Kevin Smith stays close to the action. He hovers unobtrusively near the black-clad activists and watches intently while one anarchist shatters a McDonald’s window and another is tackled by riot police. It’s a chilly Friday in mid-November, and more than 500 protesters have gathered in downtown Ottawa for the first day of demonstrations against the weekend-long meeting of the world’s most powerful finance ministers. Placards painted with anti-International Monetary Fund and anti-World Bank slogans ripple over the crowd and, in a scene now commonplace on the six o’clock news, protesters tear down fences and clash with police.
In contrast to the dazzling red anarchy symbols and black balaclavas of the anarchists, 31-year-old Smith is unobtrusive in his jeans, hiking boots, and blue fall jacket. Instead of spray paint and street chalk, Smith carries an Indymedia press badge, a camera, and his ever-reliable notepad and pencil. It’s almost impossible to keep up with him as he darts around, weaving through bodies in motion, stopping abruptly to take pictures of people dancing in the middle of an intersection or of an anarchist chalking “CNN = Death” on the side of the National Press Building.
“Mainstream media is biased in favour of the interests of large corporations, which often run counter to the interests of the people of the world,” Smith would later tell me, explaining why he helped found the Ontario chapter of Indymedia (also known as Independent Media Centres, or just IMC), one of more than 70 that have sprouted across the world since the organization’s inception at the “Battle in Seattle.” Empowered by the Internet, thousands of Indymedia devotees from Windsor to Argentina have become activist-journalists, two roles that leave many struggling to reconcile being the mouthpiece of a cause and providing fair and balanced coverage.
In Ottawa today, Smith is just one of dozens of Indymedia reporters. Everywhere I look there’s some young activist scooting around with a digital camera, or a cell phone, or a notepad and pencil. They’re filming from atop National Post boxes, shooting pictures from partway up lampposts, and fearlessly approaching police lines. An Indymedia journalist standing close to the front line raises a small camcorder to the eye of his gas mask and points the lens at the police in riot gear in front of him. Suddenly, the police charge and pin him to the ground. They pull his hands behind his back and confiscate his camera. Other Indymedia journalists on the scene immediately use cell phones to call the newsroom where the story is quickly uploaded to ontario.indymedia.org. Later, when other random acts of police violence erupt, Indymedia journalists lock their cameras on the commotion while the crowd chants, “The whole world is watching.”
Smith spends most of this Saturday working the phones, keeping in contact with a legal aid group, street medics, and protesters who phone in reports throughout the day. Between calls, while he updates the newswire, I ask him whether he’s a journalist or an activist. “At this point I consider myself primarily a journalist, although I certainly came out of the activist tradition,” he replies.
Smith, who has been involved in protests since 1995, encountered Indymedia at the Washington, D.C., protests in April 2000, where he was impressed by the scale of the media centre. There was a rack of TV sets and VCRs, all showing different media coverage. The room was buzzing with intensity as the volunteer staff tried to keep up with the day’s events. Protesters were divided into teams-including print, photo, audio, and video-with each group assigned upwards of 12 computers. “The idea of ordinary, everyday people doing interviews and making news was exciting,” he remembers.
Smith left Washington knowing he’d found a challenging new channel for his activism. Less than two months later, Smith and the tech team founded IMC Ontario to cover the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty march against homelessness in Toronto.
Indymedia is based on the Internet concept of “open publishing,” which developed out of online community discussion boards where moderators aren’t allowed to change, edit, or delete posts. Anyone can upload audio, video, photos, or print to the umbrella Indymedia site at indymedia.org or to any of its local affiliates that have emerged in countries such as Germany, Mexico, India, Australia, and Nigeria. In the United States, video footage from Indymedia sites is shown monthly on the national satellite station Free Speech TV. Canada has over 10 Indymedia working groups, with sites established for Alberta, Quebec, Ontario, and many cities.
All IMC news sites are standardized. The banner features the logo’s small “i” with sound waves radiating from both of its sides. An icon is prominently displayed that, when clicked, leads Indymedia journalists through the simple procedure of uploading their material. The layout of the site is divided into three main columns. On the left there are links to IMCs around the world, while the right-hand column is known as the newswire and links to recently uploaded material. The central column is reserved for especially poignant or timely articles from the newswire.
