The centrality of local journalism to human rights education

This article is taken from remarks by Hirondelle USA Executive Director Anne Bennett at a side event of the 27th session of the Human Right’s Council in Geneva on September 16, 2014.

The discussions taking place during these three weeks are a reminder of the indivisibility and interrelatedness of all human rights and today I’d like to underline the mutually reinforcing relationship between the right to information and the enjoyment of human rights- in particular the unique and essential role of independent journalism.

As a media professional working in countries that are faced with the daunting task of building secure and just societies following years of conflict, I welcome the Plan of Action for the Third Phase of the World Program for Human Rights Education. The media has a key role to play in promoting a culture of social justice and inclusion, a role that will be strengthened by the human rights training and tools described in the Plan of Action.

I would like to take this opportunity underline two things that I believe are essential elements of sustainable, vital human rights reporting:

1. Strengthening the capacity of local journalists; and
2. Measuring and demonstrating impact

Fondation Hirondelle was created 20 years ago in response to the atrocities of Rwanda. Underpinning our work is the conviction that objective journalism fosters a culture of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. In the post –conflict settings where Hirondelle works, we have seen first hand how dialogue on the airwaves can promote understanding, tolerance and respect for diversity, sometimes bringing together sworn enemies, at other times coaxing a taboo topic out into the open.

Journalism makes human rights relevant to the population, transforming abstract norms into real life situations for the listener or audience. And where the rule of law is fragile or non-existent we’ve seen how the media, in particular radio, can serve as a catalyst to propagate basic human rights and to put pressure on governments to respect these rights. Journalism can compensate for the shortcomings of the State.

This brings me to the first point I would like to make:

The most important thing we can do is to build the capacity of those closest to the events to report as fairly and accurately as possible. For it is only with rigorous training, and access to the ethics of independent scholarship, that journalism can be a match for the power of the State.

How do we do this?

Journalism is a profession of skilled craftsmen and women– operating with tools, guidelines and values. As in the fields of medicine or engineering, journalism in its ideal is perfected during long apprenticeships and mentoring. Education thrives through practical application, and in Sierra Leone at Fourah Bay College we’ve tested the “teaching hospital model” of journalism training. It is a model of learning-by-doing that includes college students, professors and professionals working together to share and test topical knowledge and expertise and to pioneering new tools and techniques.

By covering real stories, myths and abstractions are set aside, and questions of ethics are easier to teach and retain. Journalists are trained and coached by editors and professors in the methods of journalistic inquiry. This approach produces results. In Sierra Leone we’ve seen how the Cotton Tree News project has not only put out the most trusted source of news in the country but has also created a new generation of young professionals. By demonstrating what’s possible, it has the potential to move the University of Sierra Leone towards greater innovation.

We’re also looking at ways to build a deeper understanding of specific topics in our newsrooms. For instance, in Mali, Guinea and Sierra Leone we are working to improve reporting on violence against women and girls through training, production and broadcast of radio programming in local languages. One of the topics we’re covered extensively in the program is child marriage, affecting as many as 63% of the girls in Guinea, and similarly high rates Mali and Sierra Leone as well.

In many countries where child marriage occurs, laws ban the practice. But the laws are not enforced and ignored, and often unknown to the population. Through radio we have improved community knowledge of the risks associated with early marriage and have explored the positive impact of extending girls’ education. We’ve worked closely with religious figures and community leaders, as well as health experts and educators, and ensured that our programs reach rural populations where non-state law dominates and where rates of early marriage are especially high.

This approach has improved the capacity of local journalists to understand complex issues, and we’ve seen in our focus group work that the radio programs they are producing are raising the awareness of the effects of violence against women.

We’re also seeing that professional and balanced reporting of a sensitive or taboo subject such as FGM can open a space for other media to start talking about these topics. We call this the “ice breaker” effect, as we clear a place for other radios and newspapers to occupy.

In Mali, the journalists at Fondation Hirondelle’s Studio Tamani have demonstrated that they could integrate training on journalism and ethics into their reporting, and that they could organize and host live debate programs around sensitive topics. We’ve also made the unexpected discovery that a targeted project such as this can have a significant impact on how “women’s issues” are considered by the media as they gain legitimacy as news.

Which brings me to my second point: demonstrate impact.

The correlation between policy and action is complex and at time incomplete. The process of thinking through evaluation and impact measurement can help us design clear benchmarks, define evidence, and feed back information in order to modify and improve our work. In investigative work, following through to trace the impact of, for example, a report on juvenile detention, can provide important validation for the journalist and newsroom (and sometimes lead to public recognition).

We approach this question by articulating a theory of change, which, for the Third Phase of the Programme for Human Rights Education could be stated like this:

Activities in journalism capacity building and training lead to increased capacity of journalists. This yields more and better broadcasts on human rights reporting and better debate programmes. These outcomes enhance the knowledge of the population and other beneficiaries that access this kind of information and deepen debate at the local level in communities and at the national levels of government decision making. This will finally improve government’s accountability, strengthen respect for human rights and the rule of law, and enhance democratic participation (Impact).

The best work on impact is coming out of collaboration with academics and in Mali and Sierra Leone we are partnering with the Swiss Institute of Applied Media Studies and local universities on a multi-year impact study. We’ll use content analysis, qualitative and quantitative studies, as well as story tracking over a period of 3 years. It’s a significant investment that will have the additional benefit of building the evaluation capacity of our local academic partners.

As a 1916 book about the “newspaper trade” put it, the reporter’s job is “to see for the unseeing and to become a public observer for the benefit of those who cannot observe”. Throughout the world local journalists hold a mirror to the communities they serve, enabling individuals and societies to recognize for themselves the structures of inequality. But the role doesn’t stop there. Eugene Patterson, a legendary journalist of the American Civil Rights era described what he called “the other half” of the duty of the media: ” to place itself in league with the people’s policy concerns and to transmit to the public mind clear pictures of the reality that can inform their judgments about those concerns.” A free press working as “explainer and illuminator”, will enable people, in the words of the High Commissioner when he opened this session, to “share ideas, form new thinking, and join together with others to claim their rights”.

Photo: Journalists in Studio Tamani, Mali, during a training session. Credit: Marc Ellison