May 1, 2007

An adventure in Iraqi freedom with Streamtime and FLOSS

Author: Tina Gasperson

A diverse group of creative people, all geeks in their own right but not all "techies," decided to give the people of Iraq an opportunity to speak freely to a large audience about their experiences living in the midst of a war. These geeks, who call themselves Streamtime, decided to perform a Web radio experiment: they would train Iraqis to use Dyne:bolic and other free software to create instant Internet broadcasts wherever there was a computer and Internet access. In the summer of 2004, Streamtime packed up and traveled from Amsterdam to Iraq, surviving bombings and hack attacks in their quest to bring freedom of expression to a country on a rollercoaster of victory and violence. The experiment has ended, but the mission continues.

Jo van der Spek, a man some have described as an "activist radiomaker," is the founder of Streamtime. In February 2004, he approached Denis Rojo, a nomadic Rastafarian free software programmer and creator of Dyne:bolic better known as 'jaromil.' It was at the Networking Europe event; organizers had invited jaromil to give a presentation. "Suddenly, while standing at the bar for a coffee, I got approached by this skinny and tall man," jaromil says, "holding a very funny expression on his face. He introduced himself as Jojo." van der Spek praised jaromil's software projects and invited him to participate in some independent media coverage in Iraq. "I was delighted, quickly realizing this man really meant 'independent.'"

Van der Spek went to Baghdad on a fact-finding mission, and kept a log of his experiences. "At 4 in the afternoon I went with Salam to meet with Mufid Al-Jazairi, who happens to be the Minister of Culture," he wrote. "He wanted to see me about radio. His communist party is starting broadcasting and he as a Minister wants to start a cultural radio as well. To encourage people to express and perform their culture, to reflect everyday life. In fact people in Iraq need to learn again how to do these things because the terror of Saddam has destroyed normal habits of communication between humans. While I look at his face I am reminded of another Minister of Culture (briefly), who wrote a famous book called The Long Road (?) about his transport to Buchenwald."

Van der Spek wanted to create hundreds of small radio stations by turning workstations into Internet broadcasting machines using Dyne:bolic, a live Linux CD optimized with all the necessary digital media software. Dyne:bolic runs on almost any kind of Intel hardware and doesn't need to be installed on the hard drive. Because it runs in RAM, it leaves no permanent trace of its presence on the workstation, making it safe for use by those in occupied territories who might risk prosecution if authorities discovered a rogue radio broadcast.

After 10 days in Baghdad, van der Spek was champing at the bit. "It is really time to get a team of technicians together for classic broadcasting and for streaming," he wrote. "On Al Jazeera I watch how some Japanese hostages are being manhandled with knives to force to confess that Allah really is the greatest. It seems that they also took two Dutch soldiers hostage like this in As-Samawa, but you in Holland will probably have more details on this.... It is really good to be able to do something positive and not just sit around waiting for the enemy to show up or rely on guards I don't know."

Van der Spek looked up Cecile Landman, a Dutch freelance investigative journalist. "I didn't need to think," Landman says of his request that she join him in "doing something" for Iraq. "I was very frustrated over the invasion of Iraq and all the disastrous developments after." Van der Spek, Landman and jaromil were joined by Geert Lovink, a self-described "media theorist" and Web designer by trade; and another "radio activist" named Michel. They met in the attic of De Balie, a cultural-political gathering place in Amsterdam. For this group, De Balie was a fitting location, since in the late '90s a support group for Belgrade's Radio B92 (which also included van der Spek) met there after that station's transmitter was confiscated by the Serbian government for illegal insurgency.

Part of the team set up shop in Halabja, Iraq, and the rest stayed in Amsterdam to give feedback on "technical and content matters," Landman says. The first broadcast took place on June 30, 2004. "It's not too easy this first stream; sometimes we have connection problems," are the first words spoken by host Michel in the 30-minute show. The connection dropped over and over again and at times the speech is unintelligible and muted, but in spite of the difficulties the stream was considered a success, and dedicated to the victims of "Bloody Friday," a poison gas attack launched by Saddam Hussein against Halabja in March 1988. "It is probably the first time that an audio program on the Internet will come out of Iraq," Landman wrote at Streamtime.org. The program was a mixture of music, recollection about Bloody Friday, and discussion of current events.

