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Democracy & Online News: Indymedia and the Limits of Participatory Media

Lee Salter


The level of democracy in a given site can be measured by the degree of participation in decision-making afforded to ordinary people. So, an ‘extensive’ democracy may afford, for example, effective participation to workers in a factory, or to workers, parents and children at a school, as well as in some form of general assembly. The possibility of such participation is related to the degree to which systemic mechanisms such as the state and economy removes the scope for rational decision-making, replacing it with media such as power or money. We can consider media technologies and the uses of them through such a framework – they are democratic to the degree to which people can participate in the production process on their own terms.

Mainstream news and journalism have historically tended to be restricted practices. Whether by professional, technological, economic or political means, the degree to which ordinary people can participate in news and journalism production has been restricted. This is of massive significance if news and journalism are regarded as being one of the bases for democratic decision-making. Against ‘conservative’ forms of media analysis that sideline the struggle for changes in production by overemphasising the ‘pleasures’ of the audience, this paper considers the potential for – and limits to – greater (democratic) participation in online news production.

Mainstream News Media and the Limits to Participation

Many critical studies of news have drawn attention to the political, economic, ideological and technological factors within which mainstream news is framed. As such, a good deal of mainstream news reporting tends to follow the contours set by the dominant institutional order. This can be read off news discourses (Fairclough, 1995; Fowler, 1991), news content (Herman and Chomsky, 1994), the processes of source selection and framing that privilege “official voices” (Glasgow Media Group, 1976, 1980; Hall et al, 1978), and the economic relations of news organisations (Herman and McChesney, 1997; Golding and Murdoch, 2000, Soley, 2003; Wayne, 2003).

Despite journalistic claims to ‘objectivity’, liberal-democratic understandings of politics pervade the general outlook of mainstream news organisations in and the orientation of individual journalists. As such, it is understood that legitimate sovereign power is invested in parliament and the executive, and as such they should be subject to journalistic scrutiny. This scrutiny assists the voting public, to which the political system responds. According to liberal ideology, this mediation requires journalists to adopt a passive position in relation to the world of activity; their role is to communicate what is happening without interfering. Accordingly, mainstream news can serve to sustain the hegemonic position of a particular socio-political order: public problems, often perceived and amplified by journalists, can be and should be resolved by the political system. The practices and institutions of journalism interface with dominant political institutions (or the ‘state’), and consequently tend to marginalise and discredit other forms of political activity and to adopt certain – political, gender, racial and class – blind spots.

This ‘interface’ leads news organisations to take a similar form to the state and bureaucratic capitalism more generally. Thus, the state becomes a privileged actor in news discourse and news organisations take on a hierarchical form that serves to order and discipline news production and journalistic practice. This makes possible a chain of responsibility through which explicit and tacit agreements (such as Defence Advisory Notices, individual defamation law, rules on court reporting, official secrets legislation and so on) on stories to cover, and how to cover them, can be managed.

Further limits on participation emerge as a result of the commodity-form of mainstream news. Internally, this form imposes a layer of management, concerned with finance and related economic issues, on mainstream news organisations. Externally, the commodity form imposes a distinction between active paid labour and passive paying customers. This is to say nothing of the ‘bottom-line’ pressures analysed from the perspective of political economy, wherein the economics of production broadly defined act as a constraint on what sort of things people can produce.

Bureaucratic and economic constraints are set not just on practices and organisations, but also on media technologies and uses of them. For example, Williams (1974) saw the development of television in the UK as being subject to the emerging trends in bureaucratic-capitalist at the beginning of the twentieth century. This is to say that it was developed at a time in which the power and competencies of the state were growing rapidly. Consequently there emerged a “new and powerful form of social integration and control”, which is “the applied technology of a set of emphases and responses within the determining limits and pressures of industrial capitalist society” (Williams, 1974: 23-27), marked by the early nationalisation of culture, the establishment of a dominant, paternalistic version of that culture by a compact ruling class, and the character of the British state which was itself defined in terms of a pre-existing cultural hegemony (Williams, 1974: 33-34). By the 1970s, this system of control had been consolidated, so that although Williams called for an alternative ordering of new technologies such as cable, it is perhaps unsurprising that they followed the trajectory set by earlier broadcast technologies. This is to say that dominant forms of use make demands on and shape media technologies, enabling certain uses and disabling others (see Salter, 2004). So, for example, the potential of two way radio and even two way television, whose dialogical capacities would have held greater participatory potential than monological and hierarchically organised broadcasting (which is retained in new technological developments such as cable and satellite), is disabled by the needs of advertisers, the commodity form of media technologies more generally, and the state.

