Opening Remarks | Addendum

Opening Remarks

Jonathan Blakley and David Skok, NF’12
December 1, 2011

What is it that drives us to become journalists?

In its purest form, journalism is not about fame, fortune, or the desire to have a voice.

It is about seeking the truth, assembling the facts, and holding those who choose to abuse their powers accountable.

Ever since movable type was invented, journalists have been using whatever tools we have at our disposal to speak truth to power, inform, and provide critical analysis.

The technologies we use to disseminate these ideals will always evolve, but the values and the message we share remain the same.

Mohammed Nabbous, known simply as Mo, came to the world’s attention on February 19th of this year. He spoke to the BBC from a rooftop in Benghazi, four days after the Libyan uprising began. In it, he remarked “I’m not afraid to die, I’m afraid to lose the battle.” He added, “That’s why I want the media to see what’s going on.”

True to his word, and at great personal risk, Mo did just that; Making sure the world’s media witnessed how Ghaddafi loyalists had turned their guns onto their own people. He would later provide live reports for CNN, the CBC and others…

But journalism isn’t just about reporting. It is also about editing and production. Here too, Mo was a journalist in the truest sense of the word.

NPR Social media strategist Andy Carvin, who was in direct contact with ‘Mo’ – and joins us here tonight, explains what Mo did best.

Andy says when Benghazi was in the process of being liberated, Mo managed to jerry rig a satellite internet connection. He set up a homegrown studio becoming the digital equivalent of Radio Free Benghazi.

Mo would sit there on the live-stream with headphones and a mobile phone for hours at a time, talking to people all over Libya, getting firsthand accounts of what they were seeing.

When they were having the conversation in Arabic, there would be a chat window where people were translating into English what they were saying… in real time.

Mo Nabbous was a media mogul, an anchor, producer, reporter, and a citizen journalist, all wrapped into one.

Using the latest tools at his disposal he circumvented the media blackout placed on those inside Libya, setting up the very first independent news channel in a country that hadn’t known a free press in over a generation.

Traditional journalism can act as the great amplifier of citizen journalists, like Mo, who NEED the BBC, NPR and the New York Times, we are in effect, working together to get the message out. This is the definition of collaboration and participatory journalism. In honoring Mo tonight, we are recognizing that journalists and citizens share a common value and a shared purpose: A free press.

Corrupt regimes and criminals are aware of this too and are now targeting bloggers and social media posters in the same way that they target journalists. Even today in Egypt, an Egyptian blogger, and political activist named Alaa Abdel Fattah, sits in prison facing charges related to an event on October 9th when more than 20 people were killed. According to eye witnesses, Fattah, was…like Mo before him, just documenting the atrocities.

Louie Lyons was a forceful advocate for freedom of the press. While he was curator of the Nieman Foundation, he broke new ground by diversifying the class of fellows to include women, minorities, and international fellows, and expanded its scope to include all major forms of media.

Tonight, we recognize Louie Lyons by breaking new ground once again. Selecting Mo Nabbous who also represents others like him for this award, is another endorsement for freedom of the press, and it is recognition of the increasing collaboration and contribution that citizens have in producing journalism.

Tragically, Mo is not here tonight to accept this award. He was shot and killed on March 19th on the same day that he told the world that Ghaddafi loyalists weren’t adhering to a ceasefire. His death was announced on the livestream by his wife Samra…. At the time, she was pregnant with their first child.

It has been documented that Mo’s favorite quote was, “A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle.” Samra told me last night that Mo always said he would do something big… We hope that this award gives Samra and Maya, comfort knowing that Mo’s candle still shines brightly for Libyans, and for those who believe in press freedom around the world.

Samra…On behalf of the Nieman Fellows class of 2012, it is our distinct honor to present Mohammad Nabbous with this year’s Louis Lyons award for conscience and integrity in journalism.


The Future of Libyan Journalism

By Dorothy Parvaz
Al Jazeera Journalist
2009 Nieman Fellow

From a distance, the contribution of citizen journalists in the Arab Spring might seem vague – bloggers and Tweeters…Who are these people? To purists their voices might even seen inconsequential, reduced to the status of dodgy eyewitness reports at best.

But to Libyans and journalists trying to cover their country at the start of the popular uprising, there is no confusion about the role citizen journalists such as Mohammed Nabbous.

A man who put himself in the direct line of fire to show the world what was unfolding there, Nabbous and those who worked with him were the world’s window into what was unfolding on the streets.

The Louis Lyons dinner, at which Nabbous was posthumously honored, was a chance for a mixed audience to understand the value of a person – a civilian, if you will – bearing witness in a situation where all forms of traditional media have failed and where the state clearly prefers the cover of silence and darkness. I spoke a few words about the importance of citizen journalism that night, and looking at Nabbous’s widow, Samra, and their infant daughter, Maya, wondered what sort of future waited for them back home.

But things are looking better for Libya already.

Just days after returning to Doha, where I am based, I heard that Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC) was here to discuss the future of journalism in Libya, a country which could hardly be said to have much of a journalism past.

For two days, NTC members met with journalists and media experts at a conference organized by Northwestern University in Qatar. Key players in Libya’s future, members of NTC discussed best practices and talked about the groundwork for a free and functioning media in their country, one that works as a watchdog rather than being under government control.

I caught the end of the conference, when Abdulfeedah Ghogha, vice chairman of the NTC, rattled off a numbered list of how the group would like to see Libya’s media take shape: Free and independent, with a focus on watchdog work. He emphasized the importance of journalism training and education, legal protections for the media.

I asked him a couple of questions about whether the government planned on only allowing licensed journalists to work in Libya (a common practice) and if watching the crackdowns on the press not only in his own country and in the region had provided the NTC with lessons on how to grant new protection to the fragile, new enterprise of journalism there.

Ghogha’s answers were unequivocal: There would be no permits, there would be no crackdowns, he said. Ghogha also credited the “brave young men and women of Libya” for their work in reporting what was happening at a time when foreign press was not allowed in the country and the state media served as a government mouthpiece.

Of course, this is still the beginning of a long journey for Libyan media and a conference is just mostly talk. A free media sounds good in theory, but is an entirely different matter when reporters starts to ask the sorts of question no politician likes to hear. However, if the NTC manages to follow through with even half of its stated objectives for Libyan media, then there’s a hope that what they’re creating there might even be a model for the region.