Media Democracy through Citizen Journalism

When the Tsunami hit hundreds of locations in South East Asia on December 26 last year there were few journalists in place to record the disaster. However, within hours the world was shocked by photographs and video footage of the
terrible tides sweeping up beaches and laying waste to towns and villages across much of the Indian Ocean.

Many of these images were filmed by holiday makers using still and video cameras –    bought for recording happier events in their lives. Some even used cameras built into mobile phones to record the horrific scenes.

Once rescued, the first thing many survivors did was email relatives abroad to let them know they were alive. Some attached what they had seen to those emails. Others posted their experiences on blogs. Before long the amateur footage
was amongst the most startling – these were real eye witness accounts by people who came close to losing their lives and those of their loved ones.

It is possible that such images helped with the raising of funds for disaster relief from individuals who may otherwise have felt less connected to something that occurred thousands of miles away.

Although not a new phenomenon, the impact of amateurs acting as journalists is starkly revealed by coverage of the tsunami. Technology trends are putting into the hands and pockets of ordinary people tools that enable them to become
reporters, where previously only professionals could operate.

With the material they have collected, ordinary people can get published using various online services, such as personal blogs, community websites, discussion forums, or even by emailing the traditional media directly.

For many Tanzanians getting involved in this so called “citizen journalism” may seem out of the question. Whilst relatively cheap to those in wealthier countries, digital cameras and mobile phones with them built in are beyond the reach of many. However with internet cafes so common across Arusha, and strong competition keeping prices low, inventive citizens will find it possible to take part in this new publishing revolution.

If you can get hold of photographs, you can scan them. If you have something to say you can type it. At present video is out of the question, but this shouldn’t stop the budding web journalist.

It is not necessary to have your own blog to take part in this new trend. There are numerous “community blogs” out there which you can join for free and then post articles and comments on. Sites such as MetaFilter allow anyone to add new content on any subject they please. More complex sites such as Kuro5hin require material added by users is checked by other users, and an appearance on the front page is voted on by the community of people who use the site.

Contributing to one of these sites gives you a chance to be read by hundreds or thousands of other people. This is a great way to practice your writing skills as well as make new friends around the world.

Citizen journalism is not limited to individuals participating in text and image based material. One of the newest trends on the internet is “podcasting” named after the popular portable digital audio player – the iPod. Podcasting is the
web version of radio broadcasting. Podcasters record their radio style shows as MP3 files and make them available for download – listeners can save them on their hard drives and listen to them when they want. Those making regular shows can publicise them on a number of web sites, and there is software which can be used to download new shows as soon as they become available.

With most Arushans paying for their internet use by the hour putting together an article for inclusion on a web site (and certainly recording a podcast) will require writing material (or scripts) in advance to reduce time spent editing in the internet café. However it is possible to do, and is a fine opportunity for ordinary people in Tanzania to be read (or heard.)

Interesting sites

Originally published in Arusha Times 353

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