Who is afraid of Citizen Journalists? Thoughts on World Press Freedom Day

Today, May 3, is World Press Freedom Day. Proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in 1993, the day is celebrated each year on May 3 — the anniversary of the Declaration of Windhoek, a statement of free press principles put together by African newspaper journalists in 1991.

I’m holed up in a hotel in Singapore this whole weekend, attending the annual Board meeting of Panos South Asia, which works to promote greater public discussion and debate on development issues through the media. Our Board is drawn from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka and includes leading journalists, publishers and social activists.

I’ve been busy preparing for and attending the intensive Board meeting that I’ve not had the time to do an original blog post on this important day. So like any resourceful journalist, I’m doing the second best thing – ‘recycling’ some material that I was recently associated with in producing.

First, here’s an extract from a chapter that I invited Sri Lankan ICT activist Sanjana Hattotuwa to write for Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book that I edited last year. Sanjana traces the growing role played by digitally empowered citizens while disasters unfold as well as after disasters have struck. He then turns attention to the wider and more generic challenges faced by citizen journalists everywhere, especially in countries where democracy is under siege:

Who’s Afraid of Citizen Journalists?

But is it all good and positive? Put another way, merely because we now have access to a hundred times more content on a disaster than before does not mean that we get any closer to understanding it or responding to it.

Information overload is a real problem, as is the subjectivity of citizens, who only capture what they feel is important and often ignore aspects to a disaster beyond their own comfort zone and prejudices. There is still no widely accepted standard for citizen journalists, though organizations such as the Centre for Citizen Media are actively working towards such standards .

There are other challenges associated with citizen journalism, especially in a context of violent conflict. This author receives vicious hate mail, suffers public insults, is branded a ‘terrorist’ and even receives the occasional death threat – all because of the content he promotes on the citizen journalism websites he edits.

Not all citizens, even when they can do so and have access to digital devices, record disasters or human rights abuses – especially when their own security could be compromised for having done so. Governments can also clamp down hard on citizen journalism. The French Constitutional Council approved a law in early 2007 that criminalizes the filming or broadcasting of acts of violence by people other than professional journalists. The law could lead to the imprisonment of eyewitnesses who film acts of police violence, or operators of Web sites publishing the images. Sri Lanka unofficially banned a pro-Tamil nationalist website in 2007 and regularly cuts off mobile phone and Internet services in the North and East of the country.

Scared by the potential for embarrassment, political debacles and popular uprisings, countries such as Egypt, Iran, Cuba, North Korea and China vigorously censor and monitor content on blogs and exchanges through SMS, prompting Julien Pain, head of the Internet freedom desk at Reporters Without Borders (RSF) to note: “… all authoritarian regimes are now working to censor the Web, even countries in sub-Saharan Africa. The Ethiopian regime of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has blocked openly critical Web sites and blogs since May 2006, and President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe is considering a law allowing security forces to intercept online messages without reference to the courts. One of the first moves by Thailand’s military rulers after their September (2006) coup was to censor news Web sites, even foreign ones, that criticized the takeover.”

Read Sanjana’s full chapter in Communicating Disasters book, placed online at TVEAP website

* * * * * *

When Citizens Turn on Journalists

The second extract is from my own recent essay under the above title, which was published by the Asia Media website managed by the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). In this piece, written only a few weeks ago, I comment on a disturbing new threat to media freedom in my native Sri Lanka: misguided citizen vigilantes suspecting and attacking professional journalists engaging in their legitimate news and/or image gathering work in public places. When accredited journalists are affected by this paranoia, I point out how much more difficult it is for citizen journalists who lack the institutionalised media behind them.

Public interest blogging in Sri Lanka has been growing slowly but steadily since the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004, which marked a turning point for citizen journalism. According to researcher and new media activist Sanjana Hattotuwa, citizen journalists are increasingly playing a major role in meaningfully reporting deaths, the humanitarian fallout and hidden social costs of violent conflict that are often glossed over or sensationalised by the mainstream media.

Hattotuwa acknowledges, however, that the ready availability of information and communication technologies (ICTs) does not guarantee public-spirited citizen journalism.

“In Sri Lanka, the significant deterioration of democracy in 2006-2007 has resulted in a country where anxiety and fear overwhelm a sense of civic duty to bear witness to so much of what is wrong. No amount of mobile phones and PCs is going to magically erase this deep rooted fear of harm for speaking one’s mind out,” says Hattotuwa.

This makes the courage and persistence of the few citizen journalists even more remarkable. Unlike mainstream journalists, they lack official accreditation, trade unions and pressure groups to safeguard their interests. The state does not recognize bloggers as journalists; despite their growing influence online, most local news websites don’t enjoy any formal status either.

For now, the citizen journalist in Sri Lanka is very much a loner — and very vulnerable.

Read my full op ed essay on AsiaMedia website

Read my blog post for World Press Freedom Day 2007:
Press freedom in the digital age: Seeing beyond our noses and tummies

August 2007: The Road from Citizen Kane to Citizen Journalist

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