When the press goes silent, citizens deliver

The renowned Columbia Journalism Review has an interesting short article on the power of citizen journalism even under repressive regimes. Blogging the Coup by Dustin Roasa notes,

The debate over citizen journalism in the U.S. tends to dwell, tediously, on whether citizen reporters can supplant, rather than complement, the professional press. But in many countries around the world, where the press is under government control, corrupt, or simply incompetent, citizen journalists may be the only source of information that is reasonably credible. Without citizen reporters in Myanmar, for instance, it would have been impossible to know what was happening during anti-government demonstrations last year, while in the Middle East, bloggers have become a viable alternative to the heavily censored, state-run media.

I can fully identify with the switch from English to the vernacular that some bloggers in Thailand did in order to address an wider audience. In Sri Lanka, CJ in the vernacular is not just for a domestic audience. The readership and viewers of Vikalpa and Vikalpa Video respectively, numbering in their tens of thousands, come from the Sri Lanka diaspora in addition to those living in Sri Lanka. This is why in their own small way, Groundviews, VOR Radio and the two vernacular CJ sites noted earlier have become important sources of alternative narratives on the status quo in Sri Lanka – stuff won’t get published or broadcast in the local media.

From using mobiles to generate content on the peace process, human rights and democracy (a first in Sri Lanka) to exploring revenue models for those who generate mobile phone content, I have written extensively on the growth of citizen journalism in Sri Lanka and its potential to complement traditional media. Sure enough, there are challenges to citizen journalism in Sri Lanka, but as I noted over a year ago in an article published on Open Democracy,

There is no guarantee that Groundviews will foster a new social movement in support of peace. There is no guarantee it will secure peace, in any greater degree, on the ground and in the north and east of Sri Lanka, where it is needed most. There is no guarantee that hate speech will not take over the timbre of online debate. The more Groundviews is successful in fostering new voices in support of peace, the more it will become a target of concerted attacks to prevent its growth.

And it is here that our greatest challenge lies. Not in the technology itself, but in the creation of a social and political movement – one fostered by citizen journalism mediated through new media and new technology – that is able to maintain, in some small way, the hope of a just and lasting peace in Sri Lanka.

This hope fuels Groundviews, not as a simplistic magic bullet against terrorism, but as an increasingly important vehicle for ordinary citizens to record their views in support of democracy as the only way through which terrorism can be effectively combated.

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