Mediated Speech by Courtney Radsch

Digital Dissidence and Political Change

My book Cyberactivism and Citizen Journalism in Egypt: Digital Dissidence and Political Change, just published by Palgrave Macmillan, analyses how a youth-led, technologically driven social movement led a collective political struggle for change in Egypt that revolved around the legitimacy of the existing system and demanded rights to expression and participation. It seeks to understand the political impact of new ICTs, namely blogs and networked social media, in authoritarian contexts through the use of Egypt as a case study and by employing new methods of ethnographic inquiry that link the online and the off-line in recognition that they are mutually constituted.egyptfbgrafitti

I propose that focusing on the micropolitics of practices and discourse, with due consideration of structural and institutional dynamics, reveals how epistemological and ontological changes take place when a distributional shift in the primary modes of communication occurs, and thus helps us better understand how ICTs are implicated in processes of political change.

The empirical focus of the book is Egypt but I argue that the mechanisms and dynamics I identified have a much wider domain of application. I propose several new mechanisms drawn from Islamic communication theory including asabiyah, ijma’, and isnad to explain movement dynamics and to account for the technological aspect of cyberactivists’ repertoires of contention, and propose revising the concept of amplification and certification to account for the fact that the algorithmic properties of ICTs now play a role in contentious repertoires.

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In the book I argue that Egypt’s young cyberactivists, and particularly citizen journalists, radically shifted the informational status quo by witnessing, putting on record and imbuing political meaning to symbolic struggles to define quotidian struggles against social injustice, harassment and censorship as part of a broader movement for political reform. A central contention i, therefore, is that blogging and social media reconfigure the potentiality for expression and participation, but that it is the particular concatenations of technologically-inflected repertoires of contention that transform potentiality into actuality. This analysis reveals the mechanisms by which this transformation occurs – through activism, news making practices, and collective action.

Throughout the book I analyze specific episodes of contention to explain how ICTs facilitated collective identity formation, organization, mobilization and advocacy, with far fewer organizational and logistical barriers, rendering the dynamics of contentious politics in this case distinctive from other revolutionary periods. This new youth movement created innovative repertoires of contention, which they developed and adapted very quickly, constrained less by structural factors such as economics and distance, which the properties of ICTs help overcome, than they would have been in the past. I argue that it is not sufficient to explore only moments of collective action, because this does not explain how the “maker of claims” came to identify themselves as such, nor how they build consensus around their claims. This is of particular interest in the new communications environment of the post-millennial period, and therefore I also focus on the phenomenological lifeworlds of these cyberactivists to show how networked social media gave opposition and subaltern groups, such as liberal secularists or the Muslim Brotherhood, new tools for individual and collective identity creation and enabled freedom of expression and opinion.

This book is dedicated to the amazing young men and women in Egypt who, against all odds, led a revolution that overthrew an authoritarian leader. I am grateful to everyone  who gave of their time and knowledge to help me understand and learn about the movement they were creating. Although the revolution is not yet over, their peaceful uprising was an inspiration to all, and I am thankful that is some small way I got to know many of them. Tragically, however, some of these young leaders are behind bars, including Alaa Abdel Fattah and Ahmed Maher, and countless other in exile or harassed. Egypt has become the world’s second biggest jailer of journalists and engaged in an unprecedented crackdown on civil society and the press that has left many of those featured in this book floundering to figure out what is next.

If you would like to write a review or receive an exam copy please email to request a review copy.

Countering Violent Extremism

In late 2015 I pitched the idea of a report on the impact of the new countering violent extremism agenda on media development because I was seeing the impact on freedom of expression and pressure mounting against tech firms, and had little doubt that as the UN, US and other governments adopted CVE strategies that donor priorities would be affected as well. The result was Media Development and Countering Violent Extremism: An Uneasy Relationship, a Need for Dialogue, a special report for the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA).

Governments have focused their efforts particularly on counter-messaging campaigns, and have provided support to civil society on initiatives aimed at challenging ISIS online by disseminating alternative, non-extremist narratives about current events. Most major donors funding media development also support programming related to countering violent extremism, often with a component related to building the capacity of NGOs to produce content on social media.


Perhaps more worrying to the international community, however, is ISIS’s
prolific use of media for international recruitment, fearmongering, and
dissemination of its cause. ISIS propaganda is impressive and strategically leverages modern communication platforms in a highly visible way.

Given the prominent roles of messaging and alternative narratives in the CVE agenda, it is no surprise that CVE and international media assistance have become so closely associated. But many are concerned that policymakers will lose sight of the value of independent media in and of itself.

“The emergence of the CVE agenda has caused widespread unease  among a number of individuals concerned with how this new programmatic focus might negatively affect media development work and is already being used to restrict legitimate journalism and free expression.” 

In this report I describe how media development practitioners perceive the expansion of the CVE agenda’s influence into various aspects of their field, and the different and sometimes ambivalent ways in which they respond to these perceptions. There are three distinct views on how the CVE agenda is influencing media development efforts: programmatic critique, pragmatic adaptation, and engaged reassessment.

Two conclusions emerge strongly from these interviews. The first is that the efforts to distance CVE conceptually from media development are not providing the guidance needed to navigate an increasingly blurry line between the two fields in practice. The second is that audience reception studies and investments in media information literacy are needed, yet receive inadequate attention in CVE efforts and funding.


Protecting journalists who cover corruption is good for the bottom line

I wrote this article for CPJ after co-organizing a panel session at the civil society forum on closing space for media and civil society. Corruption is one of the most dangerous beats for journalists, and one of the most important for holding those in power to account. There is growing international recognition that corruption is also one of the biggest impediments to poverty reduction and good governance. This is why journalists on this beat must be protected, including by multilateral lending institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, which just concluded their annual meetings in Washington D.C. And this is why CPJ joined a call earlier in the year with other civil society groups to call on the World Bank to adopt a human rights policy.

At a civil society forum on the sidelines of the meetings last week, World Bank President Jim Young Kim and IMF President Christine Lagarde, leaders of two of the world’s most important lenders to poor countries, cited concern over corruption and the damaging impact that tax evasion has on poverty alleviation. But with recipient countries often ranking among the more corrupt and least accountable, the issue of who pays taxes and where the money goes is often buried in secrecy.

Read the full article here and watch the panel discussion Combatting Corruption in Closing Spaces: Implications for Governance below.

Dan Gillmor’s call for journalists to turn activsits

Gillmor writes in his prediction for 2016 that journalists will turn activists in 2016 as “[t]he decentralization of technology and communications that led to the greatest boom in free expression in history is in jeopardy from governments and corporations that are radically recentralizing the digital world, creating choke points and providing unprecedented control to the centralized powers.”

I would echo his call for a more “activist” journalism, as he calls it, though one could argue this is in fact somewhat of a return to older styles of American journalism. “We cannot take for granted that the Surveillance State has won. We cannot let Facebook’s terms of service trump the First Amendment (or, by extension, allow Facebook to control which journalism companies survive). And we can’t just write down and regurgitate presidential candidates’ “We have to censor the Internet, ban encryption, and spy on everyone” statements,” writes Gillmor.

He continues: “On some issues, journalists who claim to be neutral observers are, in fact, enablers. If journalists won’t take a stand for core liberties like free expression — and then be leaders in the campaign to save or restore them — we’ll be fit to call ourselves entertainers, and not much else.”

The full post can be read on the Nieman Lab’s website

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