their arrests are reported in Western corporate media as the arrests of “journalists”. Analogues in liberal states are arrested for criminal activities and public order offences.

            With increased accessibility to the means of production and distribution of journalism, the propensity for journalism to be attacked is increased. Whereas traditional journalists can be “trusted” by the state to conform to the norms of “reasonable” expression (and indeed the whole concept of press freedom applies only when it acts “responsibly” in respect of the political order) in liberal states, such trust cannot be assumed online. It is thus that radical journalists, or at least their copy may fall foul of laws on incitement to crime, terrorism, contempt and so on.

The Liberal Paradox: Media Freedom as Constraint

Although there is a plethora of examples of radical web sites being taken down by the political authorities in liberal states, such direct coercive action remains unusual. The motivations for this approach are not, however, primarily about freedom for the sake of freedom. Rather, they are motivated in large part by the dual need to secure consent to the institutional order, and to monitor threats to it.

If we consider the threat of mediated free speech in the same way that we understand the how the police deal threat of protest and direct action, we can better understand the function of free speech in the online environment. The threat of the internet is that it allows anyone to become a “journalist” whilst making it difficult for the state to identify them. However, as with political action, the permissiveness of liberal states in fact allows for greater surveillance. This is to say communicative freedom online encourages people to communicate what they would not dare communicate in an authoritarian regime. Whilst this is undoubtedly constitutes freedom in a concrete sense, it still exists in relation to the sovereign power that a state can always lay claim to in the final analysis.

As noted radical journalists construct footage, reports, comment and analysis drawn from the protests themselves, resulting in a frame that is all but impossible for a corporate news organisation to produce. As a result we see a form of embedding from the “other” side. Crucially, in the UK much of the radical reporting shone a light on the use of “special” police units (such as the Territorial Support Group and Forward Intelligence Teams in the UK – corporate journalists tend to refer to such police units outside the West as “state security services”) police brutality, agent provocateurs, and of course the reaction of dissidents against this. Activists and especially students were able to produce reports from protests that mixed protest footage with television news, framing them in speeches by politicians to highlight the perceived injustice of policies, hypocrisy of politicians and state coercion against active dissent. Some activist “embeds” such as Marc Vallée have build important careers out of their radical journalism, and the significance of their sousveillance (surveillance from below) has massively expanded the “other” perspective in protest reporting. Bakir (2010) has very clearly argued the journalistic value of sousveillance, arguing it to be a new form of Web 2.0 journalism, holding the state to account in a way that corporate journalists failed to. However, its value must always be considered in terms of the context of state power.

            The most immediate effect of sousveillance journalism, radical media projects and citizen- and “user-generated” journalism more generally is the provision of a wealth of intelligence information that Big Brother could only have dreamt of. Videos uploaded to YouTube, Vimeo, photographs on Flickr and Facebook, web sites and blogs, and the variety of events and actions that activists (not to mention concerned citizens) subscribe to are more often than not available for all to see, including the police. Whereas the corporate news media still play an important state security role in distributing photographs of political dissidents (or “thugs” in the language of the corporate media) with the aim of encouraging citizens to denounce them, they are hardly necessary with the growth of radical reporting. Even explicitly counter-state technologies such as Sukey (which was designed to help protesters report police movements to avoid containment or illegal “kettling”) have ambiguous potential – they help protesters but are also used by the police. In this sense, radical online reporting enhances the pan-optic powers of the state.

            The paradoxical consequence of this is that state security forces are more easily able to identify dissidents in liberal states than they are in authoritarian states, due to the perception (and partial reality) of communicative and political freedom in the former. Radical reporters are all too often complicit in their own entrapment. After dissidents organised by UK Uncut occupied London’s exclusive Fornum and Mason department store to protest its avoidance of tax, hundreds were rounded up and prosecuted. Evidence from sousveillance footage distributed through social media played no small part in the crackdown here and against the broader student and anti-cuts movement. Whilst more astute activist-journalists would pixelate faces of protesters, publishing only photographs that were safe, the new “citizen journalists”, often with some faith remaining in the ideology of liberalism presumed their freedom to publish would not entail aiding a state crackdown.

