The Year of the Citizen Journalist

Author ········· Sophie Chamas
Published ······ Issue 05, Spring 2012
Section ·······  New Media

Published in Kalimat, Issue 05, Spring 2012 (buy this issue)

One of the many phenomena to emerge from the cracks and fissures that the ongoing Arab revolutions stomped into the socio-political geographies of their host countries has been the citizen-journalist.

On an almost daily basis over the last year, “ordinary” men, women and children from Egypt to Yemen have braved human stampedes, police batons, tear gas and more to face army tanks with their camera phones, taking it upon themselves to document the colossal events unfolding around them. They have cut the informational umbilical chord that keeps us dependent on professional news agencies to tell our stories – agencies that filter our narratives, wring half the juice out of them, and remould them to fit with preconceived labels and tags, until we can no longer recognise ourselves, our countrymen, our cultures, or our causes in them.

Like Clark Kent spontaneously ripping his suit off in a phone booth, the Arab citizen of this historic moment suddenly transforms into a documentarian while walking to university or buying groceries. With the click of a button, this citizen metamorphoses from a helpless and “passive” observer to a human conduit for information and perspective, generously lending his or her eyes and ears to the world, inviting us to re-witness events as they unfolded dangerously close to his or her body, without the imposing commentary of a news anchor or political analyst, without any disinfectant or a good scrub. This citizen-journalist brings us raw, messy, often confusing images and noises which overwhelm us as they did the amateur documentarian. With this “click”, the citizen reclaims his or her reflection, which has for so long been projected to the world by others who claim to understand the Arab people better than they understand themselves. As many Arabs have so bravely demonstrated over the last year, they no longer want to be spoken for. Instead, through their citizen-journalism, they invite the international community to engage in a conversation with each and every one of them directly, to speak to them without the mediation of a news agency, political scientist, or government.

In response to this anarchic “citizen media”, non-profit organisations such as the Egypt-based Mosireen have emerged to encourage this increasingly popular form of grassroots reporting. Based in Downtown Cairo, Mosireen is a non-profit media centre founded by a collective of filmmakers, citizen-journalists and activists. They offer training, technical support and a media library to the public, and host film screenings and events. Not only are groups such as this continuously working to gather as much footage as they can to build an easily accessible archive of visual memories of the revolution, they are trying to maintain the momentum and increase the growth of this “citizen media”, providing Egyptians with editing facilities, camera and sound equipment for rent, and hosting training workshops.

This “street news” can be thought of as post-modern in the sense that it calls into question the popular and often unchallenged assumption that news is truth – that what we see on CNN or BBC is an objective account of facts on the ground. These videos, coming at us from different angles with little more than a brief caption by way of a guiding narrative, offer up, in a way, anti-truths. Saturated with subjectivity, they highlight the nuance that becomes apparent when multiple perspectives are lined up side by side. Instead of telling the viewer, “this is what is happening”, the citizen-journalist proclaims, “this is what I see and hear” and it is up to the observer to make of it what he or she will, and to go in search of more visual puzzle pieces to build a bigger picture with.

Lacking the clean, dry voice of the commentator, whose words normally help us “make sense” of a given image, neatly framing events for us, parading easily digestible analyses through our minds, these videos encouraged us to engage with their material on a different level. Watching news sterilised by disclaimers, with overarching narratives provided by commentators, and a constant oscillation between the “safe” newsroom and the “chaotic” location, it is hard to become actively involved. We sit back, sighing, cringing, tut-tut-tutting, protected from the exceptionally gruesome footage, awaiting explanations from so-called “experts”. With these citizen-made videos, however, all precautions taken for our comfort are thrown out of the proverbial window, and a given event is made to flood our senses as the camera trembles before a bloodied corpse, the filmmaker’s cries and sobs flood our ears, their panicked breathing invades our own chests, and our vision blurs with theirs as they run from police, army or crowd, still clutching their camera. We are transported to the scene, shown rather than told, and left confused, scared and shaken, like the amateur documentarian. Instead of being spoon-fed a medical-type explanation of happenings and underlying causes, we are given a small taste of what it’s like to be in the thick of an event, a brief injection of the urgency, panic, fear and hysteria being felt by the crowd, and then we are left on our own, to analyse and interpret for ourselves.

To call this media grassroots does not imply that it enters our sensory stream unedited or unfiltered. Its value lies in its diffuse nature, in the lack of a central command from which these videos emanate or a megaphone that rings them all in with a unifying narrative. Bombarded with a variety of “street-level” perspectives, it is up to the audience to process the similarities and differences, to squint at and scrutinise the details, to build its own narrative. This citizen-media has shown us that there are multiple revolutionary stories to tell, and a variety of angles from which to perceive and understand the complex events that continue to unfold in the region. It not only invites the “ordinary citizen” to tell the world his or her story, but it encourages the audience to participate in narrating the revolutions by working through the plethora of images, sounds and written accounts circulating around the internet and on television screens, and to create with them the narrative constellations that tug most at its particular mind strings.

Sophie Chamas is a freelance writer and editor. Her work has been featured in Jadaliyya, Mashallah News and the Abu Dhabi Film Festival Magazine. She recently completed her Master’s in Near Eastern Studies at New York University.