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Citizen Cameramen

By the time the members of the original Frontline TV agency hit Grozny in the mid-90s to report on the Chechen war, it became clear that the market for pictures and video was changing.

Newer, lighter, cheaper cameras meant it was easier than ever to become a film maker. This fact, coupled with the diminishing returns offered by large media companies, sowed the seeds of commercial failure for the young agency.

More than a decade later cameras are ubiquitous - they are built into phones, laptop computers and full broadcast quality equipment can be had from a digital camera no bigger than a cigarette packet at a cost of a few hundred pounds.

This together with the low cost of internet publishing means that almost anyone can call themselves a broadcast journalist.

Rimjin-gang is a Korean language magazine produced by a team of 10 North Korean citizen journalists armed with hidden cameras. The footage is smuggled over the border with China. One of the team spoke with Asia Press this month:
“I just want to show the natural lives of the people,” he said in an interview in April. “I may be just one individual, but if I can become a spark I can achieve my goal.
“Some people in North Korea may say I’m a traitor, but I’m confident in what I’m doing, standing alone for democracy.”

Images from video footage along with written reports are edited by Choi Jin I, a North Korean defector based in the South Korean capital Seoul, to produce the magazine published in Korean and Japanese. There are plans to publish an English language edition from June.

Rimjin-gang is the most recent attempt at democratising the media, and the only one so far to come out of North Korea, but there are an increasing number of examples of similar projects around the world.

One of the earliest is Witness started by pop star Peter Gabriel soon after amateur video footage of Rodney King being beaten by four Los Angeles police officers surfaced in 1992.

Witness aims to “use video and online technologies to open the eyes of the world to human rights violations. [To] empower people to transform personal stories of abuse into powerful tools for justice, promoting public engagement and policy change.”

As Ethan Zuckerman points out on his blog, the proliferation of cameras, particularly mobile phone cameras, has been the key enabling factor for Witness.

Film makers of the widescreen variety are also in on the act. The 2004 film “The War Tapes” was directed by Deborah Scranton, but filmed entirely by members of the U.S. National Guard serving in Iraq with Charlie Company of the 172nd Infantry Regiment.

For the most part it’s mainstream media that has proved slow in exploiting the advantages of cheap cameras, the internet and a range of easily-available online tools.

Bucking the trend this month reporter Manny Cristomo from the Sacramento Bee sent live video footage from protests around the Olympics torch procession in San Francisco from his mobile phone to the newspaper website.

He used Qik, a free tool that effectively turns a Nokia camera phone into a live broadcast unit.

We’re not about to see live video broadcasts from mobile phones coming out of North Korea anytime this year or next, but with the proliferation of similar services like Ustream.tv, Flixwagon.com, Yahoo Live and the soon to be announced YouTube Live it may not be too far off.

from the frontline blogs

Anita Coulson started blogging with us at fromthefrontline.co.uk this month. The former BBC reporter went to Zimbabwe to cover the election as a freelance.

She blogged her story in words and pictures from Harare to Victoria Falls. It was an eventful trip:

“I leave reluctantly, concerned for my many friends and acquaintances in these uncertain times for Zimbabwe. Among them is Amy who has lived all her life in Victoria Falls. Born in the area at a time when this country was known as Rhodesia, she married a local man and has four Zimbabwean sons.”

“And yet her Zimbabwean ID card classifies her as an alien and she is consequently deprived of full citizen’s rights as a Zimbabwean, including the right to a passport and the right to vote.”

Meanwhile Rob Crilly blogs about life in Khartoum while he awaits a travel permit to visit Darfur. One of the characters he meets is Al Siir who Rob reports is something of a legend among journalists visiting Khartoum:

“He has been imprisoned alongside a Financial Times reporter and the subject of a feature in Newsweek. As far as I am concerned he is the best fixer by far in a city where few taxi drivers speak English and red tape abounds.”

“He has got me out of countless scrapes in the past. But his idiosyncratic style - essentially shouting at people until they give in - means he has also got me into almost as many scrapes. And in a city full of bad drivers, he is seriously in need of reviewing his copy of the highway code.”

“Today we have been buying honey. It is a gift for a contact who is ill. The contact, we hope, will introduce me to a man I am hoping to interview. Al Siir is a proponent of the “honey as panacea” school of medicine.”

Read more blogs at Fromthefrontline.co.uk