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Published on February 24th, 2014 | by EJC

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Local Elections Reporting In Pakistan: Collaborative Learning Sessions Span Country’s Four Provinces

This article was originally written and published by UPI Next on 4 December, 2013. Republished with permission.

Press club in Dera Ghazi Khan, Punjab, the crossroads of the four provinces of Pakistan, where UPI Next sessions were held.

They traveled through orange groves, juniper forests and over barren mountains. The editors, far from their urban news desks, navigated logistical, lodging and security issues in unfamiliar territories. They used personal diplomacy and Internet powered by generators, and spoke Pashto, Urdu and English, all to work face to face with 200 reporters scattered throughout Pakistan’s four provinces. The sessions were the tools used in UPI Next’s collaborative learning approach for journalists in the lead-up to local elections that begin Dec. 7.

The sessions, carried out as an extension of UPI Next’s Truth Tracker accountability reporting, connected remote journalists with editors in newsroom-style sessions to develop skills for voter-based election coverage in their provinces. The starting point is voter interviews. This survey of voters lays the foundation for election stories, as reporters compare the hopes of voters and candidate promises during the campaign, as well as tracks candidates’ later actions as elected officials.

Editors and reporters faced both a massive magnitude-7.8 earthquake and tiny fleas to hold sessions in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa — in Dera Ismail Khan, Swat, Abbotabad and Peshawar — and Baluchistan — in Quetta, Pishin and Ziarat — before the Eid al-Adha holiday. Sessions in Sindh and Punjab provinces are to wrap up Dec. 5 in Karachi.

“Given the feedback from the participants, the trainings are bound to heavily contribute towards the goal of objective journalism, as no such training had been held for journalists here in the past,” Syed Zubair Sherazi, Baluchistan UPI Next coordinator, wrote. Many reporters, he wrote, planned to show up for compulsory roll call and leave for other work; “yet, the training was so informative and interesting that they attended the full training sessions.”

Baluchistan: From Quetta to Ziarat

Baluchistan, Pakistan’s largest province, has the smallest population of the country’s four provinces, with 13 million inhabitants. Traveling to this province in the southwest part of the country bordering Iran and Afghanistan involved driving long distances through areas with no cellphone service. The team faced challenges holding some sessions, but in the end pulled off three out of four sessions in the originally planned locations and moved the fourth to Quetta.

A Taliban threat against polio vaccinators in the province added security concerns, but the team used personal contacts, including some in security and intelligence agencies and the military, to safely carry out the sessions. “Our team, facing adversities and obstacles, remains energized by the challenges they are presented with,” one facilitator wrote. “The obstacles only prove what it is that makes our work vital.”

Reporters learn four skills during the sessions: interviewing, background research, tracking political promises — including the feasibility of fulfillment — and asking more detailed initial questions and follow-up questions to pin down politicians on specifics of their promises. Reporters also take part in on-the-record question-and-answer sessions with political candidates to give reporters practice asking questions.

After a session in Quetta, facilitators headed to Ziarat. Ziarat is a relatively peaceful and wintry cold city of about 1 million people, 2½ hours’ drive from Quetta through barren mountains that slope into apple orchards approaching the city. Ziarat is also home to the world’s second-largest juniper forest, which has been declared a UNESCO biosphere reserve. It lies in the heart of a Pashtun-dominated region influenced by Mahmoud Achakzai’s Pukhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party with traces of fundamentalist Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam – Fazal-ur-Rehman group. “The killing of a police officer in a recent attack on a guest house-turned-museum raised a big question mark and radiated fear and insecurity in this region,” a facilitator wrote.

The team spent just 5 minutes in a hotel they had booked but, finding it virtually abandoned because of the decade-long insurgency at the city’s doorstep, slept on the carpet of a local non-governmental organization office instead.

“We are in session with 10 local reporters in a typical Pashtun ‘hujra’ styled floor sitting,” Syed Moazzam Ali Hashmi, Pakistan project manager for UPI Next, wrote in a dispatch on the first day of the session. Facilitators spoke in Pashto at the request of reporters. “Multi-media is working fine, so are the laptops,” he wrote. “Power would go out (load shedding) any time and we have arranged a generator as a back up.”

