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Emerging Citizen Journalists Live Report on the Afghan Elections

BY Rebecca Chao | Monday, April 7 2014

Waiting to vote (credit: Ahmad Shuja)

Eileen Guo, an American entrepreneur in Afghanistan, tells techPresident she often gets asked why she is launching an online citizen journalism project in a county with only a 5 percent Internet penetration rate. Saturday's election, slated to yield one of the country's first democratic transitions to power, provides a strong case in point: the Independent Election Commission has estimated that an overwhelming 7 million turned up at the polls and its chairman Yusuf Nuristani has called it a "sign of the political maturity of the people." That maturity is also revealing itself in Afghanistan's media and online community, which Guo is trying to channel into a citizen journalism project, one that she hopes will counter mainstream media's often one-sided war-torn portrayal of Afghanistan as well as provide a place for civic engagement.

"There is so much more that happens than gets reported in the news," says Guo. Outside of the reports on terrorism, suicide bombings and conflict, little is known about Afghan culture and of its people -- there is a growing blogging community, there are local online transparency projects like Baztab, and since 2002, the country has gone from essentially zero to 48 TV stations, 175 radio
stations and 190 newspapers and magazines, according to Reporter Without Borders.

For Guo, her hopes are that her platform Paiwandgāh will not only "personalize" reporting in Afghanistan but also act as an "amplification tool" to generate dialogue between Afghans and international audiences. Newly launched in February, the platform was tested in real time during Saturday's election for the president and provincial councils; each citizen report is posted online in the Dari and Pashto languages and translated into English.

The platform allows trained citizen journalists -- Paiwandgāh currently has 91 -- to send in reports through SMS, Facebook, Twitter and phone calls. Even if Internet penetration is low, mobile phone use averages 61 percent and some regions boast a 97 percent mobile penetration rate. Social media use among those connected is fairly widespread, says Guo, even if it's still remarkably new -- "Think of the U.S. fifteen years back when AOL Instant Message was cool."

The Paiwandgāh platform grew out of Afghanistan's first national social media summit held in Kabul last fall that was aimed to bring the country's most innovative social media users together as a community. Guo says that Paiwandgāh was a way to continue the conversations that began in Kabul and extend it further out, such as to the remote regions of Afghanistan.

While the Paiwandgāh team was poised to live blog the election on Saturday, Guo says they faced an unexpected hurdle -- the Afghan Ministry of Communications and IT placed a last minute ban on all SMS services within the country up until 5pm that day. Guo says she is "still unclear why -- some are saying it was due to illegal SMS campaigning during the 'campaign silence period' while others say that it was to prevent Taliban threats by SMS to intimidate voters from voting." While election day proved relatively peaceful, with only a handful of reports of violence, the two months leading up to it were shadowed by the Taliban's 39 suicide bombings.

Despite the SMS ban, Guo says that the Paiwandgāh team published 578 reports through the course of election day, which came in via phone calls, web, Twitter, Facebook and, when the ban ended, SMS. "They came from 27 provinces, including some really remote areas that surprised even our team," says Guo, "since we didn't have strong presences there previously." The reports are then geographically tagged onto a map. The map also offers information on the various polling stations.

The online map shows the geographic location of citizen reports and another map shows polling stations around the country.

One citizen report reads: "In a polling center in Kapisa, some employees gave scarves and money to women and 500 AFN to men to vote for Qubuddin Helal.[sic]" This particular incidence has been verified through vetted citizen journalists or multiple reports. Qutbuddin Hilal is a presidential candidate who has been endorsed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, considered a terrorist by the United States.

Some unverified reports claim there was also ballot stuffing: "Local civil society activist reports that he has identified an individual with 2,000 voter cards, which he used to cast votes in favor of Zalmai Rassoul and provincial council candidate Haneef Haneefi. The activist says the irregularity occurred at Mathak Khan High School, Khas Uruzgan District, during a firefight earlier in the day. The activist and other area individuals have confiscated the 2,000 voter cards." Zalmai Rassoul, the country's former Foreign Minister, is said to be the candidate favored by current president Hamid Karzai, though there has been no formal endorsement.

Other citizen journalists reported on an unprecedented level of women's participation though it left a worrying shortage of ballots: "Women's participation in Kabul polling centers is unexpected. There are more people in Dashte barchi than there are voting ballots. If voting ballots are less most of the people will be deprived of their voting rights."

The citizen reports fell into a number of topics, says Guo, but some of the most reported were on public opinions of the election, the candidates' campaigns, security, polling centers and election day women's participation.

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