Reporters for the Voice of Democracy (VOD) online media run by the Cambodia Center for Independent Media (CCIM) always became busier than ever as Cambodia’s elections day drew near. These reporters were assigned to coordinate the citizen journalists’ news gathering activities in the voting booths distributed across various Indonesian provinces.
Information gathered by these citizen journalists in the form of written texts, photographs or videos, needed to be edited first by the VOD in-house reporters before the information was eventually made available to the public.
“We have a mission to bring the information to public while involving members of the public, such as civilians and the local community at large,” CCIM Headquarters Executive Director Danilo Caspe said during an online training on Sept. 15 themed Pushing for Citizen Participation in Reporting the Elections Cycle by Referring Best Practices in the Southeast Asian region.
To date, CCIM has trained at least 200 citizen journalists to supply information to VOD in-house, professionally trained journalists. These professionally trained in-house journalists had already imparted their skills and knowledge to these citizen journalists so that the latter could have some basic skills and understanding on journalism.
The VOD in-house reporters trained these citizen journalists on basic journalistic studies, basic reporting ethics, how to use various reporting devices. The VOD reporters also equipped these citizen journalists a press card issued by the CCIM for them to identify themselves while conducting their field reporting activities.
The VOD also sets no age limit for its citizen journalists. Anyone who can write and have a smartphone are eligible to be citizen journalists. According to Danilo, involving the citizens as journalists during the elections could be an alternative to penetrate specific community enclaves which no mainstream national media can ever dream of accessing.
Danilo added there were 22,000 polling booths scattered across Cambodia’s 24 provinces. By enlisting grassroots-level citizen journalists, the VOD hopes to be able to cover all polling booths in their endeavors to report on the country’s elections to the public at large.
The VOD reporters would then disseminate the information provided by the citizen journalists through various channels such as their Facebook page. The CCIM has also set up a web-based platform called the Citizen News Wire to gather information from the citizen journalists. The in-house reporters will also be tasked to verify all the information provided by the citizen journalists.
“We also collaborate with civil society groups, recruiting their members to be our citizen journalists. Recently, we’ve been able to implant two coordinators for the citizen journalists across each Cambodian province. We task the coordinators to brief the citizen journalists and recruit new members into the network,” Danilo explained.
Similarly, the Malaysian independent news outlet Citizen Journal (CJ.my) also regularly mobilized citizen journalists to cover the local elections. For the 2008 Malaysian Elections, for instance, the news outlet trained these citizen journalists to record the events during the entire elections cycle: from campaign on down to the voting process.
“Many people have raised the issue of money politics. Alas, professional reporters can’t really access these money politics transactions as they occur. The citizen journalists, meanwhile, are always with their community members when such things happen – grounding them firmly to their society’s realities. That’s the best thing about enlisting citizen journalists in our work,” Citizen Journal managing editor Maran Perianen.
The independent news outlet has conducted more than 80 citizen journalists trainings across Malaysia – covering areas like Kelantan, Penang, Perak, Kuala Lumpur, Johor, Sabah and Sarawak. Out of the 400 citizen journalists trained by the media outlet, about 150 of them actively file their stories. To date, CJ.my has produced about 1,900 videos and 2,000 articles – the majority of which are published in the reputable news outlet MalaysiaKini.
For Maran, involving citizen journalists allow information democratization to happen. Mainstream media outlet no longer monopolizes the peoples’ information needs. This is crucial, according to Maran, at a time when the Malaysian government is strictly controlling the mainstream national media outlets. Due to the censorship, many Malaysian media outlets rarely capture events on the grassroots level or report things from the political opposition’s point of view.
Maran illustrated that when the campaigns cycle was in progress, information on the national media were dominated by stories about candidates’ programs and what these candidates deemed important for the public. At the same time, very little stories in the local mainstream media dedicated themselves to pay attention to what the public, on a very grassroots level, really needed.
The citizen journalists being recruited across various communities, according to Maran, can fill the information gap by representing the common people’s issues across various community segments, including the oft-marginalized ones such as the ethnic minority, transgender groups, women and young people.
“The citizen journalists have served as the much-needed pairs of eyes which keep watch on the entire elections cycle down from the grassroots level. As a community member, they are able to report stories based on their communities’ very specific social contexts,” Maran said.