Although Smith hopes that Indymedia will one day replace traditional “corporate” news sources, typical reports on IMC Ontario do little more than chronicle the actions of different activist groups. There is little in the way of investigative reporting, while many of the stories are nothing more than incoherent personal rants. Checking the site one day, I clicked onto an audio clip of the Dope Poet Society singing a song called “Fuck Mike Harris.” I then moved on to a photo of activists carrying a banner with the words “Fuck Corporate Media. We Want the Truth” splashed across it while they protested outside of MuchMusic in downtown Toronto. Finally, I pulled up a video featuring the Raging Grannies, a group of vivacious old women who sing anticapitalist songs like “Democracy’s a Dream.”
The falling cost of technology means that groups like TVAC and Indymedia now have access to sophisticated cameras and computerized editing suites that were once the monopoly of professional journalists working for well-monied organizations. In his 1996 book Media Virus, media theorist Douglas Rushkoff argues that the power of elite media is diminishing in the face of a technologically empowered citizenry. One of the seminal moments in this shift in the media landscape occurred in 1991 when George Holliday, an onlooker who just happened to have a camcorder in hand, taped the brutal beating of Rodney King by LAPD officers. The footage was used to charge the officers and was the catalyst that eventually triggered a major riot in Los Angeles. Soon after, a number of other crimes and abuses were caught on tape, and were bought by major networks to broadcast around the world. “The Rodney King beating, gay bashings, police brutalities, and neo-Nazi attacks. It seemed that home video had emerged as the great equalizer,” Rushkoff wrote. “Wherever an injustice occurred, there was a camcorder rolling. No one could get away with anything.”
Following the King beating and the L.A. riot, activists around the world began to realize that they could use these same tools for direct action. Rushkoff chronicles how, in the U.S., AIDS activists started taking video equipment to demonstrations (where they were usually harassed by police) and soon formed a group called DIVA-TV, or Damned Interfering Video Activists. In Amsterdam in 1993, several hundred media activists met for “The Next Five Minutes,” a conference about using video as a political tactic. And in Canada, the CBC hired Toronto-based media activist group Channel Zero to produce three segments for The National.
Indymedia was created to cover the November 1999 anti-World Trade Organization demonstrations in Seattle. Eight weeks before the WTO summit, a half-dozen people, most of whom worked in media, decided to pool their resources to document and post the events of Seattle on the Web in realtime. The idea snowballed immediately. Within a few weeks, more than 50 people were working on the project. “Techies” began to develop the site’s front and back ends. People started fund-raising, eventually collecting more than $75,000 in cash and equipment. Other independent media activists like Paper Tiger TV, Free Speech TV, and the Direct Action Media Network came together to help the fledgling organization with materials and expertise. Volunteers nationally and internationally began calling people in Seattle to say they were bringing camcorders, editing machines, computers, and audio equipment. Seattle’s Low Income Housing Institute donated a 2,700-square-foot storefront to the cause, asking only that the group clean out the space. Weeks were spent frantically plastering and painting the walls, putting in plumbing and wiring, and disposing of junk on the ground. On November 28, the day before the protest, the doors were opened to independent media makers from across the globe.
At the height of the protests, IMC Seattle was a buzz of chaotic but passionate activity. More than 450 people used the centre while more than 100 videographers were on the streets shooting footage. Radio stations across the U.S. picked up Indymedia’s live audio feed. Satellite TV stations aired its video footage. Mainstream news organizations like CNN and Reuters linked to the IMC website from their own. By the end of the demonstrations, seattle.indymedia.org had received about 1.5 million hits. One of the reasons for its instant notoriety was the fact that Indymedia was countering deliberate government disinformation that mainstream news organizations were airing. For example, all the major news networks carried a clip from Seattle’s police chief denying the use of rubber bullets. At the same time, Indymedia was posting photos of people with welts all over their bodies and holding the rubber bullets that inflicted the wounds.
Sheri Herndon, one of the co-founders of Indymedia, still gets emotional when remembering how the Seattle Indymedia newsroom came alive. On the second day of the protests, Herndon stood in the middle of the centre watching the chaos and commotion swirl around her. For the first time since she’d begun working on the project, she realized the magnitude of what the volunteers had accomplished. “All of a sudden I realized that the dream that we had-to have a public media centre in Seattle-had happened,” she says from IMC Seattle, where she is now a full-time volunteer.
