Friday, April 21, 2006

Iraqi Citizen Journalists


Those who read this blog know that I am a strong supporter of citizen journalism. I believe that, especially in the developing world, citizens can often provide more honest accounts than the state-contolled (and often self-censoring) mainstream media. However, it is with a mixture of satisfaction and regret that I write about citizen journalism in Iraq. This is in part because their burden is too great, in part because the tragic story they are telling is made even more unbearable by the fact that it is being told be citizens, not by a well-coiffed TV anchor who can give the false impression of the calm that comes with distance.

Why is the burden on Iraqi citizen journalists so great? The extremely dangerous situation in many parts of Iraq has limited the mobility of many professional journalists, who are not able to thoroughly cover events as they occur. The responsibility for telling these stories falls to Iraqis, particularly bloggers. I am speaking not only the exquisite and well-known sites like Iraq the Model, who have consciously and successfully taken on the role of alternative news source, but also of individual bloggers how are caught up by news even when they are not seeeking it.

I am thinking specifically of Zeyad of Healing Iraq. Last Sunday he went to visit his aunt in Adhamiya, a Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad. Subsequently, the neighborhood was attacked by armed groups in police uniforms from the Interior Ministry, possible accompanied by militiamen. The area was sealed off (by whom?) so Zeyad was unable to leave. Power was cut off for 48 hours. When the power returned, Zeyad went online and wrote a blog post. "I'm on dial up now so I have to sign off," he wrote. "I probably won't be able to post again until tomorrow night. Hopefully the situation would have calmed down by then; it's extremely tense at the moment."

On Thursday he was still unable to leave his aunt's home, but instead of sitting around and let the tension overtake him, he decided to write about what was going on around him. He recounts, with astounding detail, the Adhamiya battle. His account is almost too immediate. You can hear the "inferno of machine gun fire," "the familiar buzz of an American unmanned surveillance plane in the air," "American helicopters... circling the area." On Tuesday, things calmed down a bit.

"People were seen on the streets at 5 pm and bakeries and supermarkets opened for a couple of hours. We went out for supplies; bread, petrol, cigarettes and Pepsi. There was no electric power since Monday morning. We heard from friends and relatives that life was going on 'normally' in other parts of the capital; the obligatory car bomb or roadside bomb, politicians still bickering, corpses still turning up at random locations, people still being kidnapped and assassinated, you know, the usual everyday stuff."

On Wednesday, things calmed down enough that Zeyad went out to take photos of the roadblocks and the eerily calm streets under an surprisingly blue sky. He even used Google Earth to make detailed maps of the fighting (see photo above). He also recorded the comments of residents.

"They were all Iranians."

"The attack Monday was punishment for Adhamiya because they opposed Ja'fari's nomination as PM."

"The National Guards are such treacherous bastards. They turned against Adhamiya."

Another citizen journalist, Konfused Kid, also covered the Adhamiya battle. At one point, he called a classmate who said that in the rest of the city everything else was normal. "His talk seemed very alien to me at the moment," writes the Kid, "as if speaking from another planet, I found normalcy irrelevant, he tried to talk me up about the graduation party but I almost wanted to slam the phone in his face, where the fuck are we and where are you? it was weird because normally I didn't give a damn.

This is citizen journalism at its best: the telling personal detail, the big picture, the photo evidence. Citizen journalism gives us the opportunity to know much more about what is happening in the world. But do we want to know that much? Can we (and I speak here for the comfortable West) bear to truly understand what it is like to live in a war zone, to hear each machine gun round as if it was rattling our own windows, to almost taste the bread, cigarettes and Pepsi that they consumed? Will we be paralyzed by shock and grief? Will we simply tune out and ignore what is too painful to acknowledge? Or will we react, realize that the people suffering are not so different from ourselves and that maybe this implies a bit of responsibility on our part for what happens to them?

categories: citizen journalism_, the "developing world"_, general democracy blogging_

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Comments:
This is probably the best blog entry I have read at this blog to date.
 
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