Al Jazeera is joining the global trend towards more participatory news by launching the region's first Arabic-language edited citizens' journalism portal this week. Called Sharek, the Arabic word for "participation", the online portal gives readers and viewers an opportunity to submit writings, photographs and videos for publication on the channel's websites and, if they are good enough, broadcast on the satellite network.
"Journalism is being transformed through technology, and we need to keep pace with the rest of the world," said Ahmed Sheikh, the editor-in-chief of Al Jazeera. "It seemed very important to us to have contributions from the people. It will encourage people to express their point of view." This is not the first opportunity offered to Arabic speakers to upload their own news into a major forum. Maktoob.com, the pan-Arab web portal, has a feature in its news division that allows users to publish news.
In international journalism, CNN set the standard through its iReport.com portal, where stories come from viewers. CNN vets some of the stories, which then get the "On CNN" tag and a spot on the channel's news coverage. But other stories are not vetted. This became a problem earlier this year when a false story about Apple chief Steve Jobs having cancer appeared on iReport and led to a fall in Apple's share price.
Al Jazeera's portal stands apart from its predecessors in that it will check all contributions. A staff of two moderators have been assigned the task. "We have to make sure that there is no libel, no slander, that the quality is OK, and that it won't damage or harm the image of anyone," Mr Sheikh said. "It has to be within the parameters of Al Jazeera." The site also requires that all contributors include their name and location. If contributions of high enough quality were submitted, Mr Sheikh said viewers could see them on television in as little as two weeks.
He hopes this foray into citizen journalism works better than the attempt earlier this year. "We asked viewers to send us their opinions of certain events by video, for us to put on the air, but we found out that this only comes from certain Arab countries in North Africa, mostly Egypt, not from Jordan, Syria or Lebanon, despite the fact that Lebanon is a country where people are politicised." He said there was no real interest from the GCC. This time, the station is working to promote the portal, and has hired Nielsen to conduct audience research to help solve, among other mysteries, the question of why Egyptians are so disproportionately interested in being citizen journalists.
He said the second try came less from a demand from viewers than from an internal desire to be a leader in the industry. "I don't think in the Arabic-speaking countries, people have time to start thinking of this," he said. "You've got to take the initiative. You've got to encourage them." firstname.lastname@example.org