PEN Is Mightier With the Net

E-mail From Jail: Imprisoned Writers Get a Boost From Online Activism

When Serbia's last independent radio station, B92, which Sharpe calls "an island surrounded by a bunch of propaganda crud," was shut down by Milosevic in March, it began broadcasting over the Net. Sharpe and Ayton-Chenker agree that the consequences of severing the station's link to Yugoslavia would be devastating. "This should be considered humanitarian assistance as far as I'm concerned," says Ayton-Chenker. "The Net provides a lifeline the same way medical assistance and international monitoring do."

The profusion of voices on the Net has nevertheless posed a challenge to the nonprofits. which must winnow through an often bewildering stream of human rights alerts, some of which are more reliable than others. Dependent on volunteer work and freelance consultants, offices like Human Rights Watch, which vets every article that appears on its Web site, are at times overwhelmed by a flood of appeals and breaking news they do not have the resources to accommodate.

Limbert Fabian

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As human rights groups develop a more effective Internet presence, says Parikh, the challenge will be not just to filter the noise more efficiently, but to move away from a broadcast model, toward a more interactive one. "One-way flow is much easier to build than two-way flow," he says. And human rights organizations "have been slow to recognize the potential of this medium to build an interactive dialogue with the ordinary community." If such Web sites, which now serve primarily as bulletin boards for press releases and petitions, are to build greater awareness and political clout with the public, he says, they should offer interactive maps and multi-tiered educational discussions, chat rooms, and forums. "It's like building a community and acknowledging the importance of the diverse points of view of individual citizens. Human rights groups have to take a lead on that if they really want to make this a globally interactive medium."

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