Christopher Schuepp, who looks like a blonde surfer and hails from Germany, was living in Krygyzstan, in Central Asia, when he discovered the impact journalism produced by young people can have in a developing country. He was working for the American non-governmental organization Internews Network, helping local journalists set up radio stations and start newspapers in the former republic of the Soviet Union, when the United Nation’s Children’s Fund (commonly known as UNICEF, for whom I also consult) said they wanted to fund a youth radio station in the region. Schuepp agreed to help set it up and train the young journalists. “Batken, the city in the South of Kyrgyzstan, where we set up the station, got independent news and quality entertainment for the first time ever through this station,” remembers Schuepp. “Young people, old people—everybody loved the station. That was the first time I really saw what a huge difference young people can make by using the media.”
Schuepp knew that media projects like the one at Internews were becoming increasingly common abroad, partly due to the 1999 Oslo Challenge, the call to action documented at the 10th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Challenge asks countries to ensure, among other things, that young people participate in media production, as a way of protecting their rights. So when Schuepp left Internews to run Young People’s Media Network (YPMN), a UNICEF youth media service in the Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States, he started a listserv to spark discussion and collaboration among the growing number of youth media makers in the region.
Though initially the “Youthful Media” listserv focused on Europe and Central Asia, it quickly grew to attract participants from around the globe. In the four years since its launch, Youthful Media has grown to 600 members who share information daily. It remains part of YPMN, where Schuepp continues to moderate it, and receives funding from United Nations agencies, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and local groups.
While American youth media organizations have struggled getting similar electronic dialogues going, Youthful Media is very active—about two or three members post notices daily. The posts, most which are in English, range from articles on recent research and trends related to young people and the media; to calls for entries for film festivals, media projects, and papers for academic conferences; to straightforward press releases about youth media projects. Some posts parallel discussions common to North American youth media makers—a group in Ireland recently announced its efforts to address the stereotyping of youth in its media. But others reveal that youth media abroad—a local radio show in Liberia, a school newspaper from Kosovo, or a children’s video in China—often plays a different role internationally than it does in the United States, especially in countries where press freedoms are curtailed, access to information is limited, and human rights are violated.
War and conflict play a particularly significant role in shaping the international youth media movement. According to a November post on the Youthful Media listserv, in the last decade alone, two million children have died as the result of war. Another four million children have been disabled, according to the post, and hundreds of thousands serve as child soldiers. About half of all refugees worldwide are under 18, resulting in approximately 25 million children who, as a result of war, have been displaced from their homes.
In some of the African countries mired in conflict, radio has traditionally been used to incite violence. In Rwanda, ruthless leaders used the broadcast system the Rwandan Libre des Mille Collines to urge countrymen to take part in the 1994 genocide. A guidebook recently linked to on Youthful Media listserv, “Youth Radio for Peacebuilding,” walks youth media makers in Africa—where at least 120,000 children are in armed forces, according to the guide—through the steps of reclaiming the airways for peace. The guide details how to produce youth radio programming that will engage armed young people and help foster peace in the region. Its chapters include titles like, “Who is your Target Audience?,” “Inter-generational Partnerships,” and “Rights and Responsibilities.”
Young journalists in conflict-ridden Liberia are already on the air, challenging and questioning their government’s actions that deny children their basic rights, like the right to attend school. The young broadcasters of Kids Talk, a youth media initiative that runs its shows over West Africa’s Star Radio, appeal to the government to lift school fees and advocate to free Liberian children from the cycle of poverty and violence caused by the country’s ongoing conflict. The show’s youth journalists have also interviewed government officials, and with the clarity of youth. They even asked the Liberian Head of State Minister of Defense Chairman Gyude Bryant, why he was booed by the crowds, something a Liberian journalist might hesitate to do.
Covering issues the local press may be reluctant to vocalize signifies much youth media abroad. “It is always easier for children to report on some issues that might be ‘sensitive’ for adult reporters, because children ‘can get away with more,'” says Schuepp. Still, although the U.N.’s Rights of the Child officially gave children the right to information and expression, says Schuepp, “it’s not realistic to expect children to have the right to information in a country where even adults don’t have that right.”
When tackling controversial subjects in areas with political upheaval, youth media educators must take extra precautions to make sure they are not putting young journalists in dangerous positions. To that end, Schuepp casts YPMN in non-threatening terms—he calls it a “creativity project”—and has its coverage include relatively benign subjects, like arts and health. Using tactics like this, says Schuepp, “even in a restrictive environment you can work with kids and media without getting in trouble with the government.”
Ultimately, says Schuepp, the youth media projects that have the most impact in helping countries heal from conflict and move toward peace are the ones that focus their efforts locally, like the one recently described on Youthful Media listserv in Bosnia-Hertzogovenia, where radio and television stations in the public service are now required by law to produce programming in ethnic minority languages, but none have. At the Media Plan Institute of Sarajevo, youth journalists recently recorded the first radio programming in Roma ever.
It’s the lessons learned through local initiative like this one that ultimately fuel dialogue in the larger international youth media field. “The stronger the local communities of young media makers are,” says Schuepp, “the better the exchange through the international network, everywhere.”
Maya Dollarhide is a freelance writer and has worked for the past several years as a consultant for the United Nations Children’s Fund.
Above left: At a workshop in Maldives, Christopher Schuepp looks on as participant Vishal Mohamed from Malé films a scene for an anti-drugs video. View the resulting one-minute film here: http://www.theoneminutesjr.org.