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May 14 2013

11:00

How FrontlineSMS Helped an Indonesian Community Clean Up a River

FrontlineSMS has had a strong connection with environmental issues since our founder had the initial spark of an idea while working on an anti-poaching project in South Africa. We're delighted to share how Een Irawan Putra of KPC Bogor and the Indonesia Nature Film Society used FrontlineSMS in Indonesia to invite the community to help clean up the garbage clogging the Ciliwung River.

Community Care Ciliwung Bogor, known locally as KPC Bogor, was founded in March 2009 in West Java, Indonesia to harness the growing community concern for the sustainability of the Ciliwung River in the city of Bogor. We formed to raise awareness about the damaging impact of garbage and waste in the river, as well as to mobilize the community to take action.

river1.jpg

The community around KPC Bogor was initially formed by our friend Hapsoro who used to share his fishing experiences in the Ciliwung River. "If we go fishing in the river now, there is so much junk," Hapsoro once said, "All we get is plastic, instead of fish." It was after an increasing number of similar tales from the community about pollution levels that we decided to conduct some field research. We set out to find the best spots for fishing along the Ciliwung River, particularly in the area stretching from Katulampa to Cilebut.

Some KPC members work in Research and Development of Ornamental Fish Aquaculture, Ministry of Marine and Fisheries and in fisheries laboratory in Bogor Agricultural University. So while we conducted the research voluntarily, they were always present to offer their skills and ensure our research methods were sound. In addition to the study of fish, some KPC members who work in mapping forest areas in Indonesia helped us to map the river area using GPS. We mapped the points where garbage was stacked, sewage levels and commensurate changes in the river. We also tested the quality of river water by using a simple method called "biotilik," using organisms as an indication of the state of the river water quality in the Ciliwung River.

The results of the research were shocking. We found out that while the people who live along the Ciliwung River rely on its use for daily necessities including cooking, cleaning and washing, the river is increasingly being used as a place to dispose of trash and inorganic waste materials. The research helped us realize just how poor the Ciliwung River conditions were at the time -- with worrying consequences for the function, condition, and use of the river. Not only did we uncover poor river standards, we also identified that there was a lack of public knowledge about the importance of maintaining a healthy river among the community. Waste disposal practices have become rooted in the bad habits that have been ingrained in the minds of the people who live around the Ciliwung riverbanks over a long period of time. People are so used to the methods they use that they do not realize the severity of the environmental damage which they cause.

citizen clean-up takes off

So members of KPC Bogor got together to ask, "What can we do to save Ciliwung River in ways that are simple, inexpensive and uncomplicated?" From there, a simple concept was born. We set out to recruit volunteers to become garbage scavengers in the Ciliwung River. Every Saturday, KPC Bogor members and friends met from 8am to 11am, to pick up any inorganic matter that litters the Ciliwung River and put it into the sacks before sending it to landfills.

In many ways, we actually consider this activity as a way to meet new friends. It might be hard work that can cause us to sweat, but we understand that even though waste removal is a very simple activity, it important for the sustainability of our river and our community around it. The number of people who come every Saturday varies: Sometimes there are only two, other times up to 100 people. For us, the number doesn't matter. What's important is that KPC Bogor must continue to remind citizens to take care of the Ciliwung River.

About three months ago, we had some sad and shocking news that our friend and leader Hapsoro had passed away. A few of us were worried about what would happen to our 4-year-old community and how it could continue without his leadership. We gathered at Hapsoro's house before his funeral, and we all committed to doing all we could to ensure KPC Bogor's activities would carry on. We saw how vital this work was for the River, the community's health, and our livelihoods. We needed to honor and commemorate the important service Hapsoro had initiated to form a sense of responsibility and awareness in the community. But how could we mobilize the community like he did?

river2.jpg

using sms

Hapsoro was a man who always actively sent SMS to all our friends to participate in regular KPC Bogor activities, especially to remind them to get them involved with cleaning the river. With an old mobile phone, he used to send messages one by one to the numbers in his phone book. The day after we decided to keep KPC Bogor alive, I asked permission from Hapsoro's wife, Yuniken Mayangsari, about whether we could keep using his phone number to send SMS to all the subscribers. She gave me the phone at once without hesitation.

