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December 06 2010

02:35

UN Global Pulse Camp 1.0


(Photo credit: Christopher Fabian of UNICEF & Global Pulse)

Just got back from the UN "Pulse Camp 1.0".

Global Pulse is a new and quite ambitious UN initiative "to improve evidence-based decision-making and close the information gap between the onset of a global crisis and the availability of actionable information to protect the vulnerable" (Full overview at http://www.unglobalpulse.org/about).

read more

August 10 2010

16:21

Saudi Blogger/Activist Jailed for 'Annoying Others'

Although Saudi Arabia was one of the first countries to have been authorized to register domain names in Arabic, it is still one of the most repressive countries when it comes to the Internet.

For example, since 2009 Internet cafes in the country have been required to install hidden cameras, supply a list of customers and websites accesses, not permit the use of prepaid cards or of unauthorized Internet access via satellite, close at midnight and not admit minors. In the latest development of concern, Sheikh Mekhlef bin Dahham al-Shammari, a writer/blogger, human rights activist and social reformer, is in jail. Why? For "annoying others." He has not yet been formally charged.

Blogger Rhymes With Prisoner

Al-Shammari has often written about poverty and unemployment in the kingdom, accusing the government of ignoring these problems because it is obsessed with public morality and keeping men and women apart. He has also highlighted the government's failure to promote tourism, and its discrimination against the Shiite minority. Although a Sunni, he was critical of the influential Saudi preacher Mohammed al-Arifi for referring to one of Iran's most respected Shiite clerics, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, as an "obscene atheist."

In an article published in April of last year, "My Dear Christian", al-Shammari contrasted the work of an American Christian who was killed while helping to protect Palestinian Muslim children with the conditions imposed by Saudi Muslim charities that require its recipients exhibit proper Islamic conduct.

Al-Shammari has been arrested several times in recent years, in part because of his defense of Saudi Arabia's Shiite minority. He told Human Rights Watch that prosecutors used his articles to accuse him of spreading discord among Muslims. His articles criticizing the conservative interpretations of Islam promoted by Saudi officials led to his arrest on May 15, after which he was released on bail. His latest arrest took place on June 15 in Jubail. He was transferred to Damman prison at the start of this month.

Al-Shammari is not the first blogger jailed for seemingly arbitrary reasons in Saudi Arabia. For example, Fouad al Farhan, a blogger known for advocating political reforms, was arrested in 2007 in Jeddah. His arrest was reported by other Arab bloggers, and the Saudi authorities also confirmed he was being held in solitary confinement for "interrogation." No official charges were ever cited or laid. He was released from prison on April 26, 2008. Al Farhan, who is in this thirties, was one of the first Saudi bloggers to dispense with a pseudonym on his site. He was also the first cyber-dissident to be jailed in the country -- but he's far from the last.

According to information from the Arabic Network for Human Rights, Munir alJassas, a prominent Internet activist and defender of the rights of Shiites, has been in jail since November 7, 2009. This is apparently because of his comments and articles on websites and online forums such as Tahara and Shabaket AlRames, where he is one of the most prominent writers.

Free Speech in Saudi Arabia

In the kingdom, free speech is under constant threat. In March, the Saudi cleric Sheikh Abdul-Rahman al-Barrak, a professor of religion at the Imam Muhammad bin Saud Islamic University in Riyadh, declared a fatwa against two journalists. Reuters reported that he "was responding to recent articles in al-Riyadh newspaper that questioned the Sunni Muslim view in Saudi Arabia that adherents of other faiths should be considered unbelievers."

"Anyone who claims this has refuted Islam and should be tried in order to take it back. If not, he should be killed as an apostate from the religion of Islam," read the fatwa.

In another example, the journalist Rozanna al-Yami was sentenced to 60 lashes by a judge because she worked for the Lebanese Broadcast Corporation (LBC), a satellite TV station that shocked conservative Saudis a year ago by broadcasting an interview with a Saudi man talking openly about his sex life.

