Protesters with bandanas covering their faces hurl rocks at armed men down the narrow street. A gunshot rings out, then another, and the camera’s view falls to the ground as its microphone picks up screams of pain.
The shocking video in which Bradley Roland Will recorded his own death made him a hero not only to the leftist movement he was covering, but also to a growing army of independent activist-journalists both covering and participating in social movements around the world.
Will, a 36-year-old from New York, died while filming unrest in Mexico’s Oaxaca state, where protesters had been fighting for months to oust Gov. Ulises Ruiz, whom they accused of electoral fraud.
For a month before his death, Will recorded video and wrote dispatches from Oaxaca for www.indymedia.org, a Web site run by a network of small, nonprofit media centers. Many of its journalists are unpaid, as was most of Will’s work, and many focus on conflicts in Latin America and the Middle East.
Pictures of Will, with “rest in peace” and other messages, are posted in his honor on countless blogs and Web sites. His recordings — and that of related protests and testimonials — remain popular on www.YouTube.com. A Google search for “Bradley Will” and “journalist” comes up with 22,900 hits.
“His physical life ended in Oaxaca just the other day. His singing, his photography, his energy, and his inspiration of SO MANY OTHERS will live on forever,” claimed “Jamas” in an entry typical of those recorded by Will’s online fans.
Critics say that by mixing activism and journalism, participant observers like Will put themselves into political situations where they don’t belong.
The growth of what some call “citizen reporting,” fueled by cheap multimedia technology and peer-to-peer Internet sites has enabled activists to reach millions inexpensively, without the backing – or often the standards – of mainstream news media.
“More people are looking for information that just affirms what they believe in,” said Jon Ziomek, a journalism professor at Northwestern University in Chicago. “I worry that a lot of it is not citizen journalism but just citizens screaming at each other.”
The Oaxaca protesters say Will’s reports championing their cause gave the world a truthful picture of months of violence.
Unlike reporters who strive to be neutral while covering conflicts for major publications or networks — though there is no lack of critics who question the mainstream media’s objectiveness — these citizen journalists can score some real scoops by taking sides. With protection from groups hostile to other media, they get access to footage, photos and stories unavailable to the mainstream.
Indymedia does not claim to be neutral — it argues that all journalism is political. Often lacking the bulletproof jackets and bodyguards sometimes used by mainstream journalists, its reporters say they are exposing truths overlooked by corporate media.
“To believe in Indymedia is to believe that journalism is either in the service of justice or it is a cause of injustice,” the group says on its Web site. “In that spirit, Brad Will was both a journalist and a human rights activist.”
In the free-flowing style of Internet bloggers, Will wrote about his sympathy for the protesters, a mix of leftists, trade unionists and Indians who took over Oaxaca City, building barricades and burning buses. He saw the bloodshed firsthand, covering the killings of protesters by masked gunmen who cruised the city in cars and pickup trucks.
His last report described going to a morgue to see one of the victims.
“Went inside and saw him — haven’t seen too many bodies in my life – eats you up — a stack of nameless corpses in the corner … no refrigeration — the smell — they had to open his skull to pull the bullet out,” Will wrote.
In Oct. 27, he ended up in the same morgue. As he videotaped a group of protesters in the Oaxacan slum of Santa Lucia, a gunbattle erupted. Will kept recording as he ran with the protesters who faced off against town officials and off-duty police. It was not clear who fired first.
Will was shot in the abdomen and died before he reached the hospital.
Activists now consider Will a martyr for their cause. They erected a giant wooden crucifix on the spot where he was killed, and spray painted “Brad Lives On” across Oaxaca City and Santa Lucia.
State investigators arrested two town officials in the killing but later released them after state Attorney General Lizbeth Cana suggested that Will may have been shot by one of the protesters.
Protest leader Flavio Sosa accused Cana, who reports to Ruiz, of fabricating evidence to protect the governor’s gunmen.
Sosa has since been arrested on kidnapping and robbery charges, the latest in a wave of detentions that have largely taken the sting out of the protest movement that retains Will as its fallen hero.
“This American came here and risked his life to tell the truth,” said Mariana Bautista, a 24-year-old Mixtec Indian.
Those who support the governor think differently.
“This is our country, and these are our problems,” said Magda Lopez, 36. “We don’t need foreigners coming here and telling us what to do. The agitators should be sent home.”
Mexico’s constitution bans foreigners from political activity, and activists from Europe, the United States and Latin America have been deported in the past for supporting leftist groups.
Independent journalists argue they are doing reporting, not getting involved in Mexican politics.
“If you pick up a rock and throw it, then you cross the line. But if you’re just holding your camera and pushing the button, I don’t see any line there,” said John Gibler, who has written for Indymedia from Oaxaca.
By lending a sympathetic ear to leftist causes, independent journalists make up for bias in the mainstream media, Gibler said.
“Typically the protest movements in Mexico aren’t given a fair shot. There is a preconceived idea that they are vandals and rabble-rousers,” he said. “That is why I make an extra effort to listen to those people.”