Dima Saber

It’s been a while since I got the chance to write here about some of the ‘Media for Social Change’ projects and activities I’m involved in. The last few months have been interesting, challenging and very busy! As we all come close to a well-deserved summer break, I thought I’d write a short overview of three main projects I started working on last year. This is a good way for me to reflect on the last twelve months (since the  #M4SC Unconference Event we hosted in May 2014), but is also a ‘call for collaboration’ for you to get more involved in some of these projects. I do hope you find this round-up interesting and useful!

 

1•  On Screen Off Record: political filmmaking & ethical practice

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I started working in February 2014 on a film project that documents the uprising in Syria as it went from a non-violent movement to a militarised and islamised conflict that became a civil war. At a time where all Arab uprisings are compressed into a single season – an ‘Arab spring’ – it’s important we continue to acknowledge the specificity of each one of these Arab countries. Therefore, and in an attempt to avoid producing yet another post-Arab uprising documentary that over dramatizes turmoil and celebrates martyrs and heroes, we’ve designed On Screen Off Record as an investigation into the connected yet conflicting media narratives of the Syrian conflict.

The film is based on content smuggled on a hard drive to the film crew by Yadan Drajy, an activist from Daraa,  the city where protests erupted in March 2011, and which contains footage shot by five media activists during the first few months of the revolution. We’re working with Signe Byrge Sørensen who also produced The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence and Concerning Violence (among many others!). Aside from being a great person, Signe has a fantastic track record working with these kinds of film documentaries and while still in production phase, the film has been awarded several prizes (most recently the First Prize at the Copenhagen Film Festival and the Pixel Market prize at Power to the Pixel Cross-media forum in London).

We’re building a threefold representation of the uprising in Syria; the narrative of Daraa’s media activists (through our work on Yadan’s hard drive), the narrative of the Syrian State TV (which we’ll access online) and the narrative of international satellite channels such as Al-Jazeera. The initial mapping phase ended in June 2015 and I’m now getting ready to travel to Qatar to start working on Al-Jazeera archives.

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One of the main challenges I’ve been facing with this project is to be able to draw on my work and involvement in activist media in the Arab world to produce research outputs that would make a good contribution to our REF 2020 submission. This has pushed me to try and negotiate myself a new space between my work as UK-based researcher, and my involvement with the film crew and with activists in Syria. Four years after the eruption of the protests in Syria, and to quote Judith Butler in ‘Frames of war, when is life grievable?’ (2009), the numbers of Syrian dead and displaced are known, but they don’t seem to count. It is in that sense that I see my involvement in this film project as an attempt to keep the Syrian narrative human and alive, despite the war and massive destruction.

Therefore, in addition to the 90′ feature film (scheduled for release early 2017), I’m now working on two journal articles that will be published in 2016:

‘From pan-Arabism to political Islam: a study of Al-Jazeera’s coverage of war and social movements in the Arab world (2006-2015)’  – The Journal of Arab and Muslim Media Research [Forthcoming April 2016, Volume 1, Issue 9]. This paper looks at the evolution in Al-Jazeera’s representations of conflict and social movements in the Arab world, between the July 2006 war in Lebanon and the Arab uprisings in 2011, with a focus on the channel’s coverage of the Syrian revolution from it’s early beginnings in the city of Daraa.

‘OSOR: Media discourses of war, political filmmaking and ethical practice’ – Co-authored by Dr. Michele Aaron of the University of Birmingham, this paper seeks to identify and explore the ethical challenges facing filmmakers, researchers and archivists when attempting to constitute a narrative of an unfolding history within a socio-political context that is frequently misunderstood or misappropriated within wider geopolitical concerns.

We have given the paper and gathered valuable feedback at five conferences this year, and we’re aiming to publish the journal article around the same time the film is out as a sort of accompanying narrative to the narrative of the film itself:

– Political Cinema in the 21st Century at BCU/UWE Bristol in February 2015,

– History in the Making: Arab media and processes of remembering at the University of Westminster in April 2015,

– Artistic Practice as an Alternative to News Media at the University of Panthéon-Assas Paris II,

– The Political Screen Conference at LSE London, and

– From Home to Homs: the past and present of amateur media at UCL London, all in June 2015.

I do think the challenges I’m facing and the knowledge I’m gaining working with OSOR archives will make a great contribution to the ‘archiving media culture’ initiative the centre has recently started. Most of the archives I’m working on are in Arabic, but I was able to secure some funds for translation making this archive accessible to all BCMCR researchers. If you’re interested in exploring the online media depictions of the Syrian conflict and want to know more about the work I’m doing with the film, please drop me a line and I’ll be happy to share more info/get you involved!

 

2• Checkdesk: online media verification & impact assessment

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In 2011 Noha Atef and Tim Wall started a partnership with Meedan to develop Checkdesk, a digital media verification tool that allows Arab media activists, independent journalists and journalism students to verify online reports and improve the quality of citizen journalism in a region deeply shaken by conflict and extremism.

