France bans non-journalists from recording acts of violence

"The French Constitutional Council has approved a law that criminalizes the filming or broadcasting of acts of violence by people other than professional journalists. The law could lead to the imprisonment of eyewitnesses who film acts of police violence, or operators of Web sites publishing the images, one French civil liberties group warned on Tuesday."

Okay, the law was intended to prevent so-called "happy slapping", the recording of violent acts to entertain the attacker's friends, according to BBC, but "the broad drafting of the law so as to criminalize the activities of citizen journalists unrelated to the perpetrators of violent acts is no accident, but rather a deliberate decision by the authorities," a campaigner told MacWorld/IDG.

Ironically, the law was proposed by none other than Nicloas Sarkozy, the French right-wing presidential candidate and Minister of the interior, whose presidential campaign is being advised by Loic Le Meur, Six Apart's European VP and one of France's most widely read bloggers. Le Meur is said to support Sarkozy in 'part because he believes he is the best candidate to help bring new opportunities to the French software and technology industries.' Right.

Le Meur, some will remember, had a bit of a fallout with parts of the blogosphere when he let politicians hijack blogging conference LeWeb 3.0 in Paris last autumn, and the bloggers present were none too happy about Sarkozy's 'monologue' for the cameras. It left people with the impression Sarkozy was there to broadcast how trendy he was by attending a blogging conference, while ignoring the people present at the actual conference. So not much praise for Le Web 3.0 organiser LeMeur on this account, let's hope he had nothing to do with Sarkozy's newly passed law, and this other piece of proposed legislation, which frankly is the most backward, oppressive and outright frightening proposal I've heard from a Western government in a long time:

"The government has also proposed a certification system for Web sites, blog hosters, mobile-phone operators and Internet service providers, identifying them as government-approved sources of information if they adhere to certain rules. The journalists’ organization Reporters Without Borders, which campaigns for a free press, has warned that such a system could lead to excessive self censorship as organizations worried about losing their certification suppress certain stories," according to Macworld/IDG.

On making it illegal for non-accredited journalist to record acts of violence David Winer writes: "lf such a law were passed in the US, we'd assume it was because the government was getting ready to commit acts of violence that they didn't want people to see on the web. The French would probably talk about how we'd lost it in the USA."

ABC Nyheter's launch party stirs up debate on the value of citizen journalism

Telenor-owned ABC Startsiden launched its new news site 15 February, which, as far as I know, is the first commercial Norwegian news site that features a mix of citizen and traditional journalism. For this Thursday's launch party ABC Nyheter hosted a debate on citizen journalism that provided many useful insights into why this type of 'journalism' is so controversial.

'The idea that everybody can become journalists is undermining the respect for journalism as a profession'. 'Citizen journalism is the end of objectivity, of balance, of respect for the agreed code of ethics', in short, it's the end of business as usual.

This was some of the flavour I took away from the debate, but before I go deeper into these issues I should disclose that I've known ABC Nyheter's community editor, Heidi Nordby Lunde, aka Norway's blogging queen, Vampus, for many odd years (more at the bottom of this post).

Editor Herman Berg introducing his staff.
(picture courtesy of ABC Nyheter)

In addition to it's usual news coverage, ABC Nyheter has a section where everyone can register and upload their stories freely. The site will be using Slashdot's moderation system. Posts are not moderated prior to publication, but will be removed if found to be offensive, too commercial or similar.

This feature was the subject of a fierce, but fun and enlightening debate, at the site's launch party on Thursday, and ABC Nyheter deserves credit for hosting a debate which clearly outlined just why many find the concept of citizen journalism so problematic.

Of the four panellists, Trygve Aas Olsen, editor of trade journal Journalisten, opposed the concept adamantly, Björn Bore from Dagbladet and Arne Jensen from The Editor's Association both took more conciliatory but nuanced positions, while Heidi Nordby Lunde predictably defended ABC's position.

From the left: Björn Bore, Trygve Aas Olsen,
Arne Jensen (picture by Audun Kjelstrup)

Aas Olsen, who admittedly said he had been invited to play the devil's advocate, took a very harsh stand against citizen journalism, which provoked and shocked several of the bloggers present:

'The idea that everyone can become journalists is undermining the respect for journalism as a profession, a profession that is under enough pressure as it is from unscrupulous proprietors, cost-cutting, high profit demands and similar. I think we have to protect journalism as a profession because without journalism as a professional filter that records world events and presents them objectively, there will be no objectivity anymore...

'... Telenor is only interested in as much traffic as possible: those that allow their writing to be used by the company for free are being fooled. It's all about traffic, not about the proclaimed noble intentions of increasing democracy... I don't think citizen journalism can improve Norwegian journalism.'

The attentive audience (picture by Audun Kjelstrup)

How Norwegian journalists conduct their profession is guided by voluntary agreements like a code of ethics and the rights and duties of the editor.

Aas Olsen raised concern about how citizen journalists would pay no heed to these codes of conduct. To this, Jensen interestingly replied that the Norwegian Editor's Association had been struggling for years to make Norwegian media understand the rights and duties of the editor, which they only now were starting to understand. 'We are starting to get some informal rules of conduct for blogging, with citizen journalism we're not quite there yet, but we can't demonise every innovation for that reason,' he said.

'Citizen journalism is a lot more unpolished than traditional journalism' said Nordby Lunde, but highlighted how they received stories from corners of the world, and on issues, where Norwegian mainstream media offered no coverage, like on the recent election in Albania.

From the left: Tryge Aas Olsen, Arne Jensen,
Heidi Nordby Lunde (picture by Audun Kjelstrup)

One of my favourite 'citizen' articles from ABC Nyheter so far is a 50-year-old who writes a letter to the business life which has made him redundant due to his age. It's a very eloquent and moving piece I doubt would have been published by mainstream media. On the other side of the coin, I also found a story on ABC Nyheter which clearly was a press release for a fair trade shop.

I asked Nordby Lunde about this, and she told me yes, they had spotted it and taken it down, but when she had tried to explain why they had removed it to the person who posted it, he simply couldn't understand it and said: "All the other media published it uncritically, why can't I publish it on ABC Nyheter?" That, I think, sums up some of the challenges, both for citizen- and mainstream journalism.

Disclosure: I've known Heidi Nordby Lunde for a long time, crashed on her sofa countless times, and campaigned together with her for freedom of speech some ten years ago.

Whose scoop was it?

The story of the Swedish blogger who brought down a government minister took an interesting twist last week when Expressen, the tabloid who ran the story as its exclusive scoop a day after the blogger had published his story, restated that it was indeed the newspaper, and not the blogger, that ousted the minister. A journalist at the paper argued Expressen had the idea and the scoop long before it published it (!) and that the blogger, Magnus Ljungkvist, could not be counted as a citizen journalist because he works for the Social Democratic Party and has a political agenda...

A bit more reasonably, Expressen also added that they do have considerably more readers than one lone blogger, but seeing that this particular blogger is a press secretary for Sweden's biggest political party, "which readers" would perhaps be a more rewarding question to ask than just "how many"...

Blogger who brought down minister: "citizen journalism works"

"I think I can dare to state that today. The blogosphere can be both fast and thorough. In addition to that we have good opportunities in Sweden with the fantastic public information act which makes it possible to gain access to important information from government without having a press card... What we citizen journalists can offer is maybe predominantly to investigate the power of the mainstream media." Swedish blogger Magnus Ljungkvist reflecting on his own role on the day the Swedish trade minister resigned (quote via Undercurrent).