African lobby groups, as well as community and independent media, are using free software and the internet to fight a lack of money and skills.

The internet had also helped overcome the problems associated with widely dispersed audiences and, in some countries, government crackdowns on freedom of expression, speakers told the Highway Africa 2004 conference in Grahamstown last week.

Lynne Muthoni Wanyeki, a director of Femnet, a pan-African organisation based in Kenya, said the group had used the internet to campaign for and protect women's rights. It began by sending information via e-mail and SMS to women's groups across the continent and posting information on its website about the regional debates on the formation of the African Union. It had also lobbied its network to make nominations for the posts available for women in the PanAfrican Parliament.

Wanyeki said Femnet's experience showed there was a need to plan internet-based campaigns carefully, determining who needed to be reached, what needed to be achieved and how, and to understand better the technologies available.

John Lannon of the Praxis Centre at Leeds University said the internet had helped human rights movements because it was cost- efficient, suited non-hierarchical structures and could be used to skirt government controls. It was used to disseminate information to a wide audience rapidly and could encourage effective action. It was also a useful research tool and provided educational material. One organisation to use the internet well was religious group Falun Gong, harassed by China's government.

Some well-known South African examples of using the internet for lobbying are websites such as "hellkom", "telkomsucks" and "neverflysaa", which were begun by dissatisfied Telkom and South African Airways customers.

Telkom's senior manager of corporate communications, Hans van de Groenendaal, said there was a difference between lobbying and activism on the web. A ctivism went further than lobbying for example, by encouraging supporters to send e-mails, which Telkom considered an infringement on people's right to privacy.

Customers should have a right to express an opinion, and although companies might not like it, they should listen and respond by changing or correcting wrong perceptions, if that was the case, Van de Groenendaal said. Companies should be allowed to protect their brands and trademarks, and the media should take into account that opinions expressed on lobby sites might emanate from a minority.

Open-source software can also help cash-strapped media organisations. The Centre for Advanced Media Prague (Camp), a Czech-based subsidiary of the Media Development Loan Fund, gives technology assistance to independent news media in emerging countries.

In SA, Noseweek ran on Campware, MD Sava Tatic said, and the organisation had also assisted community radio stations in Indonesia and Nepal.

Campware, which was free, was available in multiple languages and included content management, customer relationship management and print distribution tracking software.

Another solution was using refurbished computers. Alan Finlay of Open Research said it was estimated that about 50% of Africa's computers were refurbished. These cost less than new ones and last at least five years.

But there were limitations to using the internet, Lannon said. Skills were often lacking, and human rights websites and e-mails were competing for attention with a lot of other noise in cyberspace. The internet was only a tool and could not "change the disengaged to the engaged".

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