Volunteer site with Harvard roots spreads citizen journalism’s voice

By Jennifer Preston
New York Times / March 14, 2011

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NEW YORK — As the protests spread across Tunisia, many international news organizations scrambled to cover the unrest just before President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled on Jan. 14, ending 23 years of authoritarian rule.

But Amira al-Hussaini was all over the story.

Al-Hussaini oversaw a handful of bloggers who gathered information about the mounting protests in Tunisia for Global Voices, a volunteer-driven organization and platform that works with bloggers all over the world to translate, aggregate, and link to online content.

As part of its reporting, she said, the site turned to Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, where other bloggers and hundreds of ordinary people stepped into the role of citizen journalist and shared their experiences, cellphone photos, and videos online.

“There was a whole army of people who did the job of reporters, sharing what was happening on the streets,’’ said al-Hussaini, 38, who lives in Bahrain and is the organization’s Middle East and North Africa editor.

Soon after the earthquake and tsunami struck Japan on Friday, the volunteer bloggers for Global Voices in East Asia put together coverage of the devastation, sharing citizen videos and translating posts on Twitter, including calls for help from people stranded on the upper floors of buildings.

Over the weekend, with fears fueled by the prospect of a second explosion at a nuclear plant, they monitored the conversation on the social Web, reporting how people were exchanging information to keep safe and questioning the use of nuclear energy in an earthquake-prone region.

“Our job is to curate the conversation that is happening all over the Internet with people who really understand what is going on,’’ said Rebecca MacKinnon, a former Tokyo bureau chief for CNN who founded Global Voices with Ethan Zuckerman, a technologist and Africa expert, while they were fellows at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. “We amplify, contextualize, and translate what these conversations are and why they are relevant.’’

MacKinnon and Zuckerman said the network grew out of an international meeting of bloggers held at Harvard in late 2004. They saw an opportunity to leverage content produced on blogs and social media sites like Twitter outside the United States and to help create a global community for them and their work.

“Our goal is to give you the voices of the people in a country like Tunisia, day in and day out, whether they are cementing rebellion or talking about local news and sports scores,’’ Zuckerman said. “We don’t parachute in. We are there all the time. “

The organization is now an independently operated nonprofit, financed mostly with private donations and grants from foundations. It is led by Ivan Sigal, who studied the role of citizen media in conflict zones at the United States Institute of Peace, before taking over as executive director in 2008. With no physical office, he oversees a virtual team of about 20 staff editors and more than 300 volunteer bloggers and translators outside the United States.

Sigal said that the site averages about a half million visits a month. Many of the volunteers also post on their own blogs and social media sites, including al-Hussaini, who is known as Justamira on Twitter. He said the organization does not accept any government money. “We want it to be perceived as being neutral,’’ he said.

Sigal said that having editors work with volunteer bloggers brought traditional journalistic values to the operation, like checking facts and sources.

“But it is less about a finished story and more about a conversation,’’ he said. “When we build a story, we include links back to the original sources, so you can follow the story as far down as you want to. We want you to leave our site and go find the original, find more.’’

Clay Shirky, a professor at New York University and author of “Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations,’’ said that one of the most important roles Global Voices has played is translating online content for an international audience.

“This started with the idea to provide broader coverage,’’ he said. “It turns out that it is much more critical than they had imagined because the other international news sources are being dismantled.’’

Al-Hussaini spent 12 years working as a news editor for an English-language paper in Bahrain before volunteering at Global Voices as a blogger in 2005. She became editor for the region in 2006 and knows it well.

Still, she said she was caught by surprise that the turmoil across the Middle East unfolded not far from her home in Bahrain.

In Libya, where rebels are battling the country’s leader, Moammar Khadafy, she said it had been much more difficult to get information, which she said had more to do with fear than with lack of access to the Internet.

“The citizen media scene is small in Libya,’’ al-Hussaini said. “We find it very difficult to find voices here and in other places where there is a lot of censorship and a lot of fear from the regime. Bloggers being arrested is a fact of life in some countries.’’

For those bloggers from Global Voices who are jailed or run into difficulties because of restrictions on freedom of expression, the organization now offers help. Global Voices Advocacy is run by Sami Ben Gharbia, a respected blogger who is a founder of Nawaat, a blog about Tunisia, and an activist who until recently lived in exile from Tunisia for 13 years.

Zuckerman said that the organization was committed to supporting freedom of speech as well as to keeping up with the developments unfolding all over the world.