‘Gawaahi’: A Portal for Pakistani Stories

Gawaahi debuted two months ago but is already receiving recognition for its coverage of underreported stories about Pakistanis. The founders started the citizen journalism project because of their belief that space for “alternative voices” in the country is shrinking.

By Sonya Rehman

In the aftermath of the assassinations of Governor Salmaan Taseer and Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, Gawaahi, a new citizen journalism project here started covering the movement that sprang up to oppose religious extremism. A page on the Web portal follows the activities of the Citizens for Democracy, a loose coalition of citizens that formed to call on public officials to “take a clear stand on the blasphemy issue.”

As its promotion of activists like Citizens for Democracy suggests, Gawaahi does not “aim to become a news site,” says co-founder Naveen Naqvi. Instead, she explains, Gawaahi (Urdu for “to stand witness”) strives to depict underreported stories that mainstream Pakistani media neglects. Naqvi hopes the project will elevate the voices of people and issues that get marginalized by traditional journalism outlets.

“Spaces are shrinking for alternative voices,” she says.

A focus on storytelling

“We want to share people’s stories,” stresses Naqvi. “Kids off the streets of Karachi. A peasant farmer from Qambar Shahdad Kot. A young woman who was molested at the age of eight and has survived to share the tale with us as a young woman. An acid survivor from the interior of Punjab. A woman displaced because of a landslide in the Hunza valley. These are the stories you will find on Gawaahi.”

While the mission of Gawaahi isn’t to function as a government watchdog, Naqvi believes the site offers a window into the issues and challenges faced by Pakistanis that deserve attention.

“We could be a resource for donor agencies, NGOs, media houses, governments and individuals who are interested in Pakistan’s socio-economic issues,” says Naqvi.

Coaching the citizen journalist

To solicit contributions, Gawaahi relies mostly on Facebook and Twitter. Gawaahi announces themes such as Pakistan Day and Women’s Day (in March) to inspire its readers to send in submissions. The website’s content is generated primarily from its readers, raising the question of whether a journalistic standard is applied to its articles/videos/images.

Naqvi says they look for “authenticity” when evaluating submissions: “To vet our entries, we like to interact with our contributors, including those who are published in anonymity. It gives us the opportunity to learn more about them as people, find new details to their stories, and judge the authenticity of the submission.”

The website provides those hoping to get their work published with a step-by-step guide on how to make the most of their video or story. Naqvi hopes that by offering such guidance the project “can help citizen journalists meet ‘professional’ standards.”

A portrait of a woman from the Kailash Valley submitted to Gawaahi by Misha Tanveer for their celebration of the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day on March 8th, 2011.

A showcase for video

Reviewing Gawaahi’s content, it’s clear that the website’s video stories truly are its defining selling point. While local citizen journalism websites focus on stories and images, the integration of video in these portals is still a relatively new concept in Pakistan. Naqvi believes that these video stories are immensely valuable.

“Be it the digital stories of abuse that we have received as submissions, the video of the acid survivor shared by the Acid Survivors Foundation, or the montages of school children  describing their thoughts on Pakistan, it is the most effective way to spark the interest of a website visitor,” says Naqvi. “Our analytics prove that every day. Digital storytelling through video is the future.”

Although it is barely two months old, the site is already being recognized for the quality of its content. It was nominated in the Best Social Activism Campaign and Best English Blog categories of the prestigious Deutsche Welle Blog awards , which honor excellence in blogging around the world.

Speedy beginnings

Naqvi created Gawaahi with co-founder Sana Saleem. They received micro-grants from groups supporting women’s access to technology at TakeBackTheTech! (including from PASHA, Bytes4All, APC WNSP). The German media company Deutsche Welle  has also funded the project. After receiving the grants, it only took a month to launch Gawaahi.

“We had already developed some content, and felt that once our site was published, visitors of the site would become contributors, and that is exactly what happened,” says Naqvi.

Given Gawaahi’s community conscious content, how do the founders plan on reaching those without computers and the Internet? Naqvi counters that the team is “in the midst of setting up Gawaahi the NGO.”

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