Indymedia’s global reach is what Shift senior editor Sarah Elton finds most compelling about the organization. “That we can disseminate video taken by independent videographers around the world-they have a Chiapas Indymedia, a Hawaii Indymedia-just blows my mind,” says Elton. “That I can watch video filmed in these remote locations that I would never ever have seen otherwise, that’s amazing. And in that respect, Indymedia’s fantastic.”
Ronald Deibert, associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto and author of the bookParchment, Printing, and Hypermedia, says he’s been waiting a long time for something like Indymedia to emerge. “It’s straight from the people who are there on the ground. Even people who just have opinions on things can share the information they have without worrying about corporate filters or commercial constraints through advertising that might prohibit some types of stories from being written.” Deibert explains that most people are frustrated with news organizations like CNN, and that the real-people, real-footage approach of Indymedia provides a refreshing alternative. “People are craving some sort of unmediated, unfiltered, unpackaged news information.”
But for The Hamilton Spectator‘s media columnist, Gregory Boyd Bell, the resulting amateurishness that is a direct consequence of Indymedia’s open approach is one of its greatest flaws. While he considers Indymedia a valuable source of information that mainstream media overlook, he says the disappointing quality of the editorial and lack of ethical standards limit it from reaching a wider audience. “We would be poorer in terms of knowledge if we didn’t have the high standards that have come to be expected of what is called mainstream media: balance and caution about reporting rumours.”
There can be no argument that Indymedia undercuts its own cause with pat-on-the-back stories and knee-jerk reactions to social issues. The problem is compounded by the fact that Indymedia sites are awash with inaccurate information and conspiracy theories, something that leaves the governing local editorial collectives frustrated as the open publishing convention forbids them from removing stories they know to be wrong or, as in the case of IMC Israel, even racist. On the website israel.indymedia.org, racial slurs fly back and forth across the Israeli-Palestinian divide. People identifying themselves as “Anti-Arab” and “Anti-Jew” post horrifying rants such as: “Death to you, your whore mother, your rapist father, your assassin brothers, and your cheap slut sisters.” One such article was posted and the editorial collective took the unorthodox step of removing it from the main page. Heated debate ensued, with one Indymedia activist writing that by removing the post, the site should be disqualified from being an IMC. “What gives you the right to tell us what we can and cannot read? You cannot censor articles or posts because they simply offend you,” the post read.
Situations like these have lead Julie Crysler, editor of This magazine, to believe that Indymedia is often more dangerous than enlightening. “I think it’s great that a broader base of people now has access to media and are able to do this kind of reporting. The difficulty is that Indymedia often becomes a clearinghouse for rumours, unsubstantiated attacks, and rants that aren’t supported by facts.”
Take, for example, a post-September 11 story that claimed a CNN clip showing Palestinians singing and dancing to celebrate the collapse of the Twin Towers was file footage from 1991. The rumour quickly spread around the world and prompted people to flood CNN and other online discussion boards across the Web with e-mails of “shame.” The claim was false, of course, and sparked a chain of angry correspondence between CNN’s vice president of international public relations, Nigel Pritchard, and a number of Indymedia volunteers. In one of his e-mails, Pritchard quotes the Indymedia mission statement: “Indymedia is a democratic media outlet for the creation of radical, accurate, and passionate telling of the truth.” He then responds: “Really? You could have fooled me.”
When I ask Kevin Smith if, for all its good intentions, Indymedia has become a propaganda tool for the activist community, he answers: “We believe that complete objectivity is impossible. So all journalism is propaganda to some extent. We try to be honest about our biases, unlike the corporate media.” Smith, like many in the Indymedia organization, believes that corporate media cloak a right-wing, big-business ideology behind a facade of objectivity. The fact that Indymedia wears its bias on its sleeve, he says, makes the organization a more credible news source.
The biases of Toronto’s media activist community were on display at a journalism conference organized by Ontario Indymedia in Toronto last September. More than 100 activists filled four rooms in the Bissell Building of the University of Toronto to loudly debate topics ranging from “Countering the Mainstream” to “Getting the Story: Research, Contacts, and Interviewing.” A video workshop, lead by Jonathan Culp of TVAC, highlighted some of the basic elements of shooting: the best type of camcorder to use, potential problems, and reminders to bring lots of tape. One person in the workshop asked if there was anything that shouldn’t be taped at demonstrations. “Well, it’s probably not a good idea to tape things like people destroying bank machines,” Culp replied. “Remember, you are working in solidarity with the protesters.” In other words, don’t record anything that could hinder the movement.