Love it or hate it, citizen journalism is not only here to stay, but has a role to play. However, as the coronavirus crisis highlights the importance of news verification, citizen journalists are increasingly under the spotlight of scrutiny. Staff Writer, PINI BOTHOKO writes
Recently, one popular Facebook page with more than 20,000 followers alleged that the health ministry was hiding a white patient from South Africa at Bokspits Clinic. After the first three cases were announced, photos of a couple alleged to be the patients emerged and circulated, powered by popular pages on social media.
Then there was the white tourist alleged to be quarantined in an exclusive camp in the Delta.
Citizen journalism, defined as the collection, dissemination, and analysis of news and information by the general public, especially by means of the Internet, is on the rise in Botswana.
The advent of the Internet and specifically social media, as well as declining charges for access over the years, has seen an explosion in local users of platforms such as Facebook and consequently a balloon in citizen journalism.
Certain pages have comfortably passed 100,000 followers, with many loyal fans who actually rely on the citizen journalists more than they do mainstream media. In fact, for the fans of citizen journalism, these platforms are where the real news is told, undiluted and free of commercial influence, whereas mainstream media follows agendas and is easily ‘bought’.
The main difference between citizen journalism and the mainstream media is that the former rarely subscribes to the profession’s ethics and standards. In fact, whereas mainstream media consists of registered companies and professional journalists that can legally be taken to task, citizen journalism relies on grassroots information and gleaning publicly available data.
As the coronavirus has grown in stature from being something happening in China, to a menace on everyone’s doorsteps, journalists of all types have attempted to stay abreast, keeping Batswana in the loop.
And of course, mistakes have been made.
“These pages are controversial, but at times more popular than the mainstream media platforms,” says media veteran, Pamela Dube-Kelepang.
“In the times of COVID-19, these pages or platforms have exploded. Every country is struggling to keep these pages under control with little effect.”
Dube-Kelepang, an advocate of community journalism, says since the advent of social media, citizen journalism has grown in leaps and bounds with some of those practicing it, opening pages and blogs that operate as media platforms.
She adds that these pages or citizen journalists have been publishing news (both fake and real) at fast and furious pace that authorities have been failing to contain. She says while some have taken the responsibility to share correct information on how to curb the spread of the virus, unfortunately some have even released information which could be detrimental to victims and families of the infected.
“With stigma, discrimination and xenophobia on the rise around the coronavirus, exposing identities of the infected and affected can prove dangerous,” says Dube-Kelepang.
“The big question is, ‘How do we curb this?’ Maybe kill the market or appetite for ‘breaking news’ or fake news?
“The government needs to be fast to offer correct, consistent information and it must communicate in a simple way.
“If people feel the government is hiding or lying about something, they (people) will unfortunately turn to citizen journalists.”
As the lockdown takes effect and with no mainstream print media expected to publish during that period, a free-for-all is expected on social media in terms of news. The coronavirus has moved from prevention to containment and more stories are expected of breaches, scares, cases and even localised outbreaks.
Who will you trust?