'Afghan Voices' Trains Youth As Journalists

TV cameras rarely show Afghan journalists telling stories about Afghan people, particularly away from the war. In an attempt to change that, former ABC News producer James Blue is starting a project that trains young Afghans to produce video stories for Afghan TV and international media. To learn more about the Afghan Voices project, host Michel Martin speaks with Blue and Afghan journalism student Moneer Neyazi.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

Coming up, the U.S. State Department is trying to encourage immigrants to go beyond sending money to the folks back home to investing in projects back home, like hospitals and schools. How convincing is the pitch? We'll try to find out in a few minutes.

But, first, to Afghanistan. Now, we've all seen the television images of the war correspondents suited up in protective gear, imbedded with the military, reporting from the frontlines of Herat or Kandahar. But rarely do the cameras show actual Afghan reporters telling stories about the Afghan people.

Now leaders of a new project are trying to change that. It's called Afghan Voices. And a group of young Afghans are getting trained in journalism 101. The young reporters produce stories for Afghan television and international media outlets like the Global Post. Here's part of a story following the death of Osama bin Laden. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It will affect the security of Afghanistan. I think the security of Afghanistan will become better after this.

MARTIN: Moneer Neyazi is one of the young journalists who produced the piece you just heard. He joins us on the phone from Bamiyan, Afghanistan. Also with us is James Blue. He's the executive producer of the Afghan Voices project. He's a former journalist for ABC News and, it has to be said, my former colleague. And he joins by phone from New York. Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.

MONEER NEYAZI: Thank you for having us.

JAMES BLUE: Thanks for having us. Thanks.

MARTIN: Now, Moneer, let's start with you. So, what made you want to participate in this project?

NEYAZI: First, we had this conference, and we met James there, and James and his partner, Naji Parifi(ph), started giving us information about what they are going to do. What they told and what they said kind of got me really interested in it.

MARTIN: James, where did the idea come from?

BLUE: The idea came from, you know, Michel, you've been a foreign correspondent and you've traveled all over. And whenever you go to these places, you always have to work with local people to say, help me do this, help me go there. And I was just really concerned that a lot of the stories that we get out of Afghanistan are completely focused on the military.

And I wanted to figure out, how could we tell stories about this place using Afghans - Afghans who speak English, Afghans who spent time in the U.S. and Afghans who have some sense of, you know, what people might be interested in?

All of these young people, having gone to high school, have all gotten the questions. You know, do you have Internet? Do you have television? Do you ride on a camel? You know, all of these crazy questions, which, you know, partly are being asked because so little of what happens in the country has been covered in the media.

MARTIN: And so tell me, again, who are the participants in the program? They're all...

BLUE: All the participants are young people who have and won the opportunity through a very intense competition to come to the U.S. as an exchange student. And they went to high school for a year. Moneer went to high school up in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania.

And basically what happened, after 9/11, the State Department was very concerned about trying to increase interaction between the Muslim world and the U.S. And so what they did is they created a program specifically trying to recruit young people from Muslim countries for them to come and have an experience in the U.S. It's called the Yes Program. And I think it has been particularly effective in trying to expose both Americans and expose youth from Muslim countries to life here.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

We're talking about Afghan Voices. That's a project that trains young Afghan men and women to tell the stories of everyday Afghans. It trains them as journalists. Our guests are Moneer Neyazi - he's one of the group's young reporters - and former ABC News journalist James Blue, the executive producer of the Afghan Voices project.

So let's play a clip from one of the other participants in the program. I think this is Mitra al-Kozai(ph). I think she's studying political science, and she's also working with Afghan Voices. And I just want to play a short clip of - you know, there's been a lot of conversation about the challenges that many Western women reporters have faced in reporting in the region. So this is - it's interesting to hear her perspective, as a girl reporting in her own, you know, home country. Here it is.

MITRA AL-KOZAI: Sometimes when I've been out with a group, people are saying very rude things to me, like you're an Afghan girl. You should not be working with these men right now. And I really sometimes feel scared. And it seems that it can even put my life in danger. But I'm ready to take any challenges, because this is how life is.

