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Netizen Journalism as Watchdog Journalism
Netizens and Candlelight 2008, creating new models for Democracy
Ronda Hauben (netizen2)     Print Article 
Published 2009-05-01 15:09 (KST)   
[Editor's Note: This is an edited version of a talk presented in Copenhagen as part of the 9th Annual Conference of the Association of Internet Researchers in October 2008. The talk was part of a panel on "The Internet, Netizens and Journalism: Do Netizens Make Possible New Forms of Journalism"]

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I - On the Emergence of the Netizen

The year 2008 was the 15th anniversary of the publication of the article "The Net and Netizens" by Michael Hauben on the Internet in the summer of 1993. Hauben posted this paper in several parts because it was longer than a traditional post. The posts were titled:

Common Sense: The Net and Netizens

The article was distributed around the world by the Usenet software and by people reposting it or emailing it to others.

The concept of netizen became embraced as a new form of identity, an identity that Hauben later referred to as a form of global citizenship.

It was a form of identity with a social objective, but not limited by geography.

Netizen is not a passive identity. Rather a netizen is an active participant in the affairs of the Net and ultimately of the world.

In his article 쏷he Net and Netizen, Hauben wrote that the Net represented a significant new development. "We are seeing revitalization of society," he explained. "The frameworks are being redesigned from the bottom up. A new, more democratic world is becoming possible....

This new world had a number of characteristics that Hauben outlined. He described a situation where "the old model of distribution of information from the central Network Broadcasting Company is being questioned and challenged. The top-down model of information being distributed by a few for mass consumption is no longer the only news."

Hauben explained how "people now have the ability to broadcast their observations or questions around the world and have other people respond."

The computer networks, he wrote, "form a new grassroots connection that allows excluded sections of society to have a voice. This new medium is unprecedented. Previous grassroots media have existed for much smaller groups of people....."

In short, the Net, as Hauben argued, was providing the netizen with the ability to create the content and to set the agenda for what is to be discussed. Thus netizens had the power to not only determine the content but also in several ways to design the form for the discussion 'forums that they were part of.

II-Creating a Watchdog Journalism

Another article Hauben wrote and posted was titled "The Computer as Democratizer". It argued that it would be possible for netizens to act as a watchdog over those in power.

Hauben explained that those in government will abuse their power if they are allowed to do so. He proposed that "people need to keep a watch over those in government in order to make sure they are working in the interests of the many."

The question raised, then, is whether the Net and Netizen are able to have an impact on the offline world, on the power of government and of the mainstream media.

III-Oh Describes Candlelight 2008

This past August 2008, Oh Yeon-ho, the founder and CEO of the Korean online newspaper OhmyNews, gave a talk in the U.S. He focused on the significance for OhmyNews and for media development in South Korea of the struggle that had taken place over the previous several months which he called Candlelight 2008.

Korean democracy has a short history, he explained. 쏤or the past 10 years we have tried to use Internet technology to promote the development of democracy. And the fruit of our efforts have been candlelight 2008.

He described how there had been candlelight demonstrations in 2002 and 2004 which had been times of what he called the golden age of OhmyNews.

In 2002 OhmyNews was able to provide coverage and play an important role in the election of Roh Moo-hyun, someone from outside the political mainstream to the presidency of South Korea.

In 2004 OhmyNews supported Korean citizens and netizens in their candlelight demonstrations to defeat the conservative party's effort to impeach President Roh.

In the 2008, however, from May 2 through August, there were continuous candlelight demonstrations for more than 100 days.

Again OhmyNews played a significant role. It provided live, and often around the clock coverage both on OhmyTV and on its web pages. During this period OhmyNews page views increased dramatically to overtake the page views of the three conservative daily newspapers that had previously dominated the South Korean media landscape.

Something even more significant occurred in 2008, however. Oh explains. Prior to candlelight 2008, OhmyNews had become the centerpiece of Korea's internet newspapers and the representative of citizen participatory journalism.

"(D)uring the candlelight 2008 demonstrations, he reports, "I saw in many media spaces outside of OhmyNews (that were) far more strong, active and leading examples of citizen participatory journalism."

This included Agora on the Internet portal Daum, the video portal Afreeca, individual blogs, online cafes (which are discussion forums) and bulletin boards.

This led Oh to ask "Who will lead in the world of media?"

He argued that, "It was the ordinary citizens who used all different kinds of media and platforms to become reporters and media themselves."

He described how the idealism and commitment of the generation who had fought for democracy in the 1980's had now been embraced by new sectors of Korean society.

"Internet technology met Korean netizens who wanted real democracy," Oh explains.

IV-Candlelight 2008

The candlelight demonstrations Oh was describing, were non violent evening vigils with candles.

People of all ages and all walks of life took part, from students to families, to older people.

The impetus for the demonstrations was the agreement the new President Lee Myung-bak made when he visited George Bush in the U.S. in April to end the restrictions on beef imports from the U.S. into South Korea.

The underlying demand of the demonstrators, however, was that the program of Lee and his conservative party not be allowed to take South Korea back to the days of autocratic rule.

