PERUGIA: The International Journalism Festival returned to Italy after a two-year hiatus with a wide selection of sessions related to Arab countries and the Middle East dominating the agenda.

This year’s edition holds special significance for media and journalism professionals in the Arab world, as the festival featured the largest selection of sessions relevant to the region to date.

“When you come from an almost cataclysmic context, like Syria, or very repressive contexts like Egypt, there’s always this notion that we’re not just journalists, we’re not just professionals, but that this is our vocation,” said Karam Nachar, editor and co-founder of Al-Jumhuriya.

From contextual discussions on media practices, such as in Syria and Egypt, to more general panels presenting an overview of the current media climate in the region, the festival provided an opportunity for journalists to share their experiences and discuss pressing issues. facing the information industry. .

Director of the Counter Academy for Arab Journalism, Hala Droubi. (Francesco Cuoccio)

“Conferences like this give us the opportunity to talk about Arab media, which did not exist 10 years ago,” said Michael Jensen, MENA regional director at International Media Support.

“It also gives us the opportunity to present new ideas and discuss tangible results for shared problems faced in the region.”

The conference spanned five days with over 700 speakers, holding panels, discussions and presentations in Perugia’s charming historic city center, theatres, auditoriums and libraries, living up to its reputation as a festival.

The streets of Perugia filled with people from all over the world who came to watch the festival. (Provided)

The whole city is transforming to host one of the biggest journalism events in Europe as residents take advantage of the massive influx. A pastry shop in the town’s main square even displayed a chocolate festival sign.

Founded in 2006, the festival is held annually in Perugia, the capital of Umbria in central Italy, bringing together journalists, students, media and NGOs to discuss current media practices and developments in the world.

The emergence of independent media and the strengthening of media freedom were common themes in these sessions.

In a panel titled “The Development and Future of Emerging Media in Syria,” experts discussed the rise of independent media in post-2011 Syria.

Round table on the future of media and journalism in Syria. (Francesco Ascanio Pepe)

“We were a group of activists who wanted to know what was happening in nearby towns, only one of us was a journalist who studied journalism at university,” explained Kholoud Helmi, co-founder of ‘Enab Baladi, an independent Syrian media. which became prominent after the Syrian uprising.

“We didn’t know anything about the rules of journalism, how to be objective and balanced, but we were enthusiastic. We want to tell people our stories. We wanted to inform locals and internationals about what is happening in Syrian cities.

Explaining why independent journalism is of the utmost importance in conflict zones such as Syria, the panel painted a portrait of the extremely constrained pre-2011 media landscape in the country, described in its pre-war era as a “land of silence”.

Panelists highlighted the need to support citizen journalism, citing that many of those who founded or currently work in Syria’s independent media sphere started out as activists and citizens with little or no experience in journalism.

In another panel titled “Innovating: New Media Practices from the Arab Region,” the editors highlighted the emergence of various types of new media practices over the past decade that challenge the traditional notion of journalism.

“Cultural journalism, for example, has emerged strongly in recent years in the region,” said Karam Nachar. “This type of journalism, focused on showcasing Arab culture to foreign audiences from an Arab perspective, is particularly important because it challenges the traditional style of breaking news and focuses more on the narration.”

Many sessions have also been designed to inform foreign journalists and international media about the needs of local media. In a session titled “The Future of Afghanistan Coverage,” panelists gave a moving account of what it was like for Afghan journalists operating under the de facto Taliban regime.

Attendees line up to take part in one of the many sessions held in the town square. (Provided)

“On April 30, 2018, there was a double suicide bombing in Kabul, targeting journalists in the country. Twenty-five people died, including nine journalists, including three of my colleagues,” said Malali Bashir, an award-winning Afghan journalist and editor-in-chief of Radio Free Europe and the Afghan service of Radio Liberty, locally known as Radio Azadi. .

“I want to mention this to reiterate the commitment of Afghan journalists to their work and how they have contributed to media freedom, freedom of expression and the right to know correct and unbiased information in Afghanistan.

More than 300 media outlets have closed in Afghanistan since August 15, when the Taliban took power. Hundreds of journalists have fled Afghanistan and those who remain have either stopped working, adapted to the increasingly unstable environment, or face dangerous security risks in carrying out their work.

Session on the future of media coverage in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime, held in the historical library. (Provided.)

Panelists also explained how to report on Afghanistan from a local perspective and stressed the need to teach local and foreign journalists how to cooperate, given that they both depend heavily on one of the other.

“We need to support citizen journalism and train local journalists to tell their own stories,” recommended Vanessa Gezari, national security editor at The Intercept.

“As foreign journalists, we need to help Afghans tell their stories about their own country, look for stories to tell, and then engage Afghans in their story and use social media to tell stories.”

A common concern shared across these region-specific sessions of the festival was how to keep stories from certain contexts like Syria or Afghanistan relevant, as many conflicts and crises arise across the world.