Following the protests in Cambodia from abroad this week was astonishing. On Twitter, Facebook and email, the coverage had immediacy, clarity and a ubiquitous presence that even live television could not compete with, even when seen from Kabul.
From the outset, when protesters began arriving at Freedom Park, the scuffles, tear gas and water cannon – and sadly the death of Moa Sok Chan during a confrontation after the rally had ended – the coverage was slick and on par with great coverage by any wire service in its heyday.
Unfortunately, however, social media geeks who believe the role of iReporter or citizen journalism is a fundamental cornerstone of digital media have gotten it wrong.
What emerged was hundreds of protesters armed with smart phones throwing live accounts onto the Internet where they were disseminated fast by foreign journalists from local and international publications who were not working in unison. Far from it, they were competing for the best line.
Important information about roadblocks, crowd movements, speeches, violence and confrontation were tweeted in one-liners, details and photos were Facebooked, and personal evidence observed that day was emailed privately in a telling and professional manner.
Largely absent were the shrill and sometimes hysterical voices of activists turned civilian reporters or the hardline partisan politicians who like to hear and swamp the Internet with their own pontifications. They were simply sidelined by genuine journalists covering the event.
In short, I didn’t need to see it on CNN or BBC.
But on a much wider front the professionalism that is emerging in the digital era of journalism is a serious challenge for Cambodian authorities whose failure to reconcile themselves with the realities of this generation warrant comparisons with those saintly women of old who disfigured themselves in order to protect their chastity.
In the run-up to the July 28 election, powerful factions within the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) wanted Facebook banned. The same could probably be said for the myriad of social media sites similar to Facebook, if the bureaucratic boffins could just figure out how they work.
There were at least two attempts to block social media websites, but in the end greed won out. Too many business interests with political connections that rely on Facebook and the Internet for income carried the day, much to the unintended delight of those at Sunday’s protest.
Had those responsible for security at the protests been tuned in to the very product many would have banned, they just may have realized that crowds were dispersing by early evening, although the roads were clogged and it was difficult getting home. That was the time to pull the police with loaded guns back to barracks. If they had done so, much of the violence and bloodshed in the evening might have been avoided.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter at @lukeanthonyhunt.