Posts Tagged ‘why democracy?’

Why democracy? Here’s why

Monday, October 15th, 2007

“Why Democracy? Because we deserve justice.” Wrote Sokwanele today.

It’s deja vu: At conferences and in other settings where democracy, free speech, the media etc are discussed, it’s so healthy to put people from different continents and countries side by side. Typically a participant from a Western country will lament the erosion of democracy and standards of journalism, the commercialisation of the media. All important enough. Then someone from China, Russia, Thailand or any other country where freedom of the press must be fought for and defended every day, often with bitter defeat, will just talk about their experiences — and the perspective changes completely (another example, in Norwegian). When you happen to be in a place where democracy does not exist, or if you have experienced that condition, that’s when you can write like Sokwanele. Or like Ory Okolloh:

You couldn’t dare criticise the President or the government – the repercussions were harsh and most of Kenya’s intelligentsia went into exile. But the activists perserved and slowly change came to Kenya, culminating in the historic 2002 elections when Kenyans finally said “No” to Moi and his appointed successor. Today, I have free! I can write and say what I want about the government or the President without fear. I can work on projects that shine a spotlight on the performance of Kenyan politicians without a shred of concern about my safety. I have a plethora of newspapers, magazines, radio stations, and TV stations where I can obtain information. Hell, I can surf the net freely. It’s easy to take these freedoms for granted once you have them…the events in Myanmar have reminded me to appreciate them and to not take democracy for granted.

The end of “democracy”?

Thursday, October 11th, 2007

“Democracy” should be banned – the word, that is. That’s the recommendation from Edward Lucas at (the comment is also published at Lucas’ blog). The reason: “democracy” is misused, anyway:

If Vladimir Putin of Russia describes himself as a “perfect democrat”, he is welcome to the term, along with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and those nostalgic for the German “Democratic” Republic. Democracy all too often means buying votes, rigging elections and mob rule.

Instead of “democracy”, Lucas suggests that we use “law-governed”, “free” and “public-spirited”. He ends up with Karl Popper’s “open society” as a good candidate for a term that covers the kind of society he wants to describe.

Worth pondering. Maybe with a compilation of democracy definitions in mind.

(Originally published on the Why democracy website.)

Understanding linking

Thursday, October 11th, 2007

Re my earlier post about news websites inviting the readers to participate: there is another way that is used far too little – the automatic linking of external blog entries from news stories. I’ve seen this before on US websites, and several Swedish news websites offers it today. See example from Dagens Nyheter — the links to bloggers referring to the article appear under the heading “Bloggat om artikeln”.

There are several advantages to this system. People who take the trouble of creating and updating their own blogs may be more inclined to comment under their full name and comment constructively. News websites attract more attention from blogs and give something back to them via the links. So this is also a way for websites to show that they understand the function and power of the link. As Jeff Jarvis says:

It is the key architectural element supporting a new structure of media, the steel beam that enables journalism to build past prior physical limitations, to grow taller, wider, and stronger than before. Just recently, I have heard confusion from working journalists about the role of the link. They still think it is an endorsement rather than an extension or an FYI. They don’t always understand how links power the algorithms that organize knowledge today, and how links are the basis of media distribution from now on.

(I found the Jarvis link via Kristine Løwe.)

Originally published on the Why democracy website.

How to support dissidents

Thursday, October 11th, 2007

Organisations and initiatives like Reporters Without Borders and Global Voices Advocacy are doing excellent work promoting freedom of expression and helping the cause of journalists and citizens who are persecuted (as are the bigger and more well-known Amnesty, Human Rights Watch etc).

Supporting dissidents may be more important than ever – because it is more dangerous than ever to speak out against repressive regimes. German editor Joachim Widmann makes this point in an essay published this week (in Norwegian), one year after Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered in Moscow (disclosure: I commissioned the article as editor of the Norwegian magazine Vox Publica. Die Zeit Online has published the original German text.) Widmann compares the situation for dissidents during the Cold War and today. People like Vaclav Havel, Andrei Sakharov and Robert Havemann could count on the media and citizens in the West for support and continous attention. The media knew how to portray the dissidents as brave heroes for freedom. The public supported them by buying their books. The news from the West crept back behind the iron curtain and made it difficult for the Communist authorities to silence the critics.

But today, the fronts aren’t so well defined. There is no clash of consistent ideologies. Stories about dissidents drown in the noise of
the millions of voices on the Internet. It simply isn’t possible for the media to create the same kind of attention for and interest around the dissidents anymore, Widmann argues.

