‘The journalists who are currently imprisoned in Khartoum are my spiritual guides. Despite all the shit that has happened to them, they have chosen not to settle for the life they know.’
Leon Willems enters the café in the Amsterdam neighbourhood of De Pijp and waves his Blackberry under the nose of the interviewer: ‘Take a look at this.’
Images from Syria, similar to those we saw recently in other Arab countries: streets and squares full of protesters. Mostly men. Mostly young. They are waving flags. ‘For me, this is the most interesting thing we have seen so far. Syria is so incredibly repressive. The whole Arab world has the Mukharabat [secret service/intelligence agency, adj], but Syria has an extremely totalitarian regime, one that can be compared to Saddam’s Iraq of the 1980s and ’90s. The country is kept under a reign of terror, of fear. In Damascus, if you stand in front of a building and stay there for longer than two minutes, somebody will come to check your passport to see what you’re up to.’
Willems has been following the Middle East since the 1980s, when he travelled around the region and filmed in the Palestinian areas – right before the Intifada. It just goes to show: ‘That people in Syria take to the streets even while they know that they run an enormous risk of getting arrested or shot, that’s… that’s fantastic! That’s the greatest thing that can happen in the Arab world. That the people themselves declare: “We’ve had enough. No more. We won’t have it anymore!”.’
Willems will be leading the new organisation that is the result of a merger between media organisations Free Voice, Press Now and parts of RNTC, the expertise centre for media, education and development. The new NGO has no lack of plans, building on the heritage of the different organisations.
Wouldn’t you prefer to pick up a camera and go to North Africa yourself?
‘We are going, but we won’t be filming ourselves. In May, we will be organising a conference in Cairo, with journalists from ten Arab countries – mainly to hear what they want from us. We had already staked our cards on doing more in the Arab world, but now the need for such activity has become even more urgent.’ The Free Voice training centre in Egypt has already handled 1,500 students. According to Willems, this has created an extensive network, with contacts throughout the Arab world. ‘There were trainings with legal advice about what is possible within the law. It turned out that a lot more was possible than we thought. In all repressive regimes, the freedom of the press is more often determined by self-censorship than by state censorship. To function, the repressive apparatus depends on fear. People themselves limit what they can do, so those in power aren’t challenged and the available scope for action isn’t fully exploited.’
Dark Side of the Internet
The new organisation has made choices, which were inspired in part by the need to reduce costs. According to Willems, 40 partner countries will remain. ‘This includes the whole of Central Asia and the entire fragile region of Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.’
In 2009, a journalist in Kyrgyzstan was thrown from the sixth floor with taped hands and feet by a number of those classic ex-Soviet leather jackets, but he was only one of the journalists that were murdered in those parts.
‘This is an issue throughout the entire former Soviet Union. Our contribution lies in the fact that we can prevent these leather jackets from knowing whose mouths they can tape shut and whose hands and feet they can bind, by ensuring that people can share information with others without getting discovered. It’s a big problem. A lot of information is thrown online without people knowing what they’re doing. The Internet has a very dark side. Everyone leaves behind a digital trail that can be used to trace you. There was an enormous wave of arrests in Iran after the election riots, because people had used Twitter or had shared information via some other route. You can teach them how to erase their digital tracks. We will be setting up a separate unit that will focus fully on this issue and that will be helping the individual journalists. Not everyone is thrown out of a window; many journalists are also beaten or intimidated in some other way. Their equipment is confiscated.
'YOU CAN’T SIMPLY SAY: FROM NOW ON, YOU WILL COMMUNICATE FREELY. NO, PEOPLE ACHIEVE THIS THEMSELVES, AND WHAT YOU CAN DO IS OFFER A HELPING HAND.'
We will be offering tailored assistance that helps these people to continue working. Limited bureaucracy; very simple. Bam. Has your computer been confiscated? We’ll make sure that you get a new computer.’ Besides the Arab world and the vast Central Asian region, there are other points of attention: ‘The missing link between traditional and new media. The two need to understand each other better. With the proliferation of social media, it’s quite an effort to discover how you can still engage in quality journalism. One of the problems faced by many traditional journalists is that they have missed this whole development – of social media. They aren’t connected. Yes, this is also an issue here. Perhaps the Editor-in-Chief of NRC Next is connected – only just. However…’ Willems starts to doubt his own statement, ‘he’s a philosopher.’
‘Democratisation, the movement towards greater press freedom – these are processes that you can’t impose from the outside. You can’t simply say: from now on, you will communicate freely. No, people achieve this themselves, and what you can do is offer a helping hand. In the new organisation, we need to combine Free Voice’s development aid experience and its branched networks with Press Now’s ability to set up press initiatives in the most unlikely countries, like Radio Zamaneh in Iran and Radio Dabanga in Darfur. RNTC complements the two, as it is one of the world’s strong organisations in the field of community media. RNTC has never worked in a hot war, but it has worked more in post-conflict countries in recent years. RNTC’s strength lies in setting up curricula – at universities for instance. Combined, this means we will have considerable clout.’
One of the organisation’s main objectives is increased participation on the part of the general public. Willems: ‘Via traditional community media projects, but we also want to focus more on children – particularly girls. We will be setting up projects with Plan and War Child. The Dutch Jeugdjournaal (Youth News Bulletin) is a very strong and popular model. From the moment we roll out this format in a specific country, there’s a Youth News department within a matter of eighteen months, be it with a private or public television partner.’
