The Digital Journalist

Citizen Journalists
October 2007

by Beverly Spicer

The end of September brought us to another new phase in world affairs, as we witnessed the chaotic situation in Myanmar. Monks came out in droves to protest peacefully against the government and were fired upon by the military junta. A Japanese contract photographer working for Tokyo's APF News, Kenji Nagai, was shot point-blank by a soldier as unarmed people rushed from the violence and melee. Despite the fact that Mr. Nagai displayed his camera and identified himself as a journalist, he was quickly left to die in the street.

Aside from the political drama, we are also experiencing an important transit in the world of journalism. Despite the information blackout that Burmese officials have tried to instate by cutting Internet services, information is still getting through via satellite. Professional journalists have no recognition or protection and may even be deliberately targeted, as evidenced by the killing of Mr. Nagai. Yet, information still flows. What we are seeing, as in amateur video footage from London's 7/7 bombing, is a rise in the phenomenon of citizen journalism. Read an L.A. Times story online, "Myanmar Tries to Cut Internet, Cell Access," showing us how modern technology is not only a friend to but also the enemy of oppressive forces. Then, click on the image below to view a photo story entitled "Junta Opens Fire on Monks" on FirstPost, an online daily magazine in the UK.

Interested parties and information junkies the world over are witnessing multiple, highly accessible replay of the September 27th shooting of Mr. Nagai, a veteran photojournalist, as he was struck down in the street in Rangoon. His assault was captured on graphic video by a non-journalist, ordinary citizen with a cell phone. Use these links to see more: FirstPost ran another series of photographs showing the melee entitled "Burma: The Story So Far," using amateur photos. Other images were posted by the L.A. Times showing the conflict and crackdown entitled "Unrest in Myanmar." Click on the photo below for a Japanese video news broadcast of Mr. Nagai's death from FNN News, again using citizen journalism.

Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) posted a video on YouTube about the conflict, showing interviews with monks, the aftermath of raids in private living spaces, protests in the streets and Mr. Nagai's shooting. The entire report was captured, much of it crudely, with non-professional video equipment. I find it fascinating that language seems increasingly unnecessary to grasp the content and meaning of these types of reports. Click here to watch the video with subtitles in Burmese script, or Myanmar, the official Burmese language.

I for one am gratified that instant information seems an unstoppable force, no matter the effort to squelch it. At this writing on September 30, there is already a constantly updating Wikipedia entry about Kenji Nagai which includes his biography, many links to his previous work and stories and videos about of his death in Rangoon. Finally, as happens when tumultuous times ensue, a passionate observer from cyberspace produced a video post on YouTube using the screen name "marcellogentile1." Using a backdrop of Buddhist chanting, marcellogentile1 immediately turned Nagai's killing into art. Watch here:

As world events continue to evolve, so do the methods by which the news is delivered. Last month we talked about the increasing necessity of video proficiency and the threat to professional still photographers in terms of usage/delivery of their coverage of breaking news. Events such as happened in the last days of September provide a striking example of the truth of multiple threats to journalism in changing times. A professional was rendered not only ineffective but was killed; the story was captured in large part by citizen journalists using simple equipment, even cell phones. Those depending on non-satellite-linked Internet connections were rendered useless, and those with satellite connections were unstoppable.

As we watch the world, we are also watching ourselves witnessing the world. It may seem like contemplating our navels, but like all navel-staring, the objective is to reveal the truth. The events in Myanmar seem to be a perfect metaphor for what is happening in journalism. As Shakespeare wisely said, "the truth will out." Concurrent and applicable is the idiom "where there is a will, there is a way." At least for today these two adages still seem accurate, especially if the ways and means are in the hands of citizen journalists.

© Beverly Spicer

Beverly Spicer is a writer, photojournalist, and cartoonist, who faithfully chronicled The International Photo Congresses in Rockport, Maine, from 1987 to 1991. Her book, THE KA'BAH: RHYTHMS OF CULTURE, FAITH AND PHYSIOLOGY, was published in 2003 by University Press of America. She lives in Austin.