Bangladesh NGOs Network for
Radio and Communication
Promoting Communication Technology for a Fairer World

Of new media, citizens' journalism and human rights
Shaila Shahid


Are 'citizens' journalism' and 'new media' mere buzzwords or do they really make a difference compared to the reach and impact of traditional media? Or does censorship that traditional media is often subjected to apply any differently to new media and citizens journalism? Recently these questions are being raised worldwide with the changing global scenario. Apparently, there have been tremendous steps taken in the field of journalism. The ways of viewing journalism are also changed with the emergence of new technologies such as the internet and mobile phone. A sea of change is sweeping the spheres of traditional journalism. However, new age journalism should not replace traditional journalism, as the two are better suited to be complementary to each other. The above mentioned views were discussed at the workshop titled "Pushing the new envelope: New media, citizens' journalism, human rights and development" of the Third Global Knowledge Conference, held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, organised by Global Knowledge Partnership (GKP) on 12th December 2007.
This panel brings together key thought leaders and innovators in new media and citizens' journalism to explore the intersection of traditional and new media, and the opportunities as well as challenges to be tackled. The views present to support human rights and media freedom - especially in countries with violent and repressive regimes. The panel speakers were Dan Gillmor, author of the book "We the Media: Grassroots Journalism for the People by the People"; Ms. Ory Okolloh, Blogger at Kenya Pundit, Global Voices; Steven Gan, Editor-in-chief of Malaysia Kini and Ms. Sharmini Boyle, Chief Editor, Young Asia Television. The workshop was moderated by Sanjana Hattotuwa, Head, ICT for Peacebuilding InfoShare, Colombo, Sri Lanka.
The speaker and participants opined that now-a-days citizens' journalism has been described as individuals "playing an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analysing and disseminating news and information." The intent of this participation is to provide independent, reliable, accurate, wide-ranging and relevant information that a democracy requires. Citizens' Journalism is slowly being looked upon as a form of rightful democratic way of giving honest news, articles, etc, directly by citizens of the world from anywhere. It is attempting a new type of journalism with the aim of an open source and investigative documentary about how the news media is becoming critical to the issues of mass people. Citizens' Journalism is to express the emotional and grass-roots view of an issue, while it needs Traditional Journalism to cover the fields where it is strongest e.g. international issues. Furthermore, in some countries, e.g. Kenya, unless you are a journalist, you can't take notes in parliament. You have to do it under cover. Moreover, to get a press pass is also very politicised, hence blogs serve as an important tool to dispel what we see on television, say, the monolithic view of the African youth.

In terms of challenges, the biggest one is not money. These challenges are, namely, sourcing information, getting access to cover live sessions of parliament, lack of internet access -- limited readership because of limited internet access (how to link to other media, getting local publicity) -- how to grow with other commitments, skepticism about whether the public will find this to be a useful tool and whether the blog can be influential.
Visions, innovations and trends
Due to the improving technologies and miniaturisations thereof, it is now more difficult for governments to keep secrets. It is now easier for anyone to make a website or a blog, all assisted by the veritable low cost of the hardware as well as the use of open source software which powers many blogs. There is, therefore, no time like the present to be an entrepreneur.
Priorities and potential for action
There must be emphasis given on providing new media literacy across the board. The new age journalists must be taught the values that must also be enforced in traditional journalism i.e. thoroughness, accuracy, fairness, independence and the additional value of transparency (which, it was pointed out, is a problem not only in governments, but NGOs as well when it comes to sharing information with the public).
Burning questions and the questions to be deepened further
The most important questions for an established journalism organisation [be it Citizens' Journalism or otherwise] is ensuring two main things, Credibility and Financial Viability. Both bloggers and traditional media have their strength and their own way of ensuring their credibility to their reader base: however, the question of finance always rears its head (sometimes with the cajoling of the governments putting pressure on the advertisers). Another question was ensuring the sustainability of the blogs once the originator of the idea ceases to have time to dedicate to updating the blog and reporting. Although technology allows more people to take part and contribute, there must still be a search for further avenues to attract people to ensure the lifeline of the blogs.
The session also addressed several key questions regarding citizens' journalism. The main points that were discussed are:
* Placed in harm's way for the content one produces or showcases, how resilient is citizens' journalism in the face of regimes that attack human rights defenders and media freedom?
* Broadband is a pre-requisite for most new media. Is the new media revolution exacerbating the digital divide? How much can we generalise on the potential of new media to strengthen sustainable development as well as political and human rights issues?
* Is new media more or less reflecting the imbalances in old media (e.g. gender related imbalances) or is it more representative and equitable?
* You Tube and SecondLife play a visible role in the mainstream party politics of some countries - is it a sign of things to come and what are the possibilities it presents for the future?
* What does the future hold? What will the new media in 2015 look, feel and sound like?

