|Here I am with some of the brilliant journalists participating in the reporting diversity training in Algiers|
You might not have heard much about Algeria and that’s not surprising. Unlike neighbouring Morocco, Algeria is not a popular tourist destination and the country is rarely in the (Anglo-Saxon) news - unless there is terrorism. Well…a few weeks ago, not far from where I was staying on the outskirts of Algiers, a French tourist was kidnapped and beheaded by a militant group linked to Islamic State. Police presence was beefed up in Algiers and foreigners like me were told to keep a low profile.
The murder hit at the core of the work we were doing there. I had been asked by the Media Diversity Institute (MDI) to run a training for professional Algerian journalists on reporting diversity. The London-based organization works internationally to prevent the media from intentionally or unintentionally spreading prejudice, intolerance and hatred; encouraging instead, fair, accurate, inclusive and sensitive media coverage in order to promote understanding between different groups and cultures.
During the five-day workshop, an Algerian colleague and I trained print and online journalists in how to write stories about the diverse groups who make up Algerian society, but whose voices are seldom heard in the media. The journalists rose to the challenge and produced great stories on Syrian refugees, Sub-Saharan immigrants, people with disabilities, children in rural areas, single mothers and other marginalised groups.
And there was one other story – my favourite in fact. It was the story of a boy born in the mountains in Northeast Algeria during the “Black Decade” – the devastating conflict between Muslim extremists and government forces that tore the country apart in the 1990s and killed some 200,000 Algerians. “Abd was the son of Islamist guerillas, born in the ‘maquis’. He is now 18. He doesn’t share his parents’ beliefs - in fact he has condemned them - but he is rejected everywhere he goes, he has no place in society and no future. He is suicidal,” explained the young journalist who had produced the story. “I want to tell Abd’s story. It is the story of the children of the terrorists, of the “repented” – they are treated as pariahs in spite of the 2005 charter of national reconciliation,” the journalist told the class.
The other journalists greeted his story in stony silence. Then one said: “I refuse to read anything about terrorists. We shouldn’t give them any voice, any recognition, any space.” Many nodded in agreement.
- “But he is a child. He didn’t ask to be born to terrorist parents, he doesn’t share their views,” I tried.
- “What about the children of their victims? Do they have a voice?” angrily replied the journalist.
Everyone in Algeria is still traumatized by the “Black Decade” (Algiers still shuts down at night - a remnant of 10 years of curfew) and the story of the invisible children of Algerian terrorists hit a raw nerve. But it also generated a passionate and ultimately productive discussion around issues which were at the very heart of our training: how do we talk about other people’s views and experiences, especially when they disturb us? Isn’t it better to hear what a segment of the population has to say, even if we don’t agree with them? Some strongly believe that “terrorists” shouldn’t have a voice, but other people in Algeria believe that refugees, homosexuals, Christians and many other groups shouldn’t either.
The story also made me appreciate even more working with my Algerian colleague, as there are things which an outsider can only understand intellectually.