I started using Hapsoro's mobile phone to send SMS every Friday to the friends of KPC Bogor. When I was using the phone, I realized how patient Hapsoro must have been in sending the SMS alerts about river cleaning over his three years of organizing the activities. One by one, each of the numbers had to be selected from the address book, and I could only enter 10 numbers at once. It made getting though more than 200 numbers exhausting, and it took me more than two hours! Not to mention when I forgot which numbers I'd already sent the message to. I'm sure there are a few people who got the message twice.

Because of the limited time I could dedicate to sending SMS every Friday, some friends and I decided to try using FrontlineSMS. A friend who lives in Jakarta went looking for a compatible Huawei E-series modem to send and receive messages with the software. When we were finally able to buy one, we installed it on my laptop and KPC Bogor's laptop. Now every Friday, we load up FrontlineSMS to send alerts about KPC Bogor activities due to take place the following Saturday. It's great because I can carry on working while FrontlineSMS is sending the messages. I can easily manage contacts and send alerts to the community in a few simple steps.

KPC Bogor's work with volunteers is now so successful that we started a "Garbage Scavengers Race" which has now become an official annual agenda event in the city of Bogor. Last year, 1,500 people came to the river to help and we collected 1,300 bags of garbage in just 3 hours. We are now preparing for this year's scavenge due to take place in June 2013. In recognition of the need to tackle root causes of the waste issue rather than just the clean up, we've also started to do more than collecting garbage. KPC Bogor now provides environmental education for elementary school children, conducts research on water quality and plants trees around the Ciliwung River. We are also able to regularly assess the river water biota, where we analyze diversity of micro-organisms, plants and animals in the ecosystem. Recently, we even made a film about the waste problems in the Ciliwung River.

Now, we use FrontlineSMS to let the community know about our new activities too. Every week we receive SMS from new people who want their mobile number to be added to the subscribers list so they can receive a regular SMS every week with information about how to join in with our activities.

Thanks to the community, the city government is now giving full support to our activities by giving us budget for waste cleanup efforts through the official budget allocation. Once, Ciliwung was a clean river that was highly venerated by the people for its famous fresh water and was relied on by the public in Indonesia for their livelihoods. It was once a source of clean water used for drinking, cooking, bathing and washing. This community wants the condition of the Ciliwung River to return to how it once was, and we're getting there -- one piece of garbage at a time.

You can watch a video with English subtitles about the KPC Bogor community here.

More information about KPC Bogor can be found at here or via Twitter @tjiliwoeng and Facebook.com/KPCBogor.

river3.jpg

Een Irawan Putra is currently director of the Indonesia Nature Film Society, coordinator for the Ciliwung River Care Community (KPC Bogor), head of TELAPAK West of Java Territorial Body, member of TELAPAK, and member of LAWALATA IPB (Student Nature Club Bogor Agriculture University). Formerly he was a Forest Researcher in Greenpeace South East Asia Indonesia Office (2005); producer, cameraman, and editor at Gekko Studio (2005-2012), vice director PT. Poros Nusantara Media (2012), and vice president of the Association of Indonesia Peoples' Media and Television (ASTEKI) (2012).

April 23 2011

19:10

Country Pages: Indonesia

An informational page about the country - from the Fulbright Scholar Program.

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January 19 2011

15:54

Asia Sentinel - A Voyage into the Darkness of Indonesian Corruption

"In just eight months, the detained civil servant, a mid-level tax official, managed to bribe his way out of prison 68 times, fly to at least three other countries in a dubious disguise and even bribe his way out of bribery charges. "A frustrated President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono Monday demanded an end to the affair and issued orders to look into 149 companies said to have benefited from the tax official's services, including as much as US$1 billion in taxes allegedly evaded by companies controlled by Aburizal Bakrie, the head of the Golkar political party and one of Indonesia's richest businessmen."