The technological development of capitalist media follows a bureaucratically managed economic line – technological potential is only exploited as a revenue stream (so we see that the use of interactive television technologies is separately costed by the platform company, say BSkyB, which forces content providers to make economic calculations as to the possibility of developing such uses) and access is of course mediated by money. Carriage charges, the cost to use a platform to broadcast a channel, vary between platforms (cable, digital terrestrial and satellite) and within platforms: currently from £300,000 to tens of millions for a channel on the Sky Digital platform and upwards of £2,000,000 for a digital terrestrial channel. These costs are, of course, in addition to other costs associated with running a television channel. This mediation imposes a form of scarcity that means news has to compete with more economically profitable content.

Taken together these factors can be seen to place very firm constraints on the forms and capacities of mainstream news, which is reflected in the range, depth and structuring of news stories that follow mainstream news values. The implications of a bureaucratic-capitalist society for the capacity of mainstream news to encourage genuine public participation are clear. This form is not totalising, and a number of radical journalists always manage to negotiate such structures.

Alternative Media, Alternative News?

The form of mainstream news outlined above is not the only form of news. There are numerous examples of radical media projects attached to the counter or critical publics that have grown out of various political and social movements (see Atton, 2002; Downing, 2001; Kellner, 1990), many of which reject the liberal democratic assumptions of mainstream news. On these accounts neither the state nor news organisations are neutral actors responding to a democratic public. Rather, the state and mainstream news media operate for the dominant interests of the bureaucratic-capitalist system, and do not respond to genuine public interests, especially when they conflict with the former.

In contrast, most alternative media projects aim to empower the marginalised groups and interests to articulate their interests. To this end, they reject the interface with dominant political institutions, instead interfacing with the public. This public (or publics) may express concerns or undertake actions that do not fit the frames of institutionalised politics and mainstream media. Because of this rejection of the interface with dominant institutions, alternative media projects tend not to have the division of labour of mainstream news media. Working relations and roles are often non-hierarchical and collectivistic, wherein mainstream management roles are absent and divisions between technicians, writers and editors are reduced.

As alternative media projects tend to be non-commercial, not-for-profit and often collectively owned, their products tend not to take a commodity form. Partially because of this, we see horizontal relations between workers instead of the hierarchical relations required by mainstream organisations. This ‘horizontalisation’ is reflected in pay structures, where they exist: pay tends to be low, irregular and equal. Perhaps most importantly, the absence of commodity relations means that alternative media projects can encourage participation from the general public on their own terms. As such lines between writer and reader are not drawn strictly.

Such uses of media technologies often share characteristics that are in stark contrast to mainstream uses. To this end, they tend to develop non-capitalist and non-bureaucratic uses of small-scale printing and broadcast technologies, creating “non-colonised” (Habermas, 1987) spaces, often on the edge of legality. They may take advantage of access to media technologies at work, such as the photocopier, through ‘piggy-backing’ on mainstream infrastructure, as with cable television in the USA, or though illegally installing radio transmitters, as with pirate radio. By-and-large, access to technological resources will depend on borrowing equipment, donations, and pooling resources. In lieu of interfaces with dominant institutions and economic ordering, the forms of use of media technologies are not subject in the same way to the constraints that mainstream media are subject to.

As a consequence of these forms, the news content of alternative media projects tends to focus on subjects not dealt with in mainstream media and often takes a proactive approach to issues covered, calling for participation in demonstrations, direct actions and the like. The ideologies of such projects are therefore practical and critical and the language used reflects this critical orientation. With this form, they are able to respond to news generated by publics and by activists, often by being ‘embedded’ with them. The state and its institutions are not privileged actors, and their ‘legitimacy’ is often rejected; there is no positive interface between alternative media and the state.

The internet can be used to enhance the openness of alternative media projects to participation. Indeed, the bulk of commentary on the internet in general has drawn attention to its status as an egalitarian, decentralised, non-hierarchical and immaterial ‘virtual space’, which is beyond the limits of time and space (contrasting starkly with the centralised and hierarchical forms of newspapers and television), and not subject to the ‘real world’ forces of the state and economy. Though governments are able to control the centralised material world of borders, nations, and legal subjects, they are not able to control the immaterial, deterritorialised internet world.

There is much to be said for the internet as a tool for those wishing to innovate new forms of alternative news production, and much has been written on this in a general sense (Ayers and McCaughey, 2003; Couldry and Curran, 2003; Kahn and Kellner 2004), alongside research on more specific projects such as Indymedia, in which the internet is used to facilitate new forms of participatory journalism and news production (Jankowski and Marieke, 2003; Platon and Deuze, 2003; Stengrim, 2005). Such critical work is undoubtedly an important advance over research into online news that focuses on the similarities and differences between mainstream news operations in different media, and people’s interaction with them on and offline. One of the most important aspects of critical work in this area is its identification of potential; as Adorno (1976) explains, critical research aims at dissolving the “rigidity of an object frozen in the here-and-now into a field of tensions between the possible and the actual”. In accord with this understanding, critical research attempts to understand how the possible uses of technologies can be nurtured. This is to say, to consider how uses (and the technologies) can be developed in accord with the sorts of practices that alternative media projects attempt to develop. However, we must also be aware of the limits to such uses. Before I move to outline some of these limitations, I will briefly outline some of the characteristics of Indymedia’s use of the internet.

