By Lalen de Vela
During the Arab spring in Egypt, citizens who took on the role of journalists during the uprising were able to churn out more media press releases than mainstream media, were more accurate in their reporting and were reporting events much faster. Many of these citizen journalists were women, and they were able to make the strong role of women visible in media during the revolution.
During the Isis International Activist School on Citizenship Video Journalism (8-16 December 2012, Bangkok, Thailand) participants shared their experiences during the Arab spring. The eight participants in this training came from Afghanistan and countries of the Middle East: four Afghans, two Egyptians, one Libyan and one Yemeni. The training was held to strengthen these women as citizen journalists – using video and filmmaking as a way to document and report the stories of their countries through their own perspectives – perspectives that find very little space in mainstream media. Citizen journalism is distinguished from mainstream journalism in that it is more capable of capturing the truth and hidden stories and projecting citizens’ perspectives, especially those experienced by women. These young, feisty and articulate women activists were working for women’s rights against what many said were false or non-existent democratic processes in their countries; compounded for some by a misogynist environment. The women reported that: in Libya, they had no concept of citizenship journalism until after the revolution; in Tunisia, the organizing of the masses was carried out through the use of social media; in Iran, Libya and Syria, securing foreign funding is considered a crime; and in Afghanistan, because of lack of education, there is very little news, and use of media is for entertainment only. Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh, an Iranian activist journalist and filmmaker exiled from Iran and currently taking asylum in Washington D.C., USA, facilitated the training along with Aida Ghajar, also an Iranian activist journalist exiled and currently residing in Paris, France. In addition, a young Filipino-Australian volunteer of Isis International participated in this training and documented the training itself through video.
The Activist School began with introductions and a discussion of basic concepts of feminism and feminist movements, fundamentalisms and the Isis International framework of feminist development communication. All actively participated in the discussions with confidence and ease, including one Afghan woman whose English was a little more limited than the others. In such situations, Isis International employs its participatory facilitation method where co-participants are encouraged to interpret for each other when necessary. It was a very lively discussion despite the level of exhaustion of the women. Most of the women had arrived either late the night before or very early that morning. Differences of opinions brought out interesting points and perspectives based on experiences.
The second day of the training covered the concepts of citizenship journalism and compared it to mainstream media journalism. A citizen journalist gives her or his perspective in the story covered with a goal of not only to inform but to transform society and bring about social justice. Citizen journalists are often able to retrieve information that cannot be done by mainstream journalists. With social networking such as blogs, Twitter, Facebook and others, anyone can become a journalist, and the information can be produced, disseminated and reacted upon much more rapidly and with a wider reach.
Participants showed films from their countries that were produced by average citizens or activists. A discussion about these films revolved around how it was produced, who produced it, what were the risks, how they were different from the coverage of such events by mainstream media.
The day ended with a presentation by Gayathry Venkitesswaran, Executive Director of Southeast Asia Press Alliance (SEAPA), who gave a very interesting talk about women journalists and women-led media organizations in Asia. Her main message was that, as women journalists, we must challenge the dominant male perspectives in media.
Among the examples of the difficulties and challenges facing women journalists were:
- the case of a woman blogger in Vietnam, where the Government has a strong hold on the media, who was arrested after she wrote about civil liberties and human rights;
- three young women journalists who have released stories about the difficulties and risks that journalists, particularly women, in Burma experience, including sexual harassment;
- how in Malaysia, during the election period, politicians were distributing envelopes to media people. All the journalists accepted the bribe except two from the Independent News Sight, who exposed this bribery;
- former mainstream media journalist in Malaysia, Jacqueline Ann Surin, who started her own website so that she can write about issues not covered by mainstream media;
- the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, led by a woman, which uses media to access information and challenge politics; and
- a woman journalist in Indonesia who created a media centre that assists journalists to cover the issues related to religion that are usually not covered by mainstream media.