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March 22 2010

16:00

Milton Wolf Seminar: Transparency International explains how it became a conversation starter

VIENNA — Every year, the NGO Transparency International releases its Corruption Perceptions Index, which measures how citizens in 180 countries view their public institutions.

Traditionally, Transparency International has used a filter to get their message out: handing the results and data to journalists, who produce stories that spread their anti-corruption message to the public. In recent years, the organization has started rethinking this strategy. Emerging online tools have allowed the organization to reach an audience in more dynamic ways, (blogging, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) Georg Neumann, who works for the organization’s communications office, says the new environment creates dialogue and conversation in a way the old process didn’t

“While not only talking to the journalists, we also talk directly to the citizens,” he told me after a break out session Wednesday at the Milton Wolf Seminar. “All of these three interact much more strongly than ‘here’s our NGO, here’s the news organization and somewhere there were the citizens.’ Now, what we can do is actually have a conversation with all three.”

Transparency International hasn’t crossed the self-image line into considering itself a journalistic institution. But as NGOs increasingly deliver news and information directly to their audiences, those lines are getting blurrier. My brief chat with Neumann is above, and there’s a transcript below.

Georg Neumann: Hi, my name is Georg Neumann — I work for Transparency International in the communication department.

I want to talk to you a little bit about how social media has changed a little bit the way we work with journalists, but also more in general, how we fight corruption and we try to advocate for transparency and anti-corruption.

Maybe the best thing to do this is with an example. Let’s take the Corruption Perceptions Index, our famous ranking of about 180 countries around the world, measuring the perceived public-sector corruption. With this tool, what we did last year, in 2009, we have done something that we call the virtual launch, where we try to increase basically — make increased use of social media tools, using Twitter, using a blog to gather sort of the effects of corruption on human lives, using Facebook to cater a community of people that are already interested in corruption, and try to stimulate posts and comments — meaning a conversation about the issue of corruption, which is much deeper than simply using a table to show that.

So what it had shown is that while not only talking to the journalists, we also talked directly to the citizens. And these form basically kind of a triangle. So you have the organization here, you have the journalists here, the media organizations, and you have the citizens here. And all of these three interact much more strongly than they did before, where it was only our NGO and here’s the news organization. So now what we can do is actually have conversation about all of the three.

So one example was the Huffington Post taking our index and creating a slideshow with one slide per country, and about 300 comments within the first couple of days, actually discussing corruption in the U.S. — which really surprised us, but which was really effective in getting the message out in much deeper form than it did before. So the power of social media is not only to distribute it to a different audience, but also you get much richer discussions and comment on the issue that we advocate for.

Laura McGann: Are you spending time and resources at your organization to reach audiences directly? Are you growing that part of your organization or are you thinking more about it? Do you think that’s sort of changed how you reach an audeinc direcelty?

Neumann: I think this is one of our challenges, now that we need to find way to interact more with the citizens themselves. So we’ve created a Facebook community — we have to dedicate time to actually discuss issues, create an online discussion, a chat, these kinds of things.

What we do as a network or a team at Transparency International — we’re represented in 100 countries around the world. And every country works with their national audiences. So we have a direct way there of our organization talking to, making events for them, using social media to invite to these events, to create protests such as in Indonesia last year, where we had 2.5 million people being organized through Facebook to protest against the government’s sacking of anti-corruption commissioners.

So this is something that we do and we realize we need to invest much more time in doing so. I think the other part of this is that also we see is a need for citizens to actually talk and tell their stories. And what we’re looking into right now is how do we capture these stories. One way is allowing them to post their stories on a blog or Facebook, recording them with a Flip camera, and tell these stories. But there are many other ways to do that and we have to really find very effective tools, and that’s something we’re doing now.

