Traditional and social media are essential advocacy and accountability tools. Over the last four years members working on the Claim Your Water Rights campaign across various countries, continents and contexts have made extensive and creative use of different media to inform people of their rights, influence government decisions and empower communities to secure tangible improvements to water and sanitation services. In some countries, members have achieved this despite significant obstacles to press freedoms. Members have worked effectively with journalists, utilising written media, television, and press conferences to publicise human rights violations and pressure governments to fulfil their obligations. Many find that community radio is a particularly effective medium for reaching both rural and urban communities. Others turn to digital campaigning with WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook being popular platforms for sharing information, connecting activists, organising events and mobilising public support.
The global state of journalism and mitigating press censorship
Reporters Without Borders’ UK bureau director Fiona O’Brien started by providing an overview of the global state of journalism. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) maintains a global index that monitors the political, cultural, and socio-economic factors affecting press freedom in 180 countries and territories. In recent years RSF has witnessed a deterioration with press freedom classified as “bad” in seven in ten countries.
O’Brien attributed this regression to wider trends, such as the “shrinkage of democratic values”, the “emboldening of authoritarian regimes”, and the “erosion of civil liberties in the name of national security”. The risks journalists face are wide-ranging: from hostile rhetoric to imprisonment. Legal systems have been increasingly weaponised to intimidate and silence journalists through lawsuits and gagging orders (‘lawfare’). Meanwhile rapid changes in technology have made it easier to spread disinformation online and harass journalists (and their families). This harassment is often violent and gendered, with women receiving the majority of death- and rape-threats. O’Brien said law enforcement responses vary from country to country but most governments and social media platforms have not taken adequate action to prevent attacks against journalists.
While acknowledging that avoiding these threats can often be very difficult, O’Brien highlighted some mitigations available to journalists and civil society. RSF help journalists cope with technological threats by providing digital hygiene and security training to limit surveillance as well as exposure to intimidation and violence. Gathering data and examples of press repression provides an evidence base for RSF’s advocacy, which focuses on urging governments and international bodies to enhance legal frameworks that protect journalists and combat impunity. O’Brien ended by emphasising the need to expose and publicise violations: “A lot of crimes against journalists go unpunished. And when no one is held responsible, that creates a culture in which further perpetrations are possible.”
Using the media to inform: exposing corporate impunity through digital campaigning in Thailand
Since 2017 Manushya Foundation has supported the Phichit people’s legal fight against Akara Resources, a subsidiary of Australian mining company Kingsgate, who contaminated the community’s water and environment by opening Chatree Goldmine in 2001. As part of Claim Your Water Rights, Manushya Foundation is leading a digital #JusticeForPhichit campaign on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn to raise awareness of the class action lawsuit and take action by donating to the community’s legal fund and signing petitions to the Thai government and UN Special Procedures.
Manushya Foundation’s feminist campaigner for corporate accountability and climate justice, Shaan Bajaj, shared practical advice on conducting an effective digital campaign. Bajaj described social media as a tool to “hold companies accountable, create transparency and apply pressure on governments and corporations to comply with International Human Rights Standards”. One advantage of digital campaigning is that it allows civil society to tailor messages to specific audiences. In the case of #JusticeForPhichit this means targeting Manushya Foundation’s young, tech-savvy following with reliable, well-sourced information and clear calls to action.
Another advantage of social media is its immediacy: “you’re able to mobilise people to take action instantly”, said Bajaj. Yet social media users’ scrolling habits and “limited attention spans” make conveying complex stories of injustice a challenge. To accommodate this, Bajaj recommends creating engaging messages and eye-catching graphics or videos that capture people’s attention within six seconds as well as timing posts that optimise the different algorithms used by social media platforms. Other challenges – spam, targeted reporting, cyber-bullying, and hate-speech – can be harder to negate, particularly in countries that have strict defamation laws like Thailand.
Strengthening independent, impartial journalism
BBC Media Action is the British national broadcaster’s international charity. It works with more than 200 local media partners across 23 countries to provide information that helps communities understand and engage with the world around them, reaching 120 million people in the last year alone.
The BBC’s editorial values underpin the charity’s work. BBC Media Action’s head of communications Carolynne Wheeler emphasised the necessity of delivering trustworthy, independent, and impartial journalism at a time of enclosing civic space. These values are made even more precious – and precarious – by increasing legal and financial pressures: “you can’t have an independent press if they can’t pay their bills”, Wheeler noted.
To strengthen independent, impartial journalism, BBC Media Action partner with local broadcasters to offer training on a range of topics: from production skills to audience insight, from investigative techniques to fact-checking and countering disinformation. “We don’t do advocacy”, said Wheeler. “We support local communities and media houses to create platforms for discussion and debate. We help people to understand their rights and responsibilities so they can advocate for themselves.”
Yet most journalists would consider themselves advocates, according to Wheeler. BBC Media Action’s journalist-mentors apply their skills to a range of issues including gender equality, human rights and WASH. Wheeler likened media influencing to “behaviour change for politicians” where discerning decision-makers’ influences, interests and motivation is key to understanding what arguments will land. Wheeler stressed the role of civil society expertise in supporting journalism as well as the importance of providing communities with a platform to hold leaders accountable: “The best advocates are the people themselves.”
Boyd Chibale works as a senior journalist-mentor for BBC Media Action in Zambia. His role involves collaborating with young people and local media to foster democratic participation and legal reform on issues of press freedom like access to information and political interference.
Chibale shared a story that “proves the power of the media in championing a social cause”. Working with community radio stations is one of the most accessible ways of airing issues that directly affect communities. From 2015 to 2019 Breeze FM – one of Zambia’s 145 private or community radio stations – broadcast a series of programmes centred on social development issues in Eastern Province, 550km east of Lusaka. Although Zambia contains 40% of southern Africa’s freshwater bodies, many people still live without drinking water, particularly in rural areas. This was the case in Chipangali constituency in Chipata, where contaminated water led to constant intestinal diseases.
Breeze FM’s programmes enabled affected communities to hold a dialogue with authorities, asking questions and demanding answers. The story started gaining prominence as communities escalated complaints to leaders at local, district, provincial and finally national level. Members of parliament, council representatives and ministers eventually became involved and 1.4 million Kwacha (around $50,000) was released to rectify the situation.
However, this money was either misappropriated or misused. It took close to five years of determined reporting before rural water issues finally became a political priority. In July 2019 Breeze FM covered the story once more, broadcasting a discussion with councillors accompanied by an investigative report. The story was subsequently picked up by local papers and in September 2019 the council procured a rigging machine via Zambia’s Constituency Development Fund to drill boreholes that were deep enough to avoid contamination. People in Chipangali now have running water and there has been a reduction in intestinal diseases. Chibale concluded that “without constant programming by community radio stations with the help of BBC Media Action, this story would not be what it is today.”
Using the media to influence: spotlighting the water and climate crisis through community radio and broadcast coverage in Pakistan
Integrated Regional Support Program (IRSP) has participated in the Claim Your Water Rights campaign since its inception in late 2019. In 2021 IRSP director Syed Shah Nasir visited communities living around Manchar, Pakistan’s largest freshwater lake, to highlight its contamination and depletion. IRSP collaborated with local journalists to publicise communities’ experiences while calling on provincial and federal governments to take special measures to protect Pakistan’s freshwater sources, generating a tranche of broadcast and written coverage in national and international media – including the BBC.
IRSP also campaign for access to clean water in girls’ schools and for local government in Sindh province to spend the budget allocated to water and sanitation instead of diverting funds to other sectors. In all these campaigns IRSP carefully designed their media and communications strategy to avoid conflict with government officials, who perceive there to be “a very thin line between agitation and education”.
Like Chibale, Shah Nasir underlined the effectiveness of community radio. While town hall meetings, placards and posters are useful ways of distributing campaign messages, Shah Nasir described community radio as a “far more cost effective” way of reaching thousands of people instantly. Though social media also allows for direct engagement, it doesn’t always foster meaningful dialogue. More pertinently platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are not widely used in rural Pakistan, where literacy rates tend to be lower and there is little access to television. Having organised and appeared on multiple shows in recent years, Shah Nasir described community radio as a “two-way communication” between duty-bearers and communities with programmes broadcast in local languages to ensure that more people can listen and participate. As far as Shah Nasir is concerned, “community radio is the number one option!”
Using the media to empower: mainstreaming human rights through documentaries in Madagascar
Practical advice for working with the media
- Consider which media organisations you approach: are they working in the public interest or have they been co-opted by certain corporate or political agendas? If you’re unsure, get in touch with BBC Media Action’s local offices and partners.
- When pitching a story, combine a good hook and strong storytelling angle with reliable facts, solid stats, and suggestions for interviewees.
- Consider your audience. If you’re pitching stories that aren’t being accepted, don’t be afraid to have a frank conversation with editors to ask what stories they’re after.
- Do not compromise the truth or misrepresent people at the heart of your story. Media organisations and civil society should always centre the dignity, agency and voices of communities.
- Recognise your own expertise. Media organisations should proactively seek civil society knowledge, analysis and research to strengthen their journalism.
- Increase your social media following. Journalists use social media as a way of sourcing information gauging public interest in a story. Try to post daily at high traffic hours, which tend to be when people are commuting to and from work and during lunch hours. Utilise social media platforms like Instagram and Tik Tok to reach younger populations.
- Film evidence if it is safe to do so. Always keep the original video or audio on your phone as this contains meta data (i.e. the time and date of filming), which can be crucial when gathering evidence for investigations.
- Contact Watershed Investigations if you have a story that you think needs to be investigated and exposed in the mainstream media. Watershed can spend time digging into statistics and speaking to communities to see how the issue affects people on the ground. Watershed is particularly interested in stories of pollution, privatisation and water grabbing.
Links and resources
- Lessons from Claim Your Water Rights 2019-2022 (see especially p.21-22)
- End Water Poverty progress report 2020-2022 (see especially p.18)
- RSF Press Freedom Index
- Register for RSF’s newsletter
- Subscribe to BBC Media Action’s newsletter
- International Fund for Public Media Interest
- CIVICUS media handbook