Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Citizen Journalism Project – Ups and Downs

For the past two years, I have been responding to questions and e-mails concerning my experience with the citizen participation project that I thought to write few paragraphs about challenges we faced, our approach, achievements as well as our failures. Here we go - I hope it helps…

The Citizen Journalism in Africa (CJA) Project was a partnership project between SANGONeT and Hivos aimed at building capacity of civil society organisations to use online and offline citizen journalism as a mean of publication, lobby, networking and knowledge sharing with their constituencies.

Participating organisations were selected on the basis of their previous involvement with Hivos. Eighty organisations in six African countries: South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, Uganda and Mozambique have been trained.

How well participants performed

a. Member satisfaction, including initiative, coordination among developing country partners and satisfactory correction of problems. 

The fact that some organisations were based in remote rural areas was a challenge. However, Country Focal Points (CFPs) - organisations trained to train other organisations, were able to take the programme/training materials and train at rural level in Africa languages that the audience could easily understand.  As a result, online newsletters and rural forum groups have been created. Some of our member organisations became very active using in some cases community radio to encompass the lack of internet coverage in some areas.

b.   Effectiveness of key personnel including:  effectiveness and appropriateness of personnel for the job; and prompt and satisfactory action when problems with members where identified.

The CJA project aimed at providing participating organisations with an alternative platform (website) for online expression. But more importantly, the project strived to transfer skills that would allow stakeholders organisation improve their work and advocacy.

Among other capacity building tools, the project offered an online module: e-learning digital telling and writing course. To help the project users to improve their writing skills. The project had acquired the services of a consultant, professional journalist (Brett Davidson) who role was to proofread stakeholders' e-learning course submissions, blogs and articles and re-sent the edited version with track changes to them for approval before publishing on the CJA website.

The project had 80 participating organisation based in six countries. In 2009 the CJA website was translated in Portuguese in 2010 to allow stakeholders in Mozambique directly download translated content in Portuguese for use offline since telephone communication was very poor between South Africa and Mozambique.

c. Timeliness of performance and efficient operation of tasks. 

One of the characteristic of the CJA project was the use of intermediate organisations. These CFPs included two selected representatives from organisations in each participating country. CFPs were trained to train others CSOs and community media organisations as to achieve better coordination and participation within the project. CFPs acted as the local learning and networking hub to implement peer-to-peer training activities. The Project Manager budgeted for CFPs’ training and operation tasks cost.

d. Control cost and forecast costs

The use of CFPs aimed at reducing the cost of traveling and to also overcome language barrier (translation cost) as to ensure efficient participation of all stakeholder organisations.

Instances of good or poor performance, especially in the most critical areas

It was critical for SANGONeT and HIVOS that the CJA project gave special attention to the development of sound and ethical journalistic skills to protect the project’s stakeholder organisations/participants from repressive legislations. Therefore, the CJA’s toolkit manual had a compilation of media regulatory acts of each stakeholder respective country as well as a course on ethic journalism.

Nevertheless, the project faced poor performance and had to manage few crises.
It is a fact that ethics challenge citizen journalists since they think they have the right to say what is in their minds and express themselves freely. At the same time, bloggers are at very nature partial, unaccountable and subjective. As a consequence, in respect of Internet policies, in more than one occasion we had to contact users and inform them that they had no right to share content which was not creative commons licensed and should not publish facts that could not be checked or proven.

List significant achievements and/or problems.

One of biggest challenge in implementing such a project is the problem of diversity and skills. Half of stakeholder organisations in the project did not have the ‘technical-know-how’. That caused some participants to not participate freely in discussions while others felt uncomfortable blogging.

However, through perseverance, the CJA project was able to create a sense of belonging, a safe bridge across backgrounds using tools such as social media especially Facebook and Twitter feed. As result, stakeholder organisations could identify each other social life beyond their professional engagement and built trust which led to increasing their participation.

Overcoming broadband and high cost of Internet connectivity was a major challenge in most participating countries. Access to broadband is indispensable for online activism or participation. Stakeholder organisations in Zimbabwe and Mozambique could not afford Internet cost. When they could, the connectivity was very poor. This has negatively impacted on their participation in the project.

We have been challenged by the so-called ‘brain drain’. Many NGOs have lost skilled personnel since they could not afford their services due to lack of funding.The instability in human resources within our member organisations had a negative impact on the project.  

Both mobile and social network have shown potential in activism and community building. It is unfortunate that the CJA project was unable to take create/upgrade the CJA website to a mobile friendly site as planned. Faced with unpredicted funding situation within key stakeholder organisations, the project focused on getting the basics right and keep on training their new members.

Among achievements; in 2009, an article on the need for fast Internet connection in Uganda posted on the CJA website has been republished by one of Uganda’s main news website. An another article from CJA titled “The Boda boda battle”, a story about motorcycle taxis in Kampala was published in the Mobility Magazine. SANGONeT’s NGO Pulse e-newsletter also republished a number of articles from the CJA website.

Last but not least, some of our trained members have become Africa’s most admired young ICT advocates and have been speaking in conferences and interviewed by mainstream media such as BBC and Al Jazeera. At date, many CJA stakeholder organisations have become vibrant users of ICT tools and human rights activists.