After the session, facilitators returned to Quetta, but not without flea bites from sleeping on the NGO office carpet in Ziarat. “We are back to civilization, all in one-piece, thanks God. But, brutally bitten by fleas all over in the past two nights,” Hashmi wrote. “But, glad that we achieved our goals pretty well [...] Now, dipped in hot water tub with a whole bottle of Dettole.”

During the next week, facilitators carried out two more sessions, one in the Pashtun-dominated city of Pishin, and another in Quetta for reporters from the town of Mastung. Security threats, including a bomb blast that took one meeting place off the table, looked to derail the Pishin session, but facilitators managed to carry on as planned.

After the sessions, Hashmi posted a picture of his feet on Facebook with the message: “A thousand miles journey begins with a single step — UPI Next has taken the step to also help Pakistani journalists at grassroots level, learn solid fact-based object reporting meeting international standards.”

Dispatches from Sindh

Sessions are currently moving forward in Sindh province, in the town of Nawabshah. The town is the hometown of former President Asif Ali Zardari and a stronghold of the Pakistan Peoples Party. It is characterized by its cotton, sugarcane and wheat fields and sugar mills, not to mention its share of robbers and other outlaws. The town also produced a caretaker prime minister, Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi, who held office in the 1990s , and a powerful woman, Zardari’s sister Faryal Talpur, who served as District Nawabshah Nazim (mayor) for two terms during the previous PPP government. Her administration was well-praised by friends and foes alike.

“The Nawabshah workshop is in full swing with all its countryside flavors in the fourth-largest urban city of Sindh province,” Hashmi wrote.

Election reporting in Pakistan: beginning of a long journey

After traveling across Pakistan for collaborative learning sessions, UPI Next editors will continue to support the journalists in their work as they move forward with interviews and reporting. Local and international editors and mentors will stay in contact with journalists as they contribute reporting to the election-coverage project.

Continuing the momentum of Truth Tracker, the coming months will bring an outpouring of stories, interviews and election coverage. By mid-January, reporters will have completed 1,000 voter interviews. The interviews, edited and filtered, will be published on Truth Tracker and Pak Pol Wiki alongside profiles of the cities where sessions were held — including demographic, election history, and information about the cities’ challenges and key players.IMAG0614

While the goal is ambitious, editors remain hopeful yet realistic. They know motivation is key, but so are technological skills. “While all of the journalists see an opportunity here to expand their horizons beyond restricted regional journalism, it is unclear how many will be able to do so,” wrote Aurangzaib Khan, a UPI Next session facilitator and editor. “I would place more hope in some journalists though, who have better skills and access to internet and technology.”

Select interviews with candidates for local government slots will also be published. Finally, 12 local reporters from those who were in the local work sessions are joining the Truth Tracker team in a project expansion that will double production of quality content for local and international readers in the final months of the project. Reporters are already giving great feedback about what they have learned.

“In these two days, I learned to write news stories and features to a high standard, which not only conform to the international standards of reporting but also helps to deliver the story in a much more transparent way, keeping our society’s and political scenario in mind,” wrote a female reporter who attended a session in her province. “Through a series of long lessons, discussions and practical exercises and assignments, I learnt to find the correct information in a limited time and structure uniformly in a form of a piece.”

She said the session “not only unfolded the true essence of the reporting but also helped me in understanding our local voters and how their voice can be heard in a much more direct and simple ways and how we can reach to the core of the issues our public face and what are their aspirations and expectations from their elected candidates.”

About the Organisation:

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UPI Next is the media development division of United Press International (UPI), a global news agency and distribution channel. Its mission is to use innovative and collaborative approaches in international journalism in order to assist and mentor journalists of all levels, produce and distribute global news and features in every medium and evaluate quality and impact of programs and content. Since 2012, UPI Next’s network has mentored hundreds of stories from journalists around the world to publication with UPI.com. Follow them on Twitter @UPI_Next.

Photo: Internews Network

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