Indymedia as alternative news.

Indymedia, or Independent Media Centres (IMCs,, can be seen as a continuation of earlier alternative media projects. This is to say that they consciously situate themselves in the tradition of alternative media, and firmly against the traditions of mainstream news media (IMC, 2004: 14). The first IMC was set up in 1999 to act as an information clearing centre during the anti-capitalist protests in Seattle. Soon, the IMCs expanded globally and locally, from South Africa to Burma and Bristol to Jerusalem, with each centre linking to the others. The IMC network as a whole is based on “principles of equality, decentralisation, and local autonomy”, which are derived from “the self-organisation of autonomous collectives that recognise the importance of developing a union of networks” (IMC, 2004: 33). This means that each IMC can – within general boundaries of the Mission Statement and Principles of Unity – develop its own modes of operation. Roughly, these are that IMC as a whole is based upon principles of equality, decentralisation and local autonomy. Within this framework, participants should organise collectively, in a non-hierarchical and anti-authoritarian manner, and be committed to the principle of consensus decision-making and the development of a direct, participatory democratic process. IMCs and participants should consider open exchange of and open access to information a prerequisite to the building of a more free and just society, and as such they should utilise open web based publishing, allowing individuals, groups and organisations to express their views, anonymously if desired. Each IMC should be made up of people who are committed to caring for one another and respective communities both collectively and as individuals on a not-for-profit basis. IMCs should promote the sharing of resources including knowledge, skills and equipment and should use free source code to increase the independence of the network. Finally, all IMC's shall be committed to the principle of human equality, and shall not discriminate, including discrimination based upon race, gender, age, class or sexual orientation. For full details, see Indymedia, 2005.

The primary interface of IMCs is not the state, but ordinary people, hence the slogan ‘don’t hate the media, be the media’. Rejecting the understanding of news reporting as the reserve of a select group of institutionalised ‘professionals’, IMCs aim to develop an architecture that encourage as many ordinary people to participate as possible. Participation can take place on many levels. People can be involved in the news production process by contributing stories or commenting on stories through the ‘open publishing’ system. They can be involved in any of the discussion and decision groups on legal, editorial, process or technical aspects of IMCs. As such they can help change any of these aspects, and consequently there is no need for a managerial layer. Finally, people can set up their own IMCs. The motivation for the latter may be simply a desire for local news coverage, such as with Bristol IMC, or a response to a specific event, such as Zambia IMC being founded in response to the Conference of Parties of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (IMC, 2004: 124), and Washington DC IMC being founded to cover the World Bank/IMF protests in 2000 (IMC, 2004: 43). As long as it is willing to subscribe to the IMC’s Mission Statement and Principles of Unity, and is able to sustain the site, the new IMC will be integrated to the network, and participants will be able to use the IMC’s tools, resources and domain name (for example, or

Neither IMCs nor the news they produce take the commodity form. No participants are paid, and all software and content must be open-source and ‘copyleft’. Consequently, there is no need for a managerial layer. So, labour is collective and resources and content shareable. Importantly, much of the software used is produced or modified by IMC participants, specifically for IMCs.

The relative independence from the state and economy in so many aspects of IMCs’ activities enable them to produce news in a very different way to mainstream organisations. Importantly, IMCs are not primarily interested in ‘passive’ reporting of news, but are embedded in and aim to facilitate activity. Against mainstream conventions of news discourse, IMC news is proactive, not just reactive. This is to say that reporting of issues may include information of how to get involved, provide space to discuss actions, and may take place before, during and after the action. At the same time, institutionalised actors are rarely used as sources within news reports, and when they are they are not afforded the discursive privilege they receive in mainstream news.

To give an example of the difference between the news environment of Indymedia and that of a mainstream news organisation I will briefly outline the home pages of Bristol IMC and Bristol BBC News. The BBC is ‘alternative’ in the sense that it is not directly influenced by the commodity form. However, it can be considered mainstream insofar as its interface with the state is strong. Clearer distinctions may be made with the online provisions of commercial news organisations.

Bristol Indymedia’s news content must conform to its editorial policy. This asserts that contributions should be ‘non disruptive’, recent, local, non-discriminatory, accurate and non-abusive. Advertisers and mainstream political parties are not usually allowed to contribute. However, in common with most other IMCs, Bristol does not practice a policy of prior restraint and any editing can be contested. Unlike mainstream media organisations, IMC guidelines and policies are not drawn up with the oversight of state (including legal) or commercial institutions, but are agreed (and contested) in public, by the public. This will presumably lead to a broad range of stories from critical positions.

