By Samson Chinonso Onwe
The 20th century saw a massive transformation in journalism. Some of its greatest inventions such as the advent of the internet, rapid advancement in technology, and the creation of social platforms, brought with it a momentous evolution which set the ball rolling for a paradigm shift that has challenged and supplanted the dominance of traditional media. Citizen Journalism – an unconventional type of news gathering and reporting, taking place outside of traditional media structures, and which can involve anyone, can be said to be the offspring of this evolution.
The principle of Citizen Journalism is simple; anyone can partake in the information creating process. Today, we live in an internet age where information in forms of images and data are in constant flow, but we are not merely the consumers of this constant flow of information, we are now the creators. With just an internet enabled camera phone, we can report, share, and transmit our lived experiences of significant events in real time, ahead of, and outside of the traditional media structures. This form of participatory journalism has shown to not only help provide robust information and data useful to traditional media, but also serves as a means for checks and balances – holding traditional media structures accountable for biased, inaccurate, or lack of news coverage. Participatory journalism allows the people to tell their own stories by sharing their personal experiences and perspectives. Not only does this reinforce self-identity, but it also helps to highlight different views and adds a variety of dimensions to storytelling, creating a thorough and critical analysis of the subject. Besides that, Citizen Journalism also continues to be a valuable way for ordinary people to express their views, discuss the issues they find important, and amplify their voices towards issues that the mainstream media avoids or neglects, thereby, putting power back into their own hands.
Studies have shown that many citizens believe that traditional media cannot be trusted. This is due to growing commercialisation and increased government interest in controlling content and concentrating ownership. The result of this is the rise of self-serving capitalists who posit themselves as gatekeepers of the media, enriching themselves and controlling the narrative with little or no regard for the truth. Conversely, most citizen journalists are driven by their anti-authoritarian belief, their antipathy to government regulations, a sense of social responsibility, and a will to inform their audience and the public.
All over the world and particularly in Africa, Citizen Journalism has altered and reshaped collective action and mobilisation. There are countless examples of this. In December 2018, in the northern town of Atbara, Sudan, local officials had removed the wheat subsidy causing the price of bread to triple overnight. The people of Sudan having endured years of economic hardship had had enough. An angry crowd burned down the local offices of Omar Al Bashir’s National Congress Party and took to the streets of Atbara chanting “Tasgus, Bess” (‘Fall, That’s all’). As the news spread, so did the protest, and in no time, protest erupted across the country. The protest and civil disobedience would last for about eight months and throughout these times, ordinary people were seen risking their lives to cover and transmit the true reality on ground particularly in areas where traditional media couldn’t access. By sharing these images and reports, their #Blueforsudan soon went viral, garnering international attention with celebrities like Rihanna as well as other Sudanese in diaspora talking about it and sharing. In October 2019, the Omar Al Bashir regime which ruled for about 30 years was finally ended. The Sudan Uprising remains a historical example of how Citizen Journalism in Africa has changed the dynamic of who controls the narrative but there was more to come.
One year later, in October 2020, in a small town called Ughelli, in Delta State Nigeria, Young people with mobile phones captured a video where SARS police officers shot a young Nigerian and took away his Lexus SUV. They proceeded to share these instances over the internet to inform the public of what had been happening. A few days later, just when the first videos and #ENDSARS started to trend, another fresh report surfaced from another part of the country where a 20-year-old musician Daniel Chibuike, also known by his stage name Sleek had been shot and killed in his neighbourhood by SARS officers. Young people who seemingly had had enough took to the streets in angry demonstrations. As news of a protest spread, many more protest began to erupt in various parts of the country, although its major hotspot remained in Lagos. The demonstrations turned out to be a two-week mass protest, one that would become one of the most significant events in the history of the country. Like most protests, the EndSars protest was characterised by arson, looting, roadblocks, and several other social vices. The government responded by sending in soldiers to Lekki-Toll gate where the Lagos protesters convened. The soldiers waited till dusk, switched off the lights, and began shooting into a dark crowd of anthem-singing Nigerian youths. The aftermath of the shooting saw a controversial discordance. At first the military refused to confirm its participation in what was described as a massacre by the international media. When it later did, it denied live rounds were fired. With increasing evidence arising from citizens accounts showing up in the media, it later accepted that live rounds were fired but only to the sky and not into the crowd. Till date, the casualty rate remains unconfirmed, with citizens claiming a higher casualty rate than reported and asking the military to provide the corpses. The Nigerian Government’s ultimate response to enquiries and allegations of human right abuses by international media was to shut down the internet and social platforms for over a year – an attempt to limit access and cripple Citizen Journalism. Still, this attempt was largely sidestepped using Virtual Private Networks.
