They're committed to democracy. They want to make a difference

By Lou Thomas

On Monday, Lina Alabed started work at Cham, Syria’s first privately-run TV station. In preparation for her role as a reporter, 25-year-old Alabed was in London last week for the Reuters Foundation TV course. She said that, for her, working as a journalist in Syria was a battle. "There is no freedom of speech, you can’t say your opinion. So you have always to find ways to say what you think about it. There’s many journalists getting arrested, even me.

You have to be careful," she says. But what does she think of journalism in the UK? "At least you feel you are a human being. There is freedom here."

The five-day course was set up by the charity arm of Reuters with the intention of raising journalism standards in "countries in transition". Alabed and the 12 other TV journalists on the course comprised cameramen, news editors and reporters from developing countries, including Fiji, Georgia, Malaysia, Albania and Russia. The yearly course has been running for more than a decade and is held at between six and 10 locations around the world at journalistic outposts from Poland to Vietnam to Eritrea.

Reuters TV production editor Lloyd Watson has been the course lecturer since 1997 and is usually joined by one other staff member, who teaches editing.

Watson has been a journalist for 25 years, 12 of those at Reuters. Over the five days the journalists are taught how to structure reports, to use the camera, how pictures work together, intros, scripting, interviewing and how to execute a piece to camera.

The group discussed if a piece to camera was valid in a hypothetical report on a blind singer attending a UN assembly about disability. Some argued that it was just a means of the TV station proving their reporter had actually attended the event rather than sitting in an edit suite recording a voiceover.

Overcoming difficulties

From watching Watson and students, it seems to be a rewarding experience for both. Watson says that the pupils who get the most out of it have been in TV for less than three years.

He says: "A lot of these people overcome difficulties that we just don’t have to face here. Some of them work within countries where the controls on the press are stronger than perhaps they are here. The fact that they produce TV under those circumstances is amazing enough. The fact that it’s quite good is even more amazing.

"A lot of them work in countries where the state controls TV either very directly or in such a way where they get what they want. In many countries, the person who runs it is a government appointee, for example.

"They don’t always have the freedoms that we take for granted here.

They need permission to film things, to go into certain buildings. It’s a long laborious process, submitting your requests in writing three weeks in advance and things. It can make it frustrating for them.

"They know what they want to do and they’re finding it very hard to do it in their own environment. They’re committed to democracy to such an extent that they really want to make a difference to their country. They’re desperate to pick up any techniques, whether it’s from a Western organisation or not."

Watson is keen to stress that it is not a technical course. "They don’t learn how to press buttons on cameras and things like that. It’s more about visual grammar. It’s more about the theory of pictures and how they work, it’s more about ‘this picture needs to be framed in a certain way’. We talk about how pictures work together when you do the edit, how to slow or quicken the pace.

In some cases how it doesn’t work."

The idea that journalists from non-Westernised countries may not be able to handle state-of-the-art digital equipment has proved to be partly unfounded. Watson explains that while some of his pupils work on tape and older technology, some are using cutting-edge kit.

"Equipment affects what they can do.

It’s only when they get shown new ideas do they get a full range of choices possible and choose the best way to do it. If you only know one way to make TV, everything’s going to look the same and you’ll use that way every time. If you know 10, 20 ways you can choose that one to do the story."

So will these journalists from developing countries take their newly acquired skills back to the home countries only to jump ship to a major Western news corporation like the BBC or CNN? Watson doesn’t think so.

"I don’t think there’s a room full of people where the sole purpose is to get a job at the BBC or Reuters, in fact, I’d say the majority are here to improve their work for their country. They care about improving standards of journalism in their countries rather than getting a better job. But there’s no doubt the overall standards are fine. It’s more about adapting to the style of an organisation than standards being good enough or not good enough."

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