In the question answer session responding to a question about the risk of doing citizens' journalism, Dan Gillmor conceded that the risks in developed countries e.g. in USA, is very low. The worst that can happen is that maybe someone can sue a person. But in other parts of the world, it's not the case; the risks are greater. People have to be extremely cautious as to what new media ask citizens' to do as well as to have some technological means for protecting identity, for people who need anonymity.
A question was posed about ensuring the sustainability of the blogs once the originator of the idea ceases to have time to dedicate to updating the blog and reporting. Ms Okolloh stated that, although technology allows more people to take part and contribute, there must still be a search for further avenues to attract people to ensure the lifeline of the blogs. An alternative means would be sourcing for funds from donors. However, this would have the undesirable effect of turning the pure blogging outfit, into a business-minded NGO; and the restructuring that would surely follow would detract the movement of the blog by introducing more bureaucracy. Also contributing to the question of risks in journalism, she pointed out that, when working on a political blog, one must make a conscious decision to try to get the truth out with the risks very well in mind. Also asked a question about the government's stance on choosing public safety over public freedom, Steven Gan responded by saying that usually most governments are not protecting the citizens, but are protecting themselves.
Drawing on example of Sri Lanka, Ms. Sharmini Boyle showed how journalists are even afraid to report on issues for fear of reaction from the authorities. However, she pointed out that Young Asia television sees their work as an important catalyst for change. The media often plays a non-constructive or destructive role; but in a situation where there are such conflicts as in Sri Lanka, sometimes sides are picked and the matter is worsened instead of helped. The public will therefore not be comfortable in voicing opinion in an environment of intolerance.
Dan Gillmor gave an overview of the traditional media and how citizens' journalism has made a positive contribution to the media. With examples from the assassination of JFK (which was captured on video by a bystander with a personal camera) to the Tsunami, he showed the extent to which new media is helping the phenomenon of Citizens' Journalism. He posed the question “Are the citizens going to replace journalism?” and replied to his own question by saying “I hope not, it's symbiotic.”
The discussants stressed the need that there should be more of a “please help us” style of journalism, rather than the “take it or leave it” style. Due to low cost innovation, now is the best opportunity in history to be a journalistic entrepreneur. It's something that people are seeing all over the world and in terms of media literacy people have to teach a new kind of media literacy. The journalists must help people understand that it's important to be skeptical and it is also important that people should learn to judge from the various media. Furthermore, new media actors should learn media techniques rather than just shooting videos and writing blogs.

However, the key recommendations that came out from the discussions was to encourage independent media to have independent financing which will ensure more autonomy from the government control. The online reporting of 'everyday citizens' possesses the capability to bring to bear alternative perspectives, context and ideological diversity to news reports, providing internet users with the means to hear distant voices otherwise being marginalised, if not silenced altogether. On the other hand the session sought to identify a number of ways in which citizens' journalism -- specially with regard to its capacity to bear witness to human suffering -- can help to reconfigure the geometry of informational power in the 'network society.'
Source: Global Knowledge Partnership (GKP).
The writer is working for the law desk,The Daily Star.