The Achilles’ heal of citizenship journalism – the strange case of Amina Arraf

citizenship journalism
Citizenship journalism is not as reliable as many people take it for – this is where newspaper journalism often wins out and maybe why it will endure

In some ways it is surprising that the Syrian uprising is being covered to the extent it is in the UK broadcast media.

Yes, the events in Syria are marking a radical shift in thinking and politics in the Arab world.  Yet with so little substantiated news it is surely very hard for this story to dominate news agendas as it should.

There have been no iconic images such as the one of Neda Agha-Soltan, the young women who lost her life protesting against the almost certainly fraudulent Iranian elections results two yeas ago.

And with next to no verifiable footage taken within Syria, independently minded journalists banned by the Assad regime have to rely on the accounts of refugees streaming across international borders.

In Turkey, President Erdogan, who has been building up strong economic and political ties with Assad’s regime has offered refugees from the town of Jisr al-Shughour – which has been the target of a concerted military assault – protection on the understanding they do not talk about their experiences to journalists keen to update reports.

So when the established media cannot report there is a vacuum.

It is left up to citizen journalists such as Amina Abdallah Arraf al-Omari, a 25-year-old gay woman in Damascus to tell the world what is going on.

Amina, within a few short months, was able to give an insight that no journalists could.

The blog was attracting hundreds of thousands of hits, and no doubt was used as a source by many reporters.

Then Amina was abducted, but by whom?  No one was sure although one of the many branches of the Syrian secret police or security services must have been involved – an online campaign to free her resulted.

However, it has been unmasked as a hoax, a complete fraud.

It was the work of a US student residing in Edinburgh, Tom MacMaster and possibly his partner Britta Froelicher (although MacMaster now claims it is his work alone).

Even the pictures of Amina were stolen from the Facebook page of a Croatian girl living in London who had no connection to the material being used on the blog.

MacMaster had the gall to explain his deception:  “While the narrative voice may have been fictional, the facts on this blog are true and not misleading as to the situation on the ground. I do not believe that I have harmed anyone – I feel that I have created an important voice for issues that I feel strongly about.”

There are many issues raised by such behaviour but I want to concentrate on just one:  The reliance of news sources where there is no legal or editorial safeguards to ensure a commitment to follow standards of integrity and professionalism.

Of course no news outlet is free of bias, but the issue with Citizenship Journalism is that those basic standards we expect from a news source might be there or not, through design or lack of it.

This is one reason why established media outlets such as national newspapers do not have to feel threatened when there seems to be others with greater access, speed or credentials disseminating news.