The resurgence of citizen journalism in the Middle East
March 31, 2012. Salmabad village, South of the Bahraini capital Manama.
22-year-old freelance photo-journalist Ahmed Ismail tags along with a group of anti-government protesters in the dead of the night. As the clock strikes 12, slogans against the Gulf kingdom’s ruling monarchy, and the impending Bahrain Grand Prix scheduled to be held a few weeks later, ring out. Minutes later, a cordon of the country’s security forces fire tear-gas and rubber bullets into the mostly unarmed crowd. It is alleged that at this time, live ammunition rounds were added to this intense mix of firepower. A stray bullet strikes Hassan in his thigh, severing a major artery.
As April 1 dawned on Bahrain, Ahmed lay dead at the Salmaniya Medical Complex, the country’s major hospital. His only crime? Carrying a video camera.
The start of the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa in 2011 brought with it hope, as it did destruction and despair for many. With this tinge of hope came the resurgence of a mission undertaken by the youth of the Spring – that of uncovering the truth. Mobile phones, video cameras, Facebook, Twitter: these were the tools employed by the self-proclaimed citizen journalists of the Arab region. Their objective? Document, record, inform. The goals that the media at large failed to achieve, in their views.
Hassan’s example is only one of many in regions generally untouched by the glaring eye of the media, especially those that consider themselves a part of the ‘mainstream’. Consider this: The outcry following Hassan’s death was limited to a few statements from authorities, clippings from Western media outlets, zero debate from the country’s media, and heavy cries on-ground, which were almost immediately subdued in the aftermath. This pattern of self-censorship imposed by several regimes around the world has further driven the rise of keyboard warriors and citizen journalists. The extent of their participation in bringing out the truth places them in potential live-wire situations, such as Hassan’s involvement in the demonstration in Salmabad.
The issue, ultimately, boils down to the absence of a mechanism to place the onus of belief on official narratives. Simply put, it is very difficult to believe everything put out by media outlets in these countries, given that everything is rubber-stamped by regimes and passes only under the watchful eye of those in power.
Take Syria for example. Initial media reports out of the country pegged this pro-democracy experiment by activists as another heroic attempt to establish a change in regime. Most of the media played to the tune of the West, speaking of ‘who controls what’. However, the true extent of the Assad regime’s brutal acts against its citizens were accorded sincere mentions only by those on ground, majority of them citizen journalists or stringers for media outlets, many of who won awards for their work.
Enter Omar Mohammed, aka ‘Mosul Eye’. In 2014, while the world was still coming to terms with the speed of Islamist takeovers in Iraq, and while unspeakable acts of evil continued to take place around him, the conviction and drive of Omar made sure that the world was introduced to the atrocities of living under the rule of Daesh (The Islamic State).
Although Omar identifies as a historian and a blogger rather than a citizen journalist, it is undeniable that his work falls under the ambit of what several youths in these regions aspire to be. Bringing horrific realities to light requires the same spirit exhibited by many across the relatively oppressed regions of the world, for it is also reality that at the end of the day, truth always triumphs.
There is a fine line between reality and propaganda. What gets lost in all of this is the truth, the facts that affect those suffering the most. How else, then, does one justify that the Press Freedom Index of 2018 portrays the Middle East as being the most dangerous regions in the world with regards to the freedom of journalists? The answer is simple: suppression. The counter-answer is even simpler: A new brand of journalism. We’re witnessing the birth and development of a crucial era of citizen-driven journalism.
So while the self-proclaimed champions of press freedom in some of these nations try to whitewash their unjust policies, the undying spirit of the free-willed prevails. The optics of this spirit might not be visible to the wider audience initially, but time eventually catches up.
Featured Image Courtesy: Walt Handlesman, Newsday
Omar Mohammed (Mosul Eye) is going to address the students of Manipal Academy of Higher Education on February 8, through a video conference session, during Article-19, the core media event of School of Communication, Manipal.
The views in this article do not necessarily reflect the organisation’s views.
The Manipal Journal is the official media partner for Article-19 2019, being conducted on February 7, 8, and 9, 2019.