Building Glass Houses with Civil Society
by Elvira Felix January 21, 2013
Civil Society and Journalists Partner to Create Transparent Governments.
We all have our go-to news outlets. The news sources we trust to provide us with the latest developments within our communities and around the world. All of us can recall in detail the moment we heard the historic breaking news of our lifetimes, whether they were man-made, natural disasters with a clear call to action, or great moments in history that bonded us to our humanity. These moments were brought to us by journalists, who have opened our minds and challenged our perspectives by placing themselves in the midst of the tragedies and triumphs of history.
Objective journalism has always been an essential element of transparency and progress in all societies. With journalists at the intersection of progressive social change, their role is ever more vital for substantial civic engagement. Although the media often receives a bad reputation for sensationalizing news, there can be little doubt that many problems in society would have been forgotten were it not for some principled and courageous journalists. Using the media as an instrument to advocate for improvements in local governance is a way for civil society organizations (CSOs) to influence the public agenda and inform society.
“I believe that the public journal is a public trust; that all connected with it are, to the full measure of responsibility, trustees for the public; that all acceptance of lesser service than the public service is a betrayal of this trust.” — The Journalist’s Creed
Decisions on policies and laws for any community begin with access to unbiased and reliable information. Rather than just using the media as a validator to promote events or trainings, civil society should focus their energy on crafting stories that speak to the realities in which they work. By providing narratives of a particular social conflict or controversy, civil society can generate a broader appeal for their social cause. To truly engage and educate others about injustices, the media must be viewed as important actors and tools for advocacy campaigns. As allies in helping to raise the profile of civil society’s work, both journalists and civil society have a lot to offer one another; the media helps attract attention to the real issues at hand and the potential solutions, and journalists gain valuable access to accurate information through partnerships with CSOs.
In many countries around the world, information is often hard to find or access. As Partners for Democratic Change (Partners) has experienced, this can inhibit the transparency and accountability of government institutions and the decision-making process. However, if civil society utilizes the media as a tool to amplify and gather support for their causes, in turn, government entities are notified of the publics’ interests and demands for more transparency and involvement in resolutions.
BUILDING AND STRENGTHENING MEDIA INSTITUTIONS
In Nigeria and Sierra Leone, Partners is working closely with national CSOs to track corruption in the justice and security sector. Our partners in both countries have been at the forefront of increasing transparency and our goal is to amplify their efforts by helping to build and strengthen media institutions and journalists’ investigative techniques. Through the Accountable Governance for Justice and Security (AGJS) initiative, we’ve introduced our national partners to Partners’ collaborative advocacy approach. With Partners’ collaborative advocacy approach, integral actors within civil society and governments build sustainable relationships where information sharing is promoted to establish more accountability between leaders. To improve local reporting on issues of corruption Partners,’ also collaborated with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) to train journalists in the fundamentals of investigative journalism. Together, we are building linkages between CSOs and journalists on issues of transparency and anti-corruption.
One journalist from the AGJS program, Alex Abutu, has been particularly vocal about reporting on environmental issues and injustices within local communities and national governments. With stories addressing concerns in missing ecological funds, initiatives to track bushmeat, and depleting wild life, Abutu has been helping his fellow citizens stay informed on the issues that affect their livelihoods and the environment.
Around the world, Partners’ colleagues are actively engaging media to report more extensively on issues that affect citizens. For example, after conducting an audit of the Right to Access Information law in Sierra Leone, Campaign for Good Governance (CGG), took to the airwaves to educate average citizens on how this law can improve their lives. During radio call-in programs, several citizens called to discuss what kinds of requests Sierra Leonean civil society can make on their behalf—moving the law from esoteric to practical.
Another Partners’ regional initiative, “Engaging Democratic Activists for MENA Advancement,” (EDAMA) helped to strengthen civil society’s media engagement by providing basic journalism skills training for activists from 12 countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The project promoted activists’ engagement in the ongoing and rising regional democratic transitions and reforms. Within the MENA region EDAMA has strengthened activist networks, developed functional advocacy and organizational skill sets, and promoted collaboration between civil society members. Specifically these trainings incorporated: storytelling through audio-visual mediums, addressing the use of humor and new media in nonviolent struggles; and implementing strategic communication messaging and branding in social movement media campaigns.
Local leaders in the EDAMA program included youth leaders, bloggers, and representatives from non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the private sector, the media, and new political parties. EDAMA was implemented through a consortium of diverse expert organizations that included Partners-Jordan, Canvas — Centre for Applied Non-Violent Action and Strategies, and IWPR who came together to provide our local colleagues with the tools to build more democratic and inclusive processes in their countries. As with our work in West Africa, members of civil society in the MENA region are building coalitions, broadening their communication skills, and amplifying their voices by strategically working with their colleagues in the media.
STRENGTHENING CIVIL SOCIETY ENGAGEMENT WITH MEDIA
“I believe that clear thinking, clear statement, accuracy and fairness are fundamental to good journalism.” — The Journalist’s Creed
Given that the resolution of conflicts frequently requires in-depth understanding of various viewpoints and actors, Partners places great emphasis on improving channels of communication and increasing access to information. Political sensitivities inherent in local community issues and the potential for contradictory information — and even misinformation — can exacerbate conflicts among different parties. For this reason, we recognize the critical importance media narratives play in building constructive dialogue and we support public awareness reporting that furthers mutual understanding and reconciliation, without fanning the flames of a conflictive issue.
No one can deny the media’s undeniable power to shape and influence public opinions and new policies. Having access to unbiased information is crucial to a functioning democratic society. By helping to train media professionals, activists, and civil society, Partners is helping to engage communities in inclusive, peaceful, and democratic