Who is Afraid of Citizen Journalists?

Originally published


Appears as a chapter in Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book, Gunawardene, Nalaka and Noronha, Frederick (Editors) 160 pages; 17.3 cm x 24.4 cm; 19 chapters + 7 appendices

Large-scale disasters are growing. On the one hand, global warming and unprecedented environmental change are resulting in disasters more frequent and calamitous than before. Natural disasters such as earthquakes (Kashmir, 2005), floods (Bangladesh, India and Nepal, 2007), landslides and mudslides (Bam, 2003; Chittagong, 2007), volcanic eruptions (Merapi, 2006), tsunamis (South and Southeast Asia, 2005) and forest fires (across Europe, 2007) continue to severely affect the lives and livelihoods of millions. On the other, the iconic images of the London bombings (7 July 2006), the Twin Towers in New York on 11 September 2001, Madrid train bombs (2004) and the Bali bombings (2002 and 2005) coupled with hundreds of gruesome local incidents -- including suicide bombings in countries such as Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Iraq -- are a stark reminder that man made disasters, often the result of terrorism, are a permanent feature of domestic life in many countries.

But how do we make sense of such disasters -- their causes, their impact on those involved as victims and perpetrators? How do we maintain compassion in a world with competing human tragedies? Does the increasing availability and affordability of Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) -- covering PCs, radio, mobile phones, blogs, SMS and the Internet -- result in the coverage and awareness of disasters qualitatively better than before? Or does reportage across a hundred thousand websites and blogs by those who are untrained in professional journalism diminish the importance of and, by extension, the response towards a disaster?

There are no easy answers to these questions. Whether we like it or not, new technologies are changing the manner in which we gather, store, disseminate, consume and comment on news. The overall experience after the tsunami in Sri Lanka and the subsequent design of ICTs for humanitarian aid suggests that ordinary citizens can play a pivotal role in facilitating the flow of information in relief and conflict management mechanisms.