"Do people outside care what is really happening here in Madagascar?" asked 'Tahina', sitting in a café while security forces fired shots into the air to clear gangs of looters from the streets of the capital, Antananarivo.
"For us, one of the most important things that we do is to transmit information, not only to the Malagasy diaspora, but also to all people outside."
Tahina is one of Madagascar's most active bloggers and twitterers, part of a young generation of internet savvy Malagasies who have turned to cyberspace to share news and opinions on political events in the country.
Prompted by the recent political turmoil, many bloggers are overcoming huge obstacles to harness the power of the internet and social networking sites like Facebook to dispel rumours and facilitate political discussion.
"The internet is starting to become an important place to discuss the current crisis here," blogger 'Andry' told IRIN. "Before, most bloggers talked about personal, everyday things. But now many more are involved in trying to find out the facts and analyse political events, and even launch potential ideas for a [peaceful] settlement.
"But at the moment, it stays discussion," said Andry. "Finding a way to take the messages and proposals generated to our leaders and decision-makers is another problem."
Madagascar's President Marc Ravalomanana is engaged in a bitter power struggle with an opposition movement led by former mayor of Antananarivo, Andry Rajoelina.
Daily demonstrations by the opposition have disintegrated into violence and looting, and clashes with the security forces have become commonplace. In Antananarivo, many bloggers risk their lives to witness events.
But safety is only one of many obstacles that Madagascar's bloggers face. Internet use in the country is low; few people have access to the internet at home or at work, and in the more remote towns cyber cafes are rare.
"The speed of internet connections, the cost of using the internet and even finding somewhere to get online, these are all challenges that we face," said Tahina. "But what we do is very important because the mainstream media here is very biased. We are individuals who say what we see and what we hear."
Television, radio and print media outlets in Madagascar are widely known for their partisanship. Several independent broadcasters have been closed down, including the television arm of Viva, Rajoelina's own television and radio network.
|These are informative bloggers who look for the facts and try to find the truth - and we hope that society will start to recognize them|
The Malagasy blogosphere is not free of extremist postings on both sides of the political divide. "Because blogging is a personal thing, blogs can often come across as very opinionated," English-language blogger 'Pakysse' told IRIN.
"You have to be very careful if you want to be objective; it is sometimes difficult to find the middle way. But it is important to use the internet because the freedom of speech it offers is a characteristic of democracy."
A variety of opinions among Madagascar's bloggers has helped create a rich arena for political discussions in three languages: Malagasy, English and French.
"Diversity keeps things interesting," said Malagasy-language blogger, 'Mamy'. "We can share and exchange more ideas - we do not let different political opinions stop us from sharing news."
Lova Rakotomalala monitors and analyses the work of Malagasy bloggers for Global Voices, an international project to promote the development of citizen media. He believes that Madagascar's current crisis has helped inspire political expression among young Malagasies, but there is some way to go before a coherent forum for political debate is found.
"The Malagasy blogosphere still has a lot of maturing to do before an effective and constructive political discourse such as Kenya's Mzalendo.com can be achieved," Rakotomalala told IRIN. In Kenya, Mzalendo – meaning 'patriot' in Swahili – is a volunteer-run blog whose mission is to "keep an eye on the Kenyan parliament".
Strengthening citizen media
Instances of 'cyber-bullying' among Malagasy bloggers are still common, "so a stronger online structure has to be established before true open discourse can happen", said Rakotomalala. A large number of Madagascar's bloggers still do not comment on political issues, and many are afraid to do so.
One project designed to help raise the strength of citizen media in Madagascar is the FOKO blog club. The project is supported by Global Voices and is dedicated to training bloggers across the country to use the internet as a tool to help promote social and political development.
Madagascar's current political crisis shows little sign of reaching a resolution. Talks between the two parties are continuing, but without the men at the centre of the dispute, president Ravalomanana and opposition leader Rajoelina.
Speaking on 4 March, Ravalomanana said he would do all he could to restore order in Antananarivo; he said the law would be used to punish those responsible for the violence and looting, and warned that anarchy would not be tolerated.
Rajoelina's call for a general strike in the capital this week was widely ignored. Threats and intimidation against those going to work have been reported, and the UN Children's Agency, UNICEF, has condemned individuals reported to have threatened the teachers and pupils of at least two schools in the capital.
As more people use cyberspace to respond to the political crisis, the power of the internet in Madagascar is growing. "With political events here we have seen the rise of a new type of blogger," said Andry.
"These are informative bloggers who look for the facts and try to find the truth - and we hope that society will start to recognize them." They could help form the future for political discussion in Madagascar.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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