By Hannah Spaar

New media and social networks have forced contention on what the title “journalist” implies and entails.  Whether this title is a privilege or a problem depends on the situation within a given country, and that fact was factored into the filming of numerous documentaries at the True/False Film Fest this weekend.

About 30 people crammed into a room at the Columbia Art League to watch the True/False panel Firewalls & Firestorms: New Media in China and Beyond.  The panel included directors Alison Klayman, Karim El Hakim, Stephen Maing and Josh Fox.  Jason Spingarn-Koff, a video journalist for The New York Times moderated the panel.

The conversation spilled over from the blurry definition into anger and frustration at the role accredited journalists play in the United States and their habit of repeating statements by official sources without scrutiny.

“This happens even at The New York Times!”  Fox says with some level of audacity as he cuts off Spingarn-Kof.  Fox later went on to say that it’s not about journalism failing; it’s a fight that has struggles on all sides.  He also said that he believes documentaries do journalism well.

Official sources are a large problem in the countries where the other documentaries took place.

El Hakim said that the Egyptian government, which controls most of the media in the country, has forbidden the sharing of a lot of the footage people have of Egyptians being killed in the revolution last year.  He said there is a movement, the name of which translates to “liars,” where people project their footage onto walls and statues or show it to people on their laptops.

China has a media policy, Klayman said.  Beyond even the famous firewall that restricts what the Chinese are able to access, the government requires that as little as possible be anonymous and conversations be directed in the government’s interests.

Maing said that his subjects did not want to be called journalists based on the dangers and restrictions there.  Being a journalist would mean falling into a spectrum of possible restrictions, which the panelists agreed was a spectrum that spread all the way from the most restrictive governments to the most “free,” and no government was entirely free.

For example, Fox made headlines in February for being arrested for filming a House of Representatives hearing on fracking.

“We’ve had a really bad year for the first amendment,” Fox says about this and the restrictions on assembly at the Occupy protests nationwide.

Klayman said that she has experienced problems not just with governments, but with the media she uses to distribute information.  She said Facebook deleted her account after she edited one of Ai Weiwei’s pictures to hide nudity with the Facebook logo. Klayman also emphasized the necessity of watchfulness in retaining internet freedom in the face of bills such as SOPA and PIPA and their international equivalents.

“Be vigilant,” she says.  “Be very, very vigilant.”

“We need to remember that there’s way more of us than there are of them.”  El Hakim says.

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