New Orleans Recently I have been working closely with the volunteers and board of KABF 88.3 FM, the 100,000 watt noncommercial, community radio, “Voice of the People,” in Arkansas. Just as the programming is delivered by a huge crew of volunteer djs, we developed the notion that we could create unique news and public affairs programming the same way using volunteer, “citizen journalists” with smartphones or small tape recorders to begin to hear voices that were not been heeded and in so doing create unique community news. With first meetings of interested citizen journalists scheduled for coming weeks, I’m on the watch for evidence that such a crazy idea could actually work. Not surprisingly, it isn’t too hard to find!
Rami Abdul Rahman is a Syrian transplanted for his and his family’s safety to Coventry, England, a quiet former industrial town 30 minutes away from the nearest Arabian restaurant, but since the Syrian civil war broke out Rahman has created something fairly amazing called, the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights. The Observatory has gotten rave reviews from everyone from Amnesty International to the United Nations as being the source for the most accurate reports of war dead, body counts, and civilian casualties, including information of how people died, and has done so in a fairly amazing way. Rahman recruited four friends who were still on the ground in Syria who help him sort through information received by a network of 270 activists volunteers who supply the information and become the arms and legs for the Observatory in the field by visiting hospitals and conflict sites when possible. The 270 were organized by Rahman and his friends by shifting through old contacts in political organizations where he had been active in the past while in Syria and assemble a Skype contact group to vet and verify the information. Admittedly this singular avocation has become an enduring obsession for Rahman who maintains constant contact with his network using two cellphones and an ever present laptop. He is supported by two dress shops that provide a small income and small contributions. Rahman makes the KABF citizen journalism project seem easy.
Another story from Latvia in the New York Times gives a sense of where this new found crowd-sourcing of collective civic engagement might lead. Twenty-four year old Kristofs Blass a local internet entrepreneur created a petitioning tool called ManaBalss.lv. All of that has become pretty standard fare in the West for MoveOn or Avaaz.org. In Latvia though, citizens can initiate petitions that, if legal on their face, propose a solution, and include a plan of action, can potentially be enacted into parliamentary laws. It’s not easy, but it is very transparent and straightforward. If an initiative gets 10,000 petition signatures by hand or on the internet, that are verified in the same way that banking information is validated, then the Parliament is mandatorily required to debate and take action on the measure. So far 500 initiatives have been proposed with only 7 having reached the threshold of ending up in Parliament. Two such citizen initiatives have been enacted into law, while two more are still under consideration. One that made it requires a listing of Latvians with “offshore bank accounts,” which seems like a good idea.
This is a brave new world with different prospects for collective action, and we all need to start learning how to live in it.