At the top of the Bristol Indymedia page are links to the means of participation – about us, contact us, get involved, newswire, events, submit an article. On the left column of the page there are links to specific projects and other local sites. The main column contains (the abbreviations are as follows: FM = future meeting, FE = future event, R = retrospective report, FA = future action, PA = proposed action, CA = current action. A number of the stories from the main column also appear in the right-hand column but I have not duplicated them. The number refers to the number of comments made in relation to the items) Bristol Indymedia features on a bus passenger revolt public meeting (FM, 7), the launch of a book about dissent in the city (R, 2), the occupation of a local swimming pool building (CA, 3), problems with the company running Bristol’s bus network (R, 0), grass roots climate change initiatives (R, 4), a court case against anti-GMO protestors (R0), police action against Bristol IMC (R, 0), Bristol Latin American Forum (FM, 0), and a legal update of court case against anti-GMO protestors (R, 0). The top of the right-hand column contains a calendar of events, consisting of a peace conference, the Campaign for Local Trains, Reclaim Bristol Busses, a Dissent (a radical left activist movement) Meeting, a Bristol Cycling Campaign meeting, a strategy and energy workshop, and a workshop on how to make an impact in political meetings. The rest of the right-hand column is an open newswire containing the following stories: a list of CIA ‘torture planes’ (R, 0), a proposal to pressure the council to end its bus contract (PA, 0/7: there are two reports on this issue, one with no comments and one with seven), a photographic exhibition (PE, 0), a proposal to add more street art to a public park (PA, 0), a report on a petition (R, 1), a public meeting about public space in the city (FM, 0), a ‘green’ conference (FM, 1), a protest against building demolition (FA, 0), an Animal Liberation Front action (R, 0), a politician receiving a visit from police (R, 0), the eviction of an occupied council building (R, 2), the Bristol Indymedia film night (FM, 0), the far-right British Nationalist Party’s collaboration with a Christian group (R, 1), a CND conference (FM, 0), an alternative view of kidnapping of oil workers (R/FM, 0), a report on the future of Dissent (R/FM, 0), a report on a Bristol Green Party petition (R, 1), a report on plans to invade Iran (R, 5), a report on cycling protest groups (R, 3), news about Bristol Indymedia (R, 0), a meeting of the Occult Book Club (FM, 1), a request for advice, Stop the War news (R, 0), an eviction of a squat (R/PA, 0), a protest against a government minister’s visit (PA, 1), universities ban Coca Cola (R, 2), and educational exclusion in Bristol (R).

The stories on Bristol Indymedia are somewhat wide-ranging and do not follow mainstream ‘news values’. They are a mixture of reports, calls for action and meeting information, and some of the stories are reports on current action or events. Interestingly, the stories are subject to time constraints insofar as the necessary hierarchy in which they appear is determined by their date and time of publication. In other respects, time constraints are lessened. In the latter sense, the stories are not ‘passive-retrospective’ (readers are encouraged to make them happen), and they are not removed once their ‘timeliness’ has passed. Finally, the stories do not follow mainstream norms of writing style or length.

On the same day, the BBC’s online news for Bristol followed a more mainstream pattern of passive, posthumous reporting of sensationalist stories. The left-hand column that appears to be part of the main news page is not actually part of it. It links to other BBC Bristol information on sport, entertainment, travel, faith, weather and so on. The stories on the main column are about an ‘overspend’ by a regional hospital, the pros and cons of health privatisation, an arson attack, the ‘smashing’ of an ‘international drugs ring’, road closures after a gas leak, a shotgun incident, and a court report of a speeding motorcyclist. The middle of the central column has a link to a page with contact details and another link to other Bristol news sources: the main commercial television station and the two mainstream newspapers (both of which are owned by Associated Newspapers). The right-hand column of the page includes links to and details of contacts at BBC News, a link to local sports stories and a link to a page in which readers can ‘Discuss news issues’. This latter leads back to the main BBC site, where users can discuss ‘news’ such as TV & Radio, Sport, Culture, Learning, Teens, Lifestyle and so on. The discussion page also includes the BBC Action Network, which provides a managed section where people can start to organise certain types of campaigns.

The BBC’s online news provision for Bristol is clearly distinct from Bristol Indymedia’s. The stories follow mainstream news values, are produced by professional staff journalists and offer no opportunity for direct feedback. Furthermore, participation in the production process is limited to communication with journalists as gatekeepers. The editorial guidelines that direct journalists are extensive, and are generally in tune with those of professionalised commercial news operations.

The Limits of Alternative News

IMCs have taken great steps towards developing a genuinely participatory form of news production by developing uses of the internet that take advantage of its potential. Their forms of use of the internet do not derive from the internet itself, but follows traditions in participatory alternative media ever since the radical press.

