True Democracy & the War on Dissent

Indymedia Notes

by Jonathan Lawson, Susan Gleason,
Daniel Hannah

Resist newsletter, December 2001


The social and political climate of post-September 11 America has seen intense pressures for citizens to conform to particular forms of patriotism. Pressures have flowed from the federal government's repeated (and rather anti-democratic) calls for unquestioning unity, and have been broadcast and amplified by a national media willing to toe the official line rather than report voices of dissent.

At the same time, however, alternative media voices proliferate via small newsletters and magazines, radio and television production, and the Internet. Using the Internet as an organizing tool, a distribution network and a publishing platform, the Independent Media Center network continues to grow in size and exposure as more progressive organizations and ordinary folks look to its websites for media alternatives.

The IMC's unique "open publishing" system, by which independent journalists publish their own materials directly to the web, makes browsing the IMC sites a mixed bag of thoughtful analyses, activist dispatches, on-the-street news items, rants and reprinted media from unknown publications or organizations. Without a central editorial authority dispatching reporters (or fact-checking stories), readers are obliged to think critically as they are reading-to allow a story to provoke further research, further reading, and perhaps further writing.

Stiffling Dissent

Even before the tragic events of September 11, 2001, and before the wave of reactionary law enforcement measures rammed through Congress in the weeks which followed, critics of power politics in the US understood that the Bush administration was on the lookout for aggressive strategies to promote its neoliberal economic agenda (inherited from the Clinton administration) while stifling domestic unrest.

In The Nation (dated September 17; in fact, the last issue published before September 11), for example, Edward Said wrote that "Bush, Blair and their feeble partners prepare their citizens for an indeterminate war against Islamic terrorism, rogue states and the rest," an example of what he termed "diversions from the social and economic disentitlements occurring in reality." At home, Said observed, orthodox catch-phrases of globalization such as 'free trade,' 'privatization' and so forth, are repeated over and again "not as they sometimes seem to be-as instigations for debate-but quite the opposite, to stifle, preempt and crush dissent."

Said's unfortunately prescient words were quickly forgotten in the uncritical patriotic fever imposed after September 11, as forces within the Bush administration rushed to link a cornucopia of pet projects to its newly justified anti-terrorist quest. Before bombs began to fall in Afghanistan, some of the most shameless and morally bankrupt rhetoric came from US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, who asserted that anti-globalization protesters have "intellectual connections" with terrorists, and that pursuing free trade was an important way to combat global terrorism.

New, expanded definitions of terrorism were part of a colossal package of law enforcement legislation rushed through Congress without debate or other regular processes. The Patriot Act, passed into law in late October, is 342 pages long. Many controversial provisions expanding police and judicial power were likely part of Justice Department and FBI wish lists long before the bill's introduction as a timely anti-terrorist measure. The Electronic Frontier Foundation ( has made a detailed initial analysis of the act and its potential effects on electronic media.

Reflecting on the increasing pressure government forces have placed on anti-globalization demonstrators since the Seattle WTO ministerial, many activist groups have charged that the real purpose of this legislation is to criminalize organized protest, through expanded definitions of terrorism and surveillance authority. Because of our relationship with the anti-globalization and environmentalist activist movements, and because we have already had encounters with police and federal law enforcement agencies, Indymedia volunteers are also taking a hard look at these new laws.

Most IMC volunteers would probably describe themselves as activists as well as journalists. Credentialled IMC journalists working in the midst of street protests have relied on their "press" badges to distinguish themselves from protesters, although this has not stopped them from getting gassed, pepper-sprayed, struck and arrested by police in Seattle and elsewhere.

Last April, while tens of thousands protested against the Free Trade Area of the Americas in Quebec City and elsewhere across the hemisphere, FBI and Secret Service agents served the Seattle IMC with a court order demanding the handover of Internet server logs. The order would have given the US government access to over 1.25 million IP addresses of independent journalists, activists and readers who visited Indymedia sites during the eventful weekend. The government's justification for the burdensome order claiming that classified information regarding Bush's travel itinerary had been posted to an IMC site- later turned out to be false. As the IMC prepared to fight the order in court two months later, the government quietly dropped the matter.

Activism and the Current Media Landscape

In recent months, the Seattle IMC has covered numerous local or regional stories chronicling government crackdowns or violations of civil liberties. Some of these have directly resulted from the new antiterrorist fervor in law enforcement: nonviolent School of the Americas Watch organizers and anti-globalization protesters have been denied entry into Canada; residents and supporters of Seattle's Somali community protested the government shutdown of several Somali-owned businesses, only one of which was allegedly suspected of having links to international terrorists. In a ruling which showed remarkable contempt for the First Amendment, a Seattle judge found constitutional the "no-protest zones" the government created during the WTO to foil large demonstrations.

Stories like these get a much different spin in the corporate media, where restrictions on subject matter and actual debate have increased since September 11.

The mainstream press, more often than not, takes administration rhetoric at face value, relying on official sources to describe current events, and allowing its claims to go unchallenged. As recently reported by the watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (, mainstream networks CNN and FOX instituted official wartime policies requiring journalists to downplay reports of Afghan civilian casualties. Reporting on domestic approval of the US bombing, NPR's Cokie Roberts was asked by the host whether there were dissenting views among the public. Her reply: "None that matter."

In its public addresses, the Bush Administration has forgone thoughtful analysis of complex issues, substituting "nonnegotiable" policies and simplistic explanations. The extent to which current statements have been dumbed-down is revealed by a comparison between recent rhetoric and Reagan's well-known "evil empire" speech the iconic representation of cartoonish simplicity-yet written for a higher 'grade level' than Bush's intended audience.

Reporting on anti-war sentiment, including large demonstrations, is systematically marginalized by most mainstream print media as well. When 65,000 demonstrators marched in Washington D.C. on October 26th, the Washington Post ran one photo depicting a lone angry counter-protester. When acknowledged in written reports, large demonstrations are interpreted as threats to public safety, and often described using prejudicial and unwarranted language. Two years afterwards, it is common for the Seattle Times to report as fact wildly inaccurate fantasies about the "riots" and "widespread property destruction" which accompanied WTO protests.

Through ceaseless repetition, this way of marginalizing protest movements has affected even the alternative press. In Seattle, both major alternative weeklies devoted articles to diminishing recent anti-war protests as unsophisticated, old-fashioned or muddled. In total, the current media and legislative landscape impede activists who find themselves always pre-defined by waves of negative propaganda.

What is to be Done?

Even as opinion polls show very high public regard for federal policies and acts of war abroad, it also seems true that many people retain the intuition that they're being misled, that government spokespeople and mainstream media talking heads aren't always telling the whole story. During recent times of perceived national crisis, the homogeneity which generally marks corporate news media has taken a cartoonish turn. Dissenting views, outside of a very narrow range, are disallowed. Uncritical patriotism and ceaseless flag-waving are the marching orders, faithfully following Bush's stern pronouncement, "you're either with us, or you're with the terrorists."

All this fails to resonate with the perceptions, feelings and opinions of many Americans. These people are the natural audience for the many alternative media sources that are out there. Responding to this growing audience along with other independent media sources, Independent Media Centers continue working to produce and disseminate important stories and critical perspectives that are overlooked or purposefully ignored by the mainstream.

At the same time, we also encourage our readers and other activists to become more analytical consumers of the media, to develop mental tools that make it easier to see around the propaganda, to see how stories are shaped by ideological presuppositions, and to become articulate media critics, speaking about or publishing one's own critiques of the mainstream press.

Becoming more critical consumers of the news is crucial for all activists, and for democratic systems to truly function. Here are several guidelines for increasing media literacy skills, followed by some additional guidelines for media activists who choose to take up the Indymedia challenge and become the media! These guidelines draw from Ali Abunimah and Rania Masri's critique of Gulf War news coverage (in Iraq Under Siege, Anthony Arnove, ed.).

Media Literacy Guidelines

1. When reading, watching or listening to news media, become an "analyst." For every report, ask, "Whose voices are included, whose are excluded? What hidden presuppositions helped shape this story?" 2. Read widely. All news media are shaped by particular political, economic and ethical positions; get your news from multiple sources and read them comparatively and critically. Seek out noncommercial and international sources of information. For those with Internet access, browsing the web makes this easy. Labor unions, NGOs and advocacy groups such as the Institute for Policy Studies or Public Citizen often post detailed news stories concerning specific issues.

3. Discuss your findings with others. As you develop your own good habits, share them with your friends and co-workers. Everyone discusses the news-use these discussions to sharpen your own thinking about the media we consume as well as to educate others.

Independent Journalist Guidelines

1. Stay awake. We are all affected by the propaganda pushed by corporate America- activists need to be vigilant in keeping themselves and each other alert. If you don't preach to the choir every once in a while, the choir won't learn the songs.

2. Learn the battlefield and choose your battles. None of us can read or listen to everything, or cover every story. Choose a topic or situation that interests you, and learn about it. As time goes by, you will become more expert in your chosen area, and readers will learn to trust your writing. 3. Communicate effectively. Write down your observations, make a radio or video piece. Whether you are writing a current events story, a media analysis article or an opinion piece, present facts as accurately as you can. If your piece contains movement jargon or comes across as a rant, readers may put less stock in what you have to say.

4. Develop networks. Make contact with other journalists, activists or organizations interested in the same issues. Support and advocate for independent media sources. 5. Be persistent. Make things happen. Submit your writings to independent media sources. Publish your articles, photos, video and audio pieces to any Indymedia site (look for the publish button on the front page). Once an article is posted to an IMC, it remains archived there-readers can search for your writings and link to them from elsewhere.


Jonathan Lawson, Susan Gleason and Daniel Hannah are journalists, educators and organizers at the Seattle Independent Media Center (, part of the global IMC network ( Seattle Independent Media Center received a grant from RESIST last year.

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