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It's been a momentous day in Madagascar with army soldiers storming the presidential palace. Madagascar’s president Marc Ravalomanana says he agrees to a referendum over his rule. And opposition leader Andry Rajoelina says he has financial backing worth $50 million from an unnamed foreign country.
But if you were following MadagascarTweet you would already know all this.
Lova Rakotomalala is spreading the news of the tumultuous Indian Ocean island, all the way from West Lafayette, Indiana. He is getting Twitter feeds from a network of friends in Madagascar and then translating them into English and putting them back out on Twitter, often with pictures.
“It used to be that if you googled Madagascar, all you would get is material on the movie,” said Rakotomalala. “But now with all the news, that is changing. You can find a lot more information about the country. It’s great that people are learning more about Madagascar.”
Rakotomalala, 31, has a PhD in biology and is doing research at Purdue University. He is gaining a lot of attention for his work in the new media to spread the news on Madagascar. He has a blog about Madagascar. He also contributes to Global Voices.
“The twittering is very recent. I learned about it when I went to a conference on new media. I did not use it very much. But when things started to happen in Madagascar in August, I wanted to know what was going on. I did an outreach online workshop on twittering to my friends. Now they are sending me short bits of information. The motivation is to give an accurate picture of what is going on.”
Rakotomalala is pleased to spread the news coming out of his native Madagascar, which he hasn't been back to since 2001, but he is not optimistic about the developments.
“People report a feeling of helplessness. Daily life is being disrupted. People report there is division in the army. The army is torn between the two leaders and that could lead to prolonged instability,” he said.
“Events today. Reports of rockets being fired by the army, it looks like that is from some hardcore people in the army, but not be everyone in the army. Unfortunately the army appears to remain divided,” he said.
Rakotomalala said he is sticking to his mission of getting the news out about Madagascar without taking sides in the ongoing political battle.
“The grievances voice by Rajoelina may be warranted. But people say the way he’s trying to fix it is unacceptable. He took the country hostage. It was not done in a democratic way,” he said.
He said lots of Malagasies believe that Rajoelina is being backed by France, which objects to Ravalomanana’s policies that reduced French hegemony in Madagascar.
“I can say that my relatives back in Madagascar — my aunties and my cousins — are like many other people. They are trying to focus on returning to normal everyday life,” he said.
Rakotomalala said he reads as many of Madagascar’s newspapers as he can find online. “I have to read them all because they all have different biases and I have to see what they are saying and then figure out what is really going on,” he said.
“Both sides — Ravalomanana and Rajoelina — are very powerful in the media,” said Rakotomalala. They have radio stations and tv stations and as a result there is a media war in Madagascar that is very intense. It is tough for journalists. Reporters Without Borders issued a report that said the status of journalists is very difficult now in Madagascar. Some have been attacked.”
But he is quick to deny that he is working as a journalist. “I am not a journalist, no, no. I am just gathering stories from other new media users and getting them out to a wider audience. I am getting opinions and reports on events from ordinary people. I like it when they send photos to verify events. But we are not real journalists. We are not doing investigations or fact-finding. We are complementary to journalism.”