Make sure you can speak freely

Online groups should try to maintain their own sites rather than piggy-backing off other sites like

Many of the strategies, techniques and tools that have been developed in the last ten years of mainstream web use are struggling to make the transition to the Web 2.0 world.

Media sites have had to turn from being one-way publishers of information into conversational spaces while more and more of us are using social network sites to manage aspects of our online and offline lives. We seize on new services (like Twitter and Seesmic), new sites (like Dopplr) and new platforms (especially the mobile web), caring little for the privacy implications, learning curves or complexity of the relationships we are now able to build.

This is a real challenge for services built by volunteer groups and local sites that seek to reflect their community, because they may have neither the expertise nor the desire to embrace the Web 2.0 world, but at the same time they want to offer something useful and engaging to their users.

And not everyone is as lucky as MySociety, with some of the world’s best programmers and database experts working on their projects.

One possibility is just to piggy-back on the sites that are already out there, and many groups already use YouTube to host their video content, run a blog on Blogger or Typepad, manage mailing lists through Google Groups, and work within the limitations of their chosen platform. Many political campaigns now have Facebook pages to carry the message, and some seem to be entirely Facebook-based.

Doing this is an attractive and low-cost option, but it carries several risks. The first, and most obvious, is that uploading content onto one of these services puts it into someone else’s hands, and the terms of the license you agree to when you hand over your pictures, videos, documents or memberships list may not be very balanced. Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Bebo and the rest all reserve the right to use your work for their own marketing and promotional purposes, for example.

You’re also stuck with the terms and conditions imposed by these commercial services, with no real redress if they decide to close down your group, censor your video or remove your carefully crafted campaign material. By and large these sites are less interested in free speech than in building their user base, selling advertisements and making money. If your group’s desire for self-expression conflicts with that then you will not be welcome.

A better model is to have your own site and your own service, but to use the various free offerings, social network sites and the rest as amplifiers and backups. If you have your own blog then putting videos on YouTube means you never have to worry about hitting bandwidth limits, but if you make sure that people watch them through your site by embedding them in posts then if YouTube gets nasty you can move to another service without losing your audience.

It may require more programming expertise, but even here some rather sophisticated software is freely available to download. It’s fairly straightforward to install Wordpress on a rented server, giving you an easily-tailored blog with widgets, embedded content, trackbacks and comments, all under your control. And if you run your own mailing list, however basic, then you can decide when and how to send messages instead of relying on Facebook’s clumsy facilities.

It may not be necessary to seize the means of digital production in order to change the online world, but these days it’s wise to have your own small factory – or rather, server - in case you come up against the limits imposed by the commercial providers.

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage