Citizen Journalism and humanitarian aid: Bane or boon?

Despite our best efforts, information available to citizens at times of crises – man-made or natural – is often inadequate, biased, incorrect and late. Studies show that the problem lies not with technology (or lack thereof), but with the culture of information sharing. Technology, while it can help address problems of access, dissemination and archival, cannot in and of itself overcome the oftentimes parochial interests of those who control it. Governments, humanitarian agencies, non-governmental institutions, civil society organisations and influential individuals are at once victims and perpetrators of this information secrecy. In controlling the flow of information – what gets out where, to whom, how and when – these stakeholders, often with the best of intentions but blithely unaware of the larger ripple effects & unintended consequences of their decisions, directly influence relief & aid work, humanitarian support and conflict transformation initiatives. Regrettably, information exchange best practices and international standards, though prevalent on paper and touted in academic studies, are still the exception on the ground. With no real incentive to change their ham-fisted approach to information sharing and its corollaries – collaboration and coordination – key stakeholders in charge of relief and peacebuilding continue to blame each other for the problems that bedevil effective, sustainable, timely and participatory post-disaster and conflict transformation initiatives. Obviously lost in this zero sum exchange is the fact that collectively, these stakeholders are themselves responsible for much that is wrong with present day responses to humanitarian crises in particular, and long term conflict transformation initiatives (that share similar characteristics of short term relief and aid efforts but are often far more multifarious) in general.

We need to bridge this divide between policy and practice. Necessarily, doing so requires an emphasis on a rights-based approach to information sharing. Seeing humanitarian relief and conflict transformation from a rights perspective affords a unique range of perspectives that give primacy to the needs and aspiration of citizens, as opposed to the provincial perspectives of key stakeholders including governments. We are acutely aware of the significant challenges of approaching disaster management & response through such a rights framework. Protracted conflict, especially complex political emergencies and deep-seated ethnic and communal violence, pose significant challenges to communication rights. Unimpeded communication and the free flow of information are cornerstones of any successful post-disaster relief framework and a peace process. However, the urgency of war usually augments the repression of mainstream print & electronic media. Censorship and threats to journalists invariably affect how news & information is selected, gathered, published and stored. Successive governments in Sri Lanka have grossly undermined the development of media responsive to citizen’s needs and aspirations.

Information, seen in this light, though a vital ingredient in a vibrant democracy, is often censored and restricted. Herein lies the shared challenge to both effective disaster response and peacebuilding – to secure and strengthen communications and the free-flow of information in the public interest. It is argued here that the growth of the Internet and the World Wide Web (seen here primarily as networks that facilitate communication) augments the potential for such progressive and pervasive communications architectures.

Citizens as watchdogs of democracy take a new twist with new media and the increasing accessibility of the web and Internet. Using technologies such as mobile phones that over the past five to ten years have taken root in every tier of society even in Sri Lanka, citizens are increasingly “speaking” out against the systemic failures of governance, and in support of rights. With new tools that help citizens create, consume, store and distribute information – such as SMS on mobile phones, podcasts and video editing on every PC, and the advent of blogs on the web – we are witnessing the democratisation of content production, and with it, the emergence of a new timbre of communications & media more attuned to needs and aspirations of all citizens. Multi-million rupee studios and equipment worth hundreds of thousands of rupees, available only to large corporations and media organisations, have hitherto packaged the news & information we consume. Today, even illiterate citizens living below the poverty line can record for posterity – for example through podcasts facilitated by NGOs – their ideas for pro-poor growth which often run counter to the equally reprehensible neo-conservative and neo-liberal notions of development. Text, audio and video production is now a standard feature in mobile devices including mobile phones, PC’s and Personal Digital Assistants (PDA’s). The web and Internet are accessible almost anywhere with the footprints of mobile telephony & wireless Internet nearly coast-to-coast. Accordingly, initiatives such as Witness that seek to document gross human rights violations and strengthen the Rule of Law and democracy now have new human rights monitors in their service – ordinary citizens, using ordinary devices to record extra-ordinary events .

Much has already been written on the potential of new technologies, ICT, new media and the latest buzzword, citizen journalism. Citizen journalism is the act of citizens “playing an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analyzing and disseminating news and information” according to the seminal report We Media: How Audiences are Shaping the Future of News and Information . As is noted in this report “The intent of this participation is to provide independent, reliable, accurate, wide-ranging and relevant information that a democracy requires.” However, we are acutely aware of the limits of technology, both in the design of and access to the technology itself, and in the manner of they are used in countries with a growing democratic deficit, such as Sri Lanka. As I note in an article published recently on the import of citizen journalism on anti-terrorism measures :

Often, this new age of citizen journalism lacks the grammar of age-old diplomacy and socio-political norms – the conversation is raw, visceral, impatient, irreverent, pithy, provocative. In Sri Lanka, it is a conversation that’s largely still in English, and also limited to urban centres.

The potential of citizen journalism, however, is its ability to provide a forum for all citizens – male and female, of all ethnicities, castes, classes and religions – to express themselves freely, society will better accommodate ideas and measures that engender peace.

As we have witnessed in countries such as the Philippines, information in the hands of a public equipped with mobile phones can be a powerful democratic imperative that brings down an authoritarian and corrupt governments . We also note stories, even from China – notorious for its media and Internet censorship – of mobiles used to warn populations of disasters, hold mass demonstrations organised via SMS, and even the emergence of m-government. However, success stories such as this run the risk of romanticising the gravity of problems that bedevil post-conflict democratic reform. The deep-rooted power of politicians in rigid social structures, casteism, a clientelist political architecture, rampant nepotism and corruption, among others, temper the progressive social transformation promised by the New Media and Citizen Journalism in particular. Scalability is another problem – projects that show great potential when funded often join a graveyard of well-intentioned initiatives when the funding dries up. Countries such as Sri Lanka are still bedevilled by the lack of standards based swabhasha data input frameworks that in turn strangle the awareness and growth of new media content, such as blogs, in Sinhala and Tamil. As a result, contrary to its moniker, citizen journalism today shows an urban bias, is mediated in English and, inescapably, elite. This will need to change and soon.

There are other significant challenges, not unique to citizen journalism and new media, but certainly augmented by the very nature of the media that they rest on. In a conversation with the author, Dan Gillmor, Director of the Centre for Citizen Media based in the US and widely regarding as a leading expert in Citizen Journalism averred, “… we must also be careful that citizen media that is irresponsible, unprofessional, partial and inaccurate – does not hinder the growth of free voices on the web.” The early experience with citizen journalism in Sri Lanka clearly brings out the tendency for slander, bitter personal invective and polemics that are strengthened in part because of the conventions of anonymity that citizen journalism as it exists today rests on. And as an article by Julien Pain, Head of the Internet Freedom desk at Reporters Sans Frontiers, suggests , the very technologies of liberation and democracy such as those which power citizen journalism are those now used by dictatorships and repressive regimes to clamp down even more on citizens.

Clearly however, new media and citizen journalism are emerging as powerful new ways through which citizens – even victims of protracted conflict, or of natural disasters – can access and create content that sheds light on their lives their viewpoints and their ideas. The litmus test for new media and citizen journalism, in the service of strengthening democracy and securing conflict transformation, is to mirror the same professional ethics and standards that underpin professional journalism in the content produced by citizens. The central challenge, and a very difficult one at that, is celebrating the personal, insider-partial, raw perspectives of citizens and balancing this commentary and opinion with context and analysis . The challenge to established print and electronic media today is quite simply to respond to the growing “impertinence” of citizens keen to know more than what reporters have traditionally handed out to them as news and information.

This article continually referred to information as a public good, as a human right, and as a central pillar of a vibrant democracy. Information in the hands of citizens continues to instill fear and loathing in the minds of those who wish to manufacture public opinion to their benefit by the careful selection and publication of information. New media and citizen journalism don’t, in and of themselves, promise a stronger democracy. Used for advocating the rights of all citizens and especially those affected by disasters, however, these technologies create new ways for citizens to be heard, governments to be held accountable and the State to answer to failures of governance. Ordinary citizens, trained journalists, civil rights activists, youth and more are increasingly using technology, though devices such as mobile phones, to support powerful frameworks of transparency and accountability that citizens can use to hold decision makers responsible for their action and indeed, inaction.

It’s an irreversible trend. Our challenge is to temper the euphoria and ensure the best of new media and citizen journalism is used to alleviate the continuing suffering of communities embroiled in conflict, or faced with the sudden wrath of nature.

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