However, to understand the barriers there might be to realising this potential, we must understand the internet and its context of dominant development more fully. For example, the claims that the internet is ungoverned, non-hierarchical, decentralised and anarchic are simply untrue. The development of the internet has been and still is overseen centrally by the US state. Historically, the US state’s oversight of the development of similar technologies has been in the broad interests of US capital. For example Herbert Schiller notes that in the 1960s the Communications Satellite Corporation was set up by the US state, and then pushed into the private sector, “for the purpose of taking and holding a position of leadership for the United States in the field of international global commercial satellite service” (Progress Report on Space CommunicationsUS Senate hearing, cited in Schiller, 1971: 131). Such leadership is important because as a subcommittee of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, stated, “to a significant degree what America does will shape the emerging international communications system… To a very large degree other countries will imitate our experience and will attach themselves to the institutions and systems we create” (Schiller, 1971: 9). Similarly with the internet the US Department of Defense and Department of Commerce have taken the lead in organising the commercial development of the internet and institutions through which this is led (such as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers and the Internet Society) primarily for the general interests of the US state and capital, though not necessarily to the formal exclusion of others. Consequently, despite the supposedly international decentralisation of the internet, in view of its history and material context it is perhaps unsurprising that US corporations dominate the technologies and the content around the world, which has serious implications for alternative news production and perhaps more importantly, distribution.

In the UK (as of December 2005), the top seven web sites are owned by Microsoft, Google, Yahoo!, eBay, BBC, Time Warner and Amazon respectively. In Germany it is Google, Microsoft, eBay, T-Online, Time Warner, Yahoo! and United Internet; in Japan it is Yahoo!, Rakuten, MSN, Global Media Online, Nifty, NEC and Microsoft (with Google at number 9. Japan figures for November, 2004); in France it is Microsoft, Google, Wanadoo, Iliad – Free, Yahoo!, Pages Jaunes, PPR (with Time Warner and eBay at numbers 8 and 9); and in Australia, Microsoft, Google, Yahoo!, Telstra, eBay, News Corporation and the Australian Federal Government. The top ten web sites in the USA are all American. Of the top 100 global web sites, 88 are American, 5 are British, 5 Dutch, 1 Canadian, and 1 French (Netcraft, 2005). More specifically, of the most popular 100 news web sites in 2003 the ten biggest media companies owned 42% and the twenty biggest companies owned 69% (, 2004). Although many portals offer access to a variety of sources of news, the biggest corporations dominate. Even with the Google search engine the big corporations dominate a search for ‘news’, with the first alternative news source, National Public Radio, appearing at position 32 and the next, Alternet, appearing at position 82. Indymedia does not appear until position 115, one position above Chemical and Engineering News. In this sense, the general commercial context of online news marginalises alternative media projects.

The claims of a decentralised and non-hierarchical internet are also technologically false. The Domain Name System, which contains information needed for web sites, internet servers and email systems to operate is centralised; the privatisation of the Internet was legalised under US law, and remains subject to US law; and the internet has been configured in such a way that gateways control information flows between networks, which confers control over general flows of information. In addition, the web introduced a strongly hierarchical mode of operation by introducing the server-client model (with the servers configuring permissions for clients). Consequently, one of the pioneers of hypertext, Theodore Nelson (1997), referred to the current form of the web as akin to “paper under glass”; that is, it restricts the possibility of deep interaction and extensive participation.

Finally, the internet is most certainly material and territorial. As a sobering reminder of this, at the 2003 World Summit on the Information Society the Palestinian delegation complained that the Israeli army had “continual control over the Palestinian frequency spectrum”, refused to allow “linking the occupied areas of Jerusalem to the Palestinian network”, prevented direct access of the Palestinian 970 country code to the international network, denied the fibre-optic linking of Palestine to the outside world, confiscated telecom equipment,  systematically destroyed the Palestinian infrastructure by demolishing “communication towers... public and private radio and television station transmitters... [and] communication and electricity poles and towers” (WSIS, 2003). Of course, in addition to the material technologies, internet users and participants are themselves material, embodied subjects.

The implications of the materiality of the internet and of internet participants can be further illustrated in relation to news production, most clearly because news requires people to be out and about in the material world – being there – collecting news, and in the case of Indymedia, providing the means of participation for others. The materiality of participants and technologies provides a focus for the sort of legal repression that has been the Other tradition of alternative media projects.

Alternative News and the State

Against some histories of the press, Edward Thompson (1980) and James Curran and Jean Seaton’s (1991) studies of the eighteenth and nineteenth century radical press illustrate that the ‘establishment’ (now mainstream) press was by no means the press of choice for the majority class. Rather, during this period workers had taken advantage of cheap printing presses and socialised forms of production and distribution to create their own news media – by the workers and for the workers. These radical presses were highly successful and widely read due to the social mode of consumption. As Curran and Seaton explain, radical newspapers were still expensive, so their cost would be shared among a number of people. Further, given that literacy rates were low, newspapers would be read aloud to a number of people. Consequently, each copy of a newspaper might have a readership of between 10 and 20 people. Curran and Seaton estimate a readership for unstamped radical newspapers in London alone of 2,000,000 (Curran and Seaton, 1991: 14-23).

