A second panel of citizen journalists – all reporters for OhmyNews – help diversify the picture of the people who report for the service. Several of the panelists have strong political views which have led them to their work as citizen journalists.
Ramzy Baroud is a Palestinian academic and journalist, who is in the process of moving to London to head a Palestinian cultural center. Growing up in the Gaza strip as a refugee, his upbringing was a politically charged one – he felt a strong sense that the Palestinian story was not being told, or not being told right. His family had hoped he’d become a doctor – he was diverted by his passion for media, and for reacting to coverage he felt misconstrued the Palestinian situation. His first contribution to a newspaper was an angry letter to the editor – this opened a career that led him into a fulltime career as a journalist, writing about the US embargo against Iraq, the effect of depleted uranium on child health, and mass funerals of children. His work has moved online, starting a site called Palestine Chronicle, which Ramzy concedes is decidedly opinionated, pro Justice, pro Peace, but includes Palestinian, Arab and Jewish writers. His recent writing has focused on the Jenin massacre, which became a book on interviews published with the assistance of Noam Chomsky and other American academics – it became a best seller on Amazon. He’s involved with OhmyNews in part because he believes it’s critical to “bring back the public sphere to make our democracies meaningful.”
Njei Moses Timah is Cameroonian pharmacist, whose love of magazines led him to an online course on feature writing, and to a career in citizen journalism. He reflects on a fact that’s been on my mind through my time in Korea – Cameroon was at approximately the same level of development as South Korea in the 1960s, though the countries have since diverged sharply. He notes that Cameroon’s leaders don’t understand the importance of the Internet and urges the Koreans in the audience not to take their broadband access for granted. He notes that rich natural resources don’t neccesarily lead towards prosperity, recounting the history of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the installation of Mobutu by western powers. “It’s not in our interest to have resources – resources invite predators and predators keep you down.”
Korean citizen journalist Sung-young Song tells us he’s “just a country boy”, from a mountain village, who makes his living the traditional way – growing rice and writing articles for OhmyNews. He lived in Seoul briefly, working for a broadcast company, but was miserable, behind on his bills, cramped into an apartment. He moved to a small town, bought a house for $2000 and renovated it, and is now living a radically different lifestyle – he grows food, helps teach his children at home, and wears the clothes his wife sews for him. “As we moved away from the playground of capitalism where everything is counted in monetary terms, our life became more joyful.” He began writing on OhmyNews about his unusual lifestyle, living on about $600 per month – he experienced some ridicule, but some enthusiasm as well. He’s now worked for OhmyNews for almost four years, writing a book composed of his columns. OhmyNews also made it possible for him to travel to North Korea and report on the situation there. But there’s a major downside – citizen journalism has caused “internet addiction”, keeping him online many hours a day, while he tells his children only to use the computer twice a week. Finally, he wrote a piece titled “Dreaming to be away from OhmyNews”.
(I wish I’d known a bit more about Song’s background before he interviewed me yesterday. Asking me what I thought about the US/Korean Free Trade Agreement, I gave my standard free, fair trade response: the US needs to drop agricultural tarrifs, but protectionism doesn’t help anyone – South Korea has benefitted greatly from global trade over the past 40 years. It was pretty clear that he wasn’t thrilled with my answer – he finally said, through a translator, “You look like Michael Moore, but you don’t think like him,” one of the most wonderful two-sided putdowns I’ve ever experienced…)
Jung-hee Lee is another Korean correspondent, a teacher who works on “hard news” articles in contrast to Sung-young Song’s more personal journalism. He’s got a lovely, poetic way of describing his enthusiasm – when OhmyNews accepted his first article, “I cannot describe how happy I was – it was sweeter than my first kiss.” Unfortunately, the article didn’t receive any comments – heartbreak! But he’s remained a committed journalism, submitting 110 articles, roughly one every ten days, and identifies himself as a “news guerilla” – “News guerillas are irregular soliders who carry a digital camera in one hand, a pad in the other, sneak into internet cafes and dissapear silently after their work.” One of Lee’s articles led to a gardener – whose garden was destroyed by a US military helicopter – being compensated for the damage to his land. Other stories have had sadder results – reporting on a story on an apartment fire, he recognized the name of the woman killed in the blaze as one of his students from ten years earlier. “I wish there were no sad news in the world.”
Ana Maria Brambilla trained as a mainstream journalist in Brazil, but was fascinated by the contrast between mass media and citizen media: “Mass media are only partly living up to the definition of communication. A small group speaks, and everyone else listens…” Interested in journalism that was more like the conversation Dan Gillmor speaks about, not a lecture, she found Todd Thacker and interviewed him – Todd responded by asking her to report on Brazil for OhmyNews International. It’s been a difficult path for her, as she finds it easier to write stories than to communicate the importance of open source journalism. Brazilian journalists have accused her of “betraying her profession.” She believes this is because reporters in Brazil think of themselves as “a special person who never makes mistakes and always knows the truth.” But, on the web, there’s a space for everyone to express ideas, as long as people acknowledge that listening is more important than speaking.
Lily Yulianti is a professional journalist from Indonesia, who works as a language specialist for NHK in Japan, helping run their Bahasa language service. Despite her journalism background, she was reluctant to join OhmyNews due to her inexperience writing in English. The experience of working with OhmyNews has convinced her that your perspective is more important than your writing skills – the skills can always improve. Much of Lily’s writing has focused on the experience of being a visible Muslim woman in a non-Muslim nation (Lily wears a head scarf). She’s also written about the need for Muslim tolerance of Christians in Indonesia, which resulted in a church in Australia writing to thank her, and asking her to write for their church bulletin. She accepted, as an opportunity for more cross cultural communication.
Chinese journalist Xu Zhiqjang drew the short straw, and abbreviated his remarks, which is unfortunate, as he’s got a great perspective on the development of the Internet in China. He observed that venture capital has had a huge influence on the shape of the net, leading to Chinese competitors to eBay, Yahoo and other web services – he speculates that there could easily be a VC-backed competitor to OhmyNews. If so, it will probably focus on the mobile Internet, which is surpassing the traditional internet in China, as people find it easier to explore via their mobiles than via laptops.