December 21 2009

17:30

Glenda Cooper: When lines between NGO and news organization blur

[Not too long ago, it was clear who was a producer of news — and who were the sources who fed them. Not so in a world where the production of media has been democratized, and the rules that governed that production are up in the air. In this essay, journalist Glenda Cooper examines several cases where those lines have been blurred. This is the sixth part of our series on NGOs and the news. —Josh]

“Dear Sir. My name is Mohammed Sokor…from Dagahaley refugee camp in Dadaab. There is an alarming issue here. People are given too few kilograms of food. You must help.”1 Was this a note — as The Economist asked — delivered to a handily passing rock star-turned-philanthropist? An emotional plea caught on a BBC camera?

No, Mr. Sokor from Kenya is a much more modern communicator than that. In 2007, he texted this appeal to the mobile phones of two United Nations officials in London and Nairobi. He had found the numbers by surfing the Internet in a café at the north Kenyan camp.

The humanitarian world is changing. New information and communication technology is altering how we report, where we report from, and most of all, who is doing the reporting. These developments coincide with mainstream media coming under increasing financial pressure and withdrawing from foreign bureaux. This is a trend that extends beyond the United States. In early 2009, the think tank POLIS together with Oxfam published a report warning that international coverage is likely to decrease under the new public service broadcasting regime being worked out in the U.K. And in 2008, the U.K. tabloid the Daily Mirror said as part of the latest round of job cuts they were abolishing the post of foreign editor altogether. Meanwhile, citizen journalists and NGOs have been rushing to fill the gap. The mainstream media, getting free filmed reports and words, often sees this as a win-win situation. This raises three key issues:

— Do these new entrants to humanitarian reporting mean that we are seeing more diverse stories being told and more diverse voices being heard? Does the fundamental logic of reporting change?

— Are viewers/readers aware of the potential blurring of the lines between aid agencies and the media when NGOs act as reporters?

— How are aid agencies being affected by citizen journalists acting increasingly as watchdogs?

Media and aid agencies: a symbiotic relationship

The relationship between the media and aid agencies used to be well-defined and almost symbiotic in nature. This section will capture the essence of this relationship by taking a critical stance. The subsequent sections will then look at how this relationship is changing as well as the role citizen journalists play in this context.

The former UN emergency relief coordinator, Jan Egeland, has talked about the way the world’s disaster victims are caught up in a “kind of humanitarian sweepstakes…and every night 99 percent of them lose, and one percent win.” The one-percent winners usually owe their good fortune to media coverage.

To illustrate the argument, the table below shows the death toll in the December 2004 tsunami as judged by the UN Special Envoy, and the number of stories written in British newspapers (Dec. 19, 2004 to Jan. 16, 2005) as recorded by Lexis Nexis.2

Indonesia: 167,000 dead or missing; 343 stories
Sri Lanka: 35,000 dead or missing; 729 stories
Thailand: 8,200 dead or missing; 771 stories

The death toll in Indonesia dwarfs that of Sri Lanka and Thailand — it is roughly 20 times that of Thailand — yet Indonesia received barely half the media coverage as Thailand. Not only was it quicker, easier and cheaper for the media to get to Sri Lanka and Thailand than to Indonesia, but there were many more tourists blogging, sending in photographs, and filming from the first two areas, contributing those vital shots of the wave as it happened.

This media coverage translated into increased aid. So many aid workers poured into Sri Lanka that they were dubbed a “second tsunami.” In the year after the tsunami, a Disasters Emergency Committee evaluation noted that Indonesia had suffered 60 percent of the damage but received only 31 percent of the funding.3

But the tsunami was such an extraordinary event — perhaps it was a one-off? Not at all. Another example is provided by the difference in media coverage after the acute natural disasters in Burma and China in spring 2008. In Burma, the military junta tried to keep the international media out during Cyclone Nargis, while the Chinese authorities allowed the media in to follow the Sichuan earthquake. Figures reported in the Times on May 22, 2008 — 20 days after Nargis and 10 days after the quake — showed that despite Burma having almost twice as many people dead or missing, China was attracting far more aid.