A similar story can be told of ‘The Black Press’ in the US. Catherine Squires (2001) recounts the development of a “Black public sphere” in the first half of the twentieth century, which was mediated through the Black press. She explains that, taking advantage of “the new communication and social institutions founded in the early part of the century”, ‘The Black Press’ and its sister forms of mass communication became solid institutions that were able to impact a wider range and larger number of Black folks than ever imagined in the previous century (Squires, 2001: 113). Like the English radical press, the American Black press reached out to a dispersed and semi-literate part of the population, whose interests were not represented in mainstream institutions. Further, it depended on a complex network of production and distribution outside that of the establishment or mainstream press.

It is not just the economic form of media technologies, institutions and practices that might restrict the possible uses of media. One of the most significant limits on the radical uses of media is the state. The state operates not just on the level of giving permission to communicate in the form of licensing but also by limiting and preventing (and conspiring to prevent) certain actors from participating; where licensing includes not just the right to broadcast a particular channel but to the whole configurations of media companies and technological platforms. Just as a (commercial) media company cannot operate without company law, so platforms (such as cable, satellite and so on) cannot be developed without a legal framework.

The success of the radical press in England was met with a great deal of state repression, as were the public spheres and political activities with which the English radical press interfaced, from statues to prevent trade unionism to the infamous Peterloo massacre. The imprisonment of journalists, seizure of printing equipment, and banning of certain publications was only marginally effective in stopping the radical press, and in some respects, it actually increased their popularity and perceived authenticity. Though state repression of printing was not successful, economic repression in the form of the “advertising license” was - wherein the state ceased to licence newspapers as advertising introduced an economic licence. The radical press could not attract advertising and so could not match the economic clout of the establishment press (Curran and Seaton, 1991). The Black press that Squires documented was also subject to state repression. She writes of “government attempts to censor and intimidate the Black press”, wherein “the state threatened to curtail the fast-growing power of the mass-distributed urban Black newspapers, attempting to stifle or eliminate this new voice of dissent and positive racial identity” (Squires, 2001: 111-112). It seems that state repression is more common when media projects threaten to move out of the margins and are connected to social or political movements that threaten the authority of the state or functioning of the economy. Where the domination of a medium’s technological form and content by the state or corporations has not been possible, tensions do arise between alternative and mainstream uses in which legal repression becomes necessary.

Online Alternative News and the State

The campaigns against non-capitalist economic activity on the internet – such as those against the “gift economy”(Barbrook, 1998) and file sharing are well documented. The behaviour of ‘oppressive regimes’ towards internet users is also well documented. Reporters Without Frontiers list some 15 states it considers to be ‘enemies-of the-internet’, and 70 ‘cyberdissidents’ imprisoned by oppressive regimes, though as usual ignored those dissidents imprisoned in ‘non-oppressive’ regimes, such as the black anarchist Sherman Austin, imprisoned in the US for inadvertently hosting a web page that included information on how to make a smoke bomb (Google returns over 400 pages on the phrase ‘How to make a smoke bomb’). Some attention has also been paid to the use of the internet in wartime “information operations” (Taylor, 2002), though less attention has been paid to information repression, such as the attacks on Al Jazeera’s English language news web site. Though Al Jazeera is far from an alternative media project, it reports on issues and events and from a perspective that is not covered in Western mainstream media. As a consequence, it has been subject to attack from the West. The following is an account of attacks against is online provision, not television provision. To this end it is worth noting the US military bombed and destroyed Al Jazeera’s Kabul offices in November 2001 and did the same to its headquarters in April 2003. Its correspondents were also shut out of the New York Stock Exchange. The FBI seized the Al Jazeera Arabic language web servers in September 2001 and when it launched its English version on 23rd March 2003 it took two days for it to be hacked and taken off line. As with the radical press, state action was not necessary to stymie Al Jazeera’s operations as three separate web-hosting companies (Hoboken, Akami and DataPipe) ended contracts with Al Jazeera against the latter’s wishes. Further to this, Yahoo! and America Online refused to carry advertisements for Al Jazeera’s English language service.

It is this context of state activity that must act as the balance to the positive affordances of the internet for alternative news projects such as Indymedia. Whilst the potential of the internet has been developed by Indymedia to meet the needs of their critical activities, these latter are moderated by the response of the state, which must form part of our understanding of online alternative news.

As mentioned above, IMCs exists in some tension against the dominant institutional order, which IMCs consciously oppose. The participants in Indymedia tend to be activists embedded in the stories they cover. The sorts of stories covered in many Indymedia sites include anti-capitalist demonstrations, direct actions, civil disobedience and the like, many of which they advocate. As such, the reporting perspective of those participating in IMCs places them against the dominant institutional order. So IMCs do not follow the state’s rules on naming, court reporting, secrets (official and otherwise), D-notices, incitement, and other unofficial agreements between editors and officials. Neither does Indymedia follow the guidelines set out by regulatory bodies such as, in the UK, the Office of Communications or the Press Complaints Commission. This does not mean that Indymedia do not have ethical guidelines, but rather that those ethical guidelines are determined by participants in public discussions, usually on a case-by-case basis. It is largely as a consequence of this independence from the state that Indymedia journalists and equipment have become the focus of its attention.

