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  30 July 2008
“Citizen journalists are playing a big role in the Arab world”

"Citizen journalists report on how the world really is," says Sashi Kumar, Chairman of the Media Development Foundation at the Asian College of Journalism in India. Kumar, along with Nahla Al Shahhal, a freelance journalist contributing to the Al Hayat daily in Lebanon; Ayman Al-Sayyad, editor-in-chief of Egypt's Weghat Nazar magazine; and Jihad Al Khazen, a columnist for the Al Hayat daily in London, spoke with APN about the swell of citizen journalism in the Arab world.

Al Shahhal, Kumar, Al-Sayyad and Al Khazen participated as panellists at the Arab Media Forum 2008. In their respective panels, titled "Freedom - the new battlefront for Arab cyber media," "Pushing Technology Boundaries," and "Are Transformations Breaking the Traditional Mould of Arab Media?" they discussed how technology has resulted in a surge of citizen journalism in the Arab world.

What exactly is citizen journalism?

Kumar explains that the term implies that "the function of news making belongs to the public sphere." Al-Sayyad elaborates further, clarifying that citizen journalists "are members of the general public who provide news materials, albeit outside the framework of professional journalism, such as bloggers or the public (eye witnesses) who provide pictures or video footage of incidents in the areas in which they live."

Citizen journalism is flourishing in the Arab world today where, as Al Khazen pointed out, the "trend is toward independent newspapers and electronic press. Arab countries are now allowing for independent and privately owned media." Access to the Internet has expanded rapidly throughout the new millennium and many active citizens have seized the opportunity to use technology to their advantage; giving the world a different taste of how life is in their region than the mainstream publications are providing.

"They have more compassion and understanding of the current events they're experiencing [than professional journalists]," Kumar tells APN.

The increase in Arab consumers using the Internet has spurred many governments to limit access and broaden their control over the technology. Khazen spoke at the Arab Media Forum of the restrictions on mainstream media but clarifies to APN that "citizen journalists have far less restrictions."

"They must be doing a good job too because they're annoying Arab governments," Al Khazen jests. "They cannot control the blogs."

Despite controls and limitations that some Arab states have tried to place on the Internet, freelance journalists Al Shahhal boasts that the Arab world has the highest percentage of bloggers and citizen journalists in the world. Touching upon the influence of citizen journalists, she proceeds to say that it was the expansive network of bloggers in the country that orchestrated the general strike that swept Egypt on 6 April. "They told people to stay at home that day," she explained. "It gives you an idea of the power of bloggers."

Since the bloggers initiated the general strike they have also adopted the responsibility of reporting on it. "The recent labour strikes in Egypt have not been covered except by the bloggers who happened to be there in large numbers," says Al-Sayyad, of Egypt's Weghat Nazar magazine.

"Citizen journalists are playing a big role in the Arab world," Kumar stated. Particularly in areas of the region that are currently unstable, Kumar emphasized the importance of citizen journalists, not only to disseminate the news through their own methods - be it blogs, mobile networks or newsletters - but also to give professional journalists stationed in the area a "real idea of what is happening on the ground."

"Professional journalists can't really report from the five-star hotels they're kept in," Kumar mused. "Citizen journalists report on how the world really is."

While speaking at the Arab Media Forum, Kumar had brazenly stated that "truth is only coming through citizen journalism;" a statement that he qualifies to APN by explaining that, in the Arab world, "professional journalism is artificial and stagnated - there is no free media in the Gulf." He continues to clarify that the emergence of citizen journalism is countering the "pre-emptive censorship and sins of omission" of professional journalists in the region. "Professional journalism is being challenged; there is a paradigm-shift taking place. The people are now able to speak to power with modern technology."

Al Shahhal does not entirely agree with Kumar's suggestion that citizen journalists are the sole harbingers of truth in the region. "There are newspapers with a large margin of independence and freedom," she says, naming the relatively young Al Akhbar daily in Beirut and the Al Masri Al Youm daily in Egypt as two examples. The website of the former has become one of the most popular online Arab news sources since its establishment less than two years ago. Despite these examples of liberty Al Shahhal does admit to there being "many taboos and red lines."

Where the two do agree is on the necessity for a free web. Speaking of the importance of the Internet, Kumar says that the web should be free and open. "It's the best approximation we have to a public sphere; open irrespective of creed or class."

The Arab Media Forum 2008 was held in Dubai on 23-24 April. Hosted by the Dubai Press Club, the 7th annual Forum was themed "Bridging Arab Media Through Technology" and focused on the impact of new technologies on the dynamics of the media industry.