"American? You are welcome here."
I must have heard that three dozen times during my visit to Cairo, Egypt last week. Every Egyptian I met made it a point to let me know I was safe in their country.
Egypt is, after all, in something of a PR crisis following a revolution this past spring and regular demonstrations ever since. For a country that relies so heavily on tourism, foreigners' continued fears are directly affecting many residents, from the guys hustling camel rides at Giza's pyramids to the restaurants and hotels that are usually bustling with Western tourists.
Many people told me, "Go home, tell Americans it is safe here."
So there you go. I can at least vouch for myself and say I never felt in danger (except for when I took Cairo cabs - talk about a rush!).
My tour guide lamented the notably smaller number of tour buses lined up in front of the Sphinx and Great Pyramids. She told me the numbers had been down all year, but she was really hoping they'd pick up in the fall, usually a very busy season.
Though tourism may be down, another industry (if you'd want to call it that) is thriving all over post-revolution Arab World: Citizen journalism.
Many online news outlets have launched or grown after the dust has started to settle following the Arab Spring. MediaShift describes the citizen journalism landscape as three-tiered: Independent bloggers; joint initiatives from citizen journalists; and larger citizen journalism platforms such as Global Voices and Menassat.com.
Citizen journalism has a long history in Egypt , in particular. Since the early 2000s, bloggers and activists were chronicling complaints and demonstrations against then-President Hosni Mubarak outside the purview of the mainstream media.
While the news availability may be spreading, there are still dire consequences for citizen journalists (and professional journalists) for writing negative posts about the wrong parties.
In March, Egyptian blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad was arrested for criticizing the Egyptian military's role in the revolution. He was sentenced to three years in prison for libel. Human Rights Watch called his arrest "the worst strike against free expression in Egypt" in more than three years.
Despite the dangers of doing civic journalism in a time of such upheaval, I had an opportunity to work with some Arab journalists who are doing just that all over the Middle East. I was actually visiting Egypt as an instructor with the International Center for Journalists, helping to guide a selected group of journalists working on investigations of civic issues in their home communities.
Some in this group were documenting cases of staggering government corruption. As part of their coverage plans, each had to consider how to best protect themselves - and the citizens they'll be working with - from the imprisonment (or worse) that could result from such reporting. It was quite sobering for this American journalist to see what others are willing to risk for the truth.
While the consequences may not be as frightening, citizen and independent journalists in the U.S. also play a key role in exposing and reporting either ignored or unknown happenings in their communities.
This is what we're trying to help facilitate through OfftheBus, The Huffington Posts's citizen journalism program covering the 2012 election process. We're recruiting an army of volunteers to help make sure our elections are honest, fair and open.
For some, this means reporting stories we at the national level may be missing, as OfftheBus contributor Alex Brant-Zawadzki did when he was first to report on the raffle of a Glock pistol by a Republican organization in the home district of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who had been shot by the same kind of gun earlier this year. The story was eventually picked up by news outlets all over the U.S.
Even those who wouldn't consider themselves reporters have a role to play in holding the nation's candidates and campaigns accountable. Our reporters can't be everywhere at once, so keep your eyes and ears open for suspicious tactics, messages and outreach efforts - and let us know what's going on.
One of the ICFJ program participants I met in Egypt, Ali Ghamloush, is leading a citizen journalism effort in Beirut, Lebanon. He co-founded AltCity, a social venture aimed at expanding access to tools, resources and spaces for independent publishers, activists and tech entrepreneurs.
Ali told me about a sort of newsroom-on-wheels that AltCity takes to more remote areas of Lebanon, giving basic training and computer access to citizens eager to tell their own stories.
His program got me thinking about how we at OfftheBus could be providing more resources to people right here in the U.S. who want to have a role in civic reporting. We might not have a bus to take to your town (but it'd be pretty cool if we did), but we do have the wide reach of The Huffington Post to help citizen journalists report, edit and publish their work for a potentially huge audience. Please, email us and let us know what more we can do to help you share your own stories.
Check out the ongoing work of OfftheBus citizen journalists on the 2012 elections and Occupy Wall Street. We'll soon have more citizen journalism projects available, so sign up for our email list so we can let you know when they're starting up. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter to read the latest work from our volunteers.
Mandy Jenkins is Social News Editor for The Huffington Post and a citizen journalism coordinator for OfftheBus.
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