A few months later, to the east of Africa, in Uganda, the January 2021 presidential election campaign took a noteworthy turn from what had been the norm. Over the years, opposition candidates have reportedly suffered incidences of media blockage by the Museveni administration which has been in power since 1986. Opposition Candidates were reportedly denied access to mainstream broadcasting outlets by government authorities and private owners who fear sanctions. Whereas Museveni appeared in media outlets daily, commissioning new developments such as markets, dams, and bridges. But the series of events leading up to the January 2021 elections changed the course of history. Ordinary citizens took to social platforms to express their social and political frustrations, spawning debates around accountability and governance. They began by recording events and anything they found newsworthy and went on to shared it on social platforms, side-lining the majorly-state – owned traditional media which was being used as a weapon of political warfare. Majority of the young people supported Robert Kyagulanyi, a young musician also known by his stage name Bobi Wine, and rallied support for him using social platforms. Bobi was arrested multiple times and reportedly had his car shot at by the Ugandan police while campaigning and that triggered series of protests and riots across the country, resulting in the death of at least 54 people. The government responded by placing Bobi Wine on effective house arrest, while claiming it was merely providing him with security. The government also shut down the internet a day before the election. When asked how they were able to transmit voting results during the internet blackout, the Chairman of the Election Commission, Byabaka, reportedly replied by saying “we designed our own system” he couldn’t explain how it worked. While Museveni would later be declared winner of the January 2021 presidential election, the impact of Citizen Journalism reverberates.
Meanwhile, Citizen Journalism isn’t always in the form of people fighting against the establishment. In November 2020, when a civil war started between the Ethiopian Federal Forces and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), social media became a second battle ground, with both side seeking to control the narrative, it became a war of the narrative. Tigrayan activists and supporters took to social media and formed the non-profit advocacy group ‘Stand with Tigray’ which they used to raise awareness about the conflict and the arising humanitarian crisis. On the other hand, supporters of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed administration and other pro-government supporters were seen to always counter reports from the Tigrayan side as disinformation and false claims, discrediting local and foreign coverage as biased, manipulated, and merely sympathetic to the Tigrayan cause.
When the Ethiopian Government revoked the credential of an Irish reporter Simon Mark, who reported on rape and right abuses for The New York Times and deported him a week later, their actions sparked a lot of controversies, spurning several arguments around the validity of international journalists reporting on local issues. A rapidly growing school of thought tries to convince us that most Africans believe western reporters more than their local counterparts because they believe they are free from political interference. They argue that African countries have no tradition of press freedom that allow African journalists to report independently. But these are bias generalizations stemming from long sustained stereotypes. To tell a story – particularly one that has complex historical underpinning, one needs more than just a shutter click-this or shutter click-that. It is not just about telling a story; it’s about how the story is told. Local people and local reporters can pick up on local colour and read into situations in a way that international journalist can’t necessarily match. Moreover, while international correspondents swoop in to provide two minutes of a story, local reporters and Citizen Journalists can revisit a story multiple times to make sure that the people fully understand its impact. For them it forms part of their identity, and how they see themselves, not just by reporting negative incidents but by creating a community space for dialogue, debates, shared joy, and shared sorrows.
On the flip side, due to the tremendous benefits of Citizen Journalism, one might be tempted to think that it is Journalistic Immaculata, but it is not. Citizen Journalism is not categorically impeccable and citizens themselves are certainly not devoid of an agenda. During the EndSars protest in Nigeria, the protest acquired dubious political undertones from opposition elements and self-acclaimed activists seeking political leadership via the back door. On top of that, lack of accountability of sources poses even bigger problems, pictures of road accident victims, Nollywood scenes, and other unrelated events were falsely spread during the EndSars protest until they went viral, exacerbating the anger and violence amongst the protesters. The origin of many of these pictures couldn’t be traced and many of those who spread them never bothered to retract them even after they found out they were false. Much more dangers of Citizen Journalism lie in its inherent freedom. Only a very thin line exists between controlling Citizen Journalism and suppressing citizens’ rights and freedom of information thus making it hard for even well-meaning governments to control, as such, dangers of misinformation, disinformation, platform manipulation and propaganda abound. Moreover, as Africa is a continent with a high reported rate of public vigilantism (jungle justice), the enthusiasm that citizen reporting arouses poses a serious issue. The zeal to engage in public matters can blur the line between the role of a simple reporter and righter of wrong. Not to mention that citizen reporting may put the citizens themselves in harm’s way. The questions then become; how then can we optimally harness the benefits of Citizen Journalism while minimising its excesses? Can reporting ever be truly impartial? How can both participant and reporter allow journalistic objectivity and neutrality? To what extent are government and legislative actions permitted? While the answers to these questions may vary for different people depending on their history, culture, beliefs, and practices, one thing is certain, Citizen Journalism is here to stay.
**Samson Chinonso Onwe is a Nigerian writer, publisher and medical professional based in Oxford, United Kingdom.