Honoring Free Expression Online

May 6, 2010

One of the many joys I have in this job is getting the occasional opportunity to help give prizes away.

I served as a judge for the first Breaking Borders Awards, which were created by Google and Global Voices, and supported by Thomson Reuters, to honor some of those who strive for freedom of expression online.

The awards–$10,000 each and divided into three categories: technology, policy and advocacy– were presented Thursday at the Global Voices Citizen Media Summit in Santiago, Chile.

Deliberations were difficult, as the standard of entries was high and the judges were impressed by the work being done by individuals and groups to deliver on the Internet’s promise: a medium that allows for freedom of expression and the free flow of information.

The winners were decided after several weeks of deliberation by the judging panel, which included myself, Robert Boorstin, Director of Public Policy at Google; Sheila Coronel, director of the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University; Rebecca MacKinnon, co-founder of Global Voices Online and Visiting Fellow at Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology; Edetaen Ojo, Chair of the International Freedom of Expression of Exchange and executive director of Media Rights Agenda in Nigeria; and Jose Roberto de Toledo, founder of the Brazilian Association for Investigative Journalism.

In the advocacy category, for “an activist or group that has used online tools to promote free expression or encourage political change,” the winner is the Zimbabwean online community Kubatana.net. Kubatana uses the Internet, email, SMS, blogs and print materials to disseminate information to the public and is a valuable resource for information on the country. Its website hosts debate, publishes official government and legislative rulings and has an extensive archive of human rights and civil reports.

The judges were impressed with the way Kubatana uses a mix of high-tech and low-tech to distribute information in and outside of Zimbabwe. Using internet and mobile technology, their e-mail and SMS alerts and website unite several hundred organizations.

The technology category, for an individual or group “that has created an important tool that enables free expression and expands access to information”, was won by BOSCO-Uganda, an organization based in Uganda and in the United States that started with the aim of establishing communication between displaced persons camps in northern Uganda, using a solar powered, long-range wireless computer network. The organization’s goal is to further provide information and communication technology solutions, such as web training and online collaboration, to enable peace building in rural communities in northern Uganda.

We were greatly impressed by the organization’s smart use of available technology, adapted to local conditions. This ingenious use of technology has allowed a significant engagement with the global community and has expanded access to information for people on the margins. BOSCO-Uganda was a true example of the potential the web has to create new and empowering forms of expression and communication.

The policy category, given to a “policy maker, government official or NGO leader who has made a notable contribution in the field,” was won by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, a non-profit media agency that has sought to promote values of investigative reporting in fostering good governance, freedom of expression and the right to information. Since its start in 1989, PCIJ has fearlessly reported on issues of corruption and malfeasance in government.

In a nation where journalism can be a dangerous profession, PCIJ provides much needed support–in funding, training and maintaining information databases. It is useful both for journalists in the Philippines and for Western journalists who need a view of the complicated information society there.

I hope this will be the first of many years in which Breaking Borders Awards honor those who are using the Internet to promote freedom of expression.

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