Citizen Journalism – Not Quite There Yet
The Syrian Revolution is one of history’s most documented and widely reported conflicts. Thanks to the Internet and the prevalence of mobile phone cameras, demonstrations and consequential regime crackdowns and abuses can be bought to the world’s attention in real time. Citizen Journalism has come of age, and the Syrian Revolution has heralded a new era, where established media has been displaced by the humble citizen journalist.
Har har, yeah right. Speaking as a citizen journalist myself, and someone who has given numerous interviews to the BBC over a ten months period, I can confidently say that when push comes to shove, and when conditions get extremely tough, with the Internet, mobile and land lines and electricity cut off by a regime hell bent on bringing a country to heel, the citizen journalist will sadly find that his or her ability to tell the world of the shells falling around them has been reduced to near zero.
Want to see an example? Check out Big Al from Homs, an excellent blogger who never the less has to keep his writings on his computer, during those all too frequent days when the Internet and/or electricity are cut in Homs. A single post will contain a week’s worth of thoughts.
I had much the same experience when I was in Homs in February. During that month, I had given several interviews to the BBC. At one point, a gun fight erupted at the end of my street as I was on air. Pretty dramatic stuff, with me crawling on the floor and scurrying into the hall way as I reassured the World Have Your Say presenter that yes, I was fine, no need for me to get off the air (especially not with a zillion people listening). A few hours later I was able to take part in another discussion on the BBC. Citizen journalism at its finest.
Fast forward a week later, and my neighborhood was dead smack in the middle of the Syrian Army’s offensive into Baba Amr. Electricity, Internet and mobile phones had been cut for days. I was reduced to listening to the news on medium wave radio. Quite a nice radio, but I was totally useless as far as being able to report on what was happening around me. Some activists are lucky enough to have satellite phones, but that’s really cutting edge. And if the army started searching my street, being caught with one would have meant an instant bullet in the head. Only in Syria is a Skype account and satellite phone considered “tools of terrorism”.
I hadn’t expected to get much detailed information on the radio, just the usual “The Syrian Army is reported to be shelling Baba Amr but we can’t confirm those reports because that slacker Amjad hasn’t been able to talk to us.” Boy, was I wrong. The BBC’s Paul Wood was on the edge of Homs, and was reporting on the types of artillery being used and how many explosions per minute he could hear. During the week, he managed to get inside Baba Amr itself, and tell the world that T-72 tanks were position at the Baath University Road and near a children’s playground. Which quickly put paid to the wild plan I had of making a dash for it at night. Apparently both routes I’d considered were blocked by big ass Cold War era main battle tanks sporting 125 mm cannons.
The regime’s attack on Baba Amr in February 2012 serves to illustrate the limitations of citizen journalism. Even assuming that everything reported by a citizen journalist is 100% accurate, citizen journalists just don’t have the resources to get the news out from areas hardest hit by war or massive natural disasters. When you are reporting on a dictatorship’s oppression, you have to rely on the electricity and communications network provided by the very same dictatorship, and which can be switched off on a whim. The hardest hit areas are the ones that the world most urgently need to know about, and only established and experienced news organizations like the BBC have the resources and veteran staff required to go into such areas and get the news out.
Thankfully, Paul Wood managed live through the Syrian Army’s attacks, which sadly took the lives of the veteran war correspondent Marie Colvin and the photographer Rémi Ochlik. I myself managed to leave after ten days of being trapped in my home, but during that time, I might as well have been on the moon for all the use I was.