‘Citizen journalism’ is a term often associated with misinformation and bias, but as Robin Yapp discovers, new digital technology is enabling volunteer journalists around the world to uncover significant stories of political injustice and corruption
“All journalists are citizens but not all citizens are journalists,” says Afghanistan’s Paiwandgah website, a platform served by more than 750 citizen journalists throughout the country.
Interest in reporting by civilians is growing as internet connections and mobile phones proliferate in all corners of the world. At the same time the very notion of what constitutes citizen journalism and how reliable it is remain matters of debate.
Jay Rosen, who teaches journalism at New York University, has defined citizen journalism as “the people formerly known as the audience employ[ing] the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another”.
Paiwandgah defines it as “original reporting of local events and opinions from citizens on the ground” and says it matters “because journalists cannot be everywhere at once”.
It also matters because of the profound risks many exponents take; 139 citizen journalists have been killed in Syria alone since March 2011, according to freedom of speech non-profit organisation Reporters Without Borders.
As the digital revolution breaks down borders, technology looks certain to ensure that citizen journalism in its widest sense is here to stay. Everyone from disempowered urbanites clutching camera phones to bloggers using open source methods to probe distant conflicts are having their say. Public interest stories in remote or dangerous locations that newspapers and TV stations rarely cover are now more likely to come to light.
In Brazil a group called Papo Reto (meaning ‘Straight Talk’) is highlighting the plight of residents in Rio’s Complexo do Alemão cluster of favelas, where police brutality often leaves innocent people dead. Recent victims include a 72-year-old grandmother and a 10-year-old boy.
“As the digital revolution breaks down borders, technology looks certain to ensure that citizen journalism in its widest sense is here to stay.”
Brazilian police kill around 2,000 people each year according to official statistics, but human rights group WITNESS says the true figure could be far higher.
Papo Reto’s members use smartphones, tablets and the WhatsApp messaging service to gather photos, videos and audio evidence of police raids and their impact on the community, which they post on Facebook and YouTube. But the collective could itself face serious dangers from police impunity or shoot-outs between officers and drug dealers.
WITNESS has partnered with Papo Reto to offer equipment and equally vital advice on how to minimise danger, maintain their right to film and securely upload footage to cloud storage or Dropbox.
Priscila Neri, who oversees WITNESS’ work in Latin America, cited a study of police violence in Rio that found prosecutors dismissed 99.2 percent of cases. Video evidence was often a powerful factor in the few exceptions, she said. Yet harsh reality means her group’s first rule is that citizens should not film unless they feel safe to do so.
In Afghanistan, Paiwandgah – meaning ‘a place to connect’ – is capitalising on the fact that around 70 percent of Afghans are thought to have mobile phones and 1.3 million use social media. Citizens can submit stories in English, Dari or Pashto via phone, SMS, a web form, email, Facebook or Twitter.
Executive editor Jean MacKenzie, a former GlobalPost correspondent, said smartphones have “helped Afghans get in touch with the world”.
“Facebook in Afghanistan is a serious discussion forum, in part because of smartphones and other technologies that allow users to share on the spot,” she said.
She admits verifying stories and the “danger of disinformation” pose challenges but sees offering journalism training as one way to mitigate this by keeping unpaid volunteers committed to their task.
Singapore was ranked 153rd in the 2015 World Press Freedom Index, putting it 31 places below Afghanistan. But The Online Citizen’s volunteer reporters, photographers and videographers have been stimulating more open debate in the city-state for almost a decade.
Terry Xu, the website’s interim chief editor, agrees that smartphones are vital but also mentions forging links with academics and government insiders who can help verify stories. He said this becomes easier once you have committed volunteers and can convince the public of the need for independent news reported “from the perspective of citizens”.
Some citizen journalists have broken stories through a painstaking process of analysing what others have captured on film or camera.
Eliot Higgins scours hundreds of Syrian YouTube channels from his home in Leicester to piece together clues about the weapons being used by various groups. The conclusions he publishes in his Brown Moses blog have been widely reported in mainstream media: he helped expose the Syrian regime’s use of cluster bombs and detected Croatian weapons in the hands of rebels.
“It’s a boon to have multiple sources in places the professional media cannot penetrate, but it’s a challenge to make sure that the information is reliable.”
Higgins talks of a “growing global community of open source investigators” whose methodologies can be used in many investigations “even if it’s not in their own backyard”. He is especially excited by online Russian language communities using such tactics to examine the Ukraine conflict and Russia’s bombing of Syria.
But with all the information reaching the public via citizen journalists, can we trust their reports as much as those from established media organisations?
Tom Felle, acting director of interactive and newspaper journalism at City University London, sees a risk of confusing citizen advocates or activists with citizen journalists.
“We’ve seen an awful lot that has been biased or even fabricated – in Syria all sides are seeking to exaggerate or ‘sex up’ stories,” he says. “We now need a much more questioning and dispassionate look at what citizen journalism is and who is doing it.”
In Neri’s view we should move on from the “never-ending debate” about what citizen journalism is to concentrate on the real world implications of stories being exposed.
“How do we make sure this sort of media is created and shared in a safe and ethical way when we think about graphic imagery or interviews that could put lives at risk?” she asks. “How do we ensure it has an impact on policies infringing the rights of people taking risks to make these videos?”
