Citizen Journalism in Egypt: The Newsfeed of the Revolution
What does it need to launch a successful media outlet? Probably a good deal of start-up capital, a team of editors, a business plan and some advertising clients. Cairo’s Rassd News Network started with two things: a Facebook page and a revolution.
It takes a lot of scrolling to find the first status update of Cairo’s Rassd News Network (RNN), one of the biggest citizen journalism projects of today. Dozens of links, photos and updates are published on the project’s Facebook page every day, and tens of thousands since the page was launched just over a year and a half ago. Back then, in the turbulent days of January 2011, RNN’s mission was clear: providing alternative media coverage from Tahrir Square and elsewhere.
The Arab Spring is one of the most prominent success stories of how social media can help to gather people, inform both local activists and journalists worldwide, and bypass traditional media and ways of communication that could be either controlled by governments or were not efficient (on this note, we invite you to take a look at this beautifully animated Arab Spring timeline by The Guardian).
Two years earlier, the protests in Iran had already shown the political importance of social networks: harder to control and faster than any other ways of communication, social networks quickly became allies of the protesters. The 2011 uprisings however also tremendously changed the media landscape, explains RNN co-founder Abdullah Al-Fakharany in an email: “The aim has been to create an alternative form of journalism covering events subject to state censorship, or the self-censorship of established media, that are prevalent in the Middle East”.
A quick historical reminder: On June 6, 2010, Khaled Saeed is beaten to death by two police officers in Alexandria. A disturbing photo of his corpse gets viral and eventually is seen by Wael Ghonim, who sets up the Facebook page We are all Khaled Said, which gradually becomes a platform of protest.
On January, 17th, an Egyptian man sets fire to himself outside an administration building, emulating Mohamed Bouazizi‘s self-immolation in Tunisia, and triggering a similar chain of events. On January 25th, a long series of protests starts in Cairo’s streets, aiming – and eventually achieving – to remove the power from Mubarak’s hands.
RNN’s predecessor was a Facebook page dedicated to monitoring the 2010 parliamentary elections in November and December, which have been troubled by fraud suspicions. “Egyptian media largely failed to report the widespread fraud and intimidation that characterized the elections”, explains Abdullah. During the elections, the platform received up to 700 contributions a day from citizens, about 400 of which were published on Facebook. The core team grew to 30 editors.
By sunset on 25 January 2011, the platform launches a new page: Rassd News Network, Rassd being a blend of the Arabic words Rakeb, Sawwar and Dawwan (Observe, Photograph, Blog). Its first update: a reference to the Khaled Said page, with which RNN forms a vital cooperation: “Rassd was endorsed as the “official” news-source for the online community of activists and concerned youths who were deeply involved in the momentous events rocking Egypt”, explains Abdullah.
“RNN functions on the basis of a vast network of volunteering reporters, and a small core of volunteering editorial staff. Besides RNN’s volunteering reporters, members of the public are encouraged to send in text messages, pictures and videos documenting events they witness”, says Abdullah Fakharany. A staff of almost 200 volunteers is in charge of checking, formatting and publishing the news they are receiving. In the 18 days following January 25th, RNN received an average of 6500 reports a day and published 4 000 of them, attracting every day an average of 40 000 new followers.
The network keeps growing, and can be a bit confusing at the first look. It went global, with pages emerging for Marroco, Algeria and Turkey. These networks are still active, and today, and even though their role has changed and protests have declined, RNN still shows passion and dedication to citizen journalism, encouraging its users to contribute:
The question of bias
Compared to traditional media, the objectivity of civil journalism initiatives like RNN is probably disputable. Rassd News has been accused of partiality and inaccuracy in reporting from the uprisings. But how much objectivity can be demanded from a medium that essentially is a part of the revolution it reports from?
For journalist and blogger Jilian C. York, the benefits of citizen journalism outweigh the risk of false or biased information, especially in a context like the Arab Spring: After all, argues York, the young, tech-savvy Egyptians probably know their country better than the foreign correspondents of global media networks. And while some international reporters were covering the events at Tahrir square from their hotel rooms, Cairo’s civic journalists blogged, taped and tweeted from the very centre of the clashes.
Is, thus, civic journalism the better alternative or even a replacement for traditional media outlets? Quite the contrary, argues Elizabeth Iskender in a journal article on the role of Facebook in the Egypt 2011 uprising. Only in close collaboration and exchange with traditional media, the full potential of Egypt’s grassroots journalism could unfold : “If social media are to continue to play a role other than acting as a separate communicative space, the flow of communication between different forms of media and between the different “audiences” within Egypt is crucial.” 1
Whatever the future relation of traditional and alternative media will look like, the success of Rassd News Network shows that web-based civic journalism is not just a temporary phenomenon in turbulent times, but a real “empowering tool for ordinary citizens”, as Abdullah puts it: “Rassd News Network continues to grow thanks to the passion, dedication and self-reliance of a new generation, the strong civic spirit and the desire for truth that animates it.”
1 Iskander, Elizabeth (2011) Connecting the national and the virtual: can Facebook activism remain relevant after Egypt’s January 25 uprising? International Journal of Communication, 5 pp. 13-15.