Sunday, November 30, 2008

Some thoughts on citizen journalism and Mumbai

Oh, what a Thanksgiving break it is proving to be.

As I sit in this oversize chair, looking out of a bay window at the Michigan snow gently drifting from the cold sky and into the gray woods, the world seems so beautiful.

But within, I feel a deep sense of hurt.
Mumbai has suffered what Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution calls "a dramatic demonstration that the global jihadist syndicate based in Pakistan is still as deadly as ever."

Nearly 200 innocents have been killed in that warm, hospitable city, which was my home for more than three years in the late 1990s. Many of the victims are tourists, including 19 from foreign nations such as the United States.

The timeless Indian classic, Taittiriya Upanishad, celebrates tourists, or guests, as akin to the gods: Atithi devo bhava. If only terrorists read the classics.

Oh, maybe they do. Just different ones.

As for me, for four days now, I have been a veritable prisoner of hi-def television and hi-res laptop.
It has been a high, a somewhat deprecating one. Nostalgia about my own years in the newsroom consumes me: Deadlines, bylines, leads. Those were the days.

The 24-hour news market –
CNN, MSNBC, Fox – offers live footage punctuated with relays by Indian broadcast journalists Rajdeep Sardesai (CNN-IBN), Barkha Dutt (NDTV), Arnab Goswami (Times Now) and others.

I notice a special place for citizen journalists in the coverage. For instance Dina Mehta is an early interviewee on CNN. Arun Shanbhag finds mention in the New York Times.

And let it be a matter of record: I am now officially a fan of Twitter. At one time Thursday I was counting a hundred "tweets" a minute! All live. All from south Mumbai. All from the heart. (Some from the mind too.)

Twitter's micro-posts, each of 140 characters or less, have intensely reported the action, particularly events at the Taj Mahal Hotel and Leopold Cafe (which used to be, along with Kailash Parbat near Nariman House, my favorite hangout in Colaba), at the Oberoi on Marine Drive, at Cama & Albless Hospital on Mahapalika Marg. I see that Mathew Ingram has declared Twitter to be "a source of journalism." At one time the Indian government is reported to have called for a lull in Twitter's live updates in order to protect the commandos' strategy.
As Forbes puts it, Mumbai is "Twitter's moment."

But Twitter is not the only star platform. Vinukumar Ranganathan's shots on Flickr offer some of the finest early pictures from south Mumbai. The bloggers at Mumbai Help offer realtime comments of community, condolence and consolidation. Others, such as Gaurav Mishra, offer aggregations of the best of the blog action.

Then there are the networking sites. Wikipedia's page for the events reminds me of the super-hit toy poodle pup which grows before your very eyes. GroundReport boasts multiple amateur reporters who are paid by the traffic their stories bring. NowPublic, of the "crowd powered media" tag, has some pretty impressive multimedia coverage. So does CNN's iReport ("Unedited. Unfiltered. News.") There are other sorts of victims too: The netizen demand seemed to have crashed Mahalo’s servers Sunday.

Mumbai's bloggers seem to have leaped from the footnotes into the narrative.

I'm no security expert but Mumbai’s terrorist attacks suggest that, in large countries, pursuing national security via centralized command may not serve dense urban areas susceptible to guerrilla tactics.
Besides, as Newsweek reports, Mumbai’s authorities clearly “flunked the intelligence test.” Ratan Tata, whose company owns the Taj hotel, says Mumbai has little “crisis infrastructure” in place.

So here’s another thought. Do bloggers byting their observations serve as the eyes and ears of the citizenry? Are bloggers who use their homes as newsrooms, their computers as teleprinters, and the Web as preferred medium, veritably offering themselves up as intelligence assets? If so why not use them as such? After all bloggers constitute, to use Stephen Cooper's lexicon, a “fifth estate” – which self-respecting blogger considers himself or herself to be merely "audience"? Mumbai's intelligence authorities should seriously consider vetting chosen bloggers for their potential to disseminate information; perhaps just pay closer attention to certain citizen reports which might help preempt future attacks.

If "eternal vigilance is the price of liberty," as Jawaharlal Nehru warned seven decades back, then roping in motivated, networked bloggers with a nose for news might be a common sense way to gather intelligence.
Besides, doing so might offer an innovative check on state power by substituting the need for any new federal intelligence agency who wants more prying, interfering, bureaucracies anyway?

At this time what soothes me is –
strangely – an analysis Salman Rushdie, the clever writer who survived a death fatwā, offered at Central Michigan last month: “There’s no such thing as security. There are only different levels of insecurity. The moment you accept that, it sets you free.”

Nikhil Moro, Ph.D.