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Governments are losing control
05-02-2009, 11:27 AM,
Governments are losing control
Governments are losing control

Press freedom: new media and citizen journalism are the latest weapons against government-imposed restrictions

Yesterday, to mark World Press Freedom Day, I took part in a debate entitled "Controlling the international media in war: are governments winning the battle?" Thankfully, the answer to this question is no – or more precisely, no longer.

Experience has taught independent media lessons in questioning government propaganda, and the consequences of not doing so. Perhaps the most obvious recent examples are western coverage of the invasion of Iraq and the so-called war on terror. Throughout my career as a journalist in Britain, I can remember no other time when such a healthy dose of scepticism has been injected into the media's handling of government spin.

Furthermore, the increasing availability and affordability of the internet, new media, video cameras and phone cameras are making it easier for people to circumvent governmental and military restrictions.

For example, during the last invasion of Gaza, news, views and footage were able to bypass Israel's media ban because ordinary Palestinians took up the mantle, photographing and filming events on the ground, talking to the outside world on their mobile phones, and using the internet to reach the international community instantly.

What the ban succeeded in hiding at the time was revealed to the world in its full horror when the media entered Gaza after the invasion. In short, government restrictions can work, but only temporarily, particularly when faced with an inquisitive media and an outraged public.

Another recent example of new technology breaking down barriers is the project by Israeli human rights organisation B'Tselem to provide video cameras to Palestinians in the West Bank, which has enabled them to capture and transmit horrendous acts of violence against them by Israeli settlers, sometimes watched or even assisted by Israel's military and police. In the past, such acts would have been denied, dismissed, or glossed over without such stark evidence.

This is happening on an individual level the world over, particularly now that most mobile phones can also act as cheap and highly portable video cameras. Without such mobiles, we would, for instance, never have known about the taunting during Saddam Hussein's execution, the calm manner in which he handled it, and the fact that he was hanged during his prayer – all of which caused sympathy for him and outrage towards the Iraqi government, even among those who despised him.

The internet has ushered in the rise of blogging worldwide, and this is being used as a weapon against repressive regimes, particularly by those living under them. Such regimes have tried strenuously to stifle dissent and defiance, but it has not worked – bloggers are mushrooming in the harshest of conditions.

What we are witnessing today is the global rise of citizen journalism, where individuals are increasingly becoming the media, forcing us to change and broaden the very definition of the word. It is much harder for governments to control this that to control news organisations. Yes, advances in technology can work both ways, and governments can use it too, but when it comes to them versus the people, the numbers are clearly on the latter's side.

But even mainstream information flow is now harder to control, with the increase in news organisations and TV stations from the East (al-Jazeera, al-Arabiya, Press TV, etc) that are challenging the domination of the western media and western government propaganda.

This has been crucial in conflict zones such as Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan, where "eastern" media have often been present on the ground when western stations have not (Gaza, Fallujah, Kabul, etc) and where, unlike their western counterparts, they have refused to be "embedded" with one of the warring parties.

Furthermore, these "eastern" media provide audiences with a different, "home-grown" perspective, rather than news through solely western filters. The balance of power is shifting, gradually but surely, away from governments and towards the media. With all due respect to those who believe otherwise, they risk being stuck in the past.
“Everything Popular Is Wrong” - Oscar Wilde

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