CIRCUMVENTING CENSORSHIP IN THE BALKANS, CAUCASUS, AND BEYOND

As part of GFMD’s ongoing member-only webinar series, Anna Rohleder, Head of Communications at Sourcefabric, presented a webinar titled “Circumventing censorship in the Balkans, Caucasus, and beyond with web-based technology”.

Anna has spent her career between journalism and the tech industry. She was a staff writer at Forbes.com in New York, reported on sustainability and the food system as a freelancer, and worked as a marketing manager for IRIN, a humanitarian news organisation based in Geneva. Her roles in tech companies have included being an analyst and editor at Gartner Research, and working in marketing communications at Opera Software in Oslo, Norway the maker of the Opera internet browser. In her current role as head of communications at Sourcefabric, she combines both sides of her background to explain how opensource tools can benefit independent news organisations around the world.

Sourcefabric is Europe’s largest developer of opensource tools, all of which they have made available for free. Additionally, the organisation offers services to individuals and news media organisations with the aim of providing technical assistance to small and independent news organisations, especially those in emerging democracies. Overall, Sourcefabric works to enhance the sustainability of individual news organisations and the news media industry as a whole. Throughout the webinar, Anna outlined some of Sourcefabric’s opensource tools and highlighted three particular instances in which the multifaceted nature of censorship in the digital age impacted their partner organisations.

The presentation commenced with a description of three of Sourcefabric’s opensource tools:

1. Superdesk

Sourcefabric’s flagship project, Superdesk, is an all-in-one content management and workflow system designed for newsrooms. As part of Superdesk’s development, Sourcefabric’s developers worked alongside journalists to ensure the needs of news media professionals were being met. More information about Superdesk can be found here.

2. Live Blog

Another of Sourcefabric’s tools is Live Blog, a platform for live-blogging specific news events or distributing content with video, images, text, and audio from your own reporters and social media channels. Much like Superdesk, Live Blog has been developed by journalists and for journalists.

3. Airtime Pro

Airtime Pro is a powerful internet radio platform featuring an intelligent automation system, DJ management, and seamless transitions between live audio streaming and scheduled content, helping news professionals to stay on-air. It is used by both hobbyists and professionals to start, manage, and promote their radio programme. More details about Airtime Pro are available here.

The aim of all of these products is to support independent voices, particularly in regions where individuals have limited ability to express themselves or disseminate information. This stems from Sourcefabric’s origins in 1999, with many of the concerns from twenty years ago re-emerging once again in more advanced forms. In particular, the webinar focused on three major threats hampering news media in the digital age. These are:

  1. Cyberattacks
  2. Fake news
  3. Financial pressure

Cyber-attacks: The case of Vijesti.me

The webinar outlined the case of Vijesti.me, Montenegro’s largest news organisation. In early 2019, the organisation’s website was hit by a series of DDOS attacks, receiving over one million requests per second. Having worked with Vijesti.me previously in relation to the use of Superdesk, Sourcefabric continued to support the organisation during and after the attack. From this, it became clear that cybersecurity is an increasingly vital facet of any news organisation’s infrastructure. Sourcefabric worked to keep Vijesti.me online, and have continued to do so regardless of ongoing attacks. It also became apparent that it was important for Vijesti’s editors to know that there was an organisation looking out for their best interests during the attacks.

Fake news: The case of Meydan.tv

Meydan.tv is an Azerbaijani news organisation, currently functioning in exile in Berlin. Investigative pieces on corruption are central to Meydan’s work, meaning they experience significant pressure from the government in Azerbaijan. In 2017, Sourcefabric received a complaint regarding an article hosted on their servers from Meydan TV. Meydan were ordered to remove the article or their server would be taken offline within twenty-four hours. Sourcefabric were forwarded the complaint and successfully argued that the complaint was merely an effort to muzzle Meydan’s work and limit press freedom – they were working within their own rights to publish the article. Two weeks after this incident, Meydan TV won the Fritt Ord Foundation and Zeit-Stiftung Free Media Award.

Financial pressure: The case of Kobinet Nachrichten

Kobinet Nachrichten is a small, volunteer-run news organisation from Germany which focuses on issues affecting people with disabilities. Kobinet regularly uses Sourcefabric’s open source tools as a non-paying client. The two organisations work together to aid Kobinet’s efforts to shed light on the issues they are reporting on. It became clear through Sourcefabric’s work with this organisation that they are capable of doing what they do, regardless of significant financial constraints, due to their volunteers’ technical knowledge and ability, which is not always the case for other news organisations. This highlighted a need for news organisations to have significant technical knowledge in order to maintain their own sustainability.

Anywhere, Nowhere, and Everywhere

Through these examples, it is evident that censorship does not necessarily come in one particular form or through a specific entity. Rather, it can come from “anywhere, nowhere, and everywhere”. Censorship can come in the form of a technological weapon, financial pressure, or any other sort of obstacle, implemented by anyone from private individuals, state actors, or even market forces. Because those threats are virtualised and can come from anywhere, media organisations must increasingly view technology in the same sense. They must be virtualised themselves in order to best circumvent these diverse forms of censorship, while still maintaining their independence and editorial missions.