Citizen Journalism at Its Best
Refugee reporters living in a Liberian refugee camp outside of Accra, Ghana, have a lot to celebrate on June 20, World Refugee Day. Today marks the two-year anniversary of the Vision, the only newspaper in the world written by and for Liberian refugees.
Despite a series of obstacles, challenges and struggles -- editors getting malaria, going without food in order to afford printing, not having an office or a paid staff -- the Vision survived. Today the paper is a thriving monthly publication with a website that attracts readers from all over the world.
Dozens of camp dignitaries, officials, international media, volunteers, friends and family of the Vision team recently turned out for a special celebration featuring Ghana's Amnesty International Director Prize McApreko, music by the famous a cappella group Ebony Heritage, and a mock reading of breaking news by a high school press club.
Buduburam refugee camp, located about an hour west of Accra, Ghana, is home to more than 40,000 survivors of Liberia's 14-year civil war. Two exiled journalists living at the camp felt that Liberians were not being portrayed fairly in Ghanaian media. They wanted a paper for their community that would accurately reflect their news, as well as educate and inform them about their rights. Without an office, and barely enough funding for printing, Jos Garneo Cephas, 35, and Semantics King, 27, pulled together the first issue.
"In the history of Buduburam, some refugees have suffered arrest and detention without trial," said Cephas. "Stories carried by the paper contributed to the release of many of these refugees. Today the negative perception and stereotype in Ghanaian media which portrayed Buduburam as being a den of people living with HIV/AIDS, a training ground for mercenary activity and that refugees are land dealers is proven wrong and the record is set straight."
Subsequent stories have included profiles on human rights NGOs at the camp, features on children's feelings about moving back to Liberia, and updates on ex-warlord and former Liberian president Charles Taylor's trial.
Only a few of the reporters who write for the monthly paper have had any formal journalism training. Currently, the newspaper's office is a small children's classroom with a bunch of plastic chairs and one small marker board for writing. None of the reporters are paid for their stories. They hope that, by having their work published, they will be able to return to Liberia and get jobs as journalists.
"Now that repatriation is in process and we've got new leadership in Liberia, the Vision is going to go back as of March 2007 to continue educating the Liberian citizenry of their basic human rights," King said. "If they have the knowledge, they will be able to identify rights violations by government agencies and politicians. If they know, they will be able to protect their rights and the rights of others. That is the vision for the Vision."
There were many moments during the past two years when the future of the paper looked grim, said King. With lack of funding and resources, the challenges piled up.
"There were times when I was hungry, I had no money for food, or to pay my bills," he said. "But somehow we managed to keep the paper going. It was our dream, and we never gave up on it."
Ghana's Amnesty International director McApreko honored the efforts and perseverance of the Vision team in a speech he gave at the anniversary celebration.
"At the time when a refugee has to leave his country, he usually has to do so when guns are next to his door," McApreko said. "On the basis of that, he hasn't got the time to take any of the wealth for which he has spent all of his life working for. The only thing he has is his mind, his health, his energies and what he has naturally. I see this reflected in the newspaper. You realize that these are people who do not have all the financial support that other media have, yet they have been able to come up with theVision."
McApreko said that Amnesty International was especially grateful to the newspaper because of its focus on human rights.
"We have given all our attention on politics and all the other events and most of the time we forget about human rights," he said. "Human rights are issues which have failed to serve in many of the developing countries. If today we have a newspaper which is redirecting all of its core competences and energies toward the realization of human rights, I think it is very heartwarming. More so because it has been initiated by people whose very human rights have been violated to the height that it's ever possible."
The paper has received a small amount of support from several international NGOs, namely Teaching Projects Abroad, (TPA) a British volunteer placement organization that funds the printing and Journalists for Human Rights (JHR), a Canadian-based NGO that provides journalism training to Vision reporters.
Richard Garner is JHR's journalism expert trainer. He officially launched the Vision at their two-year anniversary celebration.
"It's been an absolute privilege for me to work with these unbelievably beautiful and committed human beings and journalists, not only a professional privilege but a personal honor," Garner said. "I've been working for 15 years as a journalist, and I can tell you, if I live to be 150 and if I work another 100 years as a journalist, I will never accomplish anything near the level of what has been accomplished by these people here at this camp."
Garner challenged people to find another newspaper in West Africa that surpasses the quality of the Vision.
"Obviously I work in this business. I understand the enormous challenge it is to found and run a newspaper anywhere in the world where you have the resources and an environment where it's conducive to do it, and still it's tremendously difficult," he said. "I defy you to find one that absolutely outshines the way this paper looks, the way it's written, and the heart that goes into it. It's literally a miracle. If you are not inspired by this story, you should see a doctor, and get a heart transplant because this is what inspiration is all about. This is what journalism is all about."