One cartoon depicts a newspaper bundled with chain and padlock. Another shows two hands smothering a squawking radio with a pillow. The message of these barbed sketches, clipped from the Algerian independent newspaper Mesmar in 1996 (which the government suspended after arresting staffers), is obvious: freedom of speech is under siege.
To publicize and preserve censored material like this, the Digital Freedom Network (dfn.org), which launched its Web site last week, has created an impressive clearinghouse of suppressed, bowdlerized, and incendiary documents from 17 countries. DFN is a noble venture to be sure, funded by a generous, committed philanthropist and inaugurated last Tuesday by two resilient dissidents, Kenya’s Koigi wa Wamwere and China’s Bao Ge.
But the nagging question about the site–and it’s an awkward one to ask–is why. The Net is already home to hundreds of activist organizations, and if you pull back the curtain a little, it’s apparent that the DFN hasn’t done much more than repurpose the work of its “partners,” such as Reporters Sans Frontieres (rsf.fr), which supplied the two Algerian cartoons, Index on Censorship (oneworld.org), CubaNet, and the Committee To Protect Journalists (cpj.org)–groups that already have a presence online. Since the effectiveness of these efforts is based on the principle of strength in numbers, doesn’t it make sense for the groups to consolidate rather than divide their forces? There’s even a noticeable traffic in the same dissidents–wa Wamwere is featured on DFN, in the new Focus on Justice, and in an extensive Amnesty International (amnesty.org) report, which outdoes both the others in terms of exhaustiveness in its coverage of Kenya. By launching on its own, the DFN runs the risk of wasting precious resources on efforts to distinguish and promote itself in addition to promoting censored material.
Howard Jonas, the CEO of long-distance-phone and Net-telephone company IDT, who gave DFN a million dollars to develop the site, says he tried to donate funds to other activist organizations but they were unwilling to take his money. “We went to human rights groups and offered free Net access and Web hosting and to my surprise, they all turned down the offer,” he says. “They said, ‘If we take this from you, then we won’t be able to apply for grants.’ It became clear this wasn’t a committed group of idealists.”
There are no rules barring nonprofits from accepting both corporate funding and foundation grants. But for some activist groups it’s not the threat of losing grant money but the taint of corporate involvement that makes them cautious. Amnesty International receives just $30,000 in grant money out of a $24 million budget (the rest comes from private donors) and “the only thing we’re leery of is money from corporations,” says Roberto A. Quezada, the group’s Web site administrator.
But while Amnesty has very targeted goals, DFN is a broad nexus of information, an offset to what Jonas terms the petty “territoriality” of some activist groups. “We want to put all the material into one place,” says DFN executive director Bobson Wong. “We’re not looking to duplicate what [other sites] do.”
The spectacular London-based OneWorld (oneworld.org)–an umbrella site for over 210 nongovernmental organizations and human rights coalitions–has spent three years working toward similar ends, and could serve as a model for the DFN about how to effectively inform and mobilize online. Packed with well-organized “guides” to child labor, land mines, and AIDS issues, and a catalog of full-time and volunteer opportunities worldwide, OneWorld makes expert use of its subsidiaries’ materials. According to OneWorld’s news editor, Mark Lynas, the group’s explicit mandate has been to unify disparate forces. “With all the organizations scattered in cyberspace, the impact is nothing unless they are together,” he says. The result of this networking is evident. During a recruiting drive, the nonprofit Voluntary Services Overseas, featured as a link on OneWorld, found half its qualified applicants over the Net.
Without a way to communicate with fellow activists or a solid network behind it, DFN’s database is activism in beta. At the press conference, the dissident wa Wamwere optimistically called the Net a “second battlefront” that “might prove more effective than fighting from the other end.” The danger is that the Net can all too easily erupt into hundreds of fronts. The groups that stay relevant won’t be fighting alone.
The mechanical hatch opens and the handwritten paper bills slide out, strangely urgent and detached: “It is a dreary day and I have no prospects, but at least I have my children.” “It’s really hard to get off the junk. If only I could.” “Mid Life Crisis: Need better pills.” A mechanized message in a bottle, artist Jerelyn Hanrahan’s ATM doesn’t dispense cash but morsels of human connection–the only catch is you have to deposit some of yourself to get any honesty in return.
Her new art installation, Gesture as Value, unveiled last week in the lobby of 55 Broad Street and operational until May 29, is a simple subversion of the soul-killing machinery of the ATM. Users fill out a bill-sized piece of paper with anything they like–confession, statement, or drawing. Then they insert a bank card into the machine, choose a language (French, English, German, Italian), and deposit their “gesture,” as Hanrahan calls it, into the ATM. The machine then spits back the bank card (no withdrawal has been made) along with a randomly selected gesture in an envelope.
Hanrahan hopes the project will “challenge the perimeter of the art world” by including voices from homes for the elderly, depressed neighborhoods, and psychiatric hospitals. The itinerant artist, who carries the thousands of gestures with her in a suitcase, has traveled to Germany, Romania, Italy, and the former Yugoslavia collecting them. In one of the more intense spot-anthropology sessions, Hanrahan asked the male patients at a psychiatric home near Rome to contribute. “I gave one guy 300 bills to distribute to the rest of them and he said, ‘Come back in 15 days,”‘ she says. “When I did, he had done all 300.”
To keep the machine stocked, Hanrahan has placed submission boxes in galleries and cafes in England and the Netherlands. In retooling the ATM to mete out bits of planet news, Hanrahan hopes to reinsert human experience between us and our money. ‘I wanted to stop people and make them think, ‘Hey, somebody made this.”‘
Signal and Noise
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 19, 1998