Changemakers recently sat down with Naveen Naqvi, co-founder and executive director of Gawaahi, to discuss her work in Pakistan’s turbulent and often violent environment, where she uses citizen media as a tool for political engagement and raising public awareness.
Gawaahi, which means “witnessing” in Urdu, is a Pakistan-based citizen-sector organization that produces digital stories of survival and resistance. Through its online platform, Gawaahi shares stories about women's human rights, child sex abuse, unfair labor practices, and religious persecution.
With a background in journalism, Naqvi was previously the senior anchor and morning news presenter at DawnNews, Pakistan's first English-language channel. Before that, she was a producer for NBC News and online contributor for MSNBC.com. Naqvi is serving as an expert commentator for the Citizen Media competition.
Changemakers: Can you tell us about how Gawaahi was started?
Naqvi: Our first project was the website Gawaahi.com. The co-founder and I wanted to create a platform that was crowdsourced, but not news-based; that was the basic idea behind it. Now, as you know, every idea needs fuel to get it going. So we had grants from Take Back the Tech, the Pakistan Software Houses Association, Voices for All, and Deutsche Welle, the German media house.
With these grants, we created this site to publish our own videos and blog about sexual abuse, minority rights, and women’s human rights in Pakistan. We started with a stockpile of videos and blogs like that, and then we started talking to people.
We used Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites to call for submissions on human rights issues. We went on television, on the radio, and we were also covered in print. We told survivors that we would protect their anonymity, and so many of our readers and followers become contributors as well.
Gawaahi’s video series, My Pakistan, featured young, everyday Pakistanis speaking out about their vision for their country.
Changemakers: How does storytelling translate later into activism?
Naqvi: I think that just telling a story is a form of activism because you are speaking out. Once you have spoken out or emerged in a virtual reality, I believe you can then bring that activism into more mainstream or conventional modes, such as street activism.
We started with telling stories of child abuse. First we had our own stories — I have my own story in there as well. We used an innovative, multimedia medium of slide shows so that a person could maintain anonymity and still tell a compelling story through the use of photographs and audio.
"Ordinary Pakistanis are desperate for the world to understand what it is that they go through every single day. They really want a more sympathetic audience than they feel they have."
What I think that this did for a lot of people was that it encouraged them to come forward. A lot of survivors came to tell their stories through us. We discovered later — through their comments, email, or their work for Gawaahi later on — that they were visiting other sites dedicated to preventing child abuse, or volunteering for NGOs that did this kind of work.
Changemakers: On the global stage, we’ve seen how Pakistan is still experiencing waves of violence, including a suicide bombing that occurred earlier today. Has Gawaahi engaged its audience to address this violence?
Naqvi: Gaawahi’s advocacy campaigns that relate to religious persecution, for instance, work towards increasing tolerance in a society that is becoming more and more radicalized ever since September 11 and the militarization of the region.
And our most popular videos were the My Pakistan montages, a project that was aimed at getting young Pakistanis to think politically. We talked to kids from private schools, government schools, and universities. And we asked them what kind of Pakistan they wanted, what they thought of Pakistan as it was now.
I think it made the students feel that their voices mattered. It made them think politically.
For viewers, it showed that Pakistani kids had dreams just like kids anywhere else. For me, it revealed how traumatized kids are by the violence that surrounds them.
"Pakistan has been declared to be the most dangerous place in the world for journalists."
If someone had asked me the question, “What does Pakistan mean to you, and what do you want for Pakistan?” when I was at school, I would definitely not have said that I want a Pakistan where I’m not fearing a bomb blast every day.
Ordinary Pakistanis are desperate for the world to understand what it is that they go through every single day. They really want a more sympathetic audience than they feel they have.
Changemakers: In your view, what are the biggest challenges today for media in Pakistan?
Naqvi: The biggest challenge for the media in Pakistan right now, the most urgent issue, is the security of journalists. As you may know, Pakistan has been declared to be the most dangerous place in the world for journalists.
This is because of the recent killings of reporters who were exploring questions against the powerful military establishment, for instance, or the mafias of Karachi. Those killings have not gotten the kind of legal attention that was needed. This gives rise to more insecurity for journalists.
It’s like a cycle where journalists start living in fear, and they become more insecure. However, it becomes more important to report on these kinds of incidents, because perhaps it would keep some kind of check and balance in place, which seems to be missing at the moment.
And there is of course the reporting from gun battles, like those that take place in Karachi every day. I know people who are reporters that I follower on Twitter who are right there in the middle of it, working in those conditions. So that for me, is the biggest challenge for the media right now – their own security.
Apart from that, for online journalists, the arbitrary banning of sites by the government is a problem.
Print is facing similar problems here as elsewhere in the world, with more and more people focusing on television here in Pakistan. At the same time, I’ll say that there are papers opening up shop here, so that’s a very interesting phenomenon.
Changemakers: What are the most promising trends or tools in on the horizon of Pakistan’s media space? What does the future of media in Pakistan look like?
Naqvi: Pakistanis are really looking at the new media right now as something they want to explore. They are very excited about it. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube – it’s unimaginable the world that these sites have created for ordinary people to tell their stories. Pakistan has about five million Facebook users.
I, for obvious reasons, am deeply invested in online media. For Gawaahi, we wouldn’t be anything if we didn’t have the Internet behind our communication technology. While online journalism has a precarious position in Pakistan, I do believe that the future is very, very bright there.
And I don’t think I’m the only one. Very recently in Karachi, we held the first social media summit of Pakistan, which was organized by the U.S. consulate and a whole bunch of other corporations. They clearly believed that it was worth the effort to bring together all of the prominent bloggers, microbloggers, tweeters, and so on to come together and engage in dialogue and workshops.
In addition, mobile technology is an untapped tool with great potential in Pakistan, where 65 percent of the population owns a mobile phone. So that’s another additional medium that has great power and influence.
Changemakers: Finally, do you have any advice for growing social innovators in citizen media?
Naqvi: I would say: find a plan that works for you. Gawaahi is a testament to how amazing social innovation is right now, and how much can be done through the use of social media and the new media. We created Gawaahi.com in a hostile environment, at a time when spaces to challenge injustice were shrinking.
We created something that we thought would give a platform to people that were working against those norms that were emerging in our society, and that were completely alien to us. We created this platform for those voices to come together and have some dialogue. So for you, you should do what works for you, in your context. Don’t be afraid. And let your project grow to follow its organic evolution.