There is a proud tradition of protest and sacrifice on the part of South Koreans to win the minimal democratic rights they have gained. The protests of 2008, however, were different from past protests.

The earliest of the 2008 candlelight protests were inspired and supported by middle and high school students using the Internet and cell phones to discuss the issues and to spread word about demonstrations.

Another difference was that in the 1980s and 1990s demonstrations were somber and militant.

The 2008 candlelight vigils were treated like a festival with people bringing their instruments and playing them, dancing, singing, having heated discussions, and participating in new institutions such as the free speech stage.

Also some of the participants would stay late into the night and through the next morning.

Another new aspect was that netizens would come with their laptops and digital cameras and send out reports on the Internet to other netizens in Korea and around the world as the demonstrations were in progress.

South Korea is one the most wired countries in the world where a larger percentage of its population, compared with many other countries, have access to high speed Internet connectivity.

Also there is wireless connectivity available.

One report by France 24 describes what happened(France 24, June 18):

"In South Korea a new form of democratic expression has emerged via the Internet. Its followers call themselves Netizens and when demonstrating against the government they carry their laptops to broadcast the event live....

The report explained that netizens, "first voiced their discontent in cyberspace before taking to the streets. One man sitting on the floor in front of his laptop is writing a live transcript of what is being said on the stage for a website."

"What I want to do is inform people through the Internet," he said, to "provide them with detailed information on the situation and tell them the facts the government is hiding." (Chai kun-sluk),

Other netizens explain that by reporting on the events they have been able to provide some protection for demonstrators from the arbitrary actions of the police.

Along with netizens reporting on the demonstrations, Internet forums were filled with references to other sites, to discussions on issues and to critiques of the views of the conservative media.

A theory and practice of a more participatory form of democracy was being developed by netizens online and in the streets of South Korea.

A particularly salient example of the experience of Candlelight 2008 is the set of events that occurred during the early hours of June 11 2008.

V-June 11, 2008

June 10 had seen the largest demonstration in recent history in South Korea.

The police prepared for the June 10 demonstration by erecting a barrier to prevent the demonstrators from marching on the President's compound. The police brought eight 40 ton shipping containers, filled them with sand and soldered them together to blockade the President's compound.

Netizens observing the building of this blockade named it Myung-bak's castle. An entry was created in the Korean wikipedia for 쏮yung-bak셲 Castle as a landmark of Seoul.

Someone brought styrofoam blocks to the demonstration. These blocks later became the subject of a lengthy outdoor discussion as to whether to use them to build a staircase to breach the barricade.

On June 11, from midnight to 5:30 am netizens and citizens held an outdoor forum to determine whether or not demonstrators should try to climb over the barrier and try to march to the President셲 compound.

Through the process of a 5-1/2 hour discussion, with people around the world watching online and many commenting online as the discussion was happening, the demonstrators decided to climb on top of the barrier to show they could go over it if they chose, but that they had decided not to march on the Blue House.

The demonstrators on the barrier installed a large banner which read 쏧s this how MB communicates with his People? Also the banners of some of the major groups at the demonstration were brought up on the barrier, with Agora as one of the banners.

Describing the event, one netizen writes:

"Through this demonstration, many netizens comment on the significant meaning of this event to ask what is democracy, and what are the rights of citizens. Steps that participants made in order to climb on the container boxes showed what they wanted was not being against the government in a riot, but being in mutual communications...with the government."

Another netizen explained:

"Honestly, I assumed that people would try to find a way to climb over the container boxes when they had been piled up during the day. But when I learned that steps of styrofoam were built up after arguments and discussion by participants, not by a few extreme elements, I was really impressed. Even though we learn that problems should be solved by dialogue in textbooks, we are not used to having discussions and are not willing to have arguments....

The netizen continued:

쒲 am impressed that there was a nice result after peaceful dialogue. This is real democracy." (from global voices June 14, Myungbak Castle)

VI-What is the significance of candlelight2008?

The candlelight2008 demonstrations have shown that netizens have been able to design the form and
determine the content of events such as the June 11 discussion offline.

The collaborative, interactive model they have been part of developing online could also function as a model for actions offline. As this was happening, netizens around the world were able to watch and discuss online what was happening.

Each netizen could participate not only online, but also was able to influence the creation of a more democratic forum in the offline society,

Also netizens at the demonstrations could broadcast the news and their views of what was happening as it was happening, and could also see what others were broadcasting.

The ability to create a more democratic form and process online had made it possible to create a more democratic form and process offline.

On June 11, the government compound blockaded by "Lee Myung-bak's castle" which was guarded by many buses filled with police stood in sharp contrast to the democratic, participatory and collaboratory discussion and decision making process of netizens and citizens.

A popular song sung by demonstrators during candlelight 2008 contains the words of the first article of the constitution. The words are:

"The Republic of Korea is a democratic republic. The sovereignty of the Republic of Korea resides in the people, and all state authority emanates from the people."

Netizens in South Korea are struggling to have sovereignty returned to the people. They have been developing a new form of journalism. Their activities are setting the basis to develop needed new models for a more democratic society.

©2009 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Ronda Hauben

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