MARTIN: What about that, James? I mean, have some of the young journalists been faced with dangerous situations?

BLUE: I think they have been in slightly dangerous situations. I think, in particular for young women, the culture just isn't used to women sort of asking questions. The culture isn't also used to young people asking questions. But what I really want to say about Mitra, she has a wonderful spirit and capacity of dealing with people. And she decided to do a story on a policewoman that she met a few months ago. But she had many, many roadblocks. No one would tell her where this policewoman was assigned. She couldn't get the permit from either the Ministry of the Interior or the police department. No one really wanted to help facilitate her doing the story.

But, you know, with a lot of sort of chutzpah and with the support of her Afghan Voices colleagues, some of the men in the program, she went back. She went back six times to try to find out where this woman ended up. And, you know, the real sort of tragedy of the story, it turns out the police department have assigned this woman to kitchen duty. She's a trained police officer, she knows how to interrogate. She knows how to investigate, and the Afghan police department in Kabul have her cooking for them.

MARTIN: Hm. Wow. Moneer, what about some of the challenges you face with your reporting? You were out there reporting after the death of Osama bin Laden. Was that - how was that, as an experience? Was that interesting? Was it hard?

NEYAZI: It was really interesting, because that day, it was a breaking news, and everyone really wanted to talk about it. But we had a lot of different opinions from different people. So it was really interesting hearing some of them say that it's just a loss that he's been killed. And some of them were, like, it's great. We can have security here, and the security will get better.

So, yeah. It was interesting. But, yeah, I've faced challenges, I'll say. I was making this documentary for the competition to London about dating in Kabul. It was really, really challenging and kind of impossible to find a girl to interview on camera. Nobody would want to be on camera, because it's just - if their family finds out, they will be in trouble.

So I had to change my idea, and then I made a (technical difficulties) documentary on the intensity of Afghan love. But, yeah, the challenge is - there are challenges. They...

MARTIN: And was it that the girls didn't want to admit that they were dating or were interested in dating, or just appearing on camera at all was a taboo?

NEYAZI: Well, it's just they didn't want to admit that they were dating. They were dating, but they just didn't want to reveal it. They just want to keep it hidden.

MARTIN: So, what do you think, Moneer - do you think that you - you think that you want to stick with journalism? Or what are you thinking?

NEYAZI: I'm more interested in making documentaries than the news part.

MARTIN: James and I are laughing. We're thinking, join the club.

BLUE: Join the club.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLUE: And, you know, Michel, I got to give some props to Moneer. He told me, OK, I want to do this story on dating. I want to do a story on dating. And he went out, like, day after day after day, trying to find people to talk to him. And, you know, it was interesting. I said, Moneer, you know what? You got to, like, give this up, man, 'cause this story is just not happening. And he kept saying, no, no, no, James. I know I can get it. I know I can get it.

And eventually, he found this lovesick guy who has this girl who lives about 10 hours away and, you know, this guy gets texts from her. They talk on the phone. He send - she sends him poems. And it's a real lesson, I think, both for me and for Moneer, about determination. He had worked on this project for about three weeks and got nothing. And then in the final two days, he got this guy who's just sick over this woman.

And for me, what it really helps to show is how, as journalists and as storytellers, we just have to stick to our guns, and eventually we're going to get something.

MARTIN: Well, what's next for Afghan Voices?

BLUE: Well, good question. I think the next thing, we're hoping to get our four young people to London to participate in the London Open City Film Festival. And then I think the next sort of big thing we're going to try to do, we are really working with both the BBC and Al-Jazeera to try to get these stories on internationally.

MARTIN: That was going to be my question. Is there any way that we can see these pieces here in the U.S.?

BLUE: You can see some of the work on our website, and eventually we're going to start putting more of the stories on the Web.

MARTIN: James Blue is the executive producer of the group Afghan Voices and for much of the past year he's been training a group of young Afghans to report and produce video journalism. He joined us by phone from New York.

Moneer Neyazi is one of the young journalists in Afghan Voices. And he joined us from Bamiyan, Afghanistan where he's currently doing some reporting. Thank you both so much for joining us.

BLUE: Thank you.

NEYAZI: Thank you.

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