I hope he is wrong in this conclusion, but I’m not sure. It is probably too early to interpret the events in Burma over the past weeks in this context. On the one hand, there was a massive surge in interest and sympathy for the Burmese people in countries around the world. Here, the traditional media and “citizen media” seemed for a few days to cooperate perfectly in creating a heroic narrative. But can the mass public’s interest be sustained for more than a few intense days? And what about the dark side of the Internet – the possibility for authorities to track what citizens do and then hunt them down afterwards?

“We neglected to tell Politkovskaya’s story loudly and clearly and to bring it into the consciousness of the global public. In the end she was alone,” Widmann writes. We owe it to her to do more for those brave dissidents still alive. To identify methods that work in the post-Cold War, post-Old Media age is our common responsibility.

(Originally published on the Why democracy website.)

Corruption is poison

Thursday, October 11th, 2007

This past week only, the English version of Google News has registered over 34.000 news stories about corruption.

Democracies are by no means vaccinated against corruption. According to Transparency International, the Nordic countries rank among the least corrupt in the world. Still, corruption is seen as a growing problem and there have of course been high profile scandals in these countries as well.

Why do I think corruption is poison for society? Because it destroys trust — in democratic institutions, in business relationships, in civil society. And trust is needed in all these areas for a democracy to be healthy.

Corruption often happens where business meets government, for example when contracts are awarded or licenses granted. A civil servant can be bribed to look the other way, or a politician paid off to ensure the signing of a big contract. Look at it from an honest businesswoman’s perspective: if she has fought with legal weapons and then loses out because a competitor paid someone off, she’ll lose faith in the system. She might quit the entrepreneur project she tried to get off the ground. No wonder more corrupt societies are less innovative and poorer.

But this is about more than the economy. As a voter and citizen, if you believe elected politicians and bureaucrats can be bought, why should you bother to participate, to vote or even run for office yourself? It might be argued that rampant corruption has been a major factor in destroying democracy in Russia before it could take hold.

The few independent voices making themselves heard out of Russia these days, like Natalia Novozhilova, often point to a kind of apathy among the people as a result of years of economic and political corruption (Novozhilova is the winner of the 2007 prize from the Norwegian Freedom of Expression Foundation and the German Zeit Foundation).

I’ll just put it this way: It takes a very strong democracy to withstand the poison of corruption. What about weak democracies or
societies on the threshold between dictatorship and democracy (there are many of those around today)? How can corruption be fought there? Could the fight against corruption be a catalyst for democracy? What do you think?

(Originally published on the Why democracy website.)

Democracy blogger for a day

Thursday, October 11th, 2007

I’m a guest blogger at the Why Democracy? blog today. If you’re interested, have a look at my posts and check out all the other material there.

Web debates and civility

Thursday, October 11th, 2007

One of the most important aspects of the web is how it has increased the possibility for people to participate in public debate. It’s hard to find anyone today who will deny that the web has made it so much easier to contribute your opinion on almost any topic. Almost everyone who consider themselves democrats will think this is a good thing. When you participate in the public sphere, you are learning how to act democratically. Participation strengthens democracy, many liberal thinkers have concluded.

So the web should be one of the best things that have happened to democracy for a very long time, right? Maybe it is; I think so, at least. But increasing participation also produces some new and so far unsolved problems. Debates on the web can be ugly, anonymous participants hurling abuse at each other and frequently proving Mike Godwin right. Is this really the future of democracy? Sometimes it looks more like ochlocracy.

News organisations are traditionally the most important institutions of the public sphere. How do they tackle the question of civility in debates on their websites? Even today many prefer the easy solution: They keep the readers out. But even the most conservative of newspaper editors must have realized by now that this is a dead end. It also runs contrary to the idea of newspapers – who should be for increased participation, if not journalists and editors?

The other extreme is to allow and encourage participation with no constraints. I believe Norwegian news websites have been among the most liberal. For a few years allowing readers to comment on articles has been the norm (some also offer forums and let readers create their own blogs). Hence it might be useful to look at the experiences they have gathered so far. I think it’s fair to say that they are mixed. An article on a popular news website quickly generates many comments, depending on the topic – several hundred is not unusual. The quantity is a challenge in itself. On small websites such as blogs, users tend to know each other after a while. A community forms where users take turns “policing” the debate. On big websites, aggressive and “irresponsible” users can drown out the constructive ones. That’s why debates on blogs often are more rewarding to follow and take part in.

