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Citizen media and the Tbilisi protests

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We've heard a lot about the use of social networking sites and services such as Twitter and Facebook by political activists in the past week, but opposition protests in Georgia have also shown that they are valuable tools in the hands of student and professional journalists alike.

As an editor for Global Voices Online, a site which monitors and aggregates social media and blogs, had it not been for an online project to report on the protests, as well as the presence of fellow Frontline Club bloggers, things would have been very different indeed.

Despite lagging behind Armenia and Azerbaijan in terms of the quality and quantity of blogs, the work of the GIPA Journalism School in Tbilisi, as well as that of Matthew Collin and Guy Degen, set new standards for the use of citizen media in the region during times of political upheaval.

In contrast, the use of blogs, forums and online video sharing sites in Armenia during last year's presidential election might have countered government-controlled media, but was just as tainted by misinformation and propaganda. They also pretty much regurgitated or mirrored partisan press reports anyway.

However, the past two days in Tbilisi,has illustrated how the media can be strengthened by such tools in the hands of the right people. Although the international media did cover the protests, it was the GIPA Journalism School blog that was updating readers more frequently online.

In particular, special mention has to be made of Frontline Club blogger Guy Degen who really showed how much power just one man with a mobile phone can wield covering protests live. Using Twitter, Utter, Qik and 12 Seconds, his work was unprecedented in the South Caucasus.

And despite never really understanding what the fuss was about, I finally understood the value of Twitter. Interestingly, given the recent coverage of the use of of the social networking service in Moldova, so too did the Georgian government.

Combined, the use of social networking sites, blogs and online media sharing services meant that it was almost as if I was there on the ground in Tbilisi despite actually being in neighbouring Armenia. It's also given me many ideas of how to cover the coming municipal vote in Yerevan at the end of May.

Certainly, it's well worth reading Guy's post on his mobile reporting kit, and links to many of the posts by all those mentioned above can be found in roundups of the online coverage of the Tbilisi protests on Global Voices Online.

It's not yet over, of course, and it might be that nothing happens anyway, but it doesn't matter. The precedent for citizen media tools to be used effectively in the South Caucasus was set. In a region where there is really no independent media, such steps are very welcome indeed.

Day One: Opposition protests in Tbilisi 

Twenty years after clashes with Soviet troops outside the main government building in Tbilisi left 20 dead, the Georgian capital today braced itself for possible problems as the country's opposition staged its first major rally since the August war with Russia.


Despite some initial concerns about internet access, the GIPA Journalism School Blog has been covering events as they unfold.

[...] link

Day Two: Opposition ultimatum passes

An hour after an opposition ultimatum for Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili to resign went unheeded, reports indicate that thousands of people continue to protest in the country's capital, Tbilisi. Radiobedniereba’s Blog, a GIPA Journalism School blogger, has more on the latest developments.


However, the number of people taking to the streets is believed to be much lower than yesterday, a national holiday, and expat blogger Wu Wei isn't expecting them to succeed.


According to Alanaga's Blog, one of many set up by the GIPA Journalism School especially for the protests, the Georgian president had made that quite clear earlier in the day.

[...] link

More updates will be posted on Global Voices Online if and when any new events occur, but in the meantime it's worth keeping an eye on the GIPA blog as well as #tbilisi. There are are also updates from Guy Degen on Twitter (text) and Utter (audio) as well as video on Qik and 12 seconds.

Well done to all.


Mr Graham Holliday | April 10, 2009 11:48 PM | Reply

You're absolutely right on Guy's posts Onnik - short snippets that took you right into the heart of things along with Matthew's longer form to camera pieces - we need to get Matthew on Twitter... Glad you finally found a use for it yourself.

I'd also like to echo your recognition on GIPA. I'll be using them as a case study in how to utilize the Internet for journalism in due course. This, along with the City University coverage of G20 London protests - http://alexwoodcreates.com/The_Experiment.html - is quite inspiring stuff.

Finally, thanks to your work at Global Voices ;)

Onnik Krikorian | April 11, 2009 12:13 AM | Reply

Wow, the G20 is incredible stuff indeed. The next level, perhaps, although our telecommunications infrastructure probably couldn't handle anywhere close to it at present. Still, in the future...

BTW: Talking of which, it would be interesting to hear about Guy's experience doing all this mobile video and audio work in Tbilisi.

