by Ederic Peñaflor Eder

“Erap wil go dwn n hs2ry as d presdnt oustd by txt. Congrats & mbuhay tyong lhat!”

After the ouster of Joseph Estrada, this was one of the messages circulated by young cellular phone users through the short messaging service (SMS).

Text messages and the Internet played important roles in the completion of the people’s struggle for the ouster of an incompetent and allegedly corrupt president. Right after the 10-11 vote on the opening of the second set of PCI-Equitable Bank evidence against Estrada in the aborted impeachment trial, thousands of messages began circulating among cellular phone users in the Philippines.

The messages condemned what was perceived as a pro-Estrada vote, as well as the 11 senators who voted to suppress the bank records. Most of the texts also called for a collective show of indignation.

Information at incredible speed
The text messages provided information at incredible speed. The cell phones on the evening of January 16th preempted the newspapers and even some radio stations in bringing the news of the vote to a very wide audience, although the event itself had first been covered live by the television stations.

But when the senators voted, those who were not monitoring television but who had their cell phones with them were also instantly informed of the development.

Meanwhile, Filipinos abroad who had access to the Internet were not left behind. Various Philippine-based web sites and even the web sites of foreign media groups had promptly reported on the event, thus almost instantly providing Filipino expatriates news from home.

Noise barrages and demonstrations
In response to the calls for protest actions received via their cellular phones, a huge number of people all over the country held noise barrages and flooded the streets. In Metro Manila, a crowd began gathering at the EDSA shrine at 11 that same evening. By Saturday noon, Estrada, probably out of fear of the hundreds of thousands of people marching to the Palace to arrest him, had fled Malacañang.

Even before People Power II, the Internet had long been a venue for alternative protest against the Estrada government. On November 4, Gerry Kaimo of PLDT.com hosted an anti-Estrada Internet rally to coincide with the prayer rally at the EDSA Shrine.

“…We had about 200 people who joined–We had a virtual rally and it was very successful. The placards are still there (at the site). I had one guy standing in front of a castle in Germany, saying ‘Erap go home, so I can go home,'” Kaimo related during the “Erap Entangled in the Web: Net and Text Activism in the Ouster of Erap” forum held at the Audio-Visual Room of the Ateneo de Manila University Social Development Complex last February 1.

Democratizing access
The forum had been organized by the Foundation for Media Alternatives, a civil society organization working for the democratization of access to tools and technologies.
Tonyo Cruz of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan), a militant multi-sectoral alliance, pointed out the power of the new media technology in informing and mobilizing the people.

“We would like to think of the Internet and the e-mail network as the model form of the alternative media in the 80’s. Pardon doon sa media na nandito, kayo iyon, ng hindi pa “in” maging anti-Erap, inuunahan ninyo iyong mainstream media, nagpapakita ng totoo nagbibigay ng venue para sa mga tao na magsalita, mag-present ng pananaw, inunahan natin iyong malalaking TV and radio networks na takot na takot or otherwise nasa payroll. Kaya dapat may credit doon sa lahat ng mga web masters at mailing list administrators.” (When it wasn’t “in” to be anti-Erap, Internet users were ahead of mainstream media, providing people a venue ahead of the big TV networks that were either afraid or in the government payroll. The webmasters and mailing list administrators should be given credit.)

Importance of the Internet
Cruz also said that Bayan, while regarded by many people as a traditional activist organization, recognizes the importance of the Internet.

�We try to maintain our presence in the web because we really feel that the Internet is a new arena, to win over the hearts and minds of the people� mahalaga ito, it compliments the arsenal of tactics of the movement,� he said.

Other participants in the forum about the role of the new media in the ouster of Estrada cited the cell phone�s capability to disseminate information with speed and the greater freedom of expression in the Internet.

For his part, Vicente Romano III, founder of e-Lagda, an online signature campaign that pushed for the resignation of Estrada, sent an e-mail message January 18 to all e-Lagda members telling them that EDSA II was in progress, but he also raised some questions:

However, this may not end as soon as we hope it would. The challenge is sustainability�how do we keep the outrage burning in our hearts? Can we commit to keep coming back again and again until the very end? How can we organize ourselves so we can maintain, if not increase, the crowd�s number in the succeeding days?�

The same challenge still holds true. How could the people take advantage of the new media technology in order to preserve the gains of the People Power II? Kaimo is optimistic. He said that as he browsed through the various anti-Estrada sites that he has linked to his own site, he was glad to find out that �there are still quite a few that are applying themselves to the post-EDSA II scenario.�

I am happy to say that people are still interested, and they have not shut down their web sites somehow, but others are continuing to host their websites and continue to fight. I just hope the Internet continues to grow in that manner,� Kaimo added.

Among the suggestions that surfaced during the forum was the creation of more community sites on human rights, agrarian reform, and others�besides transparency in governance� and that the Gen-X and GenTxt youth be tapped to participate more actively in political affairs.

Ike Suarez of the Philippine IT Update, meanwhile, noted that �the Erap propagandists seem to have ignored the Internet and texting.� According to him, the Estrada camp had a P40 million weekly crisis slush fund and PR budget. But its members used mainly the traditional media in their propaganda. Had they spent a little bit more on the Internet and texting, he asked, wouldn�t it have been more difficult for the anti-Estrada cyber warriors to use the new media?

A speaker said no, because the Internet is a two-way street. It was more likely, he said, that if the pro-Estrada propagandists had gone full blast into cyber-space, they would have been overwhelmed by the counter-attack of the antis.

Relying on the old media
The same question on the Estrada camp�s not using �new media� that much for its propaganda could eventually lead to the question of access. Knowing that his core supporters were from the masses, Estrada�s minions in media had no choice but to rely mostly on the �old media� like the tabloids, to which the masses have access.

Angelita Gregorio-Medel, a sociologist from Ateneo, asked this question:
Demokrasya itong IT. Kahit sino pwede. (IT is democratic. Anyone can use it.) But the other side of it is, who controls [the decision-making]?�

The issue of the digital divide was also brought up by Vic Serapia of Free3.

If we try to develop that even further, technology is freedom, it will create so much freedom, create so much learning, knowledge that we will be able to teach others how to use. We have this digital divide that [is the reason] why we�re trying to get Free3 going�because we want to educate people, to tell them that it is good, this is for you.�

Freedom of expression in the Internet or in text messaging, however, is under threat by some actions on the part of governments. In China, for example, as in countries like Singapore, there are attempts to censor the Internet.

Here in the Philippines, Senators Vicente Sotto III and Robert Jaworski, among the unpopular 11 who voted against the opening of the second Equitable Bank envelop, and who both became subjects of funny and even obscene text jokes, want to regulate the use of prepaid cellular phone services so the user could be tracked down and prosecuted.

Internet censorship
The issue of censorship on the Internet is related to the question of access. Kaimo, for example, describes PLDT.com as �the most censored website in the Philippines today.�

Kaimo also discussed the reported censorship of Erapalis.net.ph, which went offline for sometime reportedly because it had been shut down by its internet service provider.

The first report we got was from Erapalis. Apparently it was taken off the web by an overeager web master because it was too political, but after some noise it was returned. But Pacific Internet up to this point has not changed its story. It insists that the site had not paid for the servers. That is why they shut it down. It was only coincidental that Erap was being tried and all that,� Kaimo said.

The new media technologies contributed a lot to People Power II. But problems of access, which have erected a wall between the wealthier classes and the poor, need to be addressed. Otherwise the new media will be no more than another chasm dividing the poor and the middle and upper classes, preventing their communication, and therefore undermining the democratization process.

Philippine Journalism Review

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