A grassroots revolution

The citizen journalists of InsightShare or Rising Voices believe in the best of all possible worlds: a world in which the disenfranchised rise their voices. Like Keidy and Rezwan who get involved virtually and are threatened for real.

In March 2011 this text was shortlisted for the Minority Voices Young Journalism Award; see the original feature in German language at Einloggen13, the online magazine of the EJS School of Journalism >>

Fernando M. doesn’t actually look like a revolutionary. Slender as a boy he crouches on the floor, the microphone has fallen into his lap. Only his weather-beaten face betrays the 40, maybe 50 years. Barren is the soil beneath him, light and desolate the forest, but Fernando’s face shows a different landscape: laughter lines and a glimmer of hope. He doesn’t even seem to notice the camera in the young woman’s hand.

No journalist in the world could have filmed Fernando the way Keidy T. did it. Together with other indigenous activists the 23-year-old documented the situation of the Igorot people in the mountains of the Northern Philippine island Luzon. Fernando distrusts the Philippine mainstream media which ignores the situation of the indigenous people and widely covers the corrupt government for fear of persecution. Unlike Keidy and her friends: While they shoot the documentary “Es-Esel Ja Eparas” (“Voices of Experience”) during a workshop of the British video laboratory InsightShare, they have the villagers on their side: Aren’t they also indigenous people, don’t they speak Filipino and ask the right questions? At the end of each shooting day, the whole village gathers in a festive mood on the market place to watch the shots. Right there Fernando decides how he wants to be seen in the film – and how not.

Fernando M. in an interview with young indigenous people
film still: insight share, CC-by-nc-nd 2.0

Where monkeys and boars were still roaming the rain forest when Fernando was young, nowadays prairie grasses and rotten fruit knuckles under storm and heat. The fight against the destruction of the natural environment affilliate the old with the young Igorot: Where Fernando and his men blocked the access routes to the gold mine in the nineties, their children are facing a more abstract enemy: the global climate change can only be met with global media work.

Media projects such as InsightShare or the network of bloggers Rising Voices believe in the best of all possible worlds: a world in which the disenfranchised rise their voices, the marginalised step into the center and the indigenous record their traditional cosmovision with the latest technology.
If a media workshop enables a group to fight for its rights in the long run, citizen journalism reaches its ultimate destination: in the hands of the weakest.

Größere Kartenansicht
Approx. location of the village G. in the Philippine Cordillera, map: Google Maps, CC-by-nc-nd 2.0

“Digital pollution” or “fifth pillar of democracy”?
Citizen journalism: Many professional journalists consider this very term as an oxymoron, if not as an attack on their professional honour. Some mock those “digital polluters”, those “Sunday drivers on the information superhighway”, others fear the apparent competition – but still many journalist use their writings. Citizen journalism is a grab bag; one could argue about the quality of the entries in the Heise forums, the ideological struggles of Indymedia or about how relevant most of the 115 million worldwide blogs really are. Identifying the really independent, reliable, wide-ranging and relevant information in the middle of the World Wide Web’s unpaid, unedited and possibly unresearched sign salad is like looking for a needle in a haystack, but it is worth it.

Most citizen journalists don’t try to compete with the established media, but to create a civilian counter public: They consider themselves as fifth pillar of the state, holding up democracy and human rights, when everything else is in ruins. When Rezwan, a student from Bangladesh started his blog Third World View in 2003, he had no idea how important it would become one day. With his messages on a nostalgic papyrus ground he was part of the online-avantgarde in Bangladesh. Only when in 2004 the Unicode standard for the Bengali script was established and the first blogger platforms were founded in 2005, the sport of the nerds became a mainstream activity of the young educated elite. Today, about 50,000 Bengalis are blogging, but many from the diaspora. Not without reason.

Rezwan blogs about repression in Bangladesh (2007), screenshot, CC-by-nc-nd 2.0

The magic moment for Rezwan’s blog was a sad day for his country: On January 11th, 2007, the government of Bangladesh imposed a state of emergency, after people started protesting violently against electional fraud. Nearly 100,000 people got arrested. Rezwan blogger-friend narrowly escaped: Exile in Sweden was Tasneem Khalil’s only refuge. Rezwan’s blog was swept by hate-filled comments, but he was outside the line of fire, in Berlin. His Third World View became a so-called “bridge blog”; Rezwan combed through the Bengali media several times a day and explained the most explosive news to an English-speaking public. He was far away from home, but yet right in the centre of the events.