Less than a week later the first Baghdad stream went live, and things seemed to be working well for Streamtime. The group broadcast twice a week through July, from private homes, Internet cafes, "wherever possible," says Landman. But in August things took a turn for the worse. Just after a regular broadcast on August 1, "we were bombed back to reality," Michel wrote at Streamtime.org. The nearby Syrian Catholic Church was the target of a car bomb that day; 11 people were killed. The radio team's morale was sinking fast. "It's hot, there's no electricity, we eat, due to the heat we move to the balcony. But it's full of pieces of glass, one guy cuts his foot and bleeds. We try to stop the blood.... After the meal they start to sing old songs [really very old]: I feel the centuries' pain of this population. It makes me cry...."

August 11 was the last time the group from Amsterdam was able to broadcast live from inside Iraq. Circumstances had become too risky to stay. "At the end of August, I made the decision to recall the last ones of us who were still in Baghdad," Landman says. "It had become too dangerous. The work of journalists had become more and more important, but more and more was told from bunkered balconies in the Green Zone. August 2004 turned into a month of growing violence, brutal kidnappings, and decapitations. Streamtime left Iraq."

Not easily deterred, Streamtime decided to make another attempt at Internet radio in Iraq, attending the Merbed Poetry Festival in Basra on April 1-3, 2005. "Until last year Saddam exploited this well-known festival for his own political purposes, but this time it was free: a celebration of liberation, a meeting of old friends, a first attempt to deal with past pains and articulate a future for free artistic expression and contributing to enlightenment and development of Iraqi society at large," van der Spek wrote. Bassam Hassan, the cofounder of the Iraqi Linux Users Group (ILUG), joined van der Spek there. Because of the volatile state of political affairs and the possibility of wartime attacks at any moment, they decided to use a laptop as the base for a mobile radio station.

Streaming the events of the Merbed festival was the top objective, but another goal was "to plant the seed of free and independent media which is not controlled or influenced by any governmental entity or political or religious party," Hassan wrote in a summary of the project. They would accomplish that objective by setting up a classroom at a local hotel to teach citizens how to use the Dyne:bolic technology and "motivate them on creating their own independent and free radio."

Eight people showed up for the classes, where van der Spek explained the concept of open publishing and free media. Hassan taught the principles of Internet streaming and introduced his audience to Linux and Dyne:bolic. Later, the pupils would learn how to use the command-line interface for "everyday use," and how to produce a radio broadcast using Audacity. Everything they needed to know, van der Spek and Hassan taught them. The class would return the next day to help with the test run of the Merbed stream. After that, Hassan wrote, "we had a discussion with the trainees about opportunities for followup so they could continue the streaming project." He and van der Spek encouraged them to assist in the actual coverage of the festival by recording poetry readings and conducting live interviews.

The first day of the festival the Streamtime team was beset with technical difficulties that made it impossible to broadcast. But by the second day, they had located a reliable source of electricity and the sound quality was good. "And the same thing applied for the third day. We got many recordings and we tried to involve the crowd of poets and artists as much as possible," Hassan wrote.

After van der Spek returned from Basra, Landman says the group was "pessimistic" about the possibility of returning to Iraq and resuming the Web streams. "It seemed the best option, or maybe the only one, to focus on networking with Iraqi bloggers," she says. "They have taken the initiative to vent their thoughts, analyses, chants, and rants over the various situations -- and they do so over the Web." Streamtime reposts blog articles written by Iraqis; blogrolls Iraqi, Afghan, Iranian, and Lebanese writers; and links to tutorials on Web streaming.

Today, Landman believes Streamtime's work with bloggers best exemplifies its mission to help the Iraqi people experience freedom of expression. "They were put in contact with others," she says. "And I think that I have been of help in giving feedback about writing styles, or in convincing them to continue, and that it is important that the world gets a chance to hear their opinions, however harsh the contents are.

"It still feels as a defeat that we don't stream and that we are not in Iraq," Landman says. "I find it very difficult to measure the significance of Streamtime. But an Afghani blogger told me, 'Honestly, I come to your Web site and look for articles and new links I always use. For me it's like a window to Iraqis and Iraq bloggers."

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