An Afghan journalist who fled after facing “serious issues with anti-government forces” is now a freelancer for Thomson Reuters Foundation after taking part in a non-profit project which helps refugees get back into the industry in the UK.
Zabihullah Noori told Press Gazette about his experience as the Refugee Journalism Project, run by the London College of Communication at the University of the Arts London, calls for participants to take part in its second round.
The project, which first launched with one year’s funding in 2016 and supported around 35 journalists, finds participants a UK-based mentor to offer advice and support with CVs, job applications, writing and networking.
Participants attend workshops on subjects from media law to mobile journalism organised by LCC and third parties like the Guardian Foundation, Google and Twitter.
They are also helped into paid internships or work experience, depending on their level of experience.
Many of the journalists who got involved previously came from Syria, with others from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Eritrea, Sudan, Cuba and Yemen – countries either with major conflicts or issues around freedom of the press.
Previous participant Zabihullah Noori, who moved to the UK in 2011 aged 36, was the news manager at Afghanistan’s most popular TV station, Tolo TV.
He told Press Gazette he had no option but to leave the country after coming up against “anti-government forces” but that when he tried to get back into journalism in the UK, “every effort led to disappointment”.
He said: “The biggest challenge I faced in finding work in journalism in the UK is the lack of connection.
“I spent most of my professional life in Afghanistan and the USA and had a good network of professionals there. When I came to the UK, my professional contacts did not exceed three to four people, some of whom were on various missions in other countries in Africa or the Middle East.
“I applied to various jobs in journalism from managerial positions to junior roles like assistants but barely heard back from any employers.”
Noori added: “Journalism in the UK is more about who you know in the industry rather than what you know.
“Professionalism comes second – networking, having connections, and knowing sources within the industry takes priority.”
This idea was seconded by Vivienne Francis, project director of the Refugee Journalism Project.
Of refugee journalists who arrive in the UK, she said: “My perception is you feel devalued, you feel you’re struggling to find your identity, you have spent many years building up your professional reputation only to have it worth basically nothing here, or feel that it’s worth nothing here.
“I think the way our media system operates is very different from many other countries so some of the other countries it’s an emphasis on qualifications whereas here it’s more about experience and having the ideas and who you know and the networks you can access.”
Noori joined the project’s pilot cohort, which he said helped him secure a freelance job with Thomson Reuters Foundation.
He said of the project: “It enriches one’s knowledge about how the industry works, creates a network of professionals within the industry, introduces participants to various media and journalism organisations that can offer placements and sometimes lead to long-term employment, and it opens various platforms to participants.”
Francis, a senior lecturer in journalism and publishing at LCC, told Press Gazette the inspiration for the project came when she was volunteering with the Migrant Resource Centre and noticed a number of experienced journalists who were struggling to re-establish their careers in the UK.
Francis, a former BBC producer, said: “We thought actually there should be something more meaningful that we can offer because of their level of skills, because it seemed a shame that they were not being able to utilise their skills.
“But also I felt it tied into the ongoing discussions around media diversity and the representation of marginalised group.
“I think at that particular time – it was around 2015 – migration and refugees were very much in the media and it just seemed a shame that we were sitting on this resource and their voices were not being heard within the media. They were being reported on, but they were not at the heart of the story in terms of producing the story themselves.”
However Francis emphasised refugee journalists in the UK should not be restricted to writing about stories relating to refugees and migrants, saying this would not enable them to build a long-term career.
“One of the really interesting things that we can do is encourage the publications that we work with to see them as journalists that just have a different perspective,” she said.
“So whether they’re writing about food, about music, about the environment, their voice offers a slightly different perspective.
“Yes it can be a way of accessing communities and telling stories that are difficult to access because I know that is a problem, I know some organisations have a problem accessing certain communities, and this can be a way in.
“But I think we’ve got to see their skills and their expertise as broader than that.”
In 2016, the project was funded by the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation. Its main funder is now the Open Society Foundation, with support from the Aziz Foundation, Google News Initative and London College of Communication.
Francis is now calling for participants and mentors for the next round, due to start in October.
Previous mentors include former Guardian foreign affairs reporter Patrick Kingsley, New Humanist editor Daniel Trilling, a number of BBC World Service journalists, and Matthew Barraclough, now head of BBC local news partnerships.
Speaking of one mentor, freelance Sally Hayden, Francis said: “Sally was working with a young Syrian guy and basically they did an investigation into people who are returning to Syria.
“Of course he can’t go back to Syria, but she can, but she wouldn’t have been able to without his contacts, so it worked really well and it was nominated for awards, so the mentoring relationship can be really productive for both sides.”
Picture: Vivienne Francis