I'm not sure about the 3G reliability there and even less here, but I'm wondering if it's the same or worse than Africa. Sometimes even sending an SMS here in Armenia is not without its problems.

Incidentally, I sent the G20 link to the GIPA guys. Might excite and encourage some of their students to start looking at using mobile video for the coming days even though it sounds as though things are winding down.

Anyway, thanks for the link.

Guy Degen | April 11, 2009 7:55 AM | Reply

Onnik - really great round up. Many thanks! Best to get cracking now on preparing any social media coverage for municipal elections in Yerevan.

I've found the 3G coverage/speed in Tbilisi to be quite reasonable - (even up in villages outside of Gori). My Nokia N82 is locked in 3G mode and I've rarely had to engage dual mode (UMTS/GSM) to get a signal.

Just putting a simple question out to the collective knowledge of Twitter helped me to get some advice on which network to use and how to get set up locally for 3G.

I am however getting a delay in streaming live video when the network is congested. So I'm trying to keep any video quite brief. I think I had a misfire on Bambuser last night too.

On the downside, Twitter is not recognising my my local Georgian mobile number. So I'm sending tweets via SMS on an older mobile with a German number and receiving SMS replies via the free Twe2 service. I can also send photos from the Nokia direct to Twitpic via Twibble as well as read updates from people I'm following, plus keep up to date with Tweet Search on #tbilisi via the web. I have two batteries for the Nokia (big advantage over the iPhone)- very handy as I've been doing live two-ways with DW-TV and need the extra power.

I'm also trying to remember to set a title for Qik videos. We're journos, right? We should have a good headline/slug. That's really hard to remember to do on the run. I have a generic title for Qik videos, but I think there's more impact if you can set a strong title to match the action you're filming.

I'm tinkering with the idea of setting up an RSS feed via Yahoo Pipe to search, filter and feed useful links on the demonstrations. This would of been a useful bit of pre-demonstration preparation.

One thing I would add though, as you say, I'm one man and a mobile phone - you can't be everywhere all of the time. I think for your upcoming elections in Yerevan, a two person multimedia - social media team could be far more effective. It would be great to experiment anyway.

I'll try to connect with GIPA bloggers today. I'm curious to hear directly of their experiences covering the demonstrations.

Just a little aside, yesterday morning I was up in the village of Lamiskana - close to Alkhalgori (a town still in limbo after last year's conflict with Russia). Villagers in Lamiskana are obviously anxious about anything in Tbilisi that might result in violence or see conflict returning to their village. Rumours fly fast in a small rural village that's only an hour's drive from the capital.
It's Spring. The soil up there is rich and black. Their livestock, orchards and gardens are the priority right now. People are trying to make the best of things and aren't charging down to Tbilisi to demonstrate.

Graham, I'll certainly work on Matthew for Twitter!

Onnik Krikorian | April 11, 2009 8:36 AM | Reply

Guy, thanks for that. However, one serious issue might be regarding 3G. Only one carrier supports it here, and Murphy's Law, I use the other ;-)

Anyway, I'm guessing GPRS is totally out? Probably I should sign up for the other?

Incidentally, I'm still looking into phones to replace my dead one and I have to admit, the N82 looks the biz.

Only other thing to say is thanks for your posts on Frontline and your work in Tbilisi. It's really opened my eyes.

Mr Graham Holliday | April 11, 2009 9:48 AM | Reply

Also, re: Yahoo Pipes, if you want to share what you come up with let me know. I've built a few pipes and I want to build a few more specialised ones. The more accurate and tailored you want to get the more difficult it is... I spit one pipe, tracking Somalia piracy news, out on Twitter - http://www.twitter.com/somaliapirates

I'm just finding that without a human filter, like on http://www.twitter.com/frontlineblog you end up with too many repeats, irrelevancies and badly worded tweets/feeds. Like I say, working on it...

Mr Graham Holliday | April 11, 2009 10:07 AM | Reply

Regarding Qik and connectivity http://twitter.com/broy very kindly sent us a Nokia N95 with Qik pre-installed for David Axe to experiment with on the Sudan/Chad border. You can read about how he go on here:


At the time we were thinking of setting up a Frontline Club Qik channel. Maybe the time is about right to do it now, although a lot of the bloggers do work in places where it just won't work.

What do you think?