I’m at the UN building in New York attending the 54th CSW and have just uploaded two videos to my online account. It took 3 minutes to upload. The videos share the impressions of two women’s rights activists working in and with media about what is happening with Section J at the CSW. They took four minutes to record. So, in seven minutes I was able to get quotes from women who spoke with authority about a newsworthy issue and distribute them as part of a package of news about gender (in)equality and the media.
This was possible for two reasons: First, I had a nifty flip camera and was able to quickly get the interviews, second, I had access to a computer and the Internet and third I’m comfortable with technology and believe it is my right to own it and use it for my own means. As I uploaded the videos I remembered a conversation I had in 2007 about what it means to be a witness – it was during a digital story telling training workshop with women documenters of violence in South Africa. I remembered us talking about how the act of being a witness makes us part of what ever it is we witness and that our ability to tell others about it is central to our work as communication and women’s rights activists.
So what am I witnessing at the CSW as I try to find the J-spot?
Access is a recurring theme on a number of levels. This includes my inability to gain access to three sessions that I wanted to attend because there wasn’t enough space in the rooms or, just having made it in the door, being told that unless 15 people left the room the event would be closed! Of course, there wasn’t much choice between the session ‘religions freedom and sexual orientation’ continuing and me fussing with a security guard so I left with others who were equally disgruntled.
On Monday I attended a panel discussion held by the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development on addressing and affirming women’s sexual and reproductive rights. Panelists included Rashida Manjoo, the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Khawar Mumtaz from Shirkat Gah Women’s Resource Centre in Pakistan and Regina Yuching Lin from The Garden of Hope Foundation in Taiwan, amongst others. Regina spoke about the how important having access to information was to women in international marriages living in Taiwan. She made the point of how social isolation and the lack of access to services and information about their rights and recourse, particularly in their own languages, compounds their vulnerability. Rashida also raised the importance of access to information as she spoke about her reliance for information from women’s networks and movements.
Listening to the panelists it was very clear how ICTs could support their work and how and why access to, control over and use of media and ICTs are important to share and find information, find support and build solidarity.
The discussions during the launch of the preliminary findings of the Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP) on Tuesday got me thinking again about how powerful the media is in framing our experience of the world and how access to and control over media would revolutionise what is defined as news. Sanjay Suri, Editor in Chief of of Inter Press Service made the point that the media report on the world ‘as it is’ and if men are the ones who make a lot of trouble and the news follows trouble; its logical to conclude that news will follow men! In other words, its no surprise the GMMP preliminary findings show that only 24% of the people interviewed, heard or read about in mainstream broadcast and print media are women. We clearly don’t make enough trouble! I wonder who’s world Suri was speaking about, because from what I see reflected in mainstream media it certainly isn’t mine. But seriously, the dominant masculine discourse of news production continues to put women’s rights and gender equality very low down in the food chain of newsworthiness.
While there has been a strong focus on traditional and mainstream media in the sessions I’ve attended, ‘social media’, ‘new media’ ‘technology and ICTs’ have repeatedly been cited as tools and spaces that activists are claiming and using to produce their own alternative media. However, access to the tools that allow us to produce news and content about our issues of concern, does not automatically mean the production of content that challenges stereotypes or masculine news values.
Speaking at the Gender Links session on women, media and ICTs yesterday Cai Yiping from Isis International spoke about the assumptions around community media being ‘democratic, gender fair and grounded in community’ when in many instances this is not the case. She also highlighted the need to talk about freedom of expression in the context of ICTs. Citing the highly controlled Chinese media where many websites are blocked as an example she said “we are always thinking the Internet can do everything, but its also controlled by capital and government and its easier to control than other media – they can block anything related to particular terms; we need to demand the space and make sure that we are in touch with the debates [about these things].”
This is exactly why we, as women’s rights activists need to make sure that we are engaging with ICT policy and spaces such as the Internet Governance Forum and use the access we have to make sure that our issues and appreciation of multiple freedoms and the tensions that exist between them – are considered.