Despite the war and massive destruction, there are highly active and inspiring grassroots movements for change across the Arab region that continue to embrace open inquiry, free speech, and progressive causes. They seek better civic engagement, constitutional reform, respect for human rights and gender equality, and they represent a critical opportunity for addressing the polarization and misinformation apparent in the public sphere and on most mainstream media outlets. These people are the main beneficiaries of our work and involvement in the Arab region.

Over the course of the last two years, we’ve worked with our network of partners to:

 

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Partner training stats, final impact evaluation report, October 2014

 

We’ve secured funding from SIDA (The Swedish International Development Agency) for a 30-months extension of the Checkdesk project starting October 2014. We will be focusing in this phase on the following objectives:

To achieve this, we will expand the program of workshops in order to train established journalists, journalism students and transparency advocates in how to conduct investigative reporting online, thereby embedding a transformative culture of critical enquiry among the region’s grassroots media and civil society.

Also part of our work on the Checkdesk project, we’ve recently relaunched arabcitizenmedia.org as an open-access e-learning platform offering training resources for media enthusiasts, aspiring journalists and students. The first set of resources on ‘Fact-checking for the web’ is now available online; you’ll be able to find infographics, power point presentations, podcasts and screencasts that introduce the context and emergence of citizen journalism in the Arab region, and an overview of the basic tools for online verification. We’re currently working on the next two sets of resources on ‘Writing for the Web’ and ‘Investigative Reporting’. If you’re interested in getting involved please drop us a line, get in touch on Twitter or sign-up to ACM newsletter.

I’d also like to take a second here to thank again the ACM team for their fantastic contribution to the relaunch of site!

 

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Finally, I’m also in charge of the impact assessment of the Checkdesk project and have published the last two impact evaluation reports we submitted in 2013 and 2014 here. I’ve learned through my experience working in a very unstable region that success in generating proper programme evaluations greatly impacts the way stakeholders are able to design, expand and deliver media for civic empowerment projects. In that context, I’ve been working with Jerome Turner and Rachel-Ann Charles on launching a Monitoring & Evaluation Lab at BCMCR with the aims of:

The knowledge developed in this project will be of significant interest to researchers and organisations involved in various processes of monitoring and evaluation, and especially in the lead-up to REF 2020 where questions of impact are gaining more ground. I submitted an unsuccessful bid to the Communities and Culture Network + a few months ago, but I think there is a great potential there for an AHRC-Network bid on impact assessment of media projects. Partners from the University of Birmingham, Goldsmiths, and Bournemouth have all expressed interest in being part of a network application, so please contact me if this is something you’d like to get involved in, I’ll be happy to share more info.

 

3• Research Connections

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Tear Gas was another key theme of our #M4SC activities this year! After we hosted the Tear Gas Research Connection UK meeting last November, we organised in April 2015 a panel discussion on the military, policing, legal, commercial and medical aspects of tear gas, both in historic and more contemporary contexts.

The Tear Gas Connection is a research project initiated by Dr. Anna Feigenbaum (Bournemouth University) and John Horne (University of Birmingham) and the panel included Neil Corney of Omega Research Foundation and Ala’a Shehabi of Bahrain Watch.

First used in 1914, tear gas is also a legacy of WWI; it was first developed as a chemical weapon for military use, then misleadingly rebranded as a “non-lethal” weapon used to repress protests around the world. This allowed us to establish a great connection between the work Anna and John are doing on Tear Gas and our involvement as in the AHRC-funded Voices of War and Peace project.

I’m currently in discussion with Prof. Ian Grosvenor and Dr. Nicola Gauld of UoB’s World War One Engagement Centre to submit an application to their research fund suggesting to work with a community partner in Birmingham and in Beirut to map and document the stories of Armenian migrant communities in the UK and Lebanon.  The Armenian genocide started in April 1915 under the Ottoman rule, and led to a diaspora of around 11 million Armenians scattered across all continents. It is in that sense another legacy of WWI. The project aims at understanding the communalities and differences between these two communities and learning about the influence of the ‘host’ country in shaping an Armenian identity, in its core constituents and developments. I am very interested in this project because it would give me the opportunity to explore immanent traces of past, other wars in the present, offering me new perspectives on the work I’ve been doing the last few years on media representations of conflict in the Arab world. But since we’re all still stuck in a day that only has 24 hours, here’s a recording of our ‘A 100 Years of Tear Gas panel’, and please do get in touch if you want to be involved in this project!

 

 

I know it’s been a long post, but I do hope you found it useful.

I’m looking forward to a great year ahead, and look forward to hearing your thoughts and comments on all this!

 

*Picture by Mona Abdel-Fattah ‘Our weapon, their weapon’

 

Birmingham Centre For Media And Cultural Research

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