Ruminations on the Digital Realm

Jan Stedehouder

Journalist, columnist or activist?

Apparently it isn’t always that easy to tell the difference between a journalist, a columnist or an activist. At least, it is the conclusion I need to draw after receiving an email from a city alderman (Dutch: wethouder) from a midsize town in the Netherland. He refuses to answer questions about some IT-decisions. He considers my requests for clarification as being part of an activist strategy and not as simple straightforward journalistic practice. To quote him: “I do not appreciate this and therefore I will no longer answer any of your e-mails”. Hmmm… This situation gives rise to some questions. When does critical journalism become activism? Can you see a sharp distinction between the roles of journalist, columnist and activist when it come to open source and open standards.

Two roles, one person
Currently I am writing for Digiplace as a columnist and discuss Linux, open source and open standards. Regular readers will no doubt agree that I can be very critical about trends in the realm of Linux and open source. It is safe to say I am not singing along in the hallejujah choir. Ruminations on the Digital Realm is another outlet for my writing.

In January 2008 I became member of the Livre editiorial staff. Livre follows the trends in the world of open source and open standards, including related subjects like digital privacy and digital rights. We report about the trends and allow opposing parties to present their opinions. The work for Livre is done according to accepted standards for journalism. We use solid news stories as our contribution to making people aware of open source and open standards.

In order to get the facts we sometimes have to ask the painful questions. It’s never a pleasant experience when you are grilled, but it’s part of the playing field that is called ‘democracy’. I would imagine our city councilor is aware of this.

What is the issue at hand?
Let’s first describe the issue in broad outline. I have anonimized the case, just to be on the safe side. The city parliament (Dutch: gemeenteraad) recently accepted a motion in which the city council was requested (1) to start investigating the possibilities of introducing open source software and open standards, and (2) to hold off any investments that would introduce future problems with introducing open source software and open standards. A vendor of commercial proprietary software released a statement a couple of weeks ago, applauding the implementation of it’s solution on behalf of the city council. This implementation appears to be in direct violation of the accepted motion. Do you think it is uncommon to request some clarification?

Unsatisfying answers
The head of IT didn’t think so and he was reasonably quick in providing answers to the first series of questions. It were the answers that were the real problem. The answers were -from my perspective- incomplete and on one point untrue. He stated that the current implementation wouldn’t hinder a future introduction of open source and open standards. That is a bit strange, since the application involved is highly integrated in Microsoft Office 2007, Microsoft Exchange Server 2007 and Microsoft Sharepoint 2007. I asked the vendor whether for instance the Open Document Format is supported already or whether it is part of the roadmap for the coming three years. Sadly, no answer was provided. So, we have a civil servant providing strong statements that are not supported by solid facts and which could have political repercussions for his employer.

What was decided when?
There are rules and principles to select a software solution in a public organization. The procedure surrounding this particular application is not without questions. The city government decided mid-2007 to make the necessary funding available for implementing it, but official documents from before that time prove that the implementation was on it’s way already. This made me wonder how the software and the vendor were selected? What about alternative solutions? And is it acceptable to make strong statements in public presentations that the solution is being selected while the testing phase isn’t finished yet and the real policy decision was still a year in the future?

Civil servant in an ad campaign?
The press release also features a colleague of the head IT and he makes sure we know that thousands of euro’s have been saved in a short time by implementing the new solution. Apart from the defintion of ‘short time’ we may wonder how acceptable it is for a government employee to support the commercial sales of an application. We were also curious about the the true size of those savings in light of the real costs.

Thus the answers gave rise to six new questions. About the substance of the statement that open source and open standards can be implemented on a future date without problems should the city council so desire, about the procedure leading to the selection of the current application, about the process of decision making and implementation, about the proclaimed savings. And yes, the members of the city parliament were asked to comment on it as well.

“I do not appreciate this…”
The alderman and the head of IT decided not to answer the second set of questions. After sending a third request for clarification the alderman wrote: “I have to conclude you are not practicing serious journalism, but you behave like an activist”.

Journalist, columnist or activist?
Fair is fair. It is a valid question (if it had been one). Did I act more like a journalist or like an activist in this issue? I firmly believe in clarity and transparency in this regard. Actually, I am neither independent nor neutral. My approach to this field is not free from bias. Anyone with at least some common sense can use a search engine, type in my name and come to the conclusion I do have an opinion about the (added) value of Linux, open source and open standards. The time and energy I put into Digiplace and Livre are a logical extension of what I believe to be the best way in promoting Linux, open source and open standards.

As a member of the editorial staff of Livre I completely support the charter of Livre. This includes fundamental principles of good journalism like hearing both sides of the issue, collecting facts and opinions and provide a balanced report of the finding. The team may expect from to deliver quality, solid work and a positive approach to open source and open standards. For me it is a great and enriching experience to be part of a team that approaches open source and open standards as professionals.

Activist journalism
The question remains whether such a positive bias to open source and open standards doesn’t turn critical journalism into a form of activism? Perhaps some other questions are warranted as well. How acceptable is it for government to proclaim themselves open source and open standards friendly and yet refuse to put their money (and effort) where their mouth is? Is it appropriate for a journalist to ask the painfull questions, yes, even continue asking them when the answers are less than satisfactory? Is it allowed for an involved journalist to ask those questions or should it be a friendly though unknowledgeable propagandist? My position is clear. In cases like this I proudly stand in the tradition of ‘activist journalism’ and do what I am obligated to do.

For me, the roles of writer, open source ambassador, blogger, columnist and journalist are expressions of the same positive bias towards Linux, open source and open standards. The arguments supportign that bias are both rational-technological as well as moral-ethical in nature. By writing I do my part in promoting the use of Linux, open source and open standards.

The question whether I was more a journalist or an activist in this case, has a simple answer. Had the city council provided complete and timely answers to the critical questions I would have written a complete and balanced account as a journalist. By refusing to do so and evading the issue, I became a columnist instead.

Actually, for me, either way is fine.

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