“A boy named Rana lived in a slum with his mother. When he was two years old his father had passed away and his mother earned very little working in a wealthy man’s estate. It was just enough to keep them alive. When Rana saw that his other friends went to school he wondered if he could do the same. He asked his mother but he knew that she could not afford to send him.”
These are the words of Bithi and Lelin, two Bangladeshi children from the same district – Rayer Bazar in Dhaka – as their friend Rana. This story was published in Angikaar, a school newspaper that finds its way into the hands of hundreds of Bangladeshis every two months.
Angikaar (read online here), which means ‘commitment’ in Bengali, is the product of hard work and small voices. Founded in September last year by a group of entrepreneurial young Bangladeshis, it features stories written by the children of the JAAGO Foundation’s school in Rayer Bazar.
In Bangladesh, where education is barely a right and more of a privilege, a school in the middle of a slum is a rare sight. But in Dhaka’s sprawling Rayer Bazar, where life leaks onto the muddy alleyways in techni-coloured patterns, the JAAGO school provides free education for nearly 200 students, helping children to break the cycle of poverty through learning.
Bithi, Lelin and Rana are three of the students who attend the JAAGO school. They are also budding journalists who are able to write their stories for Angikaar to share with a society that often ignores them.
On my first day helping out with Angikaar, I was greeted by the news that a fire had swept through a large portion of homes in Rayer Bazar. Surrounded by a bunch of over-excited children, I was struck by the significance of their story and the fact that this was the first I’d heard of it, despite living in a neighbouring suburb. The next day, a hundred words in Bangladesh’s English newspaper, The Daily Star, announced the fire with unsettling objectivity and little detail. For me, this moment captured the reason behind Angikaar and the potential behind sharing those children’s stories. It was an idea that resonated with the newspaper’s tagline that we would later go on to create: “Rising voices, building a better Bangladesh.”
Strengthening democracy and development
The fourth-estate role of the media is taken for granted in much of the world. Resting on the notions of free speech and democracy, it expects journalists to hold the government to account through their reporting. Although Bangladesh is a democracy, its media are hardly free or able to play a genuine watchdog role – the Bangladeshi media are ranked at 136th out of 178 countries on the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, with first being most free.
To add to the political limitations on media freedom, only slightly more than half (56%, according to UNICEF) of Bangladeshis are literate, and those who are non-literate are unlikely to have access to the electricity needed to watch a television or listen to a radio.
The result is local media that lack the resources, skills and platforms to report effectively on the many challenges faced by the nation and the people of Bangladesh – corruption, poverty, poor governance, and degrading or non-existent infrastructure, to name but a few. And when these issues do successfully make the headlines, they lack the voices and stories of everyday people.
From this starting point, the benefits of giving more people the skills to tell their own stories seem obvious – more stories are told, people become better informed, voters make better decisions, accountable politicians do a better job. Of course, the reality is much messier, but this is the ideal driving a growing number of media development projects across the developing world, Angikaar included.
From my own observations over ten months of working with Angikaar, the greatest benefit was not simply that more people heard the children’s stories. Certainly, their words were read and appreciated. But, in a country of 150 million, a team of 15 student writers and 15 volunteer youth editors will need a lot more time to make their voices heard. Instead, the greatest achievement was what the children learnt about the complexity of news and the art of telling a story. In other words, it has increased their media literacy.
By increasing their exposure to different types of news sources and stories, the Angikaar team gradually became more confident in their ability to judge news and understand it. In a country where the quality of media is poor, being able to explain why and at least acknowledge that it could be better is invaluable.
In practice, this meant that the students could look at a news story and immediately ask how and why it was considered “newsworthy.” When Angikaar student journalist Siam read a story about underage marriage statistics, he decided to tell the story of a woman he knew who had been married at 15 and whose family had sold their land to pay for her dowry.
Importantly, Siam didn’t just tell her story, he finished by asking why it happened: “Why didn’t Amena receive any justice? Is it because she was poor, her family was poor, and there is no profit in helping other people?” To 12-year-old Siam, including this question for his readers was important, because he felt it was something rarely asked elsewhere – and there’s no doubt that the answer alludes to an even bigger story of injustice.
Consistency and stability
One of the key lessons I learnt was that consistency and stability are fundamental to the success of youth-centred media development projects. Whenever there was more than a week between our workshops, re-connecting with the students was difficult. Furthermore, the newspaper was bilingual – in Bangla and English – a feature which demanded that we work very frequently with students so that language issues wouldn’t become a barrier to their story.
Around the six-month mark, the Angikaar project started floundering a little. The team’s grand hope, that they would revolutionise views in Dhaka towards people from the Rayer Bazar slum, seemed impossible to attain. They’d dreamed that within a few busy months, the newspaper would create tangible change. Convincing them (and the school) that they could and should commit to a long-term vision for Angikaar was the biggest challenge faced, but ultimately it is what will make the difference between Angikaar being a short-term activity and a meaningful project.
I believe there is huge potential for the media and development fields to work hand-in-hand to strengthen civil society and communicate messages that bring about positive social change. For youth-centred media development projects to move from being introductions to media literacy, to projects with the genuine potential to produce young citizens with skills in producing media and accessing audiences, time is crucial.
It’s certainly not what anybody wants to hear as it would be much easier if a few capacity-building sessions could deliver the expertise and leave communities to create successful media projects immediately. The fruits of media development projects need patience as people acquire skills and audiences. Just like the traditional media brands needed time to forge a reputation, so do small-scale community media projects.
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