Cagayan de Oro City, The Philippines (13 January 2020) – Having lived through the horrors of the Marawi siege and its chaotic aftermath two years ago, Jamal Yassin, 32, saw a backlash against their Muslim community, the Maranao people, that outsiders knew too well – theirs is a community ridden with violence. But he intends to bury this along with the rubbles left by the war as he sets to re-write this poor impression non-Muslims have of their community.

Jamal teaches sports education in a public high school, some 45 minutes away from Marawi City. He is aware that he is in a position to influence how people think. For him, changing the narrative is key to this shift in perspective.

That the Maranaos pride themselves as royal heirs of a rich tradition of narrating stories, it was only natural that volunteers from UN-Habitat’s Rebuilding Marawi Shelter and Livelihood Project took on roles as citizen journalists and storytellers. Jamal devotes his weekends for this Project.

A mix of 20 students, out-of-school youth, parents, teachers, nurses, and community leaders participated in a four-day workshop last December 2019 in Cagayan de Oro City that tackled topics on writing for social media, citizen journalism, basic photojournalism, and basic video production and editing.

Participants of the citizen journalism workshop held in CDO last December 2019

This was part of the many facets of the Project’s community-driven approach that places people at the heart of their recovery. In keeping with this, the workshop was aimed at empowering the Maranaos to write and tell their own stories instead of other people speaking or telling their stories for them.

“This is a very timely activity,” said Jamal. “With the ever-expanding digital landscape, anyone can share and report information online anytime and anywhere. I know for a fact that it is not without its downside,” he continued.

“I remember the mayhem after we fled our community. It was through social media that we were able to trace our family and friends. However, that very platform was also used by unscrupulous people who sowed fear and confusion into the affected and the public,” recounted Jamal.

What followed was a flurry of misinformation and disinformation on Facebook and chain text messages that were besmirching the image of the Maranao people, relegating them as hoodlums and barbaric. As an educator, Jamal had to disprove those misrepresentations through his personal social media accounts. He continues to do this until now. He hopes that in his own little way, he is somehow contributing to eliminating this stigma.

In the middle of the presentation on citizen journalism, Jamal asked the room, “How then do we regulate this barrage of information that just tends to become noises and how do we effectively deliver our intended message?”

Jamal’s questions could have come straight from the workshop’s mission statement and outlined the roles of the volunteers and their contribution to achieving the overall objectives of the Project especially when their resettlement is very imminent.

This means that the establishment of new communities in the outskirts of the war-ravaged city needs coverage more than ever as it will have the most immediate impacts on them. Often, people do not know where the levers of power are in situations like this, which creates frustration and animosity.

Budding local journalism in new communities

“Citizen journalism is incredibly important as it does not only hold those in power accountable, but it allows for a more personal and local reporting of the stories that communities have access to,” said Ma. Theresa Panzo, a lecturer from the Department of English at the Mindanao State University – Iligan Institute of Technology (MSU-IIT) who discussed citizen journalism.

Through the workshop, a communications mapping was facilitated by the invited resource speakers. The group of volunteers will serve as the Project’s monitors and will report on progress and challenges through channels that they identified to be effective in their communities such as social