‘The differences between Free Voice and Press Now are only easily understood by connoisseurs. Free Voice was set up as a development organisation, a kind of Oxfam for the media world. Press Now was founded in 1993, during the war in Bosnia, to support individual journalists. Not much later, this support was extended to virtually the whole of South-Eastern Europe. The roots of Press Now lay more in conflict areas; in actively supporting independent journalists with safe houses and opportunities to publish their work. Free Voice was focused more on developing the media sector in the Global South – the least developed, poor countries of the world.
In the course of the merger talks, you met with an unwelcome surprise.
‘We let each other’s accountants check the books, which brought some less clear matters to light. At Free Voice, serious financial problems were becoming increasingly manifest: the organisation was close to bankruptcy.’
What would Free Voice’s ceasing operations have meant for Press Now?
‘There wouldn’t have been a merger. You can call the whole operation to a halt, or you can say: if various conditions are met and if we make rigorous adjustments, we will be able to save Free Voice’s work for the future.’
This was followed last year by a bailout and a reorganisation. ‘The board members have stepped down. We took action with regard to the financial administration and there were lay-offs. We took a number of painful measures to bring it to a good end.’ Willems stops talking. ‘What does that look mean?’
Seven people were laid off, even though they had nothing to do with the financial mismanagement.
‘That applies to any organisation that’s in financial straights. It’s terrible, but a bankrupt Free Voice wouldn’t have been any use to these people either. The priority was to settle the projects as effectively as possible. Jan Bonjer, the Interim Managing Director of Free Voice, tried to get the best deal for everyone out of the situation. That’s the bottom line.’
Attack by the Iranian Cyber Army
At Press Now, Willems, together with Hildebrand Bijleveld, set up Radio Dabanga, a Netherlands-based radio station that serves listeners in Darfur. He is clearly proud of the station: ‘Every day, two million Darfuri listen to Dabanga and the credibility rating is comparable to what is achieved over here by NOS. It is the station that the public tunes in to in times of crisis.’ Both Willems and Bijleveld have since been declared persona non grata in Northern Sudan. Zamaneh, the web radio broadcasts that focus on Iran, are also made in the Netherlands. ‘Sixty percent of its listeners are found in Iran, despite attempts by the Iranian Cyber Army to shut down the station. Last year, Zamaneh was off air for a couple of days.’
Encouraging a free press is occasionally at odds with personal safety. In Khartoum, people were arrested who were trained by your organisation.
‘The biggest problem in Sudan was the lack of a safe distribution. We have arranged trainings aimed at doing everything more safely; at making the network untraceable. Despite these efforts, people were arrested.’
What’s their current situation like?
Bad. They’re still in prison.’
Another example: the Youth News broadcasts in Afghanistan. The Editor-in-Chief was forced to leave the country. That has to be a drawback of your work. That you are actually encouraging people to endanger their own lives.
‘Well, that’s laying it on very thick, in my opinion, but it’s true that the work is dangerous. And it is only becoming more so throughout the world. We give everyone a safety training, but ultimately, it’s up to them. Where one draws the line in ethical terms is that people should personally choose the kind of work they do. I would stop immediately if journalists started engaging in dangerous activity because they felt we forced them to do so. That’s a code of honour.’
Do you lie awake at night when you get a message like that?
Willems becomes emotional. ‘Yes, when you get a message like that, you do. When you read that someone who you personally discovered has been tortured, you get a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach. As long as he’s in there, I feel awful. But I don’t have a moral dilemma. I have had endless discussions with him and I know that he is fully convinced that this is what he wants. We put an incredible amount of energy in their defence. People have been relocated to safer areas. We do everything we can. During my travels throughout America, Europe, the Arab world, this is the very first thing I discuss: these people need to be freed. We really want the Red Cross to visit the prison in order to examine them, but we are presently in the absurd situation that the interest in Darfur has waned to such an extent that organisations like the Red Cross and Human Rights Watch [to which one would turn for help in such cases, adj] come to us to find out what is going on, since they no longer have any people left there themselves. As little as four years ago Aart Zeeman and Tineke Ceelen managed to organise a very important campaign [for Darfur, adj]. We are networking ourselves silly, but despite this, the region can’t manage to capture the spotlight.’
‘One of the most difficult aspects of our job,’ says Willems, ‘is to translate what it means to live in fear, like in Tajikistan or Zimbabwe. Not knowing what tomorrow will bring. Someone once stole my heart by putting it this way. Imagine: you’re nine years old. Your mother has been raped in front of your eyes. Your sister has been murdered. You father has gone missing. You yourself have climbed on the back of a truck, and you don’t know anyone. You can’t read or write, since you’ve never been to school. Imagine. These are real situations that occur on a daily basis in Darfur. Seventy-five thousand IDPs [internally displaced persons, adj] in Darfur in the last two months, hundreds of dead and dozens of bombings. I have seen the ambition of people who despite everything want to inform people about what is going on. They serve as my guiding principle. The journalists who are presently imprisoned in Khartoum are my spiritual guides. Despite all the shit that has happened to them, they have chosen not to settle for the life they know. That’s what I hold on to. That’s why I’m working in this field and why it has stolen my heart.
To get back to your question whether I presently wouldn’t like to film in North Africa myself: yes, I would. But I think that today, I’m making a more valuable contribution than when I went to Syria with a camera on my shoulder. I think that’s what drives everyone working at Press Now, Free Voice and RNTC.’