The rest of the Activist School was devoted to practical training. As citizen journalists, the training focused on the use of small cameras or cell phone cameras to capture events in quick and discreet manners. After an introduction to the elements of video production, the third day focused on developing a story.
Aida, the assistant facilitator, talked about the many stories that she had already developed since her arrival in Bangkok, traveling from the airport to the hotel. She did not relay the events that took place but came out with stories based on what she observed; that is, what objects, places and people told her. Participants were then asked to go into the streets and shoot sights that tell a story or stories to them. Participants returned with interesting and funny stories. Ideas for stories that the participants developed for their video productions were conceptualized and further discussed.
The next day, participants practiced techniques of shooting and framing of the shots and, most importantly, how to hold and handle the camera especially for the purpose of citizen journalism where one may need to be discreet and fast in capturing sudden events. For example, when covering a story, one may let the camera hang around her head, turned on with the lens cap off as a strategy for discreet shooting.
Then, for most of the day, the participants were out once again on the streets putting their new learning into practice. At the end of the day, the shots or footages taken by the participants were presented, viewed and discussed. Much of what the participants captured became part of their final productions.
The fifth day started with a discussion and a finalization of the participants’ story lines. Some worked alone, others in groups and most helped each other out even if they were not part of the other’s production. The rest of the day allowed participants to go out and gather footages for their production. Participants were in and out of the training room to rest, to review their footages, to consult with Mahboubeh and Aida or just to have coffee and snacks.
During the following days, the participants worked on editing their videos. Groups or individuals consulted with the resource persons, as well as worked with each other on the technicalities of editing and sharing opinions on each other’s productions.
The last day of the training began with the viewing of the participants' productions. As each one presented her video, the resource person and the Isis documenter videoed them as they introduced themselves and their video theme. After all the viewings, a lively discussion ensued on the videos, critiquing, praising and sharing of their over all experiences in video making. This discussion also further covered vital points about citizen journalism. Other topics, such as interviewing techniques that were not part of this training, were also discussed. Feedback to Isis suggested including this in future video trainings.
The last day also included lectures and discussions on social networking, a participatory workshop on online security, and copyright issues. The group talked about how they will remain in touch and continue to network with each other. The day and the training ended with the presentation of certificates and group photos.
Post Training Insights
Both Isis and Mahboubeh realized more than ever the real need for such training for women struggling in countries with strong fundamentalist forces impeding women’s full self-realization, and where women are hindered and punished severely for exposing situations of injustice and speaking out against them.
Our resource person, Mahboubeh, who is a seasoned film maker and activist, shared unique and vital ideas and perspectives, based on experiences, with openness and passion. She encouraged the participants to understand that as citizen journalists in developing countries and in conflict situations, they may not have high or best quality equipment to use but they must learn to make do with what is available, and preferably use open source software to their advantage.
Aida Ghajar as an activist journalist not only contributed technical assistance but also acted as creative director. She guided the participants on how to develop stories with a critical and activist eye and brought in her work and experience in social networking.
There were also challenges: many felt that while they learned a lot, there is much more that they still do not know and want to learn. Equipment and software were also a challenge as there were different kinds of equipment that require different software functions. Yet most of the participants said that they felt confident enough to return to their home and work, and will produce videos that will further their advocacies. Participants will provide copies of their work to Isis International so that Isis may help them disseminate their advocacies to wider audiences. Isis will upload these videos on its YouTube site and spread the information about the advocacies the women are working on through its e-newsletter, We! and its website.
The women excitedly reported their plans:
“I have a plan to make some video about Afghan problems in society and publish it in social media.” Maryam Akbari, Afghanistan
“…I already have in mind…to compare women’s opinions on their rights before and after the revolution.” Israa Marubit, Libya
“Make videos for the purpose of social activism. And more experimentation on filmmaking on a personal level.” Eba’a El Tamami, Egypt
For more information about the Isis International Activist School, see http://www.isiswomen.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1429&Itemid=253
A video of the training is available on YouTube.