Access to technology and the internet has made it possible for ordinary citizens to report or post eye-witness accounts of important events as they unfold. At the time when agitations against Hosni Mubarak were taking place in Tahrir Square and the Egyptian Government had imposed a blanket ban on the Media reporting of events, it was ordinary citizens who filmed the protests on their mobile phones and then somehow smuggled these across the border! According to Jay Rosen, “A Most Useful Definition of Citizen Journalism”-21 May, 2012, Citizen Journalism takes place, “when the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another.” In most cases, a mobile phone with a sensible camera, internet connection and a YOUTUBE account suffice as “press tools”. The advantage of this kind of reporting lies in the possibility of its being fresh, original and piping hot! When a citizen goes beyond taking photographs on his cell phone and writes on a blog, it becomes even more participatory in nature.
Citizen Journalism is however distinct from professional journalism and so it is more avant-garde, sensational, unregulated, uncensored, and more likely to touch a raw nerve in the viewers or readers of blogs. The existence of social networking sites on the internet have also given a fillip to this “art-brute” form of reporting by the man on the street. Its ability to appeal to the mass sentiment and its popularity have meant that today blogging and citizen journalism are presenting an ever growing challenge to formal and institutionalized journalism. However, the lack of regulation and lack of censorship could mean that what is posted by ordinary citizens might instigate communal tensions in a country like India, or inflame public opinion against the Government as is the case in a country like Syria.
Institutionalised journalism however continues to have its weaknesses. It is a known fact that a good dinner with gifts thrown in might attract a favourable report, while a cold shoulder might result in an unfavourable report. In many cases, the notes taken by an accredited journalist would be developed overnight into a report which would then be taken to the Editor for further editing and changes in order to favour or disfavour a person or a group of people being covered in the report. In many cases, such reports lack the zest or the bite of the fresh news item posted by the ordinary citizen in the form of a tweet or a write -up on a blog. Technology has surely empowered the common citizen to such an extent that he or she is able to develop an interesting report on an event accompanied with photographs on a blog or social networking site.
Citizen Journalism might however not always be about political issues. It could be a write-up on environmental issues such as the poor state of National Parks poor up-keep of animal and bird sanctuaries including in some cases the poor state of rivers in the country like the Yamuna River. In many cases such reports by alert citizens have prompted pro-active action by Governments and Non-Governmental Organisations. Photographs taken of dried river beds, effluent choked rivers, polluting smoke-stacks of industries, blatant violations of traffic rules, and jumping of red lights have had their impact.
Citizen Journalism has had a long history, especially in the West, especially in America after journalists themselves began to question their own predictability of their coverage of the U.S. Presidential elections in 1988. At that time the advent of the Citizen Journalist movement was a countermeasure to an eroding trust in institutionalised media and a general sense of disillusionment with the polity. In the recent past, the Jasmine Revolution which forced the President of Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali out of his seat and the Arab-Spring revolution all saw the rise of active Citizen Journalism that exposed corrupt Governments and gave voice to the common man’s disenchantment with a dictatorial system of governance. In a world where technology has empowered the common man, it is not surprising when there is a proliferation of views from divers people, starting from the grass-root levels and going on to bureaucrats. If Mubarak was ousted from his seat, then it was partly because of those citizen journalists, bloggers and those who tweeted endlessly from their phones. In Libya too, the overturning of a dynasty of the “Desert Fox” could partly have been because of public discontent finding expression in the form of blogs, tweets, and updates on social networking sites. In India, the big brother revolution spearheaded by Anna was an expression of public discontent with corruption in the country. The numerous demonstrations, most of them peaceful lead by Anna Hazare found expression in the form of blogs and tweets. In any case, most accomplished journalists are also accomplished bloggers and tweeters. There is therefore a grey area which is shared by accredited journalists and those who have had no training in Journalism. Growing public discontent, and a increasing demand for changed have ensured that the voice of the citizen journalist is here to stay and will continue to be heard for a long time to come, unless governments evolve a system to “gag the voice of the common man”!