Friday, September 10, 2010

Kidnapped Journalist Freed after Tweeting from Guard’s Phone

Kosuke Tsuneoka, a freelance Japanese journalist, was freed Saturday after five months of captivity in northern Afghanistan. He had been held hostage in Kunduz province by fighters loyal to Hizb-i-Islami, though they identified themselves as Taliban to the Japanese government.

Tsuneoka gained access to Twitter after one of his guards asked him to configure his new mobile phone for internet use. After showing the guard how to access Al-Jazeera’s website as requested, the journalist insisted upon showing Twitter to his captors. While explaining the functions of the site, Tsuneoka tweeted two messages: "i am still alive, but in jail" and "here is archi in kunduz. in the jail of commander lativ." The guards had no knowledge of English, so the journalist was able to release these messages without arousing suspicion.

Tsuneoka was freed a couple days later, though he attributes this in part to his being Muslim, having converted in 2000. The Japanese government claims that it never paid any ransom to Tsuneoka’s kidnappers. It is possible that the journalist's clever use of social media played a significant role in his release.

This situation illustrates the technological divide and the uneven usage of social media across the world. The guard’s phone was a Nokia N70, which is advanced in comparison to the mobile phones typically used in Afghanistan. Tsuneoka was able to recognize this disparity and use it to his advantage because he comes from a more technologically developed society. Martyn Williams reports that the guard had heard of the internet, but did not fully understand what it was, and so asked Tsuneoka to explain it to him. (According to a 2008 World Bank estimate, only 1.72% of the Afghan population had access to the internet.)

In class, we've discussed the power of communication in terms of "monopolies of knowledge" (Innis), but this has referred to the knowledge elite within a society. We have also mentioned the significance of communication technologies to the management of and dominance over empires and colonies. With Tsuneoka and the guard, we see how differences in technological knowledge can play out on an interpersonal level.

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