Citizen journalism is emerging as a powerful phenomenon across Africa. The rise of digitally-networked technologies such as the Internet and mobile phones is reshaping reporting across the continent. This change is technological – with social media platforms enabling new forms of publishing, receiving, and discussing stories – as well as cultural – with idiosyncratic conventions emerging on these platforms. This study surveys the ethical beliefs of citizen journalists in several sub-Saharan African countries. We find that they are driven by a sense of social responsibility and a wish to inform their readers and the general public. Citizen journalists show a clear antiauthoritarian strain and an antipathy towards government regulation, yet most see themselves as subject to the same ethics that guide traditional journalism. We then investigate the implications of these ethics for the emerging networked public sphere. The emergence of a digitally-networked public sphere has been hailed as a revival of bottom-up democracy in the West, but its consequences for African countries are rather ambiguous. We therefore set out to disentangle the possible relationship between citizen journalism and the emerging networked public sphere.

Internet access is scarcer in sub-Saharan Africa than anywhere else in the world: African Internet users account for barely more than five percent of the world’s online population, and in many countries the Internet penetration rate still lies below five percent. However, the picture is changing rapidly as more and more people gain access. Mobile phone adoption has exploded all over the continent, so much so that today most Africans have access to a mobile device. In a number of countries, the introduction of 3G networks has also revolutionized the way by which many people access the Internet while for most of the previous decade cybercafés prevailed, more and more people now access the Internet via their mobile phones. In these countries including Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, among others a significant share of the population is now online (Columbus & Heacock, forthcoming).

The rise of the Internet across Africa, just as anywhere else in the world, has not left journalism untouched. Newspapers and broadcasters across the country have started to publish content online. In many cases, however, African online journalism is merely repurposing content produced for the publishers’ primary publications (Bosch, 2010; Mudhai, 2011). Nevertheless, practices pioneered by alternative media actors such as the use of multimedia and increasingly immediate reporting are adopted by mainstream journalists, so that there is a trend towards “networked-convergent journalism” (Mudhai, 2011; Banda, 2010).

The spread of Internet and mobile telephony has also led to the emergence of a new form of citizen journalism in many sub-Saharan African countries. While this movement and its impact is less obvious in Africa than in Europe and the U.S., vibrant online communities exist in many countries, and citizen journalists are increasingly using digital technologies such as blogs, SMS, social networks, microblogs, video sharing platforms, and mapping to report and comment on a wide range of topics (Mutsvairo & Columbus, 2012). The role of citizen journalists has particularly been highlighted in times of crisis: in Kenya, during the violent election aftermath 2007, while social media were also used to incite riots, bloggers documented human rights abuses and created Ushahidi, a crisis mapping software (Goldstein & Rotich, 2008). In such situations, when reports from conventional media are absent, citizen journalists are not merely relaying critical information blogs, microblogs and fora also serve as means to express emotions and as spaces for discussion (Zuckerman, 2009).

The rise of the Internet, and in particular of citizen journalism, has been hailed as the emergence of a “networked public sphere” (Benkler, 2006). Digitally networked technologies enable ordinary citizens, the idea goes, to become their “own broadcasters and reach large numbers of people in unprecedented ways at trivial cost” (Goldstein & Rotich, 2008). However, the application of this theory in the African context has been controversial. While Goldstein and Rotich argue that the fast adoption of mobile phones in Kenya has led to the emergence of a networked public sphere, this has been challenged by Walton (2011), who points out that many are still without access to communication technologies. Goldstein and Rotich (2008), however, also note that the emergence of a networked public sphere in Africa is, other than in Western democracies, not necessarily linked to civic impulses; much rather, digitally networked technologies can be utilized to promote violence as well as to provide counter-narratives to the stories of oft-censored conventional media and to more easily collect reports from witnesses of human rights violations. Bosch (2010), who entertains the notion of multiple public spheres in different online communities, in a similar vein points out that online discussions often fall short of the reasoned debate required for the formation of a public sphere, more resembling a “barroom brawl”.

Citizen Journalism in Africa
The term ‘citizen journalism’ has risen to broad attention since the mid2000’s (Allan, 2009, p. 18), albeit mostly in Western countries. In Africa, it is even more of a novel phenomenon. Along with its novelty comes an abundance of definitions, such that the boundaries of citizen journalism are hardly drawn yet. Often, the term is used to denote non-professional, amateur news publication (ibid.); the reporters are “incidental journalists” who happen to witness and capture, then publicize events (p. 21). Allan therefore argues that citizen journalism plays a particularly salient role in crisis reporting (ibid.). Indeed, much of the research on African citizen journalism consists of case…[See More]

Bruce Mutsvairo, Simon Columbus1,*, Iris Leijendekker /Amsterdam University College, PO Box 94160, 1090 GD Amsterdam, The Netherlands / Correspondence be addressed: or