These examples show that the more media-friendly the disaster, the more money it attracts. In the past, at its most extreme, disaster coverage has been a kind of moral bellwether for the nation.4 Aid agencies follow these waves of coverage and in turn provide access and footage to the media. Yet when covering famines, earthquakes, or tsunamis, the media have not always prioritized establishing objectivity, and aid agencies have not always sought to correct the lack of balance.

New ways of reporting disasters

In the past the relationship between aid agencies and journalism, as described above, prospered because only a few people had access to places where important events happened — or information about significant events occurring. Now, new technologies — including SMS, mobile video and the Internet — increasingly offer ordinary people the ability to reach audiences they could never have reached before. Dan Gillmor has described the December 2004 tsunami as a “turning point” that set in place this new dynamic. While not the first event to use user-generated content (UCG), it was perhaps the first disaster where the dominant images we remember come not from journalists but from ordinary people. As Tom Glocer, head of Reuters, noted, none of Reuters’ 2,300 journalists or 1,000 stringers were on the beaches when the waves struck.

Since then the speed, volume, and intensity of citizen journalism have all increased rapidly. In early 2005, the BBC received, on average, 300 emails a day. By mid-2008, this had risen to between 12,000 and 15,000, and the corporation employed 13 people around the clock solely to deal with UCG. With photographs and video the increase has been even more extreme. Two years ago, the BBC received approximately 100 photos or videos per week. Now they receive 1,000 on average and 11,000 in unusual circumstances. “It used to be exceptional events such as the tsunami or 7/7,” says Vicky Taylor, former head of interactivity, BBC, referring to the July 2005 London Tube bombings. “Now people are seeking out news stories and sharing information.”5

People are adapting different forms of media to make their words and pictures available to a wider audience. The microblogging site Twitter broke the news of the Chinese earthquakes, and Burmese bloggers used the social networking site Facebook to raise awareness of the 2007 protests. Also in Burma, many of those who sought to get out information about Cyclone Nargis opted to use email through Gmail and, in particular, its messaging service Google Talk, because the junta found Gmail more difficult to monitor.6

As new actors enter the formerly privileged information-sharing sphere dominated by the mainstream media and aid agencies, there are increased possibilities of more diverse stories being told, and more diverse voices being heard. In the past, those affected by humanitarian crises have traditionally been spoken for by aid agencies or mainstream reporters. For example, Michael Buerk’s seminal BBC report in 1984 which alerted the world to the famine in Ethiopia featured only two voices — his own and that of a (white) MSF doctor.7

Yet this is changing. As Sanjana Hattotuwa, of the Sri Lankan NGO Centre for Policy Alternatives, wrote: “citizen journalists [in Sri Lanka] are increasingly playing a major role in reporting deaths, the humanitarian fallout and hidden social costs of violent conflict.”8

In January 2008, Ushahidi (which means testimony in Swahili) was set up by four bloggers and technological experts. As Lokman Tsui explains in his essay in this series, the mashup used Google Earth technology to map incidents of crime and violence with ordinary people reporting incidents via SMS, phone or email. Ushahidi has been so successful that it was awarded a $200,000 grant from Humanity United to develop a platform that can be used around the world, and the website received an honourable mention in the 2008 Knight-Batten awards.

As Ory Okolloh, one of Ushahidi’s founders, says, “There were not many ’scoops’ per se but in some cases we had personal stories, e.g. about the victims, pictures that were not being shown in the media, and reports that were available to us before they hit the press. We were able to raise awareness (and for that matter learn of) a lot of the local peace initiatives that the mainstream media really wasn’t reporting.”9

Another Knight-Batten award winner is Global Voices, a nonprofit citizen media project set up at Harvard in 2004 which now has around 400,000 visits a month and utilizes 100 regular authors. It mainly links to blogs but is increasingly using Facebook, Twitter, Livejournal, and Flickr as well.

