Citizens, the Floor is Yours!

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In
2012, Reporters without borders* identified 30 netizen and citizen journalists killed
around the world and 128 that have been imprisoned. The price they pay is extremely
high, but it is because their work is about raising awareness of the social and
political turmoil within their countries; the kind of stories that people in
power want to keep hidden. 

In
Syria, for instance, 29 citizen reporters have lost their lives. Targeting them
is meant to stop them from exposing the injustice on the ground. The situation
is critical such that the victims of the oppression are normal citizens who
don’t always belong to any professional press or media organ and whose only
weapons are words and smartphones. 

Who
are they? And what pushes them to trade their passivity and “quiet life” for
the adventurous race of journalism?  

Grassroots,
participatory, street or citizen journalism… The denominations are multiple but
they represent the same profile: “a person who has the necessary tools to
spread information, pictures and videos (smart phone, laptop, internet
connection) but who does not do it within an institution for a paid salary. He
uses alternative news media – mostly self-created – as a platform to spread
his/her work.” Dima Khatib, journalist in Aljazeera and an Arab blogger explains
that a citizen journalist can be anyone, not necessarily a person who studied
or practiced journalism. They follow no code of ethics nor have a professional
creed except self-imposed ones.

-Citizen
journalists have the advantage of being independent from the system but they also
lack the credibility of a professional journalist. A citizen journalist is
always expected to be subjective in his/her coverage of events, seeing things
from their own personal perspective.

Khatib
distinguishes two types of citizen journalists, occasional and dedicated ones.

-The
first can be born in a matter of minutes without prior preparation or planning,
finding themselves accidentally in the middle of an event which they can film
and then spread the pictures and their own accounts of it.

-The
second category plan to cover events, and sometimes they are part of the
organization itself of the events they cover. They have blogs, readers,
followers, etc. And some of them have great credibility obtained over time and
through practice. They become a regular source for traditional media and even
analysts. Some even become online stars!

The reasons
behind the advent of this phenomenon are not haphazard. It can be one or the
correlation of many factors. The basic one that comes to mind may be the
amateurism of some who would engage in the journalistic vocation as a pastime
rather than a profession.  Call them
bloggers or writers in heart; they are, to a certain extent playing the role of
reporters too.

For
Olivier Truc, French journalist and Nordic and Baltic correspondent based in Sweden,
motivations are numerous.

-The
fact that a person who is not a professional journalist wants to convey
information, and share it with the largest number of people should not be
surprising. It is much needed. This person can be a privileged witness of an
injustice and react to it, says Truc.

Besides,
the absence of free independent media may also explain this new tendency. It is
also relevant to link it to the loss of trust in the classical mainstream media
because of the lack or the manipulation in covering certain issues. They broadcast
information to the public at large, but the news agenda setting may still be
too narrow.

In
that sense, Khatib emphasizes that “mass media has agendas and makes editorial
decisions which may transform or present an event in a way that is very
different to how the people living that event would see it. So citizens decide
to show their own point of view. Also, media might not care about certain
topics, so citizen journalists try to push those topics onto the table.”

-In
developed countries, citizen journalists are fighting the monopoly of news by
mass media which is controlled by some economic and political elite, Khatib
adds.

The
product of its particular environment

Citizen
journalistic experiences differ from one context to another in terms of roles
and objectives, the produced contents, their formats and their quality.

In
Nordic countries, for instance, Truc considers that “citizen journalists” work
closely with traditional media as witnesses.

– They
call people for testimonies and encourage those with exclusive information to
communicate it to them. In the end, traditional media take the benefit from
these “reporters” without even paying them like real journalists.

In other
regions of the world, citizen journalists are more active. They are not only
the countermeasure to the established media system but also to the political
one.

In the
case of Arab revolutions, Truc talks about real citizen reporters who have the
technical means that allow them to cover a situation ‘live’. Yet, they cannot
be considered as journalists that are accountable for their work. Truc prefers to
call them “observers”, a concept used by “France 24”, the French TV Network. “That
seems more honest.”

For
Khatib, the Arab revolutions gave citizen journalists quite a big opportunity
to flourish and become influential and powerful, as well as indispensable.

-In
countries where a free press is totally banned, the only way to get the
information out is through alternative journalism such as citizen journalism. Brave
citizens risk their lives to film and spread pictures of protests and crackdown
in countries where no journalists are allowed to be or to work.

