"We now have an incredible window for political change in Egypt and it’s critical that we support the citizen media during this period of transition," says George Weyman, senior programme officer at Meedan, an organisation running the Sida-financed project ”CheckDesk: Sorting, Translating & Disseminating Citizen Reporting in the Arab Region.”
Supporting citizen journalists in this initiative doesn’t mean providing people with digital cameras, but rather helping active citizens filter the content on the web, learn how to verify the information and amplify it. With social media growing and everyone becoming a source of information, the risk of disinformation becomes higher.
One way to disseminate information is to encourage professional journalists to use more citizen-produced information in their reporting. This is why the CheckDesk project builds from a collaboration with Al-Masry Al-Youm, Egypt’s largest independent newspaper with a long reputation among Egyptian readers.
More voices to spread domocracy issues
Citizen journalists can publish reports and tweets on to the Al-Masry Al-Youm’s newly set up live blog accessible from the newspaper’s start page. The newspaper’s staff then uses the reports to write daily news updates on the same site. This builds citizen reporting into Al-Masry Al-Youm's news output, and increases the range of voices through which they relay news about rights and democracy issues.
One of the updates, published on February 6th 2012, reports that the parliament assigned a committee to confirm the Ministry of Interior’s use of pellets bullets against demonstrators, after the minister responsible denied it. Citizen journalists had published tweets, video clips and photos confirming the events, including pictures of Salma Said, who had 106 pellets lodged inside her body according to her X-ray scans.
"The goal of the project is to get at least 100 citizen journalists to use the platform in Egypt, and 900 in the wider Arab world. We try to encourage citizens not to just replicate information from YouTube or click retweet, but to think more about verification," says George Weyman.
The collaboration with a well-established and independent media partner has been very important for achieving the outcomes of the project, according to George Weyman. Al-Masry Al-Youm boasts a large and growing online following, in addition to a national print readership, which helps the project reach its target audience and build a community of trained users.
Egypt is the first step in the project, but the objective is to disseminate and translate citizen journalism in the wider Arab world. The next step is a similar digital platform in Gaza, in collaboration with the Ma’an news agency, and there are plans for similar initiatives in Lebanon and Syria.
Evaluating veracity important
Training is another important part of the project. A number of workshops will be carried out around the country, with Cairo being first up in March. The goal is to train at least 100 citizen journalists about journalism and its crucial role for a democratic development, and in different techniques for evaluating the veracity of the material published on the Internet.
"If someone was to share a video with you with shocking content from Syria, how can we verify the content and the facts? What we can do, is to check the source and see if they have presented reliable information before, look for things like landmarks in the video, listen to the accents, cross-reference the content with other sources like Flickr or Twitter. All this makes it possible to substantiate the content," says George Weyman.
The training is also a way to encourage the participating citizen journalists to use the live blog, which in turn can inspire others to do the same.
Despite the fact that the Internet is borderless and information can be shared all across the world, language barrier is still a problem for many people. Arabic is the fifth most widely spoken language worldwide, but only 1.5 per cent of all web pages are written in Arabic, according to Google. This is why Al-Masry Al-Youm’s live blog has an English and an Arabic version.
"It is a matter of giving Arabic speaking citizens access to more information and increasing their network with other activists. But it’s just as important to improve the possibilities to control the authenticity of published information by cross-referencing the content in several languages," says George Weyman.
The CheckDesk project in brief:
The project CheckDesk (previously called iMeedan): Sorting, Translating & Disseminating Citizen Reporting in the Arab Region is carried out by Meedan, a non-profit social technology company based in the USA. Project period: 2011-2013.
Sida’s support amounts to 6,560,000 Swedish kronor (SEK) and the project is a part of the Swedish Government’s Special Initiative for Democracy and Freedom of expression.
Some of the realized activities:
• Development and implementation of the Al-Masry Al-Youm live-blog – a digital platform for sorting, translating and disseminating citizen media in Egypt, in collaboration with the independent newspaper and media partner Al-Masry Al-Youm. The Arabic language version of the live blog is the main focus, but important citizen reports are also translated into English.
• Enhanced collaboration between citizen journalists and professional journalists, to better quantify, verify and disseminate information on issues related to Human Rights and Freedom of expression. Better collaboration is one way to strengthen the often poor relationship between traditional journalists and citizen journalists, where the latter often feel scepticism towards the state media.
• Training of citizen journalists. A first two-day workshop was held in Cairo on 23 March 2012 and five more are to follow all over Egypt, including the Delta region and the upper Egypt district (extends south from Cairo to the Sudan). The training is being carried out by six high profile citizen journalists and bloggers – three men and three women - including Ramy Raoof and Lilian Wagdy.