The Republic of T.

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No Citizen Journalism, Please. We’re French.

(Crossposted from my EchoDitto blog.)

Imagine this. You’re standing, waiting for a bus when you hear a commotion; screaming, yelling, gunshots, etc. You turn around and witness someone being dragged in to a van– kicking and screaming — by several armed, hooded individuals.

Instead of diving for cover, you whip out your mobile phone and start capturing video at the precise moment one kidnapper shoots a security guard and foolishly rips off his mask before jumping into the van just as it speeds away. You have his picture. You have video evidence of his crime. Being a good citizen, you take your video of the crime to the police, and they arrest you. Because what you did is a crime. Or it could be, in France.

That is, if France criminalizes citizen journalism.

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.

Appropriately enough, the council’s announcement came on the anniversary of the Rodney King beating; a watershed moment in American life, stemming from the increased availability of video cameras, which became a powerful media tool in the hands of citizens who took them into the streets to “police the police.” Had the proposed French law existed in the U.S. then, George Holliday — who captured the incident on video — would have been a criminal. (But not Bob Tur, the reporter who captured video of Reginald Denny being attacked during the riots that erupted when a jury failed to convict four officers for the King incident, and later sued YouTube for copyright infringement when the video was posted on the site.)

Of course, then even if you had video it wouldn’t see the light of day beyond your living room unless you found a television station willing to air it. Fast forward to the present, when even more of us have the capacity to capture video, and it seems like every day there’s a new website where we can upload, edit and broadcast that video without having to persuade a producer or station manager.

How has it changed our culture? It’s an old story, and we’re just living in the latest chapter.

Forty years ago yesterday, Americans saw television footage of the attack on civil rights marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. It became known as “Bloody Sunday,” and so incensed Americans that demonstrations were held in 80 cities within 48 hours, and Martin Luther King Jr. led thousands on a march across that same bridge two days later. Had ABC not interrupted Judgment at Nuremberg, most Americans wouldn’t have see it what happened in Selma that day. That was the power of media then.

Television footage from the Vietnam brought war into America’s living rooms, given them a view of the battlefield most would never have seen otherwise. It’s said to have been a major factor in turning the tide of public opinion against the war.

No, the great difference between the Vietnam War and its predecessors lay not in its conduct, but its perception, an image that was shaped by a powerful new influence– television. It was this medium, more than any other single factor, which was instrumental in the shift of American public and Congressional opinion from a position strongly supporting to one strongly condemning the American defenseof South Vietnam.

…As the size of the media in Vietnam expanded, so did its impact back home. In 1963, NBC and CBS doubled the length of their national news coverage (from 15 to 30 minutes) and in that same year Americans reported that, for the first time ever, most of them received the majority of their news from television instead of newspapers and magazines.12 Technology kept pace during this period also, with a steady increase in the number, size, and quality of color television sets in American homes. Transportation time of news footage was originally about twenty hours from Vietnam to New York, although this would be decreased dramatically with the availability of communications satellites later in

the war.

That, too, was the power of media then.

The King video gave Americans a look at the kind of violence most wouldn’t have seen otherwise, and that wouldn’t have been reported beyond its locale — if at all — had there not been a citizen with a video camera nearby. Last November, cell phone video footage of a UCLA student being repeatedly tasered by campus police was posted to YouTube. It became one of YouTube’s most discussed videos of all time, rocketed around the blogosphere, and caused an outcries against police brutality both online and on campus. Video of Los Angeles Police arresting William Cardenas helped launch an FBI investigation after it was posted online. In another time, news of these incidents wouldn’t have spread very far, let alone video footage.

The trend is not limited to the U.S. A video of Malaysian police humiliating a young woman (recorded by another policeman, on his cell phone) also found its way online, causing citizens to demand an investigation.

The clip began circulating phone to phone, e-mail to e-mail. Eventually it was posted on YouTube and other Internet sites, to be viewed by millions. What started as cheap voyeurism escalated into an unstoppable cyberspace phenomenon, which forced the prime minister to establish an official inquiry that led to changes in police practice. The episode also underscored the growing power of amateur video, shot on cellphones and ever-tinier digital cameras, to hold the powerful to account.

The digital revolution is helping to throw light into some of the world’s darkest corners. The photos of naked and shackled Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison — images taken on soldiers’ personal digital cameras and made public in 2004 — focused a global spotlight on abuses there. Ordinary people going about their daily lives are now the first to document historic events.

That is the power of media now, in the hands of “ordinary people.”

Beyond crime and acts of violence, the political implications of the kind of law proposed in France should be obvious by now, to anyone who’s heard the word “macaca” or seen Michael J. Fox’s campaign ads, both of which made APs “Top YouTube Videos of 2006” list.

The case of blogger Josh Wolf is another example. Wolf was jailed in July 2006 for failing to turn over video footage he shot of a San Francisco protest against the G8 summit 2005. In an interview last month, Wolf explained his refusal to comply with

Amy Goodman: On Friday, we spoke with Josh Wolf from his jail cell in Dublin, Calif. I began by asking him why he’s in prison.

Josh Wolf: I’m here for refusing to comply with a subpoena demanding that I both testify and turn over a tape of a protest that occurred on July 8, 2005.

AG: Why are you refusing to comply?

JW: Well, there’s a number of reasons. It’s been viewed that the tape is central to the issue, but it’s also the testimony. Essentially, what the government wants me to do, as we can tell, is to identify civil dissidents who were attending this march, who were in mask and clearly did not want to be identified, but whose identities I may know some of, as their contact that I’ve been following in documenting civil dissent in the San Francisco Bay Area for some two and a half years now.

Meanwhile, CNET Editor Charles Cooper suggests another reason why Wolf’s incarceration isn’t getting the as much attention as, say, the jailing of New York Times reporter Judy Miller.

Civil liberties-minded folks are upset about the press freedom issues raised by Wolf’s imprisonment. But Wolf’s self-proclaimed status as a video blogger also opens a Pandora’s box the fourth estate would just as soon see remain shut. More than any case I can recall, the Wolf case reflects the changing way journalism is being practiced in the age of Internet bloggers.

Changing the way journalism is practiced, by essentially making journalists of any anyone with cell phone and a broadband connection, has the potential to change much more. It did in South Korea where OhMyNews — which daily posts tens of thousands of articles by citizen journalists — was credited with influencing the election of a president. Founder Oh Yeon Ho described the site as a powerful space to coalesce “people power.”

“OhmyNews is a kind of public square in which the reform-minded generation meet and talk with each other and find confidence. The message they find here: we are not alone. We can change this society.”

By contrast, the French law would establish government-approved sources of information and bar most citizens from contributing.

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, said Cohet. He is concerned that the law, and others still being debated, will lead to the creation of a parallel judicial system controlling the publication of information on the Internet.

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.

“Freedom Fries” aside, it’s no stretch of the imagination to consider how much folks on this side of the Atlantic might appreciate a law like this one. In fact, the French law might not go far enough. After all, national security could be at stake and suppressing some of the stories mentioned above would have spared some powerful people a bit or grief, and maybe even helped them hold on to that power.

But that probably wouldn’t happen here without some protest. That is, if anyone would risk reporting it.