Naeem Mohaiemen: Something in the Air (from "My Mobile Weighs a Ton" )

Election 2008: Don’t turn my mobile off
by Naeem Mohaiemen
Daily Star, December 26, 2008

IN Khagrachari this week for a pre-election visit, I saw the value of mobile networks even in the district that was last to get it and has the most sparse coverage. Because operators have not put towers everywhere, once you leave Khagrachari Sadar certain mobile operator networks go off. After eight hours in the interior, we would return to the Sadar and networks, and immediately find phones filling up with unread SMS.

Among Jumma (Pahari) election organisers, the mobile is an essential tool. They were getting SMS about irregularities in Bandarban, pre-election voter intimidation in Rangamati. Just as quickly, those SMS were getting forwarded to media, activist, and government networks. By the time the newspapers arrived the next day (usually at mid-day in Khagrachari), those events had been reported and in some cases resolved.

Given that experience, and many others like it through the years, I’m baffled by the claim that shutting off mobile networks will ensure election rigging doesn’t take place. The example given is that political thugs will use mobiles to plan intimidation. This argument removes agency from citizen voters themselves. If one example can be given of the goon squad using mobiles, a hundred counter-examples can be given of citizens recording, reporting and preventing abuse using that same device.

The mobile phone camera, with its grainy real-time visual aesthetic, has replaced video cameras as the on-the-fly recording mechanism. More than once, we have seen mobile phone video being sent by MMS to TV stations and used for breaking news. “By mobile phone” is the ubiquitous on-screen scroll for election reporting on our major TV networks, whenever it is in a remote area where the camera crew has not arrived...