Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Open Source: Key to citizen’s participation

A call was made recently for Africans to embrace Open Source. Remmy Nweke reports that it could boost citizen’s participation in governance.

Penultimate Wednesday afternoon, Ben Ovie-Young, a media practitioner resident in Abuja, was taken aback on opening his mail at a computerized media pool to realize that he had over five online invitations, to join one group or another. So, he screamed, “what is all these invitations about.”

His scream attracted his colleagues to come nearer or peep at the screen of his personal computer’s monitor and it did not take time to figure out what it was; Ben had invitations from a yahoo group account inviting him to a discussion platform by the moderator of the team. He also had an invitation from a friend to join him at YouTube, another friend extended invite from MySpace and yet another from John on Facebook.

Still contemplating on what next, he decided to ask a friend, Yomi Asope, who had sent him a blog post before now to enlighten him more on what he ought to know about all the surging platforms for digital citizen engagement. On signing in his newly set up Yahoo! Messenger, he met two other invites and another from a foreigner who left a note: I like your contributions and would like to have you as a friend.

Though astonished, he went ahead to ask Yomi for explanation, because he knows he had been engulfed with one exploit on the Internet or another.

So, for Yomi, an ‘ordinary’ citizen it is now time to educate the journalist and not just any journalist but that of 21st century. He began by sending him links to what YouTube, MySpace and FaceBook are all about. After which he honoured those invitations and could not believe what he saw as content on those platforms, were simply amazing.

From people using their mobile phones to upload bits and pieces of information from all over the world, Ben Ovie-Young, now realized the import of the theme at this year’s Highway Africa (HA-08) conference at Rhodes University Grahamstown, South Africa, which was on ‘Citizen Journalism and Journalism for Citizens.’

Berger’s theory of Citizen Journalism:
Elucidating on the theme, Head of School of Journalism at the HA-08 host university, Prof. Guy Berger, offered a literary gift to all participants based on the message that African media practitioners should ride on the back of Open Source applications to engage the citizens positively for their individual and societal development.

This, he suggested, is achievable when media practitioners on the continent realize the importance of citizens in their jobs, knowing fully well they themselves are also citizens, thus giving the citizens an open mind as to the acceptance of their contributions in today’s changing information and media world precisely.

Advising African media practitioners to change their thinking cap, Prof. Berger noted that most people erroneously think that citizen journalism emerges when amateurs become journalists. He stressed that citizen journalism actually began “when the journalist thinks about what it means to be a citizen as a journalist.”

Open Source:
An Open source expert at the OS Initiative, Mr. Ken Coar, said as does not just mean access to the source code, because the distribution terms of open-source software must comply with some criterion including the free redistribution, source code, derived works, integrity of the author’s source code, no discrimination against persons or groups, no discrimination against fields of endeavor, distribution of license, which must not be specific to a product, and it should not be restricted or restrict other software as well as all being technology-neutral among others.

Importance of citizen’s participation:
For the acting Group Executive, Corporate Communication at South African national operator, Telkom, Ms. Bintu Petsana, citizens have the right to know about activities and decisions that affect their lives, liberty and must recognize the importance of their participation within the democratic system to make it work and thrive.

She was emphatic that this will become a reality if its recognized by the culture that values right to freedom of expression among other human right issues. Hence, raising a big question mark on the Nigeria’s National Assembly delays in passing the Freedom of Information (FoI) bill since last administration of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo till date.

And for the General Manager, South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), Mr. Phil Molefe, many African media practitioners are still in bondage and operate in un-conducive environment that even infringes on their fundamental rights. He encouraged them to endeavour to get involved in the new wave of gathering and exchanging information, because it would afford them to be on top of their careers by being Information and Communications Technology (ICT) compliant.

Accepting the reality of citizen journalism:
Also, members of the academia seem to be in tandem with the fact and role of the Citizen Journalism (CJ) at this era of ICT on the continent, as postulated by some of them at the HA-08.

Speaking at the session on “Citizen journalism and civic education: exploring the theoretical and practical linkages,” chaired by Prof. Fackson Banda of Rhodes University, a lecturer at the Makerere University, Dr. George Lugalambi, declared that citizen journalism is a phenomenon that emerged because the citizens were not satisfied with performance of the conventional journalists.

A gap, he said that ICT is abridging, noting that CJ has made citizens to be politically competent by participating in any political process and expressing their views on the societal subjects.

Equally, a lecturer in the Media Studies Department at Wits University in Johannesburg, South Africa, Dr. Dumisani Moyo pointed out that the last Zimbabwean election was an example of how Short Messaging Services (SMS) through mobile phones were used to disseminate information and exchange opinion as well as ideas about the election by the citizens.

Citizen Journalism, he said, provided a parallel market of information because while the government was not forthcoming with election results, the citizens alternatively provided the avenue for getting information across to themselves without any hindrance.

Particularly interesting, according to him, was the use of SMS to spread humour over the lack of courage by the government to announce results, hours after the election ended.

The political economy of citizen journalism, he said, is that corporate entities like Global System for Mobile communications (GSM) operators across the world and Africa that promote citizen journalism via advertising and selling their own products. “This is because people cannot be part of citizen journalism without the use of SMS,” he cited an instance, stressing that if SMS is in vogue, of course, operators are likely to make more revenue.

In his contribution, a Senior lecturer at the Ajayi Crowther University, Oyo State, Nigeria, Dr. Abiodun Salawu also cited the book by Dennis McQuail, the author of Theory of Mass Communications and said that the story of democratic participating media theory provides the theoretical framework for citizen journalism, therefore, serving as a veritable platform for democracy to thrive.

While advocating for horizontal rather than vertical means of communications, Salawu concurred on the role of ICT in today’s media emancipation also known as citizen journalism, saying that the 2007 election in Nigeria, for instance, witnessed some campaigners sending messages via SMS to the electorates.

One cell-pone per child:
In addition, Vice Provost for Globalisation at the University of Southern California, Adam Clayton Powell III, pointed out that since the evolution of television and the personal computer, the most powerful future technology for the digital citizen emerged in form of mobile phone.

“Just as our ancestors used paint for their rock art, today, we‘re using our mobile phones to send voice and data, in essence a revival of oral tradition,” he noted, canvassing for future African ICT enthusiasts to engage on “one cell phone per child.” campaign.

According to him, to really appreciate this digital future, the world must understand how far technology has come. He traced the current evolution to 1980s with TV, newspapers and personal computers.

“In the ’90s, television streaming over the internet became a reality,” he said, stressing that by the year 2000, PCs, TVs, Compact Disc (CDs), game and social networks became a major part of day-to-day life for the digital citizen.

Today, much more collaboration between print and electronic media is possible through converged content management systems and collaborative open web technologies; through newspapers usage of digital tools on their web pages while hitherto called electronic media adopted print strategies like text stories and photographs on their web pages.

Key to citizen’s participation:
As the telecommunications penetration continues to expand on the continent, it will be paving the way for more citizens to participate in governance through stuffing the Internet with their own stories which could be meaningfully utilized by mainstream media, like the CNN’s EyeReport and Channel Tv’s Ur Report.

After all, it was once said that the voice of the people is the voice of God and as long as open source remained the key to people’s participation in this era, the voice of the people would continue to be heard with the new wave of ICT tools.

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