The Listening Post

Al-Shabab: Of media and mouthpieces

Can journalists cover a story like the Nairobi mall siege without rewarding extremists who are out for publicity?

On September 21, militants from the Somalia-based al-Shabab group took over the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, East Africa’s media capital. What followed was a four-day standoff and a civilian death toll that international news organisations could not ignore.

Al-Shabab PR, through its Twitter presence, turned the siege into a showcase for its motives and ideology and, arguably, journalists covering the story turned up the volume. Sensationalist coverage and graphic images were all that the militant group could ask for and more.

So were the media simply doing their job or did they inadvertently become a mouthpiece for those who were making the news? And how can the media cover this kind of story without rewarding murderers who are out for publicity?

We speak to Al Jazeera correspondent Mohammed Adow; Mary Harper, the Africa editor for BBC World Service; Shiraz Maher from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation; and Okoth Fred Mudhai, the author of African Media and the Digital Public Sphere.

This week’s Newsbytes: A former FBI agent pleads guilty to disclosing classified information to an AP reporter – the latest episode in the ongoing story of the US department of justice crackdown on leakers; another journalist flees Sri Lanka after alleged death threats during a night-time raid; and in China, a 16-year-old blogger is the first person to be arrested since the country’s top court passed a law targeting ‘online rumours’.

This week’s feature takes a closer look at how user-generated content (UGC) has changed the way the media deliver the news. Professional journalists may turn up their noses at the grainy images or shaky footage but news consumers are increasingly accustomed to seeing citizen media covering stories from Tahrir Square to the Westgate Mall and beyond. Newsrooms are adapting and a new generation of citizen content intermediaries are now here to help; sourcing citizen content and verifying its authenticity – even training citizen reporters in the needs of the newsroom. The Listening Post’s Will Yong speaks to, among others, two of the leading companies in the field, Demotix and Newsflare.

Finally, how many times have you found that your phone needs a repair after only two years? Mobile phone companies rely on consumers upgrading their phones on a regular basis, but do we really need to? And what is the environmental damage to your phone once it has been discarded? Netherlands-based Dave Hakkens has come up with a new device that you can update as and when you need to, so you never have to upgrade again. We are not backing his cause, and we are not sure phone manufacturers will support it either, but the movement is attracting attention online so we have made it our video of the week.


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