Open medium, global outreach

IssueSeptember - November 2002
Feature by Daniel Sewe

The first Independent Media Centre (IMC) came to life in Seattle in November 1999. It was set up to cover a specific event: the protests against the World Trade Organisation. The Seattle IMC produced a printed publication called The Blind Spot, which was distributed on the streets during the demos, as well as creating a website that became an enormous success.

Since then “independent media” and “open publishing” have become buzz-words among activists everywhere. Indymedia is often associated with the “alternative globalisation and anti-corporatisation” movement because most of the activists who get engaged in Indymedia are already active in resistance to the corporatisation of society and culture. A lot of IMCs are set up specifically to provide independent coverage from typical anti-globalisation events that take place during World Bank, G8 or WTO meetings.

Open publishing

Indymedia has become such a tremendous success because of the “open publishing” concept. Posting an article on the IMC newswire is just a matter of clicking on a “publish” button and following a few simple instructions. You can then see how your article appears instantly on the website, and you can see people commenting on your article - perhaps if they disagree with what you say, or have additional information.

The most important ideal in the IMC network is the open exchange and access to information. This is considered to be a prerequisite for building a more free and just society. It is a principle that extends not only to the process of how information is posted on the websites, but also to the basic building blocks of the technology, like the software which enables the IMC web to function.

In order for publishing to be open, the whole process must be open, and anyone who wants to should be able to get in on any level and see and understand how it works. On the technical level, this means that it's important to use Free Software rather than the UnFree software of the multi-billion-dollar software industry.

The “free software” movement

The “free software” movement is not a new one. In 1984, Richard Stallman started an initiative to create an operating system called GNU, which means “GNU's not UNIX”. His idea was, with the help of other like-minded individuals, to put together a sufficient body of free software so that he could get along without any software that was not free.


At the time, computer users had already suffered for a good while from being in the hands of big corporations, and were increasingly being strangled by having to agree to restrictive software licences.

It took quite a while before Stallman's goal could be reached, but when a Finnish student called Linus Torvalds released his “Linux” kernel in 1991, it was clear that the project had got a whole lot closer to its goal. CD distributions of the popular GNU/Linux operating system can now be downloaded from the Internet, or picked up for free from local Linux user-groups.

The word “free” here has more to do with freedom than with price. The freedoms you have with free software are to:
0) run the program, for any purpose;
1) study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs;
2) redistribute copies so you can help your neighbour;
3) improve the program, and release your program to the public, so that the whole community benefits.

For freedoms 1 and 3, access to the sourcecode is a precondition. The “sourcecode” is the genetic blueprint of software. It is written in (more or less) human-readable programming languages.

To learn more about GNU and Free Software, go to the GNU webpage: “>


While local IMCs may, of course, have traditional meetings and sit around a table (or on the floor), the global network is organised primarily on the Internet, using e-mail lists and “Internet Relay Chat” as the most important tools. Each IMC is autonomous, and has its own local decision-making processes and there are many different ways of organising. On a global level, the network is trying to develop a decision-making process to allow all IMCs to make decisions that affect the whole network.

Reaching out

But a challenge for Indymedia is not only to try to reach out to all the activists who are engaged in the network, but also to enable anyone who has something important to say to get their ideas out. And that's why many IMCs are trying to take their work “out of the Internet”, by publishing newsletters and newspapers, or even radio. The idea is to use the content from the website, so that the fruits of open publishing become available to people who do not have access to the Internet. This was part of the Indymedia concept from the beginning: As mentioned earlier, in Seattle the paper The Blind Spot was distributed on the streets to activists, who obviously did not have access to the Internet at the time. In the Global South, IMC newspapers are distributed out on the streets and to rural areas, to people who may not have Internet access at all. Some Indymedia groups even have radio and television initiatives.

Other ways of reaching out to more people include facilitating workshops on different subjects. The IMC collective in Porto Alegre in Brazil have tried to get more people engaged in open publishing by carrying out workshops, helping people to learn about reporting (a six-minute documentary film about these workshops which will be featured on the Indymedia Newsreel for August).

The IMCs in Latin America have developed a collaborative way of working, sharing news, information and ideas between the collectives. But they also keep track of what's happening in their global IMC network, and often get ideas from IMCs in other parts of the world. The IMC in Belo Horizonte now hold parties to raise money to publish a local newspaper. This is an idea they got from the IMC in New York City, who use the same way of making money to publish their newspaper The Indypendent. The Belo Horizonte editorial collective and other volunteers are also busy translating articles from different IMCs to other languages.

Editorial problems

While open publishing in embraced by activists as the wave of the future, it can also lead to conflict, especially in the legal world. Europe has seen several cases where IMCs have got into legal trouble because of “open publishing”. Perhaps the most famous case is the shutdown of the Swiss IMC because some readers found a comic strip on the site to be anti-Semitic.

After the G8 demonstrations which took place in Genoa in July 2001, where Indymedia provided excellent coverage with images and video footage, the Italian police raided the Italian IMC and confiscated their equipment. In recent months, the IMC in Norway got into trouble when an individual threatened their Internet service provider with a lawsuit. Since each IMC is completely autonomous, there are different ways of dealing with the issue of “editing”. Some IMCs choose to make editorial decisions about everything, and some perhaps only when people start complaining about the site's content. The Brazilian IMC had the problem that they were not taken “seriously” by the mainstream press (who wrote about the Indymedia coverage of the Genoa demos, but little about what Indymedia was doing in Brazil) or by a lot of readers, because they had poor editorial policies.

Cost of independence

And then there are the financial issues. Everything connected to the Internet costs money, and to be “independent” also means being financially independent. IMCs do rely on donations of both money and equipment to do their work - but it can be good to stay clear of getting into situations where all the funding for a project comes from one source. The (soon to become) IMC in Croatia turned down an offer of money from a big organisation for this reason. And then there are IMCs like the one in Nigeria, which is one of the “oldest” IMCs in Africa. It joined the network in the later part of 2001, and was run for along time using just a single laptop which had been donated to them. They are still looking for money and equipment to continue their work, but despite a lot of promises nothing has actually materialised.


A project that is currently in the works is a system of “sistering IMCs”, where an IMC from the north can assist an IMC from the Global South directly. Not just with money, but also with the exchange of ideas and experience. With so many IMCs in the North, and so few in the Global South, this will be a really good way to spread the idea of open publishing by making it available to anyone, no matter what financial situation they are in. On the subject of “sistering”, though the activists I've been talking to while writing this article are both women, the network is largely male dominated. There have been some serious discussions on gender issues in the network, fuelled by some of the (male) activists expressing their opinion that they won't even consider female activists' opinions about technical issues. The women in the IMC network have their own mailing list “imc-women”, which is a private list where women can discuss issues without disturbance. Some of the women are organising an event, which they've called Eclectic Tech Carnival (see in Pula, Croatia, for August. The goal is to get women to feel confident enough to “hack” their way into northern and male domination of digital technology.

A cultural phenomenon

Open publishing is a relatively new idea, and the Indymedia concept and network have only been with us for a few years. Yet they have already become an important part of activist culture all over the world. It's not just because they provide another medium produced by and for activists, but because they genuinely provide something that did not exist before: an open medium with global outreach where activists, no matter what cause they are fighting for, can get their message out, without their words being censored or edited to the unrecognisable. Indymedia wants to facilitate the development of as much independent media in the world as possible, and at the moment it looks like it's going according to plan. Though, as cultural phenomena, it is much larger than that: it is about resisting corporate domination of our lives, by refusing to be passive consumers of products, and instead, taking an active part in the shaping of our societies.

Topics: Culture, Media