Citizen Journalism: holding government accountable

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Tim Rogers/ Nicaragua Dispatch

Nicaragua’s media is known for actively debating the various pros and cons of Nicaragua’s national political, social and economic state of affairs. But when you dig down to the local level, there is a noticeable lack of the cadre of citizen journalism that is vital to reporting on local government issues.

This kind of journalism is essential—because so many of the public services that people depend upon are provided by their municipal governments. Regardless of politics, mayors and their offices have a huge impact on the day-to-day living of all of their residents. An informed media is paramount to ensuring that leaders can be held accountable for their failures, while their successes can be celebrated to provide examples for others.

Recently, my organization, Global Communities, working with the support of USAID undertook a training program to help develop the concept of citizen journalism. When we first examined the capacity of local journalists, whose level of formal training ranged from university degrees to self-trained citizen activists, it was clear there was little understanding of the requirements of good journalism.

There was no knowledge of the different methods of reaching target audiences, or of how to go about finding the kind of information they need to craft a story about municipal issues. We then invited journalists to apply to take part in a course that consisted of five training modules aimed at strengthening their technical capabilities for web writing, photography, audio and radio formats, developing life stories for television, and an introduction to citizen participation and gender equity. In the end, we selected 26 to take part in the three-month program.

There was a great deal of interest, especially from journalists in the Regional Autonomous Atlantic South (RAAS) area. The RAAS, one of Nicaragua’s semi-autonomous territories with a population of indigenous and Afro-descendent people, has its own special challenges, with the twin governing systems of the national system and also the communal and territorial governments.

These autonomous governing bodies often struggle to have their voice heard and make their influence felt as their territories’ natural resources, such as fishing and forests, are exploited. And with the potential opening of a canal through Nicaragua, these territories will face their biggest challenge in a century.

Currently reachable almost solely by plane and navigable by panga boat, they will find themselves opened to enormous volumes of trade and opportunity, but also the potential negative side effects of economic growth–from drug trafficking to environmental degradation to the destruction of traditional indigenous and afro-descendent cultural identity and ways of life. It is important that the autonomous regions’ governments have their houses in order, and it is up to municipal journalists to provide that oversight.

After the training program had finished, we held an awards ceremony for the best pieces of journalism. Global Communities formed an evaluation panel of experts, which included the Central America University’s (UCA) Dean of Communication; the Executive Director of the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation, and Global Communities International Director of Communication, to judge the journalism pieces. Most of the pieces that received awards came from RAAS.

The winner was Jose Maria Centeno, who crafted a video piece on the lack of potable water in El Rama, despite it being surrounded by rivers. Another of the category winners, Hazel Zamora, recorded a podcast on the growing problem of commercial sexual exploitation in Bluefields. Neyda Dixon of Bluefields wrote about the preservation of the Garifuna language, while David Mondragon and Ileana Lacayo worked together to produce a video report on Laura Padilla Mitchell, who has paid for 29 years to broadcast in the Miskito language and is a champion of maintaining indigenous identity. They shared their prize with Mitchell, to ensure she is able to continue broadcasting.

I was deeply impressed by their tenacity and the skills they developed. Some of these journalists had to travel for days to be able to complete their stories. Neyda Dixon, for example, a journalist from the RAAS, despite being eight months pregnant and unable to fly, traveled by boat and bus for 12 hours to attend the last training workshop. You can read, watch or listen to all the pieces here.

Ultimately, it is their determination, combined with their newfound technical knowledge and ability that will ensure that citizens have a voice to demand the services they need from their municipal governments while also keeping them accountable. The growing issues facing the RAAS no doubt gave life to their journalism and the vivacity of their reports.

At the award ceremony in Managua at Universidad Centroamericana UCA the winners held court with an audience of journalism students who asked many questions about every aspect of being a citizen journalist. It was an impressive sight, and hopefully one that will herald a future of active citizen journalism in Nicaragua.

 

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