As an example of this, on 7th October 2004 the Indymedia UK servers, situated in London, went offline without warning. The outage hit not just the UK site, but other sites from around the world hosted on the same server (the full list of sites effected is: Ambazonia, Uruguay, Andorra, Poland, Western Massachusetts, Nice, Nantes, Lilles, Marseille, Basque Country, Liege, East and West Vlaanderen, Antwerpen, Belgrade, Portugal, Prague, Galiza, Italy, Brazil, UK, part of the Germany site, and the global Indymedia Radio). No prior information about the seizure was submitted to IMC UK (though apparently the FBI made a request to IMC Nantes two weeks earlier to remove photographs of undercover police), and after a brief period of speculation, it transpired that the hosting company, Rackspace, had received an order from the US Federal Bureau of Investigations to provide them with the Indymedia servers. Whilst no official reason has been given to date (January 2006), the enquiries of the hosting company, Indymedia workers and supporters, sympathetic MPs and organisations such as the National Union of Journalists and Reporters Sans Frontieres found the following. The Italian and Swiss states had requested that the FBI seize servers situated in London. An Italian prosecutor, Marina Plazzi, supposedly made a request to the FBI on the basis of support for ‘terrorist activities’ on IMC web sites. The Swiss authorities were supposed to have made a request because a number of photographs of undercover police who were thought to have been involved in the severe beating of a protester after the June 2003 anti-G8 demonstrations in Geneva were published on the Nantes IMC web site.

The idea of an ‘immaterial’, ‘decentralisated’, ‘deterritorialised’, ‘democratic’, ‘ungoverned’ internet did not therefore save Indymedia from state coercion. Importantly, the Nantes site was hosted in the UK partially to get around France’s repressive internet laws – a classic example of the ‘internet = liberty’ argument. The problem, however, emerges when states with similar agendas work together. In this instance, the general response of capitalist states is to limit and contain anti-capitalist movements, within which IMCs work. Under these circumstances, one state will not tend to give protection from another when mutual interests are threatened; on the contrary, they will often work together, especially in response to cross-boarder threats. In the case of the IMC server seizure, the legal instrument used was the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty, which is an unlimited agreement to legal assistance between states. Another important feature of this sort of coercion is that it takes place against the physical aspects of online production – against the equipment and people.

Two other recent actions against Indymedia help illustrate the limits of alternative online news. In 2005, after Indymedia had been reporting the campaign against EDO Systems (an arms manufacturer) for some time, EDO threatened legal action against Indymedia for referring to the corporation in its reports as ‘warmongers’. EDO had been trying to employ legal mechanisms against protestors for some time, but this was the first attempt to suppress the reporting of it in such a way. Initially, EDO had issued a ‘takedown notice’ (a letter from solicitors asking for content to be removed), but when this failed court a libel action was threatened. These threats caused some concern among Indymedia participants, who were worried about the implications for Indymedia. After long discussions it was decided that ‘warmonger’ was a legitimate term and that they should refuse to be intimidated by EDO Systems and the court; they called EDO’s bluff and the ‘warmonger’ label has stuck.

In another case, someone used the Bristol Indymedia site to report that they had damaged a train carrying new motorcars from Bristol’s port. A few days later, the local police force contacted Bristol Indymedia to request the IP logs (IP logs are files that contain the unique internet addresses of users) held on their servers so that they could investigate the crime. Indymedia refused to cooperate on the basis that they did not keep IP addresses of participants to protect their anonymity, but would not hand them over to the police if they did have them because of the journalistic privilege not to reveal sources. In response to this, the police raided the house where the web servers were stored, seized the servers and arrested the Indymedia participant at the address on suspicion of incitement to criminal damage, though all charges were eventually dropped.

Each of these cases illustrates attempts by the state to curtail the different aspects of alternative news. In the first case the embeddedness of Indymedia as a news operation in oppositional movements creates an association in the eyes of the state between the movements challenging it and the news service of those movements. This creates a problem over what rights participants can claim – journalists can claim privileges as journalists, but not as any other role they may occupy. It also raises the problem that if everyone is a journalist, then who has (or more importantly who does not have) journalistic privilege?  In the second case the use of politically charged language was challenged by a private actor under publicly guaranteed law. In the final case the police challenged the openness of Indymedia to participation. In each of these cases we see the potential of Indymedia’s news service limited by the persistent existence of the state and its legal ordering of communication. In each case we also see the territoriality and materiality of the internet that, despite claims to the internet’s ‘virtuality’ allow the state to target embodied humans and material equipment. Although I have recounted one case, there are many more as shown in the (non-exhaustive) list below. This list was compiled at the end of 2005. All of the incidents were reported on Indymedia web sites, though most of them have been verified by other sources:

Seattle, USA, May 2001

FBI demand IMC logs and impose gag order on MC

Ohio, May 2001

IMC domain owner served subpoena to appear before Ohio grand jury and release IP logs

Genoa, Italy, August 2001

Raid of IMC centre & hospitalisation of ‘journalist’ at anti-G8 protests

Ottawa, Canada, November 2001

IMC camera operator arrested at anti-IMF/World Bank demonstration

Georgia, USA, November 2001

Arrest of IMC ‘journalist’ at demo against School of the Americas

Copenhagen, January 2002

IMC ‘journalist’ arrested at EU Summit demo

Italy, March 2002

Police raids on ‘IMC offices’ in Bologna, Florence, Turin, Taranto

Israel, May 2002

Investigation into IMC Israel after publication of ‘Factories of Death’ article

South Africa, September 2002

Arrest of IMC ‘journalist’, dispute over accreditation

Washington DC, September 2002

Two IMC ‘journalist’ arrested in anti-WTO/World Bank demonstration

Argentina, October, 2002

Two IMC ‘journalists’ shot with rubber bullets while covering arrest of environmental activists

Sydney, Australia, November 2002

Arrest of IMC ‘journalist’ in anti-WTO demonstration

Urbana, USA, May 2003

Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center closed down for fire code violations

St Louis, USA, May 2003

Police search IMC St Louis offices

Argentina, June 2003

IMC ‘journalist’ beaten covering demonstration outside textile factory

Evian, June 2003

Raid of IMC offices, IMC shot in leg at anti G8 demo

Dublin, July 2003

IMC ‘journalist’ arrested at EU Summit demo

Miami, USA, November 2003

Assault and arrest of 4 IMC ‘journalists’ during demonstrations against the Free Trade Area of the Americas

Miami, USA, November 2003

Arrest of IMC ‘journalist’ covering a jail solidarity rally

Israel, December 2003

Investigation of IMC Israel for ‘incitement’

Thailand, April 2004

Arrest of IMC ‘journalist’

Cyprus, July 2004

CIA ask US embassy to instruct Cyprus Criminal Investigation Division of police to investigate IMC ‘journalist’ for posting information to web site

New York City, August 2004

5-7 Indymedia ‘journalists’ arrested at Republican National Convention

New York, August 2004

US Justice Department subpoena ISP Calyx for the IP address of a post on the New York IMC website

New York, September 2004

NYPD subpoena NYC IMC for an IP address relating to the posting of a purported internal NYPD memorandum during the Republican Convention

New York, November 2004

New York City subpoena NYC IMC list of information relating to a civil suit related to suppression of Animal and Earth Liberation March.

Trafalgar Square, London, October 2004

Arrest of IMC ‘journalist’ at European Social Forum

London, October 2004

IMC server seized

San Diego, January 2005.

IMC ‘journalist’ arrested during ‘Reclaim the Streets’ action

Goiania, Brazil, February 2005

Arrest of two IMC ‘journalists’ during eviction

Warsaw, Poland, May 2005

Arrest of IMC ‘journalist’ after filming anti-war demonstration

Bristol, England, June 2005

Seizure of IMC server and arrest of ‘journalist’

Tomball, Texas, June 2005

Arrest of IMC ‘journalist’ at anti-KKK rally

California, USA, July 2005

Arrest of IMC ‘journalist’ for dropping cigarette butt.

Manila, Philippines, July 2005

IMC ‘journalist’ arrested during protest at US Embassy

Arizona, July 2005

IMC ‘journalist’ arrested for trespass

Paris, August 2005

IMC ‘journalist’ summoned to court over publication of anti-Jewish spam & republication of revolutionary leaflet

London, Oct 2005

IMC ‘journalist’ arrested at anarchist book fair


It would be folly to suggest that the internet does not hold enormous potential for all sorts of uses, especially radical forms of news production and distribution. It is important for scholars to draw attention to this potential, and to consider ways of developing it. However, at the same time, it must be borne in mind not only that potential is potential for all, but also that potential is not simply realised. Additionally, whilst it is difficult to prevent certain uses of the internet it is also the case that the internet and its users are materially embodied entities that exist in politically and economically regulated space. As such, users – who are always legal subjects in at least one jurisdiction – and the physical structure of the internet, are subject to legal oversight. In other words it may appear that the internet is free from interference from the state in liberal democracies, but this is so only when we abstract the internet from its context of use, which remains firmly embedded in a world where the coercive apparatus of the state remains intact. In a similar way to which previous radical media projects have been limited by economic and political constraints, so too have projects such as Indymedia. Like earlier projects, IMCs have by no means been intimidated by state actions but have responded to them by turning to their ‘social networks’ of sympathetic lawyers, trade unions, and pressure groups, and by enhancing their web hosting security and back-up networks. However, the degree to which IMCs will be able to remain in tense relation to the state is yet to be seen, but they will certainly remain in marginal relation to corporate news due to their structural position.


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