Yet, Maran warned everyone that recruiting citizen journalists who dedicated themselves to the interests of their fellow people, opposed to those who aligned themselves with certain candidates, was an essential yet tricky thing.
The Indonesian Media Development Association (PPMN) Executive Director Eni Mulia agreed that empowering citizen journalists to fill the information gap that mainstream media was unable to provide was very essential indeed. The importance of the citizen journalists’ role in this manner has become more apparent than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic, at a time when mainstream media outlets across the globe were going through financial problems which restricted the mobility of their in-house journalists.
“Citizen journalists can help more people access decent information, while also pushing for societal change,” Eni said on Sept. 14.
Eni said that Indonesia could learn a thing or two from its Southeast Asian counterparts regarding the role of citizen journalism in safeguarding democracy as the country would also conduct a simultaneous regional election across 270 regions nationwide on Dec. 9.
Organizing the regional elections during the pandemic situation brought enormous challenges, requiring tight supervision from various stakeholders. Citizen journalists could play their role in this struggle by reporting the entire elections cycle as it unfolded down from the village level, according to Eni.
Currently, the PPMN, through its Respect program has organized citizen journalists across five regions which would conduct their simultaneous elections late this year to watchdog the entire process. The regions are: Yahukimo in Papua, Palu in Central Sulawesi, Central Lombok in West Nusa Tenggara, Solo in Central Java and Ketapang in West Kalimantan.
Before going to the fields to conduct their duties as citizen journalists during the upcoming Regional Elections, the PPMN had equipped the coordinators of these citizen journalists with an online training called Pushing for Citizen Participation in Reporting the Elections Cycle by Referring to Best Practices in the Southeast Asian Region conducted from Sept. 14 to 18.
Not only supervising and monitoring the entire process, these citizen journalists are also expected to educate voters to help the latter use their voting rights armed with balanced information.
The Indonesian Community Radio Network also did its bit in training its citizen journalists to monitor the 2015 simultaneous regional elections. The network’s chairman Sinam Sutarno said that they trained citizen journalists in East and Central Java to produce public service announcements calling for integrous regional elections campaigns.
By working hand-in-hand with the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), the network also organized a competition among these community radio stations to create media campaigns against money politics. During the competition, Sinam said they had been successful in securing 40 regional elections campaign materials rejecting money politics, which subsequently got broadcasted in various community radio stations.
According to him, these materials could effectively educate voters on political matters, especially in regions not covered by the election organizers with such education program.
“We’re campaigning that ultimately, money politics during the regional elections will end up going down the same drain: either the politicians using the money for corruption, or use the money in their attempt to become powerful and after they become powerful they will use their power to get involved in acts of corruption,” he said.
According to him, community radio stations also served as the network’s channel to help the grassroots community members identify their own political agenda during the regional elections. The network, he said, also encouraged the members of the grassroots community included their community problems – from the high price of land fertilizers and just how difficult it is to sell their harvest produce – into their electoral political agenda. Then, the grassroots community members needed to push their candidates to include these communal issues and find solutions for them in their endeavor to run for office.
Not only that, by understanding electoral regulations, the public members could also guard themselves against elections-related hoaxes. This hoax issue is indeed something serious: Indonesian Anti-Slander Society, for instance, recorded about 997 fake news/hoaxes circulating online all through 2018 and right up to January 2019. Out of that number, 488 of them (49.94 percent) are politically-charged.
“The electoral regulations – including ones prohibiting the dissemination of fake news – have pretty much been set in a crystal clear way, yet the people are not familiarized with these regulations. Community radio stations could bridge the regulation familiarization gap,” he said.
By understanding the regional elections regulations, the Association for the Elections and Democracy Khoirunissa Nur Agustiyati said that the public would better be able to watchdog the upcoming regional elections – for the entire elections cycle.
The organizers have issued so many regulations on candidacy, campaigns, voters list drafting, on down the latest regulations on conducting the regional elections amid the COVID-19 pandemic. So, the public can already start supervising the regional elections even far before the voting process.
“The entire elections cycle is so complex and long, requiring lots of watchdogs,” she said.