There was one encouraging development. In June of last year, Saudi Arabia agreed to have its human rights records reviewed by the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, and it welcomed Navi Pillay, the UN high Commissioner for human rights last April. Sheikh Mekhlef bin Dahham al-Shammari was among the few activists who met her.

However, the fact that the authorities have jailed him for such a ridiculous and offensive reason ("annoying others") shows that the kingdom is still not committed to changing its approach to free speech. If this charge is taken seriously by authorities, then how many more bloggers will end up behind bars for similar reasons?

Clothilde Le Coz has been working for Reporters Without Borders in Paris since 2007. She is now the Washington director for this organization, helping to promote press freedom and free speech around the world. In Paris, she was in charge of the Internet Freedom desk and worked especially on China, Iran, Egypt and Thailand. During the time she spent in Paris, she was also updating the "Handbook for Bloggers and Cyberdissidents," published in 2005. Her role is now to get the message out for readers and politicians to be aware of the constant threat journalists are submitted to in many countries.

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January 19 2010

19:15

Ethan Zuckerman: Advocacy, agenda and attention: Unpacking unstated motives in NGO journalism

[If more of our news is going to produced by non-traditional sources — like NGOs who have an interest in promoting their own agenda — how can news consumers sort through their sources and figure out who to believe? Our friend Ethan Zuckerman of Harvard's Berkman Center asks those questions in this essay, which examines a case where a news provider with an agenda reported on an event that may not have happened. This is the seventh part of our series on NGOs and the news. —Josh]

Robbie Honerkamp is one of a few dozen Wikipedians dedicated to improving the vast online encyclopedia’s articles on African topics. He’s well qualified to carry out this work — Honerkamp stepped away from a successful career as a system administrator for Mindspring and Earthlink to help internet service providers (ISPs) in Nigeria grow and expand. His time living in Nigeria gives him an understanding of local politics and culture that gives him an advantage in writing and editing articles focused on West Africa.

When reviewing a list of recently posted articles that focused on Nigeria, Honerkamp was struck by an article titled 2005 killings of Christians in Nigeria. Honerkamp was familiar with conflicts between Muslim and Christian communities in northern Nigeria, but the article appeared to violate Wikipedia’s central principle of NPOV — neutral point of view — by focusing primarily on the killing of Christians. So he began researching the events in Demsa Village, Adamawa State, Nigeria, looking for a fuller account of events. (This author became aware of Honerkamp’s research when he contacted me for any information I might have on these incidents.)

His research quickly hit a wall. The Wikipedia article offered two sources, and the second source cited the first, a report from Compass Direct, an online newsletter associated with the “Christian Persecution” movement. Honerkamp wasn’t able to find confirmation of Compass Direct’s report in the international press, in reputable Nigerian newspapers, or in several news databases he consulted.

It’s not uncommon for news that occurs in rural African communities to go unreported. But Honerkamp was able to find reports of Christian-on-Muslim violence in a similarly rural Nigerian state a year earlier than the reported events in Demsa Village, as well as violence between ethnic groups in Adamawa State, both covered by BBC’s correspondent in Lagos. Why would these stories attract coverage, and an attack of Christians by Muslims go unreported?

An attack without an evidence trail

It took Honerkamp several months of research to find the answer: the incident simply didn’t happen, or didn’t happen the way Compass Direct reported it. The U.S. State Department’s 2005 Country Report on Human Rights Practices reported that “at least ten people were killed in clashes between farmers and herdsmen in Demsa, Adamawa State.” A paper by Emeka Okafor, an academic at the University of Ibadan, referenced “the yearly hostility between cattle rearers and local farmers in Adamawa State,” and reported that the 2005 hostilities were responsible for 28 deaths and the displacement of 2,500 people from Demsa.

In other words, the deaths in Demsa were likely the result of an ongoing conflict between Fulani herders (many of whom are Animists, not Muslims) and farmers in Demsa (whose religious affiliation is unknown, though they may well have been Muslims, as the state was an Emirate within the Sultanate of Sokoto before the borders of contemporary Nigeria were established). Honerkamp’s research uncovered that these subtleties weren’t reported in any of the outlets that picked up the story, yet Christian Persecution Information declared the story one of the Top 10 Christian Persecution News Stories of 2005.

