"Blood smeared on the wall during the police assault," reads the photo caption. The text reads like journal entries: first-person accounts of the violence and chaos unfolding. "An hour ago, police stormed the building that hosted the IMC [Independent Media Centre] with tear gas and batons."
This was Genoa during the G8 summit, as seen from the front lines of the demonstrations. As activists clashed with riot police, dozens of amateur journalists furiously worked to send words and images to the IMC website (www.indymedia.org), a burgeoning international activist organisation and underground newswire.
Founded in Seattle in 1999 to cover the protests at the World Trade Organisation summit, the IMC, also referred to as Indymedia, is a loose collection of activists and amateur journalists dedicated, in the words of one participant, "to providing social and economic justice through media production and distribution".
With chapters now in 50 cities worldwide, the IMC has grown out of proportion to anything its founders had anticipated. The reason is a combination of the group's decentralised structure and its choice of software: an open source program that enables anyone to post text, photos, video or audio to an Indymedia website.
In the UK, where there is an active Indymedia web presence (uk.indymedia.org), some 100 people regularly contribute to the site "as an underground breaking news service", according to a volunteer who would only give his name as Sam Body and who stressed, as most IMC volunteers do, that he could speak only for himself. "Contributors from underground media use Indymedia as an alternative Reuters," he says.
Another mission of the UK group is to develop technology that enables activists to rely on their own equipment whenever possible. During last year's May Day demonstrations, IMC members set up "the first Indymedia public access terminal - a couple of laptops powered with car batteries that ran off a bicycle charger and solar power," says Body.
With Europe in the throes of what activists are calling the "Summer of Resistance", IMC journalists have their hands full. In addition to the G8 summit in Genoa, Indymedia has carried reports from the European Union summit in Gothenburg, the World Bank's cancelled meeting in Barcelona, and last week's climate conference in Bonn.
The IMC is a nascent, experimental phenomenon. It is impossible to calculate how many people are involved, as participation in the volunteer-run group runs the gamut from those who work full-time to keep the infrastructure running, to those who post a single story during a specific event. The IMC has no world headquarters, but if it can be said to be located anywhere, that location is at the convergence of several critical trends: the rebirth of activism, the maturation of the internet and the crystallisation of what they see as a new evil in the form of out-of-control corporatism.
Central to the mission of the IMC is the notion that, with mainstream media dominated by large corporations, an alarming number of voices and perspectives are simply not being heard. By setting up "people's newsrooms" round the world, the IMC intends to provide media training to the alienated and under-represented, empowering them to tell their stories by equipping them with tools such as video cameras and fast internet connections. (IMC UK, though it launched just in time for May Day 2000, has no official, physical office; activists are hoping to remedy that in coming months.) Meanwhile, they are ensuring that activism receives media attention by carefully co-ordinating coverage of events round the globe and posting ground-level reporting to the Web.
"If you're progressive, and you understand the relationship between issues and getting the story out for public awareness and education, you know it's not happening through the corporate media," says Sheri Herndon, one of the original members of the IMC. "That is just a fact."
Jeff Perlstein, an IMC founder, agrees. "This whole project speaks to a really deep need that people have to have alternative sources of news," he says.
Ironically, even the mainstream media has been taking notice. During the infamous week of WTO protests in Seattle, the IMC website received tens of thousands of visitors; nearly 500 journalists and activists contributed text, photos and video clips to the site, with a new posting roughly every seven minutes. In the year and a half that followed, mainstream news organisations have routinely relied on IMC reports of large-scale protests. "It certainly brings voices into the media environment that have basically never been heard from, except as sound bites," says Danny Schechter, a longtime proponent of alternative media and the executive editor of the US- based mediachannel.org.
Part community media lab, part global information network, the IMC is a bold experiment in collaboration. The network uses software called Active, initially developed by an activist in Australia to link protest movements there. Active enables people to upload content without any central editorial oversight.
The software also takes individual autonomy one step further: new IMC websites can be set up in a matter of hours anywhere in the world. These local IMCs are independently run, though they are part of the larger global network. The Indymedia portal site aggregates content from the local sites and links to all of them. Anyone who wants to can participate in keeping the infrastructure running.
Using the Net for activism is nothing new. What makes Indymedia radical is a steadfast commitment to decentralisation and a desire to fuse the guiding principles of the free software movement with the ideals of participatory democracy.
"In any kind of future society that you envision, there's going to have to be media," says Benjamin Samuels, who helped to create the New York City IMC. "You can't just say, `corporate media sucks'. You have to say, `What does the media that you want look like?'"
"There's this paradigm of thinking that [the US TV news anchor] Peter Jennings has a level of credibility, that he's delivering the truth to us more than somebody who can't spell," says Jill Friedberg of the Seattle IMC, who produced and edited This is What Democracy Looks Like, a documentary about the Seattle protests. "But you have to take all information with a grain of salt, whether it's coming from CNN or coming from somebody who can't write a sentence to save their lives. I think there are ways to accommodate both of those kinds of participation."
The commitment to a purely democratic organisation is at the heart of Indymedia's modus operandi, from the creation and maintenance of the software and hardware to the editorial process through which the group produces its content. As the IMC has grown in an anarchist model of organic chaos, the question of how to maintain editorial credibility without engaging in what Sam Body calls "the elitist, inherent hierarchy in the process of newsgathering" has become a central question.
Jay Sands, a founder of the Philadelphia IMC, tells the story of a photographer who wandered into the office during the Republican convention last August. Interested in posting his photos to the IMC site, the photojournalist pulled aside a volunteer to ask who was running the show. The volunteer explained that because there was no hierarchy, he could ask anyone for help. This, it seems, was more than the photographer could comprehend. "He kept wandering around the office demanding, `Who's in charge?'" Sands recalls.
One model that some Indymedia participants advocate is simply to divide the sites into sections - news, opinion and so on - and encourage people to post their material to the appropriate place. On many of the local sites, opinionated rants are now relegated to a side column, while the central content is far more news oriented. Even "opinionated", though, is relative. "There's very much a sense of accepting the inherent bias in the kind of reportage we focus on," says Body. "We're not claiming to be objective. But it's not like we're a propaganda machine, either."
Last fall, a debate raged on IMC's bulletin boards over whether or not to remove from the site an anti-Semitic attack, making it clear that the independence of the local IMCs can make even setting basic protocols complex. Even the term "independent" is subject to interpretation - another recent topic of debate on an IMC listserv. "In one place `Independent Media' could mean independent from government control, where in another it could mean independent from corporate control or political bias," wrote Micah Anderson, who helps oversee the IMC network infrastructure, in a post to the editorial list during a debate over the anti-Semitic comments. He concluded that "independence" must be interpreted as "independence from the media which currently you are forced to depend on... brought about by... taking control and creating your own media". But that's just one guy's opinion.
"I lean hard toward the uncensored openness," says Shane Korytko, a founder of the IMC in Vancouver. "I know from my experience doing Web development that Indymedia as it is now is a really primitive form of what it ultimately can be. The idea of Indymedia is people sharing information and it has the opportunity to be democratised to the level of a peer-to-peer network."
While the collective works through the agonising process of how to stick to its democratic roots without devolving into chaos, the real work continues in full force. Some IMC UK volunteers travelled to Genoa, but others chose to conserve resources, focusing their efforts on what's happening closer to home.
"You can be as effective in running a good UK site that reports on Genoa without being there," says Body, "because we're so effective at getting information from across the world. There's a movement now to stop and consider whether it's really that important and useful to use precious resources to go to an international event, rather than looking at how something like the G8 is affecting your community."…