Al-Ahram Weekly Online   20 - 26 July 2006
Issue No. 804
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Citizen journalism

When the mainstream media fails to tell the truth, ordinary people must step in, writes Ramzy Baroud*

Click to view caption
An Israeli tank on the streets of Beit Hanun

I still vividly remember the anger in my father's voice as our family of seven gathered to warm ourselves around a tin pan filled with burning coal in our house in a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. That was nearly 20 years ago, and the camp was under a cruel Israeli military curfew. Outside, Israeli army vehicles roamed the streets of the dreadfully crowded and impoverished camp. "Those who violate the army's order and leave their homes will be killed," blasted a voice from the loudspeakers positioned atop one of the Israeli vehicles. The soldier spoke in broken Arabic; his threats sounded ominously genuine.

Inside our humble dwelling, a refugee home that first started as a mud hut, we huddled with indescribable fear. Many people had died this way. Some of our neighbours were shot for looking out their windows. Others were killed inside their homes. Our house was riddled with bullets. We had no reason to doubt the Israeli army threats. My dad instructed us not to breath heavily, not to cough and not to move for any reason. Even this could drive a herd of soldiers into our house.

A few hours later when things quieted down, my dad, comforted by the fact that the jeeps seemed to have moved on to another part of the camp, turned on the radio. He never missed the BBC Arabic evening news broadcast, even now.

Palestinians have had a love-hate relationship with the media. Knowing that the name of our refugee camp was uttered on some radio station thousands of miles away, was in some way a recognition that our plight mattered, even if little. Hate, because this was hardly the case, and even if such reference was made, it hardly deviated from usual mantras that saw the Israeli occupiers as the ultimate source of information, the primary authority on what had indeed happened. This remains the case until today. What the Israeli army acknowledges becomes fact, its narrative is the trusted narrative; what it dismisses, has simply never happened; at best, it's a murky Palestinian allegation.

BBC radio mentioned nothing of the Israeli curfew imposed on half of the Gaza Strip that day, nothing of the wanton killings of several people. One boy who died that day was a classmate of mine, shot earlier as we protested against an attack by armed Jewish settlers on our high school.

My father's still silence was now coupled with anger. "No one gives a damn whether we live or die; slaughtered like sheep and not even a mention on the news." My father's angry personal commentaries often followed disappointing news broadcasts like the one of the BBC.

Out of this helplessness, my insistence on "getting the word out", was born. And like myself, many others who have become disheartened with the lack of ethics in the world of journalism have taken things into their own hands, giving birth to "citizen journalism".

"Getting the word out" or "just telling them the truth", as Malcolm X often preached, is not inbred but necessitated by circumstances: where a story is conveyed by one party and other parties are completely excluded. While such an assertion sounds academic and perhaps slightly redundant, this kind of neglect is injurious to most of the forgotten multitudes all around the globe, whose "side of the story" is either deemed irrelevant, unimportant or inconsistent with the mainstream narrative that has its own intricate checks and balances.

2002 witnessed the Israeli reinvasion of major West Bank population centres, prompting thousands of peace activists from across the world, notwithstanding Israel itself, to travel to the West Bank, most of whom hoping to convey what lay beyond the headlines; the forgotten news segment that cannot be filled by a detached reporter based in a five star hotel in Tel Aviv. Through the emergence of citizen journalism, scores of activists were afforded a platform.

The following is a case in point: Brian Wood -- a US-based activist -- smuggled himself into Jenin refugee camp during the Israeli invasion of April 2002 when hundreds of people were reportedly killed or wounded, called a friend in Colorado and conveyed a report regarding what he saw there over a cell phone; the transcribed report would in turn be sent to me in Seattle; I would edit and post it, and also send it to mailing lists of thousands, and eventually to hundreds of thousands. Using the same style, and following the UN failure to investigate Israeli killings in Jenin, citizen reporters worked together to produce what later became an best seller: Searching Jenin: Eyewitness Accounts of the Israeli Invasion. The book was the fruit of nearly 30 individuals; only two were professional journalists. It was the first and still the most authoritative account of the events and allegations of the two-weeks long Jenin battle. The text has been used as a source book for Middle East studies programmes in various US universities.

Citizen journalism is not stamp collecting; true, at times it can be a fun and financially rewarding hobby to those willing to hide behind the backyard bushes of Hollywood celebrities, ready to snap the million-dollar photo and sell it to some tabloid. But from my experience, it can be a very useful tool in confronting authority, revealing atrocities and holding those in power to account for their deeds. If citizen journalism, using the Internet and other media, succeeds in penetrating the monopoly of the corporate media on news, and thus narratives and discourses, participatory democracy, which has long been circumvented by media deception and official propaganda, might finally recover some of its quality. To achieve that, citizen journalism must thoroughly analyse what is going wrong in today's mainstream media and remain focused on what the priorities are, what counts and what truly matters.

* The writer teaches journalism at Australia's Curtin University of Technology, Malaysia Campus. He is the author of Writings on the Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People's Struggle , and editor-in-chief of the

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