Electby.org, a Belarusian Ushahidi-based website collecting citizen reports about election fraud, is bombarded with messages now that voting has opened.
by Andrei Khrapavitski
Many of these messages are sent by students who are forced to vote early by university administration or dorm supervisors. Here is a typical example:
An excerpt from an e-mail sent via a LAN network at one of the dorms of the Belarusian National Technical University: students are strongly recommended to vote early. Deans will daily receive lists with names of those who voted. If your name is not on the list: 1. Next year you will not be permitted to reside at the dormitory; 2. You will not be allowed to retake exams if you get an unsatisfactory grade; 3. Senior students will get worse compulsory job assignments.
This is just one of many stories retold at Electby.org. Dozens, hundreds of messages from Minsk, Navapolatsk, Horki, Homel, Vitebsk, Barysau, Haradok, etc. Ushahidi, an open source platform for crisis management, is enabling anyone to become an observer, to inform about election fraud, to contribute.
Since August, I have been personally involved in Electby.org, working hard to customize this system for Belarusian needs. Our small team did a terrific job squashing bugs, designing and localizing the platform. When it launched, we had very little time to promote it and very scarce resources since we conceived Electby.org as an entirely volunteer project.
At first, I was a little skeptical whether we will be able to pull it off. But now I see how important this job has become, that is to provide ordinary people, not only opposition members, with a tool for sharing their experience of being intimidated and forced to vote early, a tool for them to tell about confronting fraud, fighting for their rights. Ushahidi in Belarus, just as in many other countries, is empowering citizens letting their election stories be something more than a hush-hush kitchen talk. Their reports can be read by thousands of visitors coming to Electby.org, quoted by independent media, checked by observers. By sharing ordinary voters can do something very wholesome for themselves – they overcome their fear, an important first step. Without citizens ready to take this step, democracy cannot win.
Andrei Khrapavitski is a Belarus-based journalist and researcher. He is editor-in-chief of Westki.info, a citizen journalism project for northwestern Belarus and Vilnius.