Based on his research, Honerkamp deleted the article in question from Wikipedia. His careful research of the story may not be the norm for Wikipedia, but it points to the value of Wikipedia’s policy prohibiting original research, which requires articles to source their claims or face speedy deletion. It also serves an example of one of Wikipedia’s subtler features — its ability to improve over time. Honerkamp was searching Wikipedia for weak articles which he could improve, and researched the Demsa story in the hopes of strengthening the encyclopedia.

The story reported by Compass Direct, if incorrect, was certainly consistent with its stated mission: “Compass Direct is a Christian news service dedicated to providing exclusive news, penetrating reports, moving interviews and insightful analyses of situations and events facing Christians persecuted for their faith.” [Note: Since Ethan wrote this paragraph, Compass Direct has revised their "about" page (formerly here) to remove the first "Christian" in that quote, keeping the second. —Josh] While their website includes little information about the organization beyond their location in Santa Ana, California, they share a webserver with Open Doors International, a Christian missionary organization dedicated to outreach to “the persecuted church.”

When agendas and reporting mix

While Compass Direct makes no claims to provide unbiased, balanced news, the role of organizations such as Compass Direct in serving as news producers and distributors is becoming increasingly important, and the implications of this need to be explored. In many parts of the developing world, aid agencies and religious missions are the only organizations with international reach that report breaking news. As the world of print journalism struggles to find a new economic model, we’re likely to see more cuts in news that’s expensive to produce. This likely means fewer foreign correspondents, more reliance on newswires, and more parts of the world where no international news organizations have a presence. In other words, while we tend to think of our digital age as one of information abundance, international news, especially news from outside capital cities, increasingly face a situation of scarcity.

In the near future, international news reporting will involve fewer reports from newswires and foreign correspondents, and include more content from citizen media (reports from ordinary citizens via blogs, Twitter, photo and video-sharing services), from local media reaching international audiences through websites, and from NGOs, including religious organizations, reporting news either as their primary focus, or to support their primary activities. Such a broad set of citizen and professional reporters may help alleviate scarcity, but it also opens a set of questions about reliability, accuracy, and the challenge of triangulating between media sources. While there’s a longstanding debate about the reliability of citizen media in news reporting,1 there has been less discussion about the role that NGOs play and the reliability of the reporting they produce.

In parts of the world that are dangerous and difficult for journalists to reach, aid workers are often the only eyewitnesses to events whom journalists know how to contact. In 2008, Reuters reported a recent clash between government and rebel forces in N’Djamena with reference to only a single source, the local head of Médecins Sans Frontières, who was able to offer a total of dead and wounded, coordinating counting efforts with the Red Cross. These stories are especially common in rural areas; a 2007 Reuters story on refugee movements in northwest Central African Republic is reported with a Geneva dateline, with all details and quotes provided by a Red Cross spokeswoman who’d recently returned from the area.

These examples are not intended to suggest that either Reuters or the NGOs they rely on to report events are taking journalistic shortcuts, or that we should be suspicious of the factual content of these reports. But they do suggest that certain types of news reporting require the cooperation of NGOs who have access to first-hand information that is difficult or impossible for journalists to access. Readers, in turn, need to be aware of the needs and motivations of these organizations.

The needs of fundraising

Most relief organizations are constantly engaged in the process of fundraising. Fundraising is easiest to accomplish when disasters — natural or man-made — are widely reported on. In the wake of the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, the American Red Cross (ARC) saw an almost unprecedented opportunity to raise money and replenish blood banks as national media attention focused exclusively on the attacks and their aftermath.

