There was anticipation in the air when on Monday the 24th of September over 50 Central Asian media professionals, civic activists and IT specialists gathered at the Park Hotel in Bishkek to present ways in which the regional media can work towards preventing the spread of violent extremism in Central Asia. The event had been preceded by weeks of work in ten cross-border teams and now the efforts of those weeks would culminate in the awarding of most innovative project ideas with sub-grants of up to 14 000 euros. Nevertheless, first some fine-tuning of projects, together with local and international experts of innovative multimedia content production and coverage on preventing violent extremism (PVE), was in place.
Increased Need for Prevention
The regional media innovation lab on PVE comes at a time when more ideas are needed in the sphere of preventing radicalization. The Regional Director for Europe and Eurasia Programs of Internews, Gillian McCormack, notes that at the same time there exists a lack of thematic journalist training in the region. "There are no specialists who would have been given enough financial, professional or technical support in order to become an expert in a specific topic while covering that," she points out.
Internews is an international non-profit organization with a long history in Central Asia, having up to 20 years of experience in some of the countries. The concept of the regional innovation lab was developed together with partners from the European Union after some pre-interventional analysis showed that even though there exists regional PVE cooperation on the governmental level, the media and civil society are much less involved. In addition, state investments are often made on hard measures, related to countering terrorism and terrorist groups, while much less resources go to supporting the soft or preventive measures.
One of the key concerns is that not enough resources are devoted to working with vulnerable groups, such as the youth, who are often targeted by terrorist organizations. "Today terrorist groups are designing key messages for youngsters and sending them via means that they know are used by them. For example, a lot of money is being used on social media," states Farhod Rahmatov, the project director for Central Asia at Internews. It is hoped that the newly established platform for cross-national media cooperation will also offer a possibility for examining what are the triggers for people becoming radicalized.
Engaging in Cross-Border Teamwork in Journalism
In the guidelines for participation in the regional innovation laboratory participants were given the chance to form their teams by themselves and out of the ten teams participating in the final event all have ended up involving members from more than one Central Asian country. For example, Tajik journalist Hurshed Ulmasov comes from a team that includes members from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, as well as, Kyrgyzstan. He believes that cross-national cooperation is essential in preventing the spread of violent extremism in the region: "We are very limited in our projects if we work only with our countries. Our neighbors have similar problems and the experience of one can easily be transferred to the other. It is very important that we learn to cooperate and do not repeat mistakes. We are all journalists and we are supposed to be working together. There exists a type of brother- or sisterhood between us."
Hurshed's team has been working on the theme of media literacy as a preventive factor of religious extremism and terrorism. The project plan involves creating three multimedia projects and its artistic design takes inspiration from a metaphor of growing trees: "We want to draw a parallel between trees and children growing up. As they grow, also their mental and spiritual needs are growing. If you do not take care of the tree, it will dry out. Similarly, if you forget about your son, you might not have any idea of what is happening to him and he might end up going the wrong way."
Hurshed's team mate Tashkent-based journalist Saida Sulaimanova explains that the choice for project focus on youth stems from a personal level: "We are interested in this topic because we are parents first of all. We face similar issues with our children and understand that also other parents are going through this. Secondly, we are media people who have been working with these groups for a long time. I believe that journalists are those who teach and pass on media literacy to everyone in the society. As teachers of media literacy, they can deliver important ideas and messages to people all around the world. The best is to know how to apply that media literacy."
Bridging Cultures and Overcoming Differences
The project of Kyrgyz journalist Akyn Bakirov and his team takes focus on another type of threat in the region. He describes their project choice as being motivated by "social radicalization" and overcoming prejudices. Often it seems, especially to outsiders, that the societies on the border of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are growing further apart and that border areas are stained with problems. Therefore, his team's project is focused on bringing out the positive experiences of cross-border cooperation and peaceful coexistence on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border.
The way that Akyn's team wants to explore the topic is by conducting a type of social experiment where a young Kyrgyz and Tajik would swap families for a week. During that week the youth would take part in the ordinary chores of the families and discuss their insights concerning the places. The result would be something of a mix between a documentary and reality TV show. "Then in the end we would do a comparison of the lead characters, what were their views and stereotypes in the beginning and what their thoughts are at the end after the project. We hope that by the end of filming our heroes and their attitudes would have changed," Akyn describes.
Supporting Stability and Peace in Central Asia
The three-day media innovation laboratory was organized within the framework of the EU funded programme “Contributing to Stability and Peace in Central Asia”. The programme that was launched in May 2018, for a length of 18 months and with a budget of 3.3 million euros, aims at enhancing and strengthening regional collaboration between journalists, activists and policymakers in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan in the sphere of prevention of violent extremism.