Election 2008: Don’t turn my mobile off

Naeem Mohaiemen

Published by the Daily Star on 26 Dec 2008.

IN Khagrachari this week for a pre-election visit, I saw the value of mobile networks even in the district that was last to get it and has the most sparse coverage. Because operators have not put towers everywhere, once you leave Khagrachari Sadar certain mobile operator networks go off. After eight hours in the interior, we would return to the Sadar and networks, and immediately find phones filling up with unread SMS.

Among Jumma (Pahari) election organisers, the mobile is an essential tool. They were getting SMS about irregularities in Bandarban, pre-election voter intimidation in Rangamati. Just as quickly, those SMS were getting forwarded to media, activist, and government networks. By the time the newspapers arrived the next day (usually at mid-day in Khagrachari), those events had been reported and in some cases resolved.

Given that experience, and many others like it through the years, I’m baffled by the claim that shutting off mobile networks will ensure election rigging doesn’t take place. The example given is that political thugs will use mobiles to plan intimidation. This argument removes agency from citizen voters themselves. If one example can be given of the goon squad using mobiles, a hundred counter-examples can be given of citizens recording, reporting and preventing abuse using that same device.

The mobile phone camera, with it’s grainy real-time visual aesthetic, has replaced video cameras as the on-the-fly recording mechanism. More than once, we have seen mobile phone video being sent by MMS to TV stations and used for breaking news. “By mobile phone” is the ubiquitous on-screen scroll for election reporting on our major TV networks, whenever it is in a remote area where the camera crew has not arrived.

In the 2000 American elections, hanging chads, African-American voter disenfranchisement, voting machine problems — all this became part of the political vernacular. In response, 2004 and 2008 saw a continuous increase in citizen monitoring of the electoral process. My college classmate, Billy Wimsatt, founded League of Young Voters in 2003 to support and monitor the “hip hop” (African-American and crossover) youth vote. That project was partially informed by his two activist books: Another World is Possible (2001) and Future 500: Youth Organizing and Activism in the US (2002). Billy’s activism came of age when majority of wired teenagers were embodying the “Broadcast Yourself” spirit. Citizen journalism empowered by, among others, YouTube — a company co-founded by 27 year old Bangladeshi-American Jawad Karim.

The work of many people like Billy Wimsatt and Ian Inaba (VideoTheVote.org and American Blackout) made it possible for the 2008 US elections to be conducted without voter disenfranchisement. Voter enfranchisement is possible through work by both citizens and the state. There are many grassroots Bengali activists who now use media and technology to monitor and review the political process. The mobile is the building block and basic DNA for that movement.

Even though political parties have now (superficially) embraced the lingo of “digital,” the state has always had a fearful relationship with technology. Our “state secrets” would get smuggled out we were told, and so we fell a decade behind on connecting to the submarine cable. Criminals would use mobiles we were told, and so the Chittagong Hill Tracts went without mobile networks until this year. A similar fear factor is behind the argument for shutting off mobiles during Election 2008. These arguments are not credible and remniscent of the fearful 1980s.

Faruk Wasif uses the phrase Nagorik Nojordari (Citizen Overview) to describe what we need in this moment. Perhaps the EC believes their own networks are enough to monitor the elections. But they are not enough, they can never be enough. There can be no substitute for the individual citizen reporting via mobile that, yes, the vote is going smoothly; no, there is intimidation at this center; this candidate is breaking electoral code of conduct; etc.

Shutting the mobile networks off would create opacity, when we desperately need more transparency. The EC could find its own credibility questioned in the event of election disputes, and there would be no independent source to verify reports (no, sorry, the international election observers are not enough). Let citizens vote, monitor, and report their own elections. Citizen journalism at this intersection between alo and adhar.


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