Citizen journalists have become credible sources of information and news reports, especially in communities where local conflicts and protests are not consistently covered by mainstream media. But what are some of the challenges they face in a rapidly changing media environment? How can their work promote freedom of expression amid rising censorship and repression? To answer these questions, we looked to citizen journalists in Myanmar, Thailand, and Cambodia.
Risky reporting in Myanmar
The work of citizen journalists became more crucial in Myanmar after the February 2021 coup since the junta revoked the license of independent media outlets. Citizen journalists (CJs) provided relevant updates about the civil disobedience movement, the activities of the armed resistance in the regions, and the possible war crimes by junta forces.
Even now, these journalists face the risk of detention for submitting reports about what’s happening on the ground. In an interview with Voice of America (VoA), a CJ in Chin State narrates the constant harassment she experienced from the junta troops.
My phone is often checked by junta forces. They found some wounded people’s photos, and victims’ photos and asked me why these photos are on my phone. They questioned me again and again for long hours.
In an interview with Mizzima News, a CJ in Tanintharyi Region explains the difficulties of gathering information:
I have to write on the run. I also have to be more careful because there is fabricated news and the sources are not strong. It is hard to cover the news about interrogation centers. I have to avoid the news propagated intentionally by the military.
The CJ added that writing for an unregistered media company has made it more difficult to finance and carry out their work:
It is getting harder to earn a living in this profession. I won’t be called to be based in a foreign country by a news agency because I am not a permanent staff member. Because the media license has been revoked, it will be hard for them (the media outlets) to help arrested journalists. Because I am on my own, I have to keep myself anonymous when writing news.
An engineer who became a CJ told VOA about his motivation behind his work:
We don’t get income by doing citizen journalism, but with passion and enthusiasm, with the mindset that we will contribute our best for our people and our region, and we are still working on it.
Mizzima News acknowledged the role of CJs in boosting the work of independent media:
Myanmar independent media respect the work of their “sources” in the field – CJs who provide a range of stories and input that help paint a picture of what is happening in crisis-hit Myanmar.
We owe the CJs a debt of gratitude. It is no exaggeration to say – given the experiences of those who have fallen foul of the Myanmar authorities – that many CJs face death, injury or imprisonment in their efforts to get the story out.
A ‘truer coverage’ of events in Thailand
A discussion panel organized by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT) in September tackled the situation of citizen journalists in Thailand and the coverage they provided during the pro-democracy protests in 2020 and 2021.
Writing for independent media Prachatai, Seoung Nimol cited the positive contribution of citizen journalists based on the panel discussion:
….when the protesters called for reform of the monarchy, some established media concerns opted for self-censorship to the point of ending live broadcasts. To provide coverage of the protests, citizen journalists stepped up do the job themselves. The result was a truer coverage of events.
But despite their work, citizen journalists enjoy little or no legal protection:
While their daring coverage has had an impact on the Thai media industry, they remain without official standing or legal protection and there is seemingly no immediate chance for improvement.
FCCT also mentioned the views of some institutions that question the credibility of citizen journalists:
Traditional institutions, like the police, other officials and even some members of the media denounced these citizen journalists as “fake media”, saying that these people should not be entitled to be part of the press.
Representatives from media associations also had reservations. They were concerned that citizen journalists rarely had any professional training, and might end up spreading misinformation, or even inciting violence.
The main concern of citizen journalists is similar to what mainstream journalists also face in Thailand: the continuing decline of freedom of expression during the pandemic and the use of emergency laws to stifle dissent.
A network of citizen journalists in Cambodia
The Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM) has maintained a network of citizen journalists across the country, and has produced noteworthy reports documenting several land disputes and other local issues.
During its training sessions from April to June 2022, CCIM highlighted the demands of community-based citizen journalists:
The CJs expressed the following needs and suggestions, among others: a) more training on code of ethics, advanced journalistic skills, freedom of expression, and rights of the CJs to gather information; b) legal representation and support to the citizen journalists facing legal threats and security issues; c) strengthen CJs’ commitment and expand the network up to the district level; d) categorize training for CJs based on the capacity, such as basic, intermediate and advanced groups; and d) more gathering and reflection sessions among the CJs.
Over the years, CCIM has trained scores of CJs who were able to put a spotlight on local conflicts. One of them is Mom Sophy, who became a CJ after becoming frusterated at the lack of coverage in Kampong Speu Province:
The mainstream media missed out on local issues, especially land conflicts in my area. Whenever we traveled to Phnom Penh to bring a complaint to appeal for government intervention, we rarely saw reporters or journalists came down to cover our stories.
I personally experienced social injustice, especially land grabbing and development plans that are not respecting people’s rights. This prompted me join citizen journalist with CCIM.
Another example is Kheang Sokmean, who became a full-time journalist after training as a CJ for CCIM:
I am glad because I shared what was happening in the disputed area of Kandal airport and revealed aggressive acts by the police against hundreds of land defenders. When professional journalists are barred from the site, citizen journalist is the only news purveyor and able to give voice to the voiceless and show the other side of the story which is different from police statement.
CCIM’s media development director Chhan Sokunthea emphasized that ensuring the safety of CJs is a priority of the network:
We prioritize CJs’ physical security over the other things. We do not send them to report on sensitive issues. They are advised to do what is doable while the emergency measures are put in place.
Independent media has faced restrictions as well in Cambodia, as civil society groups note the shrinking civic space for freedom of expression in the country. This makes the work of Cambodian CJs more relevant in amplifying the situation of the local population.
By Mong Palatino