Did I just kill a revolution?

Today on neweurasia we’re running an interesting kind of exclusive about a Facebook group called “The Green Revival” (”Yaşyl Galkynyş”) that is plotting to overthrow the Turkmen government. Our blogger, Annasoltan, made contact with the group’s admin, who goes by the pseudonym “Berdi Niyazov” (spoof of Turkmenistan’s two dictators — I’ll call him BN for short). Whoever he/she is, the person has clearly read up on both the Arab Spring and previous revolutionary movements. There’s no telling how serious he/she really is, although the person plays the role well (he/she’s even vowing to start up a revolutionary committee from inside Turkmenistan).

However, should we at neweurasia have published this? As we see it, there are three possibilities as to who BN is: (a) an exile trying to bring pressure and embarrassment to the government; (b) an agent of the government engaged in some kind of data-mining scheme intended to provoke malcontents into exposing themselves; or (c) a sincere reformer truly intent upon bringing about change in his/her society.

The fact that BN chose to both publish his/her group’s platform and respond to reactions in English (albeit a very Turkmen-style English) makes us suspicious that it could be the first two options. However, what if this is just the naked, disarming sincerity of a young Turkmen far from his/her home who dreams of a freer, more prosperous Turkmenistan? The person comes across so sincerely, and when I read him/her closely, he/she sounds North American-educated, with not a little bit of liberal idealism.

That he/she is targeting students studying abroad is interesting. It’s actually in keeping with the authorities’ recent inquisition of university-age youth who have overseas experience or connections (check out neweurasia‘s coverage here and here). Whether this is part of the inquisition or a reversal of the logic of repression — the unfairly targeted are now becoming exactly what the Turkmen authorities feared to begin with — is a key question.

Here’s the dilemma with which we as a journalistic organization are confronted: have we just helped or hindered someone’s insidious scheme, or have we aided or murdered a possibility for positive change?

Both Annasoltan and my boss at Transitions Online, Barbara Frye, argue that the story is newsworthy and on those grounds alone it should be run. Indeed, I must confess that as an editor, the story was just too good to pass up and lose the scoop. Once Annasoltan discovered the group, it was almost certain we would publish the story in some fashion.

Yet, neither this nor standard journalistic procedure totally allays the concern: although BN gave Annasoltan permission to run the story and even hoped it would bring the group more exposure, uncertainty persists as to whether this would be precisely what a Turkmen intelligence officer would want. Moreover, if we assume that BN is sincere, it’s also clear that if he/she isn’t concerned about alerting the Turkmen authorities to the plot. Broadcasting via a major social network could either be a calculated gamble or part of an agent’s plan.

But I also want to know the opinions of you the readers. I’m running two polls at the bottom of this post, the first regarding what you think about this story, and the second essentially an innocent or guilty verdict for neweurasia and myself as its editor (click “Read More”). I would also like to hear from you in the comments section: in general, what do you think of this story?

There are some other important aspects, particularly in terms technology and how everyday people can inadvertently reveal the secrets of their societies. I talk about these in a separate post in this blog: “Social leaking / social whistleblowing”

(For “Other”, leave a comment to this post below.)

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4 thoughts on “Did I just kill a revolution?

  1. Hi Chris, you don’t mention an interest in protecting your own reputation or the brand of NewEurasia. If I were in a company or a charity (and that is my experience as you know) we would have a big conversation about the need to be accurate, and maintain the reputation of our organisation. I’m genuinely ignorant of why a blogger or news org would not consider this a primary concern. Is this typical? If so, what makes you different?

    • Hey Nate,

      Thanks for reading. Oh boy, no of course that’s very much part of our concern; within journalistic agencies, it’s usually subsumed into the “newsworthy” question and the drive to accuracy.

      As for neweurasia, we’ve had lots of problems with quality and accuracy in the past, mostly because our guys are citizen journalists and even the professionals among us are on a steep learning curve. Kyrgyzstan 2010 was a turning point for us, both in this regard and in the world’s reception of us as a journalistic organization.

      But reputation per se is, in my honest opinion, often times a phantom concern. The reception of news among audiences is so politicized and relativized these days. When even the BBC can be accused of having “pro-Zionist” or “radical Palestinian” sympathies because it dares to use the terms “State of Israel” or “Occupied Territories”, respectively, an editor (i.e., me) has to seriously reconsider for whom are we trying to be reputable?

      Being religious, I can answer that latter question with God and the Truth (relative or debatable as these may practically be); but on a more worldly level, there is no easy answer. The fuzzy term “the mainstream” could be used as one measure, but then the mainstream in which linguistic journalistic community? And we all know how the mainstream as a general phenomenon can self-censor or shoot messengers.

      Do we use the victims as the measure? CNN tries, I don’t know how reputable it ends up becoming as a result (to say nothing of the difficult of weighing the pros and cons on issues of justice, or if there are no “victims” in a story). Do we use abstract logic or a sense of universal human rights as the measure? It’s much better (RFE/RL tries this), but then cultural, ideological/religious and linguistic background is a big — and inescapable — factor.

      And most of all, there’s only so much one mind or a group of minds can know about any one subject, right? Especially in this era, information is so fragmented and access-dependent, it would not be an exaggeration to call accuracy a miracle.

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