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Saturday, March 8, 2014
- Twenty-five-year-old Ragae Hammidi of Casa Blanca, Morocco wears two hats. Five days a week, she attends a business school. But on weekends, she is a journalist who goes out on the street with a small camera, shooting videos of people and issues that go untold by professional media outlets.
“I report what is happening to girls and young women. It’s my story. If those responsible for reporting it do not, then I have a duty to tell it,” Hammidi says.
Hammidi shares an example. Morocco has a law allowing rapists to avoid charges if they marry their victims. In March 2012, a young woman who had been forced to marry her rapist committed suicide. It was local citizens who reported it while the professional media, fearing official reprisals, kept quiet.
“Can you imagine a young girl first getting raped and then being forced to marry the same guy who hurt her? There are many such stories in our country that are not reported by the media. So it is up to us citizens to talk about it. We pick up our cameras and mobile phones and tell the story as we see it happening,” she says.
Hammidi spoke of her experiences at the 1st Global Forum on Media and Gender held here last week. Organised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the forum aims to increase participation of women in the media and also their access to new communication technologies.
Hammidi was trained by Global Girls in Media, a development media organisation that teaches high school girl students how to become citizen journalists and report on gender issues.
There are several thousand citizen journalists – most without any form of training – reporting today from Morocco and other Arab countries, including Sudan, Tunisia, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen and, most notably, Syria.
All these countries have one common feature: their traditional media is largely controlled by the government which is opposed to freedom of the press beyond a certain limit. This, coupled with easy access to Internet technology, has pushed citizens to take up reporting.
The content they generate – written reports, videos, audio messages and photographs – is fast becoming a primary source of information for an audience worldwide.
Fedwa Misk is the founder editor of Qandisha, a web-based magazine in Rabat, Morocco. Though a mainstream media outlet, she says only 20 percent of her writers are professionally trained journalists. The reason, she says, is that the magazine raises “disturbing and uncomfortable” issues such as rape, marital abuse, torture, along with regressive anti-women laws.
“Most of my writers are women who have experienced this first hand, so there is a lot of honesty in their writing. Readers love that. We have instances where they also respond quickly if there is a call to action,” she says.
Many citizen journalists are also driven by their passion for gender issues and are often ready to offer their content for free – another reason why many media outlets willingly accept them.
Bushra Al Ameen is the owner of Al Mahaba, a community radio station in Baghdad, Iraq, dedicated to women’s issues. She often uses content provided by citizen journalists, especially from areas that her own reporters cannot reach. “I run an 18-hour radio station. If citizen journalists are willing to give us stories, we take them,” she says.
But citizen journalists also often risk their lives, especially in regions that are politically volatile. According to research conducted by the Doha Centre for Media Freedom, since the beginning of the uprising in Syria in 2011 till November 2012, 72 reporters, including citizen journalists, have been killed.
“Detention, shooting, organised rape, torture – these journalists are subjected to various forms of violence every day. But it is difficult to count their exact numbers as many of them keep moving in and out of reporting,” says Abeer Saady, vice-president of the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate.
Saady, a professional journalist who has been physically tortured by Egyptian police, tries to identify, locate and train women citizen journalists in Arab countries. “It is very important for them to receive some safety training because if anything happens to them, there will be no compensation paid,” she says.
Peter Townson, lead writer at the Doha Centre for Media Freedom, thinks that alongside safety, citizen journalists also need training in how to report a story.
“In most cases, you cannot verify the sources. So basically you don’t know how much of what is reported is true and how much is exaggerated.” The only way to deal with this is to identify and train the citizen journalists, he says.
Rachael Maddock-Hughes, director of Strategy and Partnerships at World Pulse, an action media organisation with 50,000 citizen journalists, agrees. World Pulse, based in Oregon in the U.S., trains women social activists in 190 countries in citizen journalism.
Says Maddock-Hughes, “We also channel their stories and solutions to leading mainstream media outlets.”
According to her, the programmes help women articulate their message better and allow them to be taken more seriously by a larger audience, especially on issues like gender violence.
Shekina, one of the citizen journalists trained by World Pulse, was the first woman to write against the practice of breast ironing in her West African country, Cameroon. She shot a video showing how older women were applying a hot iron to the chest of young teenage girls to stop their breasts from sprouting. The video drew condemnation and raised a global demand to end the practice.
Similarly, activists-turned-citizen journalists have written and helped launch worldwide campaigns against social practices like female genital mutilation and ostracism of girls during menstruation.
There would be much more such action and direct impact if more people at the grassroots accessed the Internet, says Meribeni Kikon, a citizen journalist in Kohima in the northeastern Indian state of Nagaland. She reports on gender inequality practised by the local churches and also violence against women such as date rape.
She says such issues cannot be reported from the districts as there is no Internet connectivity. “If only women here were able to access the Internet, they could not only report but also seek help in a crisis situation,” she says.
Eun Ju Kim, director of International Telecom Union (ITU), Asia-Pacific, also outlines the role of mobile technology in promoting gender equality.
“The world over, women and girls are behind men because they lack access to equitable opportunities in information technology. Access to broadband is critical for the empowerment of women,” says Kim, the first woman director of the ITU.