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Citizen Journalism: Holding Power to Account
How life in a Palestinian refugee camp led Ramzy Baroud to dedicate himself to the truth
Ramzy Baroud (internews)     Print Article 
Published 2006-07-02 15:34 (KST)   
I still vividly remember the anger in my father's voice as our family of seven gathered to warm ourselves around a tin pan filled with burning coal in our house, in a refugee camp, in the Gaza Strip. That was nearly 20-years-ago, and the camp was under a cruel Israeli military curfew.

Outside, Israeli army vehicles roamed the streets of the dreadfully crowded and impoverished camp. "Those who violate the army's order and leave their homes will be killed," blasted a voice from the loudspeakers positioned atop one of the Israeli vehicles. The soldier spoke in broken Arabic; his threats sounded ominously genuine.

Inside our humble dwelling, a refugee home that first started as a mud hut, we huddled with indescribable fear. Many people had died this way. Some of our neighbors were shot for looking out their windows. Others were killed inside their homes. Our house was riddled with bullets. We had no reason to doubt the Israeli army's threats. My Dad instructed us not to breath heavily, not to sneeze, and not to move for any reason. Even this could drive a herd of soldiers into our house.

A few hours later when things quieted down, my Dad, comforted by the fact that the jeeps seemed to have moved on to another part of the camp, turned on the radio. He never missed the BBC Arabic hourly news broadcast, even now.

Palestinians have always had a love-hate relationship with the media. Knowing that the name of our refugee camp was uttered on some radio station thousands of miles away, was in some way a recognition that our plight mattered, even if only a little. Hate, because this was hardly the case, and even if some references were made, they barely deviated from the usual mantras that saw the Israeli occupiers as the ultimate source of information, the primary authority on what had indeed happened.

This remains the case today. What the Israeli army acknowledges becomes fact, its narrative is the trusted narrative; what it dismisses, has simply never happened; at best, it's a murky Palestinian allegation.

The BBC radio mentioned nothing of the Israeli curfew imposed on half of the Gaza Strip that day, nothing of the wanton killings of several people. One boy who died that day was a classmate of mine, shot as we protested against the armed Jewish settlers' attack on our high school.

The still silence was now coupled with anger. "No one gives a damn whether we live or die, slaughtered like sheep and not even a mention on the news," my father began his own commentary, which often followed disappointing news broadcasts.

Out of this sense of helplessness my insistence on "getting the word out" was born. It had little to do with the 1988 U.S. presidential elections, an event that some argue led to the introduction of the concept of Citizen Journalism. It also had little to do with the advent of the Internet, although the latter has provided a platform for many people of conscience to disseminate their ideas.

"Getting the word out" or "just telling them the truth," as Malcolm X often preached is not inborn in me, or anyone else for that matter, but it is necessitated by circumstances: where a narrative is conveyed by one party, and the other party is completely excluded. While such an assertion sounds academic and perhaps a bit redundant, this kind of neglect is injurious to most of the forgotten multitudes all around the globe, those whose "side of the story" is either deemed irrelevant, unimportant or inconsistent with the mainstream narrative which has its own intricate checks and balances.

It comes as no surprise that my studies, career and activism have always remained closely tied to that notion: I studied, taught and wrote about journalism for many years. While I began my writing career at a very young age, as a correspondent for a few local newspapers in Palestine, my direct involvement in Citizen Journalism didn't begin until much later, in the year 2000.

A year earlier, I had embarked on what then looked more like a personal website, where I would post my weekly commentaries and the work of a few others. But the advent of the Palestinian Uprising in September 2000 turned that venture into one of the most stable and widely read Palestinian online newspapers in the English language. It is called The Palestine Chronicle.

In record time, The Palestine Chronicle attracted a large number of writers from across the globe who sought not financial rewards, but a much needed platform to express their well-stated yet neglected points of view. Into its seventh year, The Palestine Chronicle has grown in scope and import, covering the Iraq war as well as the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Though no match for the traditional pro-Israeli media and with no financial backbone whatsoever, The Palestine Chronicle has made a dent in what had seemed to be an unwinnable battle for honest reporting.

The year 2002 witnessed the Israeli reinvasion of major West Bank population centers, prompting thousands of peace activists from across the world, notwithstanding Israel itself, to travel to the West Bank. Most of these activists hoped to convey the story beyond the headlines and the forgotten news segments filed by detached reporters based in five-star hotels in Tel Aviv. Through The Palestine Chronicle and other online venues, these activists were provided with a platform.

For example, Brian Wood -- a U.S.-based activist who visited the West Bank during the Israeli invasion of Jenin in April 2002 -- used to sneak into the Palestinian refugee camp where hundreds of people were reportedly killed or wounded, call a friend in Colorado and convey a report regarding what he saw there over a cell phone. The report would in turn be sent to me in Seattle; I would edit and post it, and also send it to a mailing list of thousands, and eventually to hundreds of thousands.

Using the same style, and following the U.N. failure to investigate the Israeli killings in Jenin, I managed to use citizen reporters to put together what later became an Amazon.com best seller, Searching Jenin: Eyewitness Accounts of the Israeli Invasion. The book was the fruit of nearly 30 individuals; only two were professional journalists. It was the first, and still the most authoritative response to all the allegations made regarding the two-week long battle in Jenin. The book was used as a source for Middle East studies programs in various U.S. universities.

Citizen Journalism is not stamp collecting. It's true, at times it can be a fun and financially rewarding hobby to those willing to hide behind the backyard bushes of Hollywood celebrities, ready to snap the million-dollar photo and sell it to some tabloid. But in my experience it can be a very useful tool in confronting authority, revealing atrocities and holding those in power to account for their deeds.

If Citizen Journalism, using the Internet and other media, succeeds in penetrating the monopoly of the corporate media on news (thus narratives and discourses), participatory democracy, which has been long circumvented by media deception and official propaganda, might finally recover some of its losses.

To achieve that, Citizen Journalism has to thoroughly analyze what is going wrong in today's mainstream media and remain focused on what the priorities are, what counts and what truly matters.
Ramzy Baroud teaches journalism at Australia's Curtin University of Technology, Malaysia Campus. He is the author of "Writings on the Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People's Struggle" (Pluto Press, London), and editor-in-chief of The Palestine Chronicle.
©2006 OhmyNews

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