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UNESCO discusses challenges facing citizen journalists at Oxford University

The Programme in Comparative Media Law and Policy organized a one-day seminar on the “Challenges of Citizen Journalism: Technology and Law” at University of Oxford’s Socio-Legal Studies Institute on 24 January 2014. UNESCO presented the keynote speech that linked the challenges of citizen journalism with the recent development globally in the promotion of safety of journalists and the issue of impunity.

Ming-Kuok Lim of UNESCO’s Freedom of Expression Section, who delivered the keynote speech, addressed some of the challenges of citizen journalism, particularly from the safety perspective, both physical and digital, linking them to current international standards and legal protection mechanisms. He went on to elaborate on the global development in the promotion of safety of journalists including the recently adopted United Nations General Assembly Resolution on Safety of Journalists and the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity.

Dr Poalo Caveliere of the Programme in Comparative Media Law and Policy welcomed the various speakers and experts to the day’s seminar which included media practitioners, representatives from NGOs, legal professionals and academics. The seminar explored the issue of citizen journalism from three main angles: the technological (especially digital security concerns), the legal, and ethical aspects, as well as its role in building societies and communities.

During the panel on technological challenges, Mike Rispoli, Communications Manager of Privacy International, highlighted the various security concerns regarding data privacy and the vulnerability of digital communication, including how easily electronic communication can be intercepted and surveyed. He also noted that the collection of meta-data, such as location of the mobile phone users, can be problematic as these data can be used to build a complex profile of the users without their knowledge. Kevin Andersen, freelance journalist and digital strategist who had previously worked for BBC and The Guardian, questioned the tendency of consumers to choose comfort and ease of use over security of data.

Concerning the ability of social media to build community, Solana Lersen, the Managing Editor of Global Voices, gave examples of vibrant blogging communities that are growing within their network of mainly volunteer bloggers who discuss a variety of topics using various languages including indigenous ones. She also highlighted that the relationship between citizen journalists and conventional journalists can be mutually beneficial: for example, the former can learn from the latter especially in the use of technology. Community building needs to take the “long view”, as noted by Libby Powell, the co-founder of Radar, which provides micro-grant to citizen journalists who submit quality stories to the website. It should be part of a long-term strategy to build the capacity and infrastructure of journalists, which may not deliver immediate results but forms the foundation for quality journalism in the future.

The third panel of the day focused on the legal and ethical aspect of citizen journalism. Dr Tarlach McGonagle, Senior Researcher of University of Amsterdam, argued that the “individual blogger has an important contribution to make to the public debate and thus warrants the same protection for what he does”.  Jim Boumelha, President of International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), stressed that ensuring quality, professional and ethical reporting remains one of the unresolved issues with the citizen journalism. Peter Noorlander, Chief Executive of Media Legal Defence Initiative, noted that one of the emerging legal issues are the confidentiality of sources used by citizen journalists and of the user generated comments posted on social media sites, including blogs.

The issue of safety of journalists and citizen journalists will be one of the topics covered in the upcoming World Press Freedom Day on 3 May 2014 as part of the discussion on good governance and rule of law under the global theme of “Reaching New Goals: How Media Fortifies the Post-2015 Development Agenda”.