Anonymous activist
In his offline world, Rezwan had to become an accountant, but online he may be an activist. In his home country not a single politician would listen to him, but in the internet he has 200-300 readers every day. He just reported that the Bengali government blocked Facebook after Mohammed cartoons haunted across the network. He carefully quotes other bloggers, behind whose statements he discreetly hides his own criticism. Since the riots of 2007 Rezwan has become carful: He wants to reveal neither his last name nor his age; during the skype interview he turns off his webcam. A thumbnail-size picture of him circulating in the web shows a handsome young man, one among thousands. “Only as long as I remain anonymous, I am free to write what I want,” Rezwan says. “I would really like to be a professional journalist, but in that case I’d have to give my name and bury my activism.”

“The world speaks to you, do you listen?”
In 2007, the operators of the most important global portal for citizen journalism noticed the Bengali blogger: Global Voices published excerpts of his features from the police state – a big honor in the internet community. Tripod-founder Ethan Chairman and former CNN bureau director Rebecca MacKinnon founded the network in December 2004 to provide a podium for the most interesting perspectives of citizen journalism around the world. The motto: “The world speaks to you, do you listen?” One million visitors a month answer this question with “yes”. More than 300 volunteers around the world watch the blogosphere in 150 countries and translate the selected text into 15 languages. In addition, the portal encourages new bloggers through workshops, link the international blogging community by organising conferences and provide legal assistance.

A parcel on the sixth continent
The Internet is large, and its settlement will hardly ever end. On the “sixth continent” even the landless and disenfranchised have the chance to stake their plot. No wonder that nowhere such an enthusiasm for the new media can be felt as in the so-called developing and emerging countries. On their way into the online world, so-far marginalized groups simply leave out less efficient development steps of the Western world: they “leap-frog”. In no time Rezwan and Keidy have become experts and opinion leaders; however, until today, they earn no Rupiah and no Taka with their work.

When Global Voices founded the daughter network Rising Voices in 2007, Rezwan joint in as a volunteer editor right from the beginning. Rising Voices has an approach, which is quite similar to the British video NGO InsightShare: Both aim at taking citizen journalism to a grass roots level, from an urban elite into the rural areas, from the young and trendy to children and old people. While InsideShare has built eight video-hubs in ghettos and indigenous villages, Rising Voices commissioned 25 local NGOs and well-known blogger with teaching blogging to a local group.

Bloggers build bridges
The results can be seen until today: There are doctors and nurses of a Romanian hospice writing about the last days of their patients; activists in Yemen are blogging for the rights of women; Liberian bloggers build bridges between those in exile and those who stayed at home. The success rate of the project is relatively high; at least ten to 20 percent of the participants are still blogging three years after the seminars, Rezwan says.

Keidy T. in the skype interview with the author, screenshot

Meanwhile, the young Filipina Keidy T. became the director of the video hub in the Philippines. The demand is big; soon the 23-year-old will herself train video trainers – even on the Southern island of Mindanao, where Muslim rebels and the central government are fighting against each other. She has already received anonymious threats for her commitment; she and her colleagues feel observed. But giving up? Keidy smiles enigmatically. It’s the smile of Fernando M., it seems to say: Our people have been through worse.

It seems long since she has travelled to the Climate Conference in Copenhagen with her very first film from the village of G. Like many NGOs they didn’t get an official accreditation for the conference; instead they received standing ovations for their presentation on the civilian counter-conference. For a moment the world listened to a small woman from the Southern hemisphere who had never left her country before: “We indigenous people have contributed least to climate change, yet we suffer the most.” At the other end of the earth a village holds its breath.


Online-Portal „Global Voices“: Facts about citizen journalism, 4. Juni 2010

Sourcewatch: List of Citizen Journalism Websites, 4. Juni 2010

Website of the NGO InsightShare: What is Participatory Video? (video, 3:14 min., 4. Juni 2010

Website of the NGO InsightShare: Es-Esel Ja Eparas/ Voices of Experience, (video, 17:29 min.), 4. Juni 2010

Website of the NGO InsightShare: presentation of 8 further video hubs, 4. Juni 2010

Online-Portal „Rising Voices“: Active Rising Voices Projects, 4. Juni 2010

Online-Portal „Global Voices“: Current selected articles, 4. Juni 2010

Online-Portal „Global Voices“: threast to civil journalism worldwide (map), 4. Juni 2010

Blog by Rezwan: The Third World View, 4. Juni 2010

Online-Portal „Global Voices“: Manifesto, 4. Juni 2010

Blog of Ushahidi: African Crisis Information Portal working via crowdsourcing, 4. Juni 2010

Readers Edition: Größtes deutschsprachiges Bürgerjournalismus-Projekt, 4. Juni 2010


header photo: Keidy teaches villagers how to capture scenes on video, film still: insight share, CC-by-nc-nd 2.0