Monday, July 7, 2008


Barcamp! Beer and margaritas, right? Well, that’s what I thought when I was invited to participate in OSI’s Youth Initiative barcamp in Istanbul on the weekend of June 21st. Just to be sure, however, I double-checked the truthiness of this assumption with our good friend Wikipedia:

“BarCamp is an international network of user-generated conferences — open, participatory workshop-events, whose content is provided by participants — often focusing on early-stage web applications, and related open source technologies, social protocols, and open data formats.... The name "BarCamp" is a playful allusion to the event's origins, with reference to the hacker slang term, foobar."

So that’s a barcamp, all camp, zero beer. Damn!

But what’s OSI? Here’s some background for those of you out of the loop:

OSI is George Soros’ Open Society Institute, and the reason I’m in Turkey. OSI promotes democracy (the “open society”) internationally, though it originally targeted the ex-Soviet countries and is still most active there. The Youth Initiative division coordinates a major debate program known as IDEA (International Debate Education Association) and more recently a related Youth Media / Citizen Journalism program. I’ve done work for IDEA for about eight years, including two weeks in Russia in 2001, and during the past two and a half years I’ve gotten Bloomfield College CAT (Creative Arts & Technology) students involved in teaching the new media part (audio, video, web) of the Citizen Journalism program. More on that when we get to Dikili next week, but here are the links for more info:
Citizen Journalism
CAT International

At a barcamp, unlike an academic conference, pretty much anyone can show up and present, and when you’re not presenting you have four or five choices of presentations to attend. Most of them take the form of PowerPoint presentations, but with more time for group discussion. I did a presentation on Citizen Journalism for a handful of people, but for me it was most valuable learning from the group what situations they faced in countries as separated as Russia, Macedonia, and Uganda.

Nearly 100 people attended from over 25 countries, with about 60 presentations given over a two-day period. Topics ranged from using cell phones for political action to mobilizing youth in countries where dissent quickly lands you in jail. One misconception we Americans tend to have is that the ex-Soviet countries are all more or less democratic, when in fact 19 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, remnants of the KGB are alive and well in such countries as Moldova, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. I attended a presentation by a political activist from Belarus, wwo listed the following political crimes in her country:

1. Administrative liability—Huge fines and up to 25 days in prison just for "swearing in public," a standard accusation used as a pretext to detain political activists right before a planned demonstration.
2. Criminal liability— Become a member of an unregistered organization (i.e, a "democratic organization") and you can get up to 3 years in jail. For "defamation of the Republic of Belarus and the Government" you risk up to 5 years in jail.
3. Deprivation of the right to earn money and feed the family — Every employee is on a contract lasting 1-3 years, which the administration can stop renewing with the activist with no reasons given. The contract system is used to harass the employees who, for example, won’t take part in the election forgeries, or won’t vote in advance during the ‘Presidential elections.’
4. Deprivation of the right to receive education — Students involved in political activities can be expelled . Applicants can enter some majors (mass media, law, etc.) only with the permissions of the Ideology Department of the local Executive Committees.
5. Persecution of relatives — Children are expelled from universities or the relatives are threatened to be fired if the activist does not "calm down."

Her question to us was: how can she mobilize youth when they are afraid and/or apathetic? No one had an answer to that one.

Freedom of speech and civil liberties are still issues right here in Turkey, and have become a bone of contention in regards to Turkey’s application for admission to the European Union. This was brought home to me as I prepared to give my talk on Citizen Journalism. My plan had been to show video clips of work created by students at last summer’s Citizen Journalism institute in Duino, Italy. However, all video on the IDEA web site is actually embedded YouTube video, meaning that the actual file resides on YouTube’s server. And guess what: YouTube is blocked in Turkey, so there I was giving a presentation about media work with no media to show. But if you’re interested, here’s my presentation, which is basically just an outline of what I talked about:

Just as Istanbul was good prep for spending six weeks in Turkey, attending Barcamp was good prep for spending three weeks in Dikili, working eight hours a day with students from 27 countries.

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