However, it is important to critically assess the significance and the impact of this trend. Verification of citizen journalism is difficult, hoaxing is an ever-present possibility, and the outpouring of material does not always elucidate. As Sarah Boseley of the Guardian reflected on her paper’s three-year commitment to report on the Ugandan village of Katine, when the paper gave out disposable cameras to the villagers in the hope of getting a new perspective, “most of them,” she said, “just took pictures of their cows.”

And such voices are most commonly framed in accordance with traditional news standards rather than challenging them. Citizen journalism may also unwittingly skew the definition of what is important towards the unexpected or the spectacular and the dramatic, focusing, for example, on a natural catastrophe such as an earthquake rather the long-term famine. As Thomas Sutcliffe of the Independent commented: “The problem with citizen journalists — just like all of us — is that they are incorrigible sensationalists.”10

Different narrators — more diverse voices?

But if every citizen with a cellphone or Internet access can become a reporter, where does this leave the traditional gatekeepers (journalists) and the gatekeepers to disaster zones (aid workers)?

As pointed out above, in the past, journalists turned to aid agencies to get access to disasters and “real” people. The agencies received a name-check in return for facilitating access. The result was a symbiotic relationship in which it was to the advantage of both sides that the humanitarian “story” was as strong as possible. With the growth of UGC, this control of the story has disappeared. As John Naughton, professor of public understanding of technology at the Open University, agrees: “UGC is now blowing that [relationship] apart.”11

As a result, three trends have developed. First, aid agencies have turned themselves into reporters for the mainstream media, providing cash-strapped foreign desks with free footage and words. Second, they have also tried to take on citizen journalists by utilizing the blogosphere. Third, the agencies are simultaneously facing challenges from citizen journalists who are acting as watchdogs and critics and who can transmit their criticisms to a global audience.

The origins of the first trend stretch back as far as the 1990s and the emergence of the 24-hour news cycle combined with, as Nik Gowing points out, aid agencies having to salvage their reputation after accusations of misinformation during the Rwandan genocide.12 The two agencies who led this charge in the U.K. were Oxfam and Christian Aid. They both hired former journalists to run their press operations as pseudo-newsrooms. Both agencies pushed the idea of press officers as “fireman” reporters — on the ground as soon as possible after a disaster occurred to gather and film information themselves. Oxfam protocol written for their UK press office in 2007, for example, demanded that a press officer sent to a disaster should use an international cellphone, a local cellphone, a satellite phone, a laptop (capable of transmitting stills and short video clips), and a digital camera.13

Perhaps the clearest example of this development occurred during Cyclone Nargis, when a package filmed by Jonathan Pearce, a press office at the aid agency Merlin, led the BBC Ten O’Clock News on May 18, 2008. (Pearce also wrote a three-part series on the subject for the Guardian.) In the two and a half minute report — which was revoiced by BBC correspondent Andrew Harding — all but 32 seconds had been filmed by Merlin. In many cases, such collaborations have worked out well; news organizations receive content at little or no cost, while aid agencies are able to further their mission and reach larger audiences. But there has also been a potentially dangerous blurring of lines.

Fiona Callister, of the Catholic charity CAFOD, said her press office sometimes provided features that went in UK national newspapers unchanged – just re-bylined with the name of a staff feature writer.14 And in a piece from the Observer entitled “In Starvation’s Grip,” with three bylines — Tim Judah, Dominic Nutt, and Peter Beaumont15 — it is not made clear that two of the authors were Observer journalists and one a Christian Aid press officer.

For some, this is a necessary evil; they would say that NGOs are the only entities seriously funding foreign reporting. The distinguished photographer Marcus Bleasdale said recently, “[o]ver the last ten years I would say 80-85 per cent [of my work] has been financed by humanitarian agencies. To give one example, in 2003 I made calls to 20 magazines and newspapers saying I wanted to go to Darfur. Yet I made one call to Human Rights Watch, sorted a day rate, expenses and five days later I was in the field.”16

Bleasdale has had a long and distinguished career, especially in Darfur. But there are concerns about what might happen in less experienced hands than his. Dan Gillmor has called humanitarians acting as reports “almost-journalism.” Some observers argue that as aid agencies become reporters and conform to dominant media logic, they lose opportunities for advocacy and also any credibility they formerly possessed. Yet the real problem appears to be as Gillmor warns: “They’re falling short today in several areas, notably the one that comes hardest to advocates: fairness.”

