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Citizen journalists, social movements and the use of information and communication technologies

This is a case study of the successful use of ICTs by activists and citizen journalists to engage and mobilize audiences in Sudan after the flooding crisis in August 2013

The Fourth Estate and journalists have had a tumultuous existence in Africa. Journalists have been persecuted, prevented from reporting, detained, and, even worse, killed in many African countries. This has in many cases curtailed the power of the Fourth Estate and the role it can play in the advancement of civil society in Africa. Journalists, in many cases, are not granted the opportunity to report on important social issues and in turn actively mobilize African audiences.

The new millennium, spurred by the rise of new communication technologies, has ushered a new age of ‘citizen journalists’. These are ordinary citizens around the world who report the news as they see it happening. New communication technologies have provided ordinary citizens and their networks the ability to bypass traditional media outlets and share unfiltered information that is not hindered by political or editorial constraints. In the African context this unbridled flow of information is of particular importance due to dominant state-controlled media outlets.

Globally new media technologies have ‘facilitated formal political participation’ (Wasserman 2005:178) as well as provided social movements activists and special interest groups with an opportunity to engage audiences and disseminate information both on the local and global levels (Struwig and Conradie, 2003; Wasserman, 2005). Many scholars argue that the interactivity provided by new media has the potential to ‘create alternative public spheres’ (Wasserman 2005:181). Consequently these movements and citizen journalists are able to widen connections and forge support on not only on the local but global level (Dahlberg 2001; Edelman 2001).

The question, as posed by Wasserman (2005), is whether this holds true in African contexts. The World Bank (2012) reports that Africa’s mobile phone market is comprised of 650 million subscribers, bigger than either the United States or European Union. New Information and Communication Technologies, ICTs, (defined as software, computers, and telecoms by the World Bank) have facilitated communication and in turn the spread of messages among a vast African audience, not necessarily limited to those within the geographic confines of the continent but including those in the diaspora. In turn this has led to the rise of a new phenomenon, the African citizen journalist, who is both an observer and active participant in events.

This article examines the use the successful use of ICTs by activists and citizen journalists to engage and mobilize audiences in Sudan after the flooding crisis in August 2013. It is hoped that through this case study an insight can be gained into how ICTs facilitated an ‘audience-building capacity’ (Bennett 2003) that aided Nafeer’s initiative. Moreover, ICTs helped garner local and global attention for the campaign. Despite the success of Nafeer’s campaign in Sudan we cannot extrapolate conclusions that are generalizable in all African countries. However, the case study approach will possibly lead us to lay the groundwork for a schema relevant to the African context.

Sudan has one of the oldest established press systems in modern Africa, dating back to 1889 when the British-dominated Anglo-Egyptian regime launched an official Arabic-English gazette (Sharkey 1999). Press censorship has also been a part of this extended history. Since Lieutenant General Omar Hassan Ahmad Al-Bashir’s 1989 coup d’état the country’s communicative space has been severely restricted. Print and broadcast are in most cases state-controlled and heavily censored. Economic problems have rendered the media business unviable and further eroded the existence of an independent press.

This information gap provided fertile ground for various alternative forms of communications to take center stage. The rise of a ‘parallel market of information’ (Moyo 2009) was a direct consequence of the availability of ICTs to many Sudanese as well a rising tide of discontent with the government.

On August 1 2013, heavy rains fell in Sudan and triggered flash floods that affected as many as 530,000 people. The United Nations estimated damage to more than 14,000 homes housing 72,500 people as a result of the flooding. At least 950 homes were completely destroyed while 759 homes suffered partial collapse.

The Sudanese government failed to lead and coordinate a systematic response to the humanitarian crisis created by the flooding. Moreover, there was a lack of reporting on the flooding through traditional media vehicles that are for the most part government owned. Consequently, community–based volunteers sprung to fill the void and aid those affected by the floods. Nafeer is the most prominent volunteer group established with over 5,000 registered volunteers. The group is comprised of young activists and social media users with various professional backgrounds. Nafeer members launched an online campaign to help those affected as well as mobilize Sudanese within and outside of the country. Moreover, the campaign was an attempt to draw global media attention to the natural disaster that had struck Sudan. The name Nafeer was chosen because of its significant meaning in Arabic, which means, ‘call’ or ‘mobilization’.

The campaign launched both English and Arabic Facebook pages (to date there are 57,232 likes for the Arabic page and 3,722 likes for the English page) for the campaign to disseminate information. They have a very active Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr presence as well. Hundreds of Sudanese in the diaspora joined the Nafeer initiative. Hot lines were set up to receive donations from Sudanese in Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia, Norway, Sweden, and other countries. All these media tools circumvented traditional government media channels, forming a parallel market of information (Moyo 2009).

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) highly commended the group for the ‘its impressive results’. In a three-day period in mid-August, Nafeer volunteers say they distributed more than 3,000 ready-made meals, 3,000 plastic sheets, and 200 mosquito nets.

Mark Cutts, head of UNOCHA, said that he ‘was very impressed with the work Nafeer is doing in Sudan.’ Furthermore, he was excited to see so many young volunteers join the effort to help those affected and use social media to mobilize support.

The Nafeer initiative provided many services other than the distribution of food to those affected. Doctors were mobilized to participate and a primary healthcare clinic was set up to ensure that medical services were available to those in flood stricken areas. Environmental engineering teams cleaned up the debris left behind and treated floodwaters to control for diseases. Burlap sacks were filled and stacked by Nafeer volunteers to create barriers to prevent further flooding. Training sessions were put together for volunteers to streamline projects undertaken by the group. Moreover, Nafeer’s Facebook pages and Twitter account were used to publicize other volunteer groups and their efforts. For example, Education Without Borders’ efforts to collect school supplies and rehabilitate affected schools was prominently advertised on Nafeer’s Arabic and English Facebook pages.

The campaign’s significance lies in the fact that it bypassed state-controlled traditional media vehicles to reach and mobilize many different publics. Many might argue that access to the new ICTs used in this initiative is in the hands of a few elites in Sudan. But the counter-argument is the trickle-down effect of information from those that have access to those that do not have it. Sudanese culture remains a collectivist one with a significant oral tradition and where word of mouth is still a prominent way to receive information. Moreover, the proliferation of mobile phones facilitates the free flow of information. Currently 22 million people out of a total Sudanese population of 30 million are mobile phone subscribers.

The campaign not only succeeded in mobilizing the populace, it garnered a lot of media attention on both a regional (e.g. Al Jazeera and Alarabiya) and global scale. Many Western outlets such as the New York Times, the BBC, and Fox News covered the initiative.

Nafeer’s campaign definitely holds promise for future citizen-to-citizen mobilization that bypasses a centralized government and its traditional media channels. The initiative was commended for its transparency in the use of donations made to flood victims. ICTs made it easy to publicize donations received. The group posted detailed financial reports on their Facebook pages. Furthermore, Nafeer’s efforts in the distressed flood areas were well documented throughout the different media vehicles used.

Despite the promise that ICTs enable citizens to circumvent authority and censorship, access can be shut off at any time. At the end of the day, we must remember that governments control accessibility to ICTs and have the ability to shut them off at any point in time if they feel threatened.

* Maha Bashri is an Assistant Professor of Communication at Bradley University (Illinois, USA). Currently she researches Africa’s emerging markets and their communicative sphere.


Please note Nafeer’s Twitter feed, Facebook pages, Flickr pictures, and YouTube Videos were accessed for this article.

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