A free mobile app launched in June by legal group the International Bar Association could help address such issues by enabling witnesses to store evidence of atrocities in encrypted form with a time-stamp and GPS-fixed location.
MacKenzie from Paiwandgah, who has worked in Afghanistan for nearly a decade as a correspondent and journalism trainer, is philosophical about the complications of the job.
“The future of citizen journalism is still to be determined,” she said. “It’s a boon to have multiple sources in places the professional media cannot penetrate, but it’s a challenge to make sure that the information is reliable.”
Xu argues that in places such as Singapore, some bias in citizen journalism is actually desirable – in favour of freedom of information and more rights for citizens, for example. “We are not balanced,” he states. “We are the balance.”
Below are summaries of some of the most significant stories that have been uncovered by citizen journalism organisations around the world:
Afghanistan – Paiwandgah
The group recently revealed a new Taliban ‘charm offensive’ to win people over. Citizen journalists reported that the Taliban was adopting a softer approach in many regions under its new leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour. Changes reported include allowing mobile phones and television and no longer interfering with NGO development projects. Some people even took selfies with Taliban fighters after they briefly captured the north-eastern city of Kunduz in late September. But one police chief told Paiwandgah the Taliban’s aim was purely to undermine the government and warned “they are fighting for another country”.
Jean Mackenzie, Paiwandgah’s executive editor, said: “This was not an easy or popular story – no one wants to make the Taliban out to be gentler than they are. But it’s a good example of how citizen journalism can work – citizens act as informants and we work with them to substantiate and professionalise the information.”
Brazil – Papo Reto, supported by WITNESS
Eduardo de Jesus Ferreira, 10, was shot and killed on his doorstep in a Rio favela in April this year. Papo Reto captured footage of the aftermath, including grieving relatives and the boy’s body lying in a pool of blood before being zipped up in a police body bag. Ferreira’s mother and other witnesses said he was shot by military police moments after going out with a mobile phone in his hand. The video shows a crowd of residents chanting ‘murderers’. Large protests against police brutality followed and president Dilma Rousseff called for those responsible to face justice. The officers involved are under internal investigation.
Priscila Neri, who oversees WITNESS’ work in Latin America, said: “Papo Reto were first on the scene and having a camera pointed at police can deter any attempt to alter the scene of the crime, which we know is common practice.
“Police violence in Brazil is rampant and marked by impunity. But in the few cases where there has been a semblance of justice, there was some sort of video angle.”
Sierra Leone – Moses Kortu, supported by UK-based citizen journalism group On Our Radar
In 2014 Moses Kortu, a citizen journalist, reported how the Ebola outbreak and government enforcement of a quarantine left Kailahun, near Sierra Leone’s border with Guinea, on the brink of famine. With markets, borders and banks closed, prices for dwindling supplies of rice and cooking oil soared and many people were going hungry. Kortu, filing his copy via SMS messages, questioned the government’s emphasis on military blockades, rather than addressing food shortages. Channel 4 News ran two of his stories.
Laurence Ivil, editorial assistant at On Our Radar, said: “With limited connectivity and government-imposed lock-downs, no-one was reporting events from the ground.
“Off-grid communities are too often completely cut-off from digital spaces, but the rich stories Moses shared gave vital perspective to a wider audience.”
Singapore – The Online Citizen
The Online Citizen published a series of stories about more than 50 Indian workers being deported without proper investigation following a riot. Trouble flared in December 2013 after an Indian national was run over and killed by a bus in the ‘Little India’ district of Singapore. Police vehicles were attacked in Singapore’s first riot for more than 40 years. But The Online Citizen reported that many of the deportees had not been involved or even been at the scene. Some were detained only after speaking via mobile phone to friends who had been arrested.
Terry Xu, the website’s interim chief editor, said: “Through us telling the side of the story of those deported, citizens could perhaps take the ‘fast’ response by the authorities to punish workers involved in the riot with a pinch of salt.”
Syria – Brown Moses, aka UK-based Eliot Higgins
Higgins identified Croatian arms, including machine guns, mortars and rockets, being shipped to Syrian opposition forces fighting President Bashar al-Assad’s army. He studied footage of weapons in Syria on YouTube and identified them through clues such as alphanumeric markings, their shapes and dimensions. His report about Croatia was followed up by the New York Times, which found the weapons had been bought by Saudi Arabia and smuggled in to Sunni rebels via Jordan.
“It ended up exposing what was meant to be a secret arms smuggling operation. That did a lot to raise my profile and make people aware of open source investigation,” said Higgins.
Ukraine – Liveuamap
This crowdsourcing website posts updates on the Ukraine-Russia conflict on a Google Maps interface. Set up by Ukrainian software developers, it looks for at least two independent sources for information via social media or on-the-ground reports before publishing. Posts are colour-coded: red if they favour Russia and its supporters and blue if Ukraine benefits. On 24 June 2014, it reported photographic evidence of a Buk missile system moving towards Ukraine – and quickly pointed to it as the likely cause of the MH17 crash the following month. The recent Dutch Safety Board report confirmed that a Russian-made Buk was to blame.
Rodion Rozhkovsky, CEO and chief editor of Liveuamap, said: “We were sure the MH17 was shot down with a Buk almost immediately. First, there were reports from the Ukrainian side of a plane shot down and when the pro-Russian side wrote on it, we added the event.”