            As noted, it is the exception, not the norm, for police to knowingly raid and arrest journalists of any description. Perhaps one of the key problems of new forms of online journalism is that their newness is unknown to the police. I have written elsewhere (Jones and Salter, 2012, chapter 9) about the problem of recognition faced by radical and online journalists. When anyone can be a journalist, anyone may claim shield laws to protect them from state interference in their journalistic activities. A further problem arises in this respect. As so many citizens are now also journalists, they occupy a number of roles. The journalist role for many online and citizen journalists is a subsidiary one. They occupy their “day-jobs”, their paid roles first. As such it is typical in liberal states that such persons may be dissuaded from engaging areas of controversy in their journalism due to the impact it may have on their main role. This pernicious form of control is what I refer to here as “distributed” censorship. As distinct from authoritarian states, liberal states do not practice hierarchical, centralised, state-centred censorship. Rather they rely on institutions distributed around civil society – from employers to educational institutions – to discipline those who work within them. It is thus that would-be journalists and, more commonly, sources working with journalists are coerced into self-censorship. This may take the form of the internalisation of institutional values, or the form of fear, whereby speaking out may risk one’s job security or career prospects, or repressive legal provisions, such as the Official Secrets Act (UK). Examples range from disciplinary action being taken against workers for blogging about their employers to footballers being served with legal notices for Tweeting about their clubs – the legal sanctions include bringing an organisation into disrepute and gross misconduct.

A clear example of this form of repression can be seen in the US state’s response to Wikileaks. A key report ‘—An Online Reference to Foreign Intelligence Services, Insurgents, or Terrorist Groups?’, published under the auspices of the US Department of Defense (DoD) Intelligence Analysis Program provides an important insight into “online” censorship in liberal states. The report was drafted to ‘assesses the counterintelligence threat posed to the US Army by the website.’ The concern over Wikileaks is clear from the outset, for it ‘represents a potential force protection, counterintelligence, operational security (OPSEC), and information security (INFOSEC) threat to the US Army’.

            Rather than focus on the messenger, the DoD sought to deal with this threat by stubbing out the source of the “threat”, suggesting that ‘The identification, exposure, termination of employment, criminal prosecution, legal action against current or former insiders, leakers, or whistleblowers could potentially damage or destroy this centre of gravity and deter others considering similar actions from using the website.’

            Crucially, the document identified a broad range of surreptitious threats to Wikileaks. ‘Efforts by some domestic and foreign personnel to discredit the website include allegations that it allows uncorroborated information to be posted, serves as an instrument of propaganda, and is a front organisation for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)’ (Department of Defense, 2008). The response to the leaking of the Iraq War Diaries saw Bradley Manning, a 22-year-old US soldier, arrested and held without charge in a military prison, where he faced appalling conditions, including 23 hours a day in a small cell, which he spent in complete isolation. Manning faces 50 years in prison if he is found guilty. This is what the DoD means by deterrence.

            The Wikileaks case tells a great deal about liberal conceptions of media freedom. While Wikileaks was targeting poorer states, it was celebrated in corporate news. The Washington Post (15 Jan 2007), for example, told its readers, ‘You’re a government worker in China, and you’ve just gotten a memo showing the true face of the regime. Without any independent media around, how do you share what you have without landing in jail or worse?’ The Post’s excitement seemed to have been prompted by the idea that Wikileaks ‘targets regimes in Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East… It’s significant that their emphasis seems to be on relatively closed societies rather than the US or Europe, that have a rather robust media sector’. When its attention turned to the ‘true face’ of the US regime, the tone of coverage naturally changed. Indeed, it was to its shame that the supposedly independent Reporters Without Borders (RWB) condemned Wikileaks in an open letter for the ‘incredible irresponsibility you showed when posting your article (on the Afghan War Diaries)’. RWB had considered the leak to present a threat to US and NATO soldiers. There has yet to be a case of RWB condemning any corporate news organisation for endangering Iraqi, Taliban, Al Qaeda, IRA, FARC, Iranian or any other “enemy” personnel, nor for endangering the lives of the Western dissidents whose capture and incarceration is aided by news media.


There is no doubt that the online environment provides enormous opportunities for greater media freedom. The low cost, communicative capacities, scale and scope, packet switching technologies and distributed nature of online journalism has the potential to revolutionise journalism, and the evidence so far has pointed to the realisation of this potential. However, we ought not to lose sight of countervailing forces. Nor must we forget that each political system has boundaries, whether visible or not. When these boundaries are traversed, the strength of those countervailing pressures becomes evident. Whilst online citizen- (and activist-) journalists have played a hugely important role in reporting from actions, they are not insulated from state power, either as transmitters of surveillance or as targets of more directly coercive power. The challenge to online journalists is how to maintain counter-hegemony at a time of crisis, and certainly how to report without exposing activists to repression.


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[1]    It is important not to misunderstand this role in terms of its relation to corporate media. In this respect, radical is often juxtaposed to corporate journalism in terms of dichotomies. Radical is subjective and active. Corporate is objective and passive. However, it is more fruitful to consider corporate journalism as subjective to the dominant institutional order and that it actively supports that order through its condemnation of challenges to it.

Researched and written by Dr Lee Salter.

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