So the news websites need tools to filter out the destructive users and promote the good reader-commentators. There are several possible: let users vote on commentaries, give an advantage to logged-in users, have editors sift through comments and give special attention to the best of them ( have been testing all these techniques — have a look at their fairly new debate section). If the website succeeds, the interesting comments will “float” to the top of the list and the others won’t be read. Hopefully the “destructors” will get bored and disappear.

Whether to allow anonymity in debates is another hot topic. The opponents say that anonymous participation goes against the principles of public debate: you should be mature enough to stand for what you mean in public. This is a strong argument. But nonetheless, most Norwegian news websites allow anonymous comments or pseudonyms. A strict policy seems to scare many people away. Maybe people who do not know the traditional academic or intellectual codes for public debate take part when they don’t have to give up their full name. It can be argued that this way, arguments and views are represented which wouldn’t otherwise appear. Many liberal thinkers would applaud that, as well.

I think Norwegian news websites have been right in taking a liberal approach to reader participation. But they have a special responsibility to try and make the debate as civil as possible. Here they should be careful not to define civil in a very narrow way. Sometimes what seems uncivil is just a matter of a different style than the usual academic-influenced style of newspaper op-ed pages. Web debates are more direct, sometimes more personal, faster. Websites should have clear rules that are adapted continously.

Using the web’s own tools to increase the quality of debate is the right way. In fact, I think news organisations will discover this on their own: they need to maintain high quality, anything else would hurt the brand in the long run. And they need to appeal to users who expect to participate, anything else would be a very risky strategy indeed.

(Originally published on the Why democracy website).

Hvorfor demokrati?

Saturday, September 29th, 2007

Mandag 8. oktober er premieredagen for det store dokumentarfilm- og debattprosjektet Why Democracy?. I Norge er det NRK2 som skal vise de ti dokumentarene som er grunnmuren i prosjektet (i tillegg kommer blant annet mange kortfilmer). Over 40 TV-kanaler er med, blant dem BBC og ZDF. Filmtemaene ser spennende ut. Geografisk er spredningen god, fra Liberia via Danmark og Russland til Kina, og så videre.

Prosjektet styres interessant nok av folk som er så heldige å bo i Cape Town. Onsdag denne uken lanserte de bloggen Democracy News, som er delvis basert på at en inviterte bloggere/skribenter “donerer” en arbeids-/bloggedag (en dag per blogger). Uten at jeg helt vet hvorfor har prosjektgruppen kontaktet meg, og dette var ikke akkurat et tilbud man kunne avslå! Nå har jeg fått tildelt 11. oktober som min dag. Vent en del tørrtrening her framover… Førstemann ut på onsdag var Robert Reich, en statsvitenskap-professor som var arbeidsminister under Bill Clinton. Hm, hva var det der om å hoppe etter Wirkola igjen?

Prosjektet er nok ment å inspirere til bred debatt om demokrati. Temaet er så omfattende at det selvsagt er fare for at det hele blir konturløst og velmenende. Det vil vise seg. Noe vil avhenge av filmenes kvalitet, noe av hva TV-kanalene og andre medier — og ikke minst folk selv — gjør ut av det. Sveriges Television ser for eksempel så langt ut til å ha valgt et mer ambisiøst opplegg enn NRK. SVT-sjefen hilser fra websider det er lagt arbeid i:

AVSIKTEN ÄR ATT FÅ… LIV i en avsomnad debatt om demokratin. Det lovade så gott efter 1989 då jublande människor befriades från diktatur i det ena landet efter det andra. Men nu ser vi återigen hur demokratin trängs tillbaka i stora delar av världen. Genom att skildra utvecklingen i Kina, Ryssland, Egypten – och även i USA och vår egen del av världen – ställer vi de viktiga frågorna om igen: Varför demokrati? Vad är den bra för? Är den värd att dö för? Kan den köpas? Kapas? Kväsas?

Jeg vet ikke om det er riktig at debatten om demokratiet er sovnet hen. Folk som ikke kan ta demokratiske rettigheter for gitt har de siste par tiårene hatt en egen evne til å vekke oss i “den frie verden” fra sløvheten. Tenk på de kilometerlange køene av folk som ventet tålmodig i timevis for å stemme i Sør-Afrikas første valg etter apartheid, eller de tusener som bodde i telt i ukevis i Kievs bunnfrosne gater under oransjerevolusjonen, eller de tapre munkene og deres medborgere som i disse dager er villige til å ofre livet for demokrati i Burma. Litt beskjemmet må vi gang på gang innrømme at det er de som ikke har demokratiet som er best i stand til å vise oss dets virkelige verdi.