Certainly broadcasters now appear to be less laissez faire about using NGOs as their unpaid reporters than in the past. The Merlin package used by the BBC was so keen to mention its debt that Merlin was given numerous name-checks. This — in the U.K. at least — may be linked to a heightened sense of responsibility after a succession of scandals in 2007 that revealed “faked” footage in documentaries, and which resulted in both the BBC and the major commercial channel ITV being censured. These scandals themselves did not have anything to do with NGOs but added to a climate of caution in news as well as documentaries. Certainly by acknowledging the provenance, it absolved the news organizations of responsibility if the footage should later prove controversial — especially given that recent crises have included Burma and Gaza.

Second, aid agencies are also adapting by seeking to become citizen journalists themselves. The Disasters Emergency Committee, in its 2007 Sudan appeal, persuaded the three UK party leaders to each record a message that could be put up on YouTube. Save the Children has launched its own “fly on the wall” documentary from Kroo Bay in Sierra Leone. Rachel Palmer of Save the Children said that while numbers remained relatively small, those who clicked onto the site spent on average 4.5 minutes there. But the main success was not explaining development but to “bear witness…to show people the similarity between their own children and an eight-year-old in Sierra Leone.”17.

And in 2008, the British Red Cross even ventured into the world of alternate reality games to build the game Traces of Hope written by the scriptwriter of Bebo’s KateModern. Aimed at 15- to 18-year-olds in the U.K., it attempted to engage players and introduce them to the consequences of the trauma of war, and how the Red Cross helps victims of conflict.

While NGOs are educating themselves in new media, however, they are facing a challenge: citizen journalists are increasingly becoming watchdogs for NGOs, thus consolidating a third trend.

In her 2006 report for the UN Special Envoy, Imogen Wall points out that in Aceh there were two to three mobile phones per refugee camp. When I visited Banda Aceh in 2007, aid agencies had found to their cost that instead of being grateful beneficiaries there was an articulate and determined population using new media (such as texting, and digital photographs) effectively when they felt the reconstruction process was not going quickly enough. They would use such methods often in collaboration with traditional media such as the local newspaper Serambi Indonesia or the local TV news programme Aceh Dalamberita.

“The community is smart in playing the media game,” says Christelle Chapoy of Oxfam in Banda Aceh. “We have had the geuchiks (village chiefs) saying quite openly to us — if you don’t respond to our demands we will call in the media.”18

This may mean unwelcome criticism, or, at its most severe, it can put people in danger. Those aid agencies who find themselves attacked online in one area may find more serious consequences in other parts of the world. As Vincent Lusser of ICRC said: “In a globalised media environment, people even in remote conflict areas are connected to the Internet. Therefore our colleagues in Kabul have to think that what happens in Afghanistan can affect our colleagues elsewhere in the world.”

Conclusion

Citizen journalism can mean that more diverse voices — for example, earthquake survivors in Pakistan, tsunami survivors in Banda Aceh or bloggers in Burma — are being heard. This new wealth of angles can act as a corrective to the previous patriarchal approach where reporters and aid agencies acted as mouthpieces. Neither aid agencies nor the traditional media can return to the control they had in the past. The old certainties about the gatekeeping role that aid agencies had — and journalists utilized — have gone, and both sides are grappling with this new world.

It is important not to be too idealistic about citizen journalism. Without checks and balances, UGC can spread misinformation and even be used as a dangerous weapon — witness the ethnic hatred spread by SMS messages in the aftermath of the December 2007 Kenyan elections.