The ARC found itself embroiled in controversy almost immediately. There were relatively few wounded in the 9/11 attacks, so the donated blood wasn’t helping 9/11 victims, but helping replenish Red Cross stocks. As early as September 12, the executive director of America’s Blood Centers contacted the ARC and asked them to stop collecting blood as the centers were over supply and in danger of having to throw out donated blood. A similar controversy opened over fiscal donations. The ARC deposited funds collected in the wake of 9/11 into a dedicated “Liberty Fund,” which quickly accumulated $543 million. Less than one third of the funds raised were spent on September 11 relief efforts. ARC President Bernadine Healy declared the organization’s intentions to spend the remaining money on preparing the organization to respond to future terrorist attacks. New York Attorney General Elliot Spitzer responded by threatening legal action, and Healy resigned her post shortly afterwards.

In the wake of the 9/11 controversy, it’s easy to understand the decision of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to stop fundraising within a week of the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Red Cross-affiliated organizations raised $1.2 billion in thirty days, aided in part by non-stop media coverage of the crisis. A study conducted by Reuters AlertNet, a newswire dedicated to humanitarian issues, concluded that the tsunami received more media attention within six weeks than ten critical international emergencies had received in the previous year. Had ARC not faced such harsh criticism for reallocating funds years earlier, it’s possible that the Red Cross would have continued raising funds and allocated them to other underfunded humanitarian crises.

Instead, aid organizations have figured out that they need to redirect media attention to redirect relief funds. AlertNet, in conjunction with aid agencies, academics and activists, compiles a list of “forgotten emergencies” that is designed to direct media attention to these situations in hopes of opening the pockets of individual and government donors. Some aid organizations produce similar lists. Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF) called their list the “top ten underreported humanitarian stories” through 2007, explicitly linking the importance of media attention to addressing these crises.

The risks of reporters trusting NGOs

While it is vitally important to draw attention to the desperate situations faced by individuals around the world, such as the ethnic Somali people in eastern Ethiopia, reporters — faced with an increasing need to rely on humanitarian NGOs for information or access — are at risk of being manipulated by humanitarian organizations to direct attention to crises.

In November 2007, UNAIDS — an intergovernmental organization that supports itself in part through direct donations, competing for resources with AIDS prevention NGOs — acknowledged that their organization had systematically overestimated the spread of AIDS, and subsequently cut their estimate of new HIV infections by 40 percent. Critics complained that UNAIDS founder, Dr. Peter Piot, had allowed numbers to remain inflated to create a sense of urgency and raise money to support HIV/AIDS research. Public health specialist and author Ellen Epstein reacted to the UNAIDS revisions by saying, “There was a tendency toward alarmism, and that fit perhaps a certain fundraising agenda. I hope these new numbers will help refocus the response in a more pragmatic way.” The alarmism the original numbers generated had real fiscal implications: millions of dollars were spent addressing HIV/AIDS in countries that turned out to have very low incidences of the disease, like Ghana. Had UNAIDS revised their numbers earlier, it’s likely that health professionals would have refocused some funds on endemic diseases like malaria. Or those funds might never have been raised, as media attention to AIDS far outpaces attention to malaria, TB, and other diseases.

It’s a mistake to read the UNAIDS revisions as an isolated case of bad actors manipulating data to their benefit. Rather, it is better understood as a result of a system which encourages activists, researchers and relief workers to seek media attention for their causes, while asking them to serve as primary sources for reporting on the same issues. Despite strong institutional admonitions to remain neutral in the face of conflicts, the Red Cross has large, professional fundraising and communications departments, whose job it is to ensure that crises are well marketed and monetized.

