Why the Camera Phone is Instrumental to Democracy

by Beth Cherryman

“The world doesn’t know it happened, because you didn’t photograph it.” Martin Luther King

Okay, so the pictures tend to come out a little grainy.  And maybe they’re not always perfectly in focus.  But for many people camera phone images are the only means of holding those in power to account.

Those blurry images are their primary weapon against injustice, corruption, and straight out lies.

My case and point is the reportage of a series of protests involving Buddhist monks, students, activists, and ordinary citizens against Myanmar’s regime (formerly Burma).

The regime has a long history of controlling media coverage.    It presented a much-edited version of the increasingly violent events to the outside world.

However, a steady stream of pictures and texts detailing the horrendous and inhumane actions of the regime soon destroyed this diluted presentation.

Citizen witnesses captured images of bloodied monks and shootings with their camera phones.  The images were posted them on the Internet and picked up by major news networks.

Another defining event for citizen journalism was the London Bombings.  The first images and recordings news outlets had to work with came not from trained journalists but from ordinary citizens on the scene.

The BBC and MSNBC broadcast these images during their reports.  They were not for context, they were the report.  At least until journalists could get further information.

These two examples highlight two ways in which “user generated content” (to use the jargon) is essential to the process of journalism.

First, it is simply an unfortunate fact of life that the events that really change the world are those that nobody really saw coming.  Second, the people with the worst records of criminal activity (especially governments) are generally very good at keeping the press at arm’s length.  Their victims often cannot rely on journalists to expose the injustices.

And yet there is something special about getting the report from someone emotionally connected to the story; someone part of the struggle.

Don’t get me wrong.  There is more to journalism than being a witness to a newsworthy event.

But I have always thought of a journalist as being someone who tells the stories of people who, for whatever reason, cannot speak for themselves.

The advent of the camera phone means that more and more people can tell their own stories.  I fail to see how this could be a bad thing.  To empower the ordinary citizen, the persecuted, perhaps the victims of crimes we hadn’t even been aware of.

That’s accountability journalism.  That’s democracy.

Perhaps it’s a funny thought, that one could hold the world to account with a camera phone, but it is a thought I wholeheartedly believe in.

I hope that as this technology becomes more accessible, particularly in Africa and South America, we will start to see a truer picture of the world we live in and the worlds in which our fellow human beings live.

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