-Outside
this total blackout /censorship context, citizen journalists have become very
useful complementary sources of information. If traditional media do not cover
something, then citizen journalists will. If traditional media covers something
in an incomplete or biased way, citizen journalists will come up with the
missing parts or points of view of the story. Citizen journalists sometimes
manage to force their own news agenda on traditional media by showing online
what traditional media do not show and cornering mass media into covering what
they might not have wanted to cover otherwise.

Khatib
recognizes that Arab Revolutions have set a new path for citizen journalists. However,
she points out that citizen journalists in the Arab World are still a minority
as they will have access to education, internet, hi-tech, etc.

-They
are also a minority that can afford to either do the citizen journalism work
outside working or study hours, or even just dedicate all their time for it,
thus having an alternative source of income from their family or their savings.
Therefore they don’t necessarily represent all of society at all times.

About
their impact on the ground, Khatib believes that they have surprised the Arab
governments who did not expect them to be so powerful.

-Citizen
journalists proved to be very resourceful in facing state practices aimed at
stopping any coverage of the protests and the crackdown. Without these citizen
journalists how would we have known what was happening in every small village
in Tunisia, in the heart of Tahrir Square at night, in Syria or in Bahrain?
Without the fast circulation of information, the protests might have taken a
longer time to spread geographically. Even in countries like Saudi Arabia where
revolution has not taken place, citizen journalists have been active in telling
us about political prisoners or protests in the eastern part of the country.

The
relationship with the professional media

New actors
have then been introduced to today’s media scenery playing a role in informing
the public and unveiling facts. Some traditional media in their attempt to
follow this movement and to adopt it somehow, propose services inviting the
public to share information: blogging in newspaper web pages, participating via
video-telephony or posting videos on TV programs. Yet, we cannot talk about a
real cohabitation of citizenry and professional journalism. A primary reason is
that the citizen journalists do not produce work regularly enough or in an
organized manner that allows them to compete. Secondly, professional
journalists remain cautious about the way they need to deal with citizen journalists
work, for several reasons.

As a
journalist, Truc sees that his role is increasingly to sort out the continuous
flow of information coming from multiple sources. But also, as a reporter, he
has to go more and more on the ground, to feel and see things, speak and listen
to people. As a professional, Truc invests both his competence and his title;
he follows an established code of ethics. His readers have expectations from
him, including a sense of hierarchy or peer review of the information he disseminates.
“We can’t require the same thing from citizen journalists” he exclaims.

Nowadays,
new media offer more visibility. Citizen reporters can skip the traditional
media and create their tribunes within social networks. But, they should get into
the traditional media if they want recognition.

Truc
gives the example of Syria where some individuals who are not journalists take
the camera and become indispensable witnesses, risking their lives.

-Those
who will emerge and whose reputation will grow gradually will become
journalists, even without a press card and a pay slip. Hopefully, they will
create a future for a new Syrian independent media.

For
Khatib, dealing with citizen journalists started mainly with the Arab revolutions.
She has been in touch with some of them occasionally in her work in Latin
America. But with Arab uprisings, she learned to interact with them on a daily
basis, use them as a source of information and audio-video material.

Khatib
does not trust any citizen journalist. She has developed her own methods for
verifying the veracity of their information, especially with many of them being
anonymous.

-With
time I became familiar with citizen journalists spread across the Arab World,
says Khatib. I became aware of their different points of view. Some have very
high degrees of credibility to me, some have less. I did meet many of them face
to face in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia after having dealt with them for months
online while covering the Arab Revolutions on social media networks from my
home in Caracas.

This
personal contact helps her to make judgments as to their credibility and their
point of view. Khatib explains that she often uses, in coverage of Arab revolutions
on Twitter, information and material gathered by citizen journalists on the
ground; she puts it into context, using her knowledge, experience and
credibility as a professional journalist.

Khatib
sees in this a very good example of collaboration between the two forms of
journalism. In her point of view, the relationship between citizen journalism
and classical media is a forced marriage.

– They
have to learn to co-exist peacefully, respecting each other and trying to take
advantage of each other’s existence rather than be confrontational. One cannot
exist without the other anymore.

A
common fate!

They have
different statuses, experiences, publics, credibility and practices, except
that in hot zones they may face the same dangers. Data is available about
professional journalists that have been targeted during the coverage of an
armed conflict. Unfortunately, citizen journalists, unlike the professional
ones, are largely unknown to the media groups even when they are persecuted in
times of war. Despite the fact that they risk their safety and lives for the
sake of broadcasting their voices and the pulse of the street, they remain
anonymous. 

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