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November 30 2010

17:00

Team of volunteer journalists wants to train locals in conflict zones to tell their own stories, improve their lives

What if online video could prevent genocide? That’s what three USC Annenberg School graduate students wondered when they hopped a flight to Rwanda a few years ago, Flip cameras in their carry-ons.

“The idea was, in a time where YouTube exists, it’s immoral for genocide to exist in human history,” Jon Vidar told me recently. The group wanted to give survivors tools to tell their own stories. “Honestly, we were pretty idealistic going in.” Since that first visit to Rwanda, Vidar, a freelance photojournalist, and his journalist friends have taken the concept to neighboring countries and then, earlier this year, to Iraq. Their ad hoc trips have morphed into a nonprofit, kept going by volunteers, called The Tiziano Project, named for an Italian journalist who liked to go where he shouldn’t. Their mission is straightforward: Train locals in conflict zones and post-conflict zones in the craft of journalism, particularly new media, and give them the tools they need to tell their own stories.

“We’re trying to train locals to be journalists,” Vidar said.

The group’s most recent project, Tiziano360, trained 12 locals in Iraq in new media, producing a website that “documents the life, culture, and news in present day Iraqi Kurdistan.” Vidar worked in the Kurdish region of Turkey for four years doing archaeological research, a motive for the region selection. Logistically, it was easier to work on the Iraq side of the border, Vidar said.

The site has a slick design and the content is high quality. It recently won an award from the New Media Institute for multimedia storytelling. But Tiziano also has a practical aim. “A direct goal of the project is job creation,” Vidar said. “We don’t care where people get jobs, as long as they are using the skills in new media storytelling.”

Four of the participants credit the project with new job offers. Other trainees from past projects now string for Western outlets.

“The best thing in this project was the practical aspect of it,” Shivan Soto, who participated in the Iraq project, wrote in an email. “[It] was a very good and new experience for me.”

Since picking up new skills, Soto has been offered a variety of gigs from news organizations and NGOs. And another participant, Sahar Alani, took a job with a large corporation in the region working in new media.

For now, Tiziano is funded project-by-project. For the 360 experiment, they submitted a pitch to a Facebook contest backed by the JP Morgan Chase Community Giving program. They won $25,000, Andrew McGregor, a Tiziano founder, told me.

“During the competition, we really motivated the Kurdish community [on Facebook],” Vidar told me. “We had 600 Kurdish friends, friends in the government. We had friends in NGOs.”

Next up for Tiziano is a project that will start by working with students in Los Angeles and move on to the Congo. The trainer himself is a genocide survivor.

March 19 2010

14:00

NGOs as newsmakers: Russian-Georgian conflict edition

VIENNA — In August 2008, two wars unfolded in South Ossetia. Georgian newspapers and television stations reported an aggressive, unprovoked Russian invasion of their country. Russians, meanwhile, watched images and read tales of Georgian troops committing genocide.

For a brief period, Georgians could flip between TV stations to watch both versions. Soon, access to the Russian media ended. (Russians could not access Georgian TV and few Russians would be able to read Georgian print media.)

Margarita Akhvlediani, a longtime war correspondent and editor in chief of Go Group/Eyewitness Studio, studied the coordinated PR campaign by Georgia, the ensuing media coverage of the conflict by both Georgian and Russian media, and the role of NGOs in the information cycle. She presented some of her findings and related research at the Milton Wolf Seminar on the future of news and NGOs here in Vienna this morning. Her conclusion: International NGOs are critical to the dissemination of information in war and crisis zones.

Akhvlediani described a tale that came to symbolize the conflict for many Russians. According to the war story, dozens of Georgian villagers, seeking safety in a local church, died when Georgian soldiers burned the church to the ground. Human Rights Watch looked into the story, spending three months traveling to villages throughout the region looking for the church. Eventually, Human Rights Watch concluded: “…numerous Ossetian villagers interviewed by Human Rights Watch in [the] village said they never heard about, let alone witnessed, such an incident.”

Akhvlediani argues that this independent research serves as an important fact check on one-sided reporting happening by both sides of the conflict. Local NGOs, Akhvlediani explained, found themselves in a similar situation as local media — unwilling or unable to report a rounded look at the conflict, instead presenting a single point of view.

Western media, which parachuted in to cover the conflict, by and large provided a biased take, too, especially at the start of the conflict, according to fellow panelist Andrei Zolotov, editor-in-chief of Russia Profile (and a former Nieman Fellow). Many journalists seemed happy to latch onto the underdog narrative the Georgia government had pushed, he said. (Two dozen press releases went out in the first few days of the conflict, seeking to shore up Western support for Georgia). “It’s a very easy story to sell,” Zolotov said.

The work of Human Rights Watch, which took three months, is an unlikely project for any outlet, even the best-off newspapers. It’s an example of an ongoing theme we’ve covered this week: How can NGOs be newsmakers?

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