A different model

Other relief organizations are more explicit about their role as advocates. MSF was founded by a group of French doctors who had worked for the Red Cross during the Biafran War. They became convinced that it was their duty not just to heal, but to speak out about Nigeria’s attack on health workers and hospitals. In 1970, they formed an organization centered on “victim’s rights,” which explicitly prioritized protecting victims over political neutrality. This responsibility to witness — termed témoignage within MSF circles — makes reporting and advocacy an explicit element of MSF’s organizational mission.2

MSF’s focus on victim advocacy sometimes leads the organization to public confrontations with UN peacekeeping missions. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, MSF has recently criticized the UN Mission in the DRC (MONUC) for providing insufficient protection to civilians, sparking a small wave of press stories about the failures of the UN force. While MSF’s role as an advocacy organization gives the organization reason to point to the threat to civilians in the eastern DRC, there’s a sense in which MSF’s critique is self-serving. If MONUC can’t protect MSF in the eastern Congo, MSF has to invest its own funding to hire security personnel, or cut operations. While this doesn’t invalidate MSF’s critique, it requires readers of news stories citing the MSF critique to do some careful interpretation. MSF is outraged not just on behalf of victims, but because MONUC’s failures complicate MSF efforts.

Clearly there’s a vast difference between cases in which an NGO bends the truth to advance an ideological agenda, as Compass Direct seems to have done, and cases where MSF’s valid and appropriate criticism of MONUC efforts has the secondary purpose of advocating better protection for MSF workers (and, perhaps, supporting MSF fundraising efforts). Instances like the UNAIDS case illustrate how confusing this landscape can be: Was UNAIDS reporting on the urgency of AIDS statistics a case of bending the truth to advance their goals, or legitimate advocacy to draw attention to a serious global issue?

A need for news literacy

As the world of journalism becomes more complicated and multifaceted, we’re (re)discovering the need for an important form of literacy. We need to know who we’re reading, and understand how the perspectives and agendas of those providing the information shape coverage. And we need to triangulate between sources of reporting, examining how the same events are covered — or not covered — through different eyes.

This suggested hermeneutic for newsreading isn’t actually new. Prior to the rise of citizen media, of wiki-based participatory journalism, and of NGOs acting as journalists, we would have been wise to carefully consider potential commercial and ideological biases in professional media. This moment of abrupt change in journalism brings these issues to the forefront, and opens the opportunity for us to ensure that critical reading includes an understanding of NGO motives in reporting the news, and the need to contextualize NGO reporting as we should contextualize citizen and professional reporting.

The need to contextualize and triangulate presents special challenges for reporting from disconnected parts of the developing world. If NGOs are the only accessible sources for reports from Central Africa, a precursor to triangulation may be identifying and cultivating local media in order to check NGO reports against reporting and opinion from the ground. AllAfrica.com has worked since 1997 to bring local papers in Africa online, republishing content digitally and sharing ad revenue with publishers. This sort of effort makes it more likely that researchers like Honerkamp can check reports against local reporting, though this is not always possible — Honerkamp checked AllAfrica and wasn’t able to find papers covering the Demsa incident.

The rise of strong local journalistic institutions also enables the active critique of NGO-led news coverage. Journalists like Andrew Mwenda, a passionate critic of international aid to Africa, are beginning to have a global platform for their views. Mwenda’s Kampala-based paper, The Independent, has established itself as a committed critic of local government, and is likely to be an effective critic of NGOs operating in the Great Lakes region. The paper has recently become available online, and presents careful readers with another news source for possible triangulation of NGO-sourced news.

As digital technology becomes more prevalent in the developing world, it’s possible that more individuals in undercovered parts of the globe will begin to engage with media as critics and fact-checkers. Bloggers in much of the world pride themselves on their abilities as fact-checkers, forcing mainstream media sources to be careful reporters and to retract or correct stories demonstrated to be incorrect. One approach to address the scarcity of media sources involves encouraging more citizen reporting, but also citizen critique of existing sources. When critiques are aggressive but fair, they help keep a news ecosystem healthy, preventing incorrect stories from spreading too far, and helping professional journalists discover a new set of sources and potential experts on future stories. Critically, a healthy ecosystem punishes news sources that consistently get stories wrong. The fact that Compass Direct has suffered no apparent ill effects from promoting and distributing the Demsa story suggests that its readers lack the ability, the information, or the motivation to check its stories.

