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Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Citizen Journalism: circumventing the bias in the Western mainstream media

Citizen Journalism: Penetrating the Monopoly of Corporate Media
Ramzy Baroud, English.

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

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

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

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

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

My father’s still silence was now coupled with anger. “No one gives a damn, whether we live or die, slaughtered like sheep and not even a mention on the news.” My father’s angry personal commentaries often followed disappointing news broadcasts like the one on the BBC. Out of this helpless, my insistence on “getting the word out”, was born. And like myself, many others who have become disheartened with the lack of ethics in the world of journalism have taken things into their own hands through “Citizen Journalism”.

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

2002 witnessed the Israeli reinvasion of major West Bank population centers, prompting thousands of peace activists from across the world, including Israel, to travel to the West Bank, most of whom hoped to convey the story beyond the headlines, the forgotten news segment that cannot be filled by a detached reporter based in a five-star hotel in Tel Aviv. Through the implementation of Citizen journalism, scores of activists were provided with a platform. The following is a case in point: Brian Wood — a US based activist who visited the West Bank during the Israeli invasion of Jenin in April 2002 — smuggled himself into the Palestinian refugee camp where hundreds of people were reportedly killed or wounded, would call a friend in Colorado and convey a report regarding what he saw there over a cell phone; the transcribed report would in turn be sent to me in Seattle; I would edit and post it, and also send it to mailing lists of thousands, and eventually to hundreds of thousands. Using the same style, and following the UN failure to investigate the Israeli killings in Jenin, citizen reporters worked together to produce what later became an best seller: Searching Jenin: Eyewitness Accounts of the Israeli Invasion. The book was the fruit of nearly 30 individuals; only two were professional journalists. It was the first, and still the most authoritative response to all the allegations made regarding the two-week long Jenin battle. The book was used as a source for Middle East studies programs in various US universities.

Citizen journalism is not stamp collecting; true, at times it can be a fun and financially rewarding hobby to those willing to hide behind the backyard bushes of Hollywood celebrities, ready to snap the million-dollar photo and sell it to some tabloid. But from my experience, it can be a very useful tool in confronting authority, revealing atrocities and holding those in power to account for their deeds.

If Citizen journalism, using the Internet and other media, succeeds in penetrating the monopoly of the corporate media on news, thus narratives and discourses, participatory democracy might finally recover some of its losses. To achieve that, Citizen journalism must thoroughly analyze what is going wrong in today’s mainstream media and remain focused on what the priorities are, what counts and what truly matters.

— Ramzy Baroud teaches journalism at Australia’s Curtin University of Technology, Malaysia Campus. He is the author of “Writings on the Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People’s Struggle” (Pluto Press, London), and editor in chief of the

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