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Culture: Political Messages Find A New Medium

  • Julie Corwin

http://gdb.rferl.org/BB9A367A-2C44-42F5-B003-1ADB38EB5370_w203.jpg --> http://gdb.rferl.org/BB9A367A-2C44-42F5-B003-1ADB38EB5370_mw800_mh600.jpg Mobile phones are increasingly being used to carry political messages (epa) WASHINGTON, May 31, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Earlier this month, one of the Iraqi parliament's first sessions was disrupted when a scuffle broke out after a legislator's mobile phone played a Shi’ite Muslim chant. Speaker Mahmud al-Mashhadani had already asked the legislator to turn off her phone, but it's possible that al-Mashhadani, who is Sunni, was piqued as much by the content of the ring tone as by the breach of etiquette.


Mobile-phone ring tones have come of age in the political world.


Ring tones can convey political messages in rich, polyphonic sound -- and with the potential to reach audiences of millions. So, naturally, political activists around the world are making use of them.


A Global Phenomenon


Take, for instance, the Romanian national anthem.


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Is that a ring-tone or a political statement?


If you are sitting in the Moldovan parliament, this melody is purely political. Moldovan legislators who favor close relations with Romania use it to show solidarity with Bucharest.


By contrast, some deputies who prefer close relations with Moscow use the melody of Russia's anthem.


Increasingly, political ring tones are also being used to express political protest.


Last week, the U.S. rock band They Might Be Giants made a ring tone available on the band's website that pokes fun at the National Security Agency (NSA). That was following recent revelations that the agency has been recording the phone calls of ordinary citizens without prior court approval.


"Call connected through the NSA. Complete transmission through the NSA. Suspending your rights for the duration of the permanent war"


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Similarly, after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the U.S. city of New Orleans last September, a Washington-based activist created his own protest ring tone.


The ring tone is still available on the website of the group MobileActive a network of activists who use mobile phones for "civic action and engagement."


Demonstrators in Minsk in March used their cell phone to distribute images such as this one of a police crackdown (RFE/RL)

In the ring tone, you hear a clip of U.S. President George W. Bush praising former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown, who was forced to resign over his poor handling of the crisis. Bush’s words are interspersed with lyrics from the 1970s pop song "The City Of New Orleans."


“Bush: "Brownie…" (Riding on "The City Of New Orleans") Bush: "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job." (Rolls along past houses, farms, and fields) Bush: "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job." (Freight yards full of old black men ) Bush: "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job."


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Following The Phillipines


MobileActive coordinator Katrin Verclas says her U.S. colleagues got the idea of "protest ring tones" from their counterparts in the Philippines, where the phenomenon of political ring tones has had mass appeal.


Last year, opponents of Philippine President Gloria Arroyo acquired what purported to be an illegally recorded tape of an alleged conversation between Arroyo and a top election official, Virgilio Garcillano. In the conversation, Arroyo greets the commissioner, whose nickname is "Garci," and says "So, will I still lead by more than a million [votes]?"


In the ring tones, Arroyo's voice is set to various tunes, including pop singer Billy Joel's song, “Honesty.”


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The ring tone proved very popular. More than 1 million Philippinos were reportedly using it at one point, according to the "Manila Standard Today."


"They had this moment of 'unsilence' where people were actually in the demonstration holding up their cell phones and all played that ring tone at once," Verclas said. "There are interesting ways in which [ring tones] can be used during mass mobilizations."


As Good As A Joke


Of course, in a 20-30 second format, it's difficult to make an extended political argument or launch a sophisticated attack on a political opponent. The ring tone, therefore, serves a function more akin to that of a bumper sticker, a button, or a political joke.


“Text messaging is great for coordination and logistics, and getting people out, and mobilization types of efforts," Verclas says. "You know, [using] ring tones is a really different way in which to, you know, sort of, poke fun. In the Philippines and in India and in lots of different places there [is] actually some really interesting sort of political humor.”


In Iraq, a ring tone featuring a comedian who sounds eerily like former President Saddam Hussein was passed around for a while.


“This call cannot be completed right now," the ring tone entones. "The requested number may be turned off or may be outside of the coverage area. Please try again later. The mobile you are calling has switched off or [is] out of coverage area. Please try again later.”


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Sumanth Gopinath, who is an assistant professor of music theory at the University of Minnesota School of Music and is writing a book about ring tones, says they are being used by political groups all along the political spectrum.


“In fact, you're finding it not only used in the context of progressive political movements, but also conservative parties or conservative groups are getting interested in using them," Gopinath said. "And so, for example, the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party], the Hindu right party in India apparently used them recently in their election.”


Gopinath predicts that the trend will spread as the technology for downloading ring tones becomes simpler.

Education And Islam
An Afghan child prepares for the first day of school(epa file photo)

KEEPING KIDS IN SCHOOL. Education raises many vexing social issues in impoverished and predominantly Muslim countries like Afghanistan and the countries of Central Asia. In these countries, many students fail to complete their education for reasons ranging from poverty to discrimination.
“One of the main problems is the distance between the child’s home and the nearest school building. This is particularly a problem for adolescent girls because families quite understandably don’t feel comfortable allowing the girls to walk long distances unaccompanied to the classrooms,” says a UN aid worker in Afghanistan...(more).

See also:

The Role Of Religion In Classrooms

Madrasahs Reject Government Crackdown Efforts

Madrasahs Lead Religious Teaching Revival

UN Report Finds World's Children 'Excluded And Invisible'

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