Citizen journalism in Africa

June 6, 2016

In a continent where gluttons are in power, bloggers have become the most relied on.But not everything we read online is worthy. A few days ago,a middle aged bloke took images of a car crash snaps and shared them on Instagram posts with the caption, ‘another burial, thanks to rich people driving recklessly.’ Less than five minutes, 178 people had liked the post and there were more than 300 comments by the last time i checked on it. Yesterday evening, it emerged that among those dead were his auntie and a niece.I wonder what he’s thinking….but thats not my focus.As traditional news platforms adjust, the lightning fast networks of social media have become the source grapevines. My views is that citizen journalists should be mindful of what they post online because not everything is worth being published to netizens.Debates about the limits of free speech and the status of bloggers as media workers is long running and I bet it wont end anytime soon. Very many countries laws have been changed to put bloggers and journalists on an equal standing which has seen countries like Kenya arrest and intimidate bloggers. Several African countries do not recognise bloggers’ rights to maintain journalistic source confidentiality leaving online journalists campaigning for legal reform so that they can continues doing their work without any fear.

African countries laws do not recognise the internet or blogging as media work which means the likes of Robert Alai in Kenya or Linda Ikeji cannot be media workers.Few days ago, Linda Ikeji was taken to court by a lawyer for what is described as unauthorized and offensive use of his picture and its ruling will be of great significance because most bloggers in Africa use images or stories without the consent of original authors. Am not sure but if Nigeria has laws that applies to anyone who is “engaged and active in the publication of news”, including bloggers, tweeters, aggregators, and email campaigners, then Linda Ikeji will have a rough ride in case the court determines she’s guilty.Such a law protects those publishing in a “news medium”, defined as “any” medium of dissemination to the public which would include blogs.However, in Africa, journalists are defined as a person “engaged in the profession or occupation of journalism.” How this professional identity might be interpreted in courts is a moot point.These days it can be difficult to differentiate professional bloggers from online journalists. In the Linda Ikeji’s case for example, one could argue that establishing web domains, mastering search engine optimisation and generating Google ad income are indicators of her professionalism. But when it comes to African blogger’s expertise in crafting original stories, spelling, grammar, punctuation, accuracy and hardcore argument, they wouldn’t qualify.

Me thinks that knowledge of media ethics is a mark of professionalism and even many established hacks in Africa wouldn’t make the grade and can’t even reach to the heights of Linda Ikeji who is making over $1m monthly according to local media reports.Most African countries where politicians are alpha and omega, there has been several legislations that have been mooted some with very narrow definition of journalism and some of them excludes protection for bloggers and other social media users.I do always agree that it will be important for African countries not to give journalistic privileges to bloggers, who may be “guns for hire” but that doesn’t mean their work has no relevance. I think the problem is that there is very little sanction against bloggers compared to journalists who work for mainstream electronic or print media can at least be deregistered or sacked if they write something inappropriate.Existing laws do not protect journalists from defamation actions, or even from having to reveal their sources if they are arguing truth as a defence and the purpose is to give judges the discretion to decide whether it’s in the public interest to disclose or protect the identity of a source and when to sanction that media privilege.That doesn’t apply for bloggers in Africa.Actually, the only bloggers who have an issue with state agencies and high ranking individuals are those who specialise in political, social sphere, corruption and security related topics. The grave concern is how equitably judges in Africa might apply that discretion when it comes to more adept practitioners of online reportage and citizens’ media than bloggers like Linda Ikeji.

There’s no stopping citizen journalists in Africa who are making their presence felt in the new media landscape.But there is a danger to the everyday person trying to emulate a news journalist by having a legitimate news site but presenting gossip which we all know cannot be news.By listing uncorroborated statements about events which may or may have happened is not fulfilling the role of a modern media site.A simple post could be recorded forever in cyberspace, in some cases destroying reputations and lives or causing distress to those involved. There is a growing interrelationship between social media and news in a highly competitive news climate in Africa. It is common to read on timelines of many media outlets in Africa ’Tweet us a picture’ in a news story and more and more journalists are using social media as a tool to add to their stories.In my view, a tweet can only ever contain a fraction of the whole story and to judge the whole story by 140 characters long is to say you can understand the story of ACDC by reading the band’s twitter page.The current level of social media is evolving much faster than current ethical standards and laws and danger is there is no way the reader is able to cross-check for unsubstantiated information. Too many Africa media outlets put too high a value on being first with a story and too low a value on being right with the story. The traditional media still have to safeguard their reputation for striving for some degree of accuracy and reliability when it comes to social media.There is a huge market for citizen journalists in Africa, but they have to build a reputation first. In my view, journalism is the exercise of an enquiring mind within an ethical framework.

Contador Harrison