Navigating the new landscape of news will require local media from developing nations available to the entire world. It will require strong local critics like The Independent. It will require us to approach reports from NGOs with a critical eye and an understanding of the financial, political and ideological dynamics that underly their reporting. It will benefit from a growing ecosystem of citizen media and from the ability of individuals to hold news providers accountable. Most critically, it requires us to hope that new types of attention amplifiers, like Wikipedia, are staffed by critical readers, like Honerkamp. Unfortunately, those informed readers are the exception, not the rule.

Ethan Zuckerman is a senior researcher at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. His work at Berkman focuses on the impact of technology on the developing world. With Rebecca MacKinnon, he launched Global Voices, an international citizen media community which reports on news and opinion from the developing world and works to protect free speech rights online. Prior to joining the Berkman Center, Ethan founded Geekcorps, a non-profit technology volunteer corps that pairs skilled volunteers from US and European high tech companies with businesses in emerging nations for one to four month volunteer tours. Before that, he helped found Tripod, an early pioneer in the web community space.

Photo of Ethan Zuckerman by Joi Ito used under a Creative Commons license.

Notes
  1. See Nicholas Lemann, Amateur Hour, and Dan Gillmor, We the Media.
  2. Peter Redfield discusses the role of témoignage and MSF’s mission in “A less modest witness,” American Ethnologist, Vol. 33 No. 1, pp.3-26.

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

December 18 2009

21:00

Activist-Journalists Bring Citizen, Pro Media Together at COP15

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK -- This past Saturday, on a crisp afternoon in Copenhagen, Jacob Wheeler and Rick Fuentes, two amateur journalists with the non-profit media start-up the UpTake, walked alongside a mostly peacefully stream of demonstrators. Roughly half of the total police force in Denmark followed in step. Conspicuous among the crowd were the hundreds of ad hoc reporters with serious-looking digital SLRs slung around their necks.

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The demonstration was for COP15, the United Nations climate change talks in Copenhagen the past two weeks. For 10 days, more than 3,000 accredited media and countless numbers of unaccredited bloggers and NGO delegates have gathered in Denmark to report on the event.

After pushing through the thousands of people packed into the main square, Wheeler and Fuentes emerged at the head of the march. Holding a tiny Canon high-definition camera and microphone in his ungloved hands, Wheeler was cheerfully ready for anything. Though he's a professional writer, camera work was new for him.

"When I write I have to be specific," he said. "Today I'm not being specific. I just want a panoramic of what's happening." Wheeler, who lived in Denmark at one point, ended up providing an informed perspective about what was going on in the streets.

A couple hours into the march, Wheeler passed a woman with bleached blonde hair, orange snowpants and a bouquet of fake flowers who was cruising along on roller-skates. She turned out to be a kind of citizen journalist herself, producing video footage for her "TV station," which turned out to be a YouTube channel she operated with her boyfriend. Their video camera was secured on a small black bicycle trailer and pulled by a friend.

Wheeler shot several minutes of tape as the woman spoke in English mixed with Spanish and Danish about covering refugee camps. "Those are nice flowers," he told her at one point. The woman smiled and showed a microphone hidden in the bouquet.

"That was great!" Wheeler said after breaking away to find his next interview subject.

The UpTake Takes Off

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The UpTake rose to prominence 16 months ago during the Republican National Convention. Protestors clashed with the police in the streets of Minneapolis-St. Paul, and the UpTake's camera-wielding reporters were there to broadcast in real time.

"When things started happening on the streets, which no one fully expected, we were ready to go live with it," said Jason Barnett, the UpTake's founder and executive director. The UpTake was founded because, as Barnett explained, there was an opportunity to provide footage that no one else would have.

It was citizen journalism at its newest and rawest -- a classic example of a nimble group of camera-wielding documentarians infiltrating areas traditional media either couldn't access or didn't have the resources to cover.

Today, the UpTake illustrates how multi-platform groups are redefining relationships between traditional news, citizen journalist groups and a more nebulous, broader and influential group of what you might call activist-journalists. Most are liberal -- and proud of it. As Barnett says of the UpTake, "We've never tried to hide our progressive background."