New media has also seen a potential blurring of boundaries between journalists eager for material but strapped for cash, and aid agencies fighting in a competitive marketplace and using more creative means to get stories placed. If journalists use aid workers’ words and footage they must clearly label it as such. If they are accepting a trip from an aid agency — so-called “beneficent embedding”19 — then they should be honest about it.

If aid agencies act as reporters they must consider whether they are acting as journalists or as advocates. While journalists — if sometimes imperfectly — work on the principle of impartiality, the aid agency is usually there to get a message across: to raise money, to raise awareness, to change a situation. When they act as journalists this often becomes blurred. The danger, as Gillmor points out, is a growth in “almost journalism,” a confusion both for aid agencies as to what they are trying to do, and for the viewer/reader about what they are being presented with.

For those agencies who are turning from traditional media to using their own websites, the key point is that to be successful, such footage and websites need to be of as good quality as those produced by traditional media for sophisticated consumers. The associated cost privileges the efforts of larger and well-funded NGOs.

Meanwhile agencies must realize that they are not the only ones grappling with new media. Citizen journalists have the potential to act as NGOs’ watchdogs, as the mainstream media retreat from foreign reporting. As the experience in Aceh and elsewhere shows, local people are not just grateful beneficiaries; instead, they can be articulate and angry critics.

And finally new information and communication technologies that enable these developments cannot be ignored. The Economist reports that following Mr. Sokor’s appeal, the WFP did boost rations in the Dagahaley refugee camp. Is that blunt text message a harbinger of things to come?

Glenda Cooper is a journalist and academic. She is an associate member of Nuffield College, Oxford. She was a visiting fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism 2007-08 and the 2006-07 Guardian Research Fellow at Nuffield. She is a consulting editor at the Daily Telegraph.

References

Bleasdale, M. Speaking at “The News Carers: Are Aid Groups Doing too much Real Newsgathering? A Debate at the Frontline Club.” New York, February 28, 2008.

Cooper, G. “Anyone Here Survived a Wave, Speak English and Got a Mobile? Aid Agencies, the Media and Reporting Disasters since the Tsunami.” The 14th Guardian Lecture. Nuffield College, Oxford, November 5, 2007.

Cottle, S. and Nolan, D. “Global Humanitarianism and The Changing Aid-Media Field.” Journalism Studies 8, No. 6 (2007), pp. 862-878.

Gowing, N. “New Challenges and Problems for Information Management in Complex Emergencies: Ominous Lessons from the Great Lakes and Eastern Zaire in Late 1996 and early 1997.” Conference paper given at Dispatches from Disaster Zones conference, May 1998.

Hattotuwa, S. “Who’s Afraid of Citizen Journalists?” In TVEP/UNDP, Communicating Disasters. An Asia-Pacific Resource Book, 2007.

Judah, T., Nutt, D. and Beaumont, P. “In Starvation’s Grip.” The Observer, June 9, 2002.

Moeller, S. Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Famine, Disease, War and Death. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Oxfam. “Guide to Media Work in Emergencies.” Internal document, Oxfam GB, Oxford, 2007.

Sutcliffe, T. “Ethics Aside, Citizen Journalists Get Scoops.” The Independent, January 2, 2007.

Notes
  1. The Economist 2007
  2. Cooper 2007
  3. Vaux 2005
  4. Moeller 1999
  5. Interview with Vicky Taylor, May 7 2008
  6. Interview with Samanthi Dissanayake, BBC producer, 7 May 2008
  7. Buerk 1984
  8. Hattotuwa 2007
  9. Email from Ory Okolloh, September 5, 2008
  10. Sutcliffe 2007
  11. Interview with John Naughton, November 27, 2006
  12. Gowing 1998
  13. Oxfam 2007
  14. Telephone interview with Fiona Callister, August 29, 2007
  15. Judah, Nutt, and Beaumont, 2002
  16. Bleasdale 2008
  17. Phone interview Jan 20, 2009
  18. Interview, Banda Aceh, 30 Apr 2007
  19. Cottle and Nolan 2007
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