It’s scary being a citizen journalist

Few regions of the world have embraced the idea of citizen journalism with as much gusto as Asia. Bloggers around the region, from communist China and Vietnam to capitalist Singapore, have unleashed a torrent of independent social and political criticism that has helped shed light on issues often hidden by the Great Firewalls of censorship and litigation in Asia’s traditional media.

Asian bloggers are also writing about popular culture and trends in a much more exciting way than traditional media, and they’re being rewarded with huge followings. But what protections do independent journalists enjoy? Seeing big players like The New York Times brought down in Singapore begs the question, what about the little guys? Last week one of those not-so-little bloggers, Song Zude or “Big Mouth Song”, was ordered to pay 100,000 yuan (US$14,650) to an actress after he claimed in an online piece that she’d had an affair with one of China’s electronics retail tycoons.

Media blogger and former journalist Allan Mutter at Newsosaur has a nice post spelling out the rather daunting facts for bloggers in America, that bastion of free speech:

The protections customarily afforded the press typically don’t exist for the citizen journalists supposed to fill the gap created by the contraction of the mainstream media.

This big and gnarly problem – which suggests no easy solution – merits some serious attention from the journalism community for two reasons:

Reason No. 1 is that our democracy benefits from the scrutiny of a vigorous and unfettered press. That, in and of itself, is well worth championing.

Reason No. 2 is rooted in pure self-interest: A decline in the protection of one class of journalists could lead to a decline to the protection of all journalists.

While the modern digital media make it incredibly easy for anyone to try his hand at journalism, bloggers, freelance photographers, Huffington Post contributors and individuals who write for citizen-generated news ventures operate at a distinct disadvantage to journalists employed by recognized news organizations.

The most obvious disadvantage is that self-appointed journalists work for something between a pittance and nothing. But they also lack three things that make life easier for journalists working for a recognized news organization: Libel protection, press credentials and shield laws that prohibit prosecutors from tossing reporters into jail until they reveal confidential sources of information…

Put all the risks together, and it’s pretty scary to be an independent journalist. If everyone understood the danger, how many people would do it?

Asian bloggers beware.

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