Unique Alliances

COP15 helped inspire unique alliances between NGOs, citizen journalist groups like the UpTake, and established publications such as the Nation, Grist and Mother Jones. Now these journalists are working with the groups they once reported on. These partnerships are as intertwined and intricate as a circuit board on the UN-issued Sony Ericsson phones so many of the press and delegates were loaned for the 10 days in Denmark. The UpTake, for instance, is part of the U.S.-based the Media Consortium, a coalition that includes Salon, Mother Jones and the Nation.

Conservative groups tend to try to control the message of independents more, some suggest, which makes guerilla-style reporting difficult. Though Barnett points out that, as a non-partisan organization, the UpTake's training is open to anyone.

These alliances are mutually beneficial. News outlets don't have the resources they once did, especially for international and investigative reporting. Then there are independent journalists who find themselves as lone correspondents with no editorial backup or multimedia support. NGOs, meanwhile, have the mass mobilization ability to spread large amounts of information quickly.

The UpTake only received a third of the funding it wanted from non-profit foundations in order to cover the story, so could only send four people to Copenhagen: its executive director, executive producer, a writer-turned-impromptu videographer, and a one-time CBS reporter now working at a public relations firm.

When it came to COP15, "the idea was to go in with a unified voice [in collaboration] with traditional media," said Barnett. If the Nation needs a video to post on its site, the UpTake's got its back. If writer Naomi Klein needs a transcript from an interview, the UpTake will email it. And if the UpTake needs access to big names, they can call on their accredited partners. As the Nation noted in its December 21 issue, the goal was to create wall-to-wall coverage" of the event.

Hear the UpTake's Jason Barnett talk about media biases and his agenda -- or lack thereof:

Press Center for the Unofficial Press

For their part, traditional media -- Reuters, BBC and Agence France-Presse, for starters -- were cloistered in rented white offices at the Bella Center. Groups such as the UpTake, meanwhile, formed their own headquarters. Tcktcktck, an NGO, commandeered The Huset, an expansive bunker-style café, as a home for independent media and bloggers. Dubbed the Fresh Air Center, organizers described it as a "rapid response digital media hub." (This story was partly written from The Huset.)

One omnipresent figure there was Richard Graves, a 20-something television producer who founded Fired Up Media and Project Survival Media, a citizen journalist program that trains environmental campaigners to tell local stories about climate change. He was hired by Tcktcktck to lead its media offerings. (His official title is blogger and online campaigner.)

Hear Tcktcktck's online campaigner Richard Graves talk about how many journalists became activists:

Working 18-hour days and already looking exhausted by Day 3 of the convention, Graves performed his activist duties (a term he dislikes) to cross-post Tcktcktck pieces on Huffington Post. Then, switching into his journalist role, he wrote a feature for Grist.

"It was created for people who wanted to get involved, who care about the issue, but are sometimes locked out of process," Graves said of the Fresh Air Center. "You need professional accreditation from an NGO even to get in the door [at COP15]. We wanted to give a way for independent journalists [to participate] who might not be recognized by UN, which has incredibly stringent rules for online journalists."

Hear Graves on how activists are filling the investigative shoes that some traditional media have stepped out of:

Back on the streets of Copenhagen during Saturday's demonstration, the UpTake's Wheeler pushed on into the night after Fuentes headed back to a rented apartment to upload footage from the first few hours.

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At one point, Wheeler chased down a rumor that Danish fashion model Helena Christensen was participating in the demonstration. When he finally packed it in, Wheeler had hours of footage of an event that was dominating world media. He headed back to his own apartment to upload the footage for all of the UpTake's media partners -- Mother Jones, the Nation, Tcktcktck -- so they could distribute it out via the networks buzzing throughout the city and beyond.

Photos of the protests are by niOS via Flickr.

Craille Maguire Gillies is an award-winning writer. A former editor at the travel magazine enRoute and the online magazine Unlimited, her work has appeared in the Globe And Mail and Canadian Geographic. Follow her on Twitter at @Craille.

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