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Independent Media Activists Take Over the Internet

1 Feb , 2001  

Written by Katherine McMorran | Posted by:

Media networks beware, there are some new reporters on the streets who are taking control of what the public views.

"The whole world is watching!" With this chant, citizens protesting the lack of democratic accountability in the World Trade Organization last year in Seattle hoped that their message would, in fact, reach a wide audience. But they also knew that they could not count on the dominant media networks to present events in an unbiased way. Several media activists had foreseen the importance of controlling the presentation of the demonstrations against the WTO, and had hatched a plan months in advance.

The first Independent Media Center (IMC) was formed in Seattle in the fall of 1999 by a number of media activists with one goal in mind: to provide fair and accurate coverage of the protests by directly channeling images and stories to the public via the Internet. The Seattle IMC set up a web site at and a physical office in downtown Seattle. The media activists held press conferences and offered live coverage as well as articles, video, audio, and photos of the unfolding events.

And the impact of the IMCs coverage was definitely felt. According to Jacquie Soohen of Big Noise Films, an early member of the Seattle IMC, "The web site received over one million hits during the protest week, and it was rated above the BBC or CNN by officials at" The IMCs concerns about biased coverage were not unfounded. Early reports by the network media accepted and repeated police statements that no tear gas was being used. However, the IMC web site proved otherwise by distributing video footage of police using tear gas and rubber bullets. Eventually, the corporate media was forced to report the truth. Ms. Soohen, whose documentary film of the protests was being screened worldwide on the anniversary of the event in late November 2000, believes that the importance of the IMCs is that they do not rely or corporate distribution channels.

The success of the Seattle IMC and the confirmation that there was a need for independent coverage inspired activists around the world to set up their own independent media center web sites using an open source web code designed in Australia. Forming a network, but remaining autonomous, there are now IMCs in several major US and Canadian cities, as well as in Congo, Colombia, India, Australia, Belgium, Italy, Mexico, France, England and a number of other countries.

Shortly after the events in Seattle, the Boston IMC became the second one to form. In the past year, the Boston IMC has covered major events such as the bio-devastation protests, the exclusion of Ralph Nader from the presidential debates at UMass Boston, and the rally at Pfizer for affordable AIDS drugs in heavily-afflicted African countries.

Linda Setchell, an environmental organizer for Clean Water Action and member of the Boston IMC, spoke about the way the group operates. "We’re organized in a democratic and collective manner, so there are no ‘leaders,’ but each person has a specialty. The group is all volunteers. Even the [computer] server we use belongs to one of our members." The Boston IMC takes the label ‘independent’ very seriously, and does not use any advertising or sponsorship. Another member who focuses on the technological aspects of the group, Kellan Elliott-McCrea, mentions that the group’s operating members range from 12-15, but many more post to the web site. "At the presidential debate protests [in October 2000], over 100 people came to the physical center we had set up," he said.

Since anyone with a camera or a pencil is encouraged to cover news and post to the web site, the Boston IMC faces some unique challenges in terms of its editorial policy. "We had to decide whether or not to pull items that were factually incorrect. Eventually we decided to leave them up, but to reply to the postings with accurate information," says Setchell. Through a system of discussion threads, anyone can respond to an article, and readers can see all the comments that have gone before in a discussion. She notes that the group is still debating how it will respond to items posted by hate groups if that situation should occur. In the near future, Boston members are hoping to help train people to use video cameras, so that more people — especially youth groups with access to cameras – will have the chance to cover local events. As Setchell points out, "What makes the IMCs different from other left media, their real strength, is that they’re local, and the information really comes from the grassroots."

While the Boston IMC is surely not the first media group to cover political actions and news from an independent perspective, the Internet does make it possible for a greater number of people to create and share media. Access to a local cable or college radio station is no longer a prerequisite for presenting information, just a computer and an Internet connection. Furthermore, images and articles on a web site can reach people around the world, whereas TV and radio broadcasts are more limited in their potential audiences.

Soohen, who is part of a global committee developing guiding principles for the IMCs, believes that the tension between the local and global possibilities of the Internet is an advantage for political activism. "As long as there is coordination and communication, people’s political strength and power is going to come from their connections to each other." And helping to build that connection will be the IMCs.

For more information or to post a news item, visit or email For information, slides and screening materials for the Boston Human Rights Watch International Film Festival 2001, please contact Sue Dorfman at 617-641-2881 or