After about a year of receiving reports from all over the country, the first citizen journalism platform in Afghanistan is getting a new look.
Paiwandgah launched its redesign last week, adding a fresh coat of paint and functionality while staying true to its mission: featuring first-hand accounts of news from the country's residents delivered via SMS, phone lines, 3G, social media or online submissions. The site is available in English, Dari and Pashto.
The idea for the platform sprang from Paiwand, Afghanistan's first social media summit held in 2013, and officially launched ahead of the country's 2014 elections. During the election month in April, the platform received around 586 reports, with 189 citizen journalists reporting for them on election day alone.
"The whole idea behind the revamp was to make the website more accessible to not just the readers but also to our citizen journalists, allowing them an easier platform to share news with us," Ruchi Kumar, the platform's managing editor, told IJNet. "Also while the earlier website focused mainly on the elections, the new design will be more attuned to accommodate a diversity of content across genre/beats."
IJNet spoke with Kumar and Founder Eileen Guo, who also founded the platform's parent company Impassion Afghanistan, about their operation, a look back on its birth and where they plan to focus their efforts next.
Why does Afghanistan need a platform like Paiwandgah?
Ruchi Kumar: While the media in Afghanistan is extensive and relatively free, a lot of citizen stories, comments and opinions tend to get filtered as noise. These, however, are crucial for a growing democracy. These stories that come directly from the citizens not only provide insight into grassroots realties, but also reveal emerging trends that can have a larger impact.
Also, the use of digital technology in media is still in its nascent stages. So with the best use and convenience of technology, Paiwandgah has the advantage of penetrating provinces where the traditional media is yet to reach. For instance, during a recent Taliban attack in Farah province, Paiwandgah citizen journalists provided updated and accurate information from the scenes before most media houses had them. Read the report here.
That said, there are so many stories to tell in Afghanistan; stories that impact global politics deeply. Paiwandgah aims to be that platform that not only gives a voice to these stories, but also helps [to highlight] opinions and key trends.
Did you follow the model of any similar citizen journalism platforms when creating Paiwandgah?
Eileen Guo: We’ve certainly been influenced by other models around the world. We look at what Global Voices and what CNN iReport are doing, as well as some of the regional models. We’ve probably been more influenced by regional models like CGSwaraNet in India as well as the Tribal News Network in Pakistan, both of which rely heavily on [interactive voice response].
And when we started Paiwandgah’s micro-site, SadRoz.af, which tracks the first 100 days of the Afghan presidency against campaign promises, we looked at other presidential trackers, from the Morsi Meter, Rouhani Meter, Obama trackers, etc.
What’s the next big topic you plan to cover, similar to your coverage of the 2014 elections? Or do you plan to stick to fielding reports as they come in?
Kumar: We are trying to diversify not just the content, but also Paiwandgah’s storytelling. We are now focusing on live reporting, breaking news, analysis, features, photo stories, as well as audio visual stories.
Citizens are at the center of all content, so field reporting is of course primary. But we will also be planning editorial strategies to cover milestone events in the Aghan socio-political and economic arena. The upcoming parliamentary elections, for instance, will be a major game changer.
We’re also working on a number of single-issue news sites, of which SadRoz is one, and another one, which will focus on street harassment, will launch [this spring].
Have reporters or media organizations used the citizen journalists' accounts in their own reporting?
Guo: BBC Farsi used several of our citizen journalists as stringers for coverage of the June 14 second round of elections, and other news outlets have quoted our citizen journalists as well. And this is exactly what we are hoping to accomplish – provide citizen perspectives and ensure that citizen voices are heard from some of the more remote areas.
How do you vet the citizen journalists that contribute to their platform? How do you verify their claims?
Kumar: Our current database of citizen journalists are those who registered with us during the elections or at our flagship event - the Afghan Social Media Summit. Many of them were trained by us in the use of digital technology for reporting in sessions conducted through the year. But even though we do know most of the contributors, we do have a team of professional journalists who confirm the veracity of the crowdsourced reports.
However, in case we are unable to verify the claims, the reports are published and tagged as ‘unverified.'
How do you deal with citizen journalists seeking anonymity in their reports?
Kumar: Names of citizen journalists are withheld in case they request anonymity, and even in scenarios where we feel that revealing the identity of the citizen could be detrimental to their security.
What kinds of reporting tools or apps can citizen journalists use in Afghanistan to gather news?
Kumar: While Internet infrastructure in Afghanistan is still in its early stages of development, mobile phone access is far more predominant. The International Security Assistance Force reports suggest that there are as many as 22 million mobile phone subscribers in Afghanistan. So, Paiwandgah uses this as a leverage and most of our citizens report to us directly via SMS or phone calls. We are currently implementing a mobile-based platform that will make gathering content from our reporters through SMS and voice message much easier.
Citizen journalists also use social media, mostly Facebook, to send in their reports. [Recently], Impassion Afghanistan conducted a series of workshops across 10 provinces to train citizen journalists on using social media for reporting.
What lessons learned would you share with someone trying to start their own citizen journalism platform in a developing media environment?
Guo: Really focus on the platforms and mediums of communication that make the most sense in that context. Don’t just assume that because something is the most popular in the West – or in another context – that it will automatically work elsewhere. It’s cliché, but there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.
Main image of participants at Afghanistan's second social media summit, courtesy of Kumar