“This is inside the ER of the Wuhan Hospital,” echoed a reticent voice as the shaky video pivoted to reveal countless feeble patients lying on stretchers in the hallways. The unsettling image of people trying to clutch onto the brink of their dear lives as tightly as they could; the shouts of medicals rushing to hurl them a lifeline in the background had left many viewers shaken up. When the video started circulating like wildfire around the web, it was at that moment that most of us knew — the virus was starting to slew, and that perhaps China didn’t have it under control as they proclaimed they did.
The video was a selfless capture by 37-year-old Zhang Zhan who had documented the lived realities of Wuhan that was placed under a lockdown since the outbreak of the fatal COVID-19 virus. On the report of her recordings, hospitals were congested like packed sardines, the crematorium was running round the clock and the shops were closed down, turning Wuhan from the bustling city of peaceful locals to a ghost town of nothing but bare streets.
But Zhang Zhan was no journalist. In fact, she was a former lawyer, a human rights activist, and most importantly, a regular citizen with a passion to show people the truth. Brimmed with curiosity after watching the news of Wuhan, Zhang Zhan decided to buy a ticket from Chongqing to see the state of affairs with her own eyes. Who would have known that what was reported in the news was vastly contrary from what Zhang Zhan was experiencing right in front of her? Like a lot of the invisible people that have done courageous work in today’s society,
Zhang Zhan is what we called a ‘citizen journalist’ — ordinary individuals who voluntarily take up the role of journalists by using websites, blogs or more commonly, social media to disseminate information that might not be well-known to the public.
Before the dawn of the Internet, journalism was a field reserved exclusively for trained individuals who have gone for courses and schools. Now, with just a handy gadget like our smartphones at the palm of our hands, everyone is able to churn out a form of news of their own. In a world where our demand and consumption for news is growing at a rapid speed, some may argue that citizen journalists are superseding the reporters in the newsroom by being one step ahead of them when it comes to fishing out up to the minute information for the public. In 2017, where the tragedy of MH17 took place, it has been said that it was a group of bloggers marshalled by Eliot Higgins who dug up the intel on the location of a Buk launcher, proving that the Russians did not entirely tell the truth about the incident during a press briefing. A more recent example would be the Black Lives Matter movement where we have seen so many protesters flee to social media to livestream or live-tweet their demonstrations in order to ratify the tainted depiction that the media has painted them for years — violent and aggressive.
It is widely known that citizen journalists have rattled political parties, illuminated community issues, covered matters of religion and race, as well as other stories that even by a slim chance would not be on the mass media. In countries where freedom of speech is restricted and the media is heavily regulated by the government, citizen journalism is, unfortunately, the only source that brings diversity to the media landscape. If not for the digital revolution, the role of citizen journalists has been corroborated to be more relevant than ever in today’s day and age. They present the people a chance to unveil a unique viewpoint that they yearn to see. They show the people that the breath of fresh air that they have longed for can actually be respired into a society herded by mainstream media and forced narratives.
Citizen journalists can deliver vital information that will democratize both the media and the nations. Democratizing access to technology enables the possibility for average citizens to engage in the creation and production of information. It empowers them to partake in critical thinking and public domain debates as well as challenges mainstream popular culture.
In other words, citizen journalism is the path to social reform.
During the 2020 Deepavali season, a TikTok video by @langgeshvijay was brought to light, causing a social media uproar. The video was footage of said-to-be Indian detainees being abused by the Royal Malaysian Police (PDRM) seemingly at a courthouse in Banting, Selangor. The men were dressed in orange prison outfits and were seen handcuffed while squatting on the floor encircled by police officers. Officers can be heard yelling commands to get the unwilling prisoners on their feet.
The video also captured an instance where one of the detainees was deliberately kicked in the head by a man who was not in uniform. Local netizens were enraged and demanded an explanation from PDRM. It didn’t take long for the people to find out that the prisoners were wrongfully accused of being suspects in a school shooting. Though the court had ruled all of them innocent and that there was no evidence of them committing the crime, the police refused to let them go.
PDRM released a statement, claiming that the men kept captive were involved in a crime gang hence locking them up was an act to ensure peace and harmony in the country. The expose that day was a testimony that police brutality was not something that bled deep in America but also in Malaysia where they are held high as our heroes. Ever since then, videos of police brutality in Malaysia have been surfacing on social media, primarily Twitter, expressing the abuse of their authority.
Interestingly, the news was not picked up by major news organizations. It could be because of the fact that news reporting in Malaysia is monopolised by big fish news sites that are either owned by political parties or supported by government-friendly companies. It is imperative to note that media and politics are inseparable; the media plays a critical role in shaping a country’s political climate. Thus, in a country where political parties are in control of the mainstream media, journalists are restrained. They are inclined to post within the parameters of the legislation that imposes a muzzle on press freedom. However, doing so has only backfired the industry as it causes a biased form of reporting, which explains the constant growing skepticism and distrust among readers for the media.
The birth of citizen journalism was due to the need for impartial and objective news. It was cited that journalists who felt disappointed or discouraged by their editors in revealing the truth moved to web blogging or citizen journalism as the only alternative to defend the truth or appease their conscience. They were vehemently opposed to all aspects of journalism dominated by commerce and the market. They firmly believed that the truth and truth alone should be the end goal when it comes to their reporting or writing. These citizen journalists fight to build a well-informed public. This ideology departs radically from mainstream media, whose overriding purpose is to sell its product. Citizen journalism, on the other hand, inspires oppressed citizens to regain their voices, to share their frequently suppressed stories firsthand. A prime example of this is the recent story that R.AGE did with a group of Orang Asli citizen journalists — a story about how the Orang Asli community are fiercely standing up to the destruction of their homes.
However, to the government bodies and the powerful, we can’t have good things all the time.
Zhang Zhan’s valour reporting was not received well by the China authorities. Like many other citizen journalists around the world, she is currently facing a jail sentence for spreading ‘false information’ on the media. In her supposedly last interview with BBC, Zhang Zhan uttered a sentence that exhibited her lion-hearted spirit and aspiration for her country to be better:
“I won’t stop what I’m doing because this country can’t go backwards.”
But no good can come from trying to snip the already thin thread of freedom of speech, and this can be seen from the multiple protests happening all throughout 2020.
Because nothing is scarier than a collective group of individuals fighting against injustice. The thirst for change gnawing inside of them, an inner flame burning all the wrongs that have tormented them for so long.
That power is a force to be reckoned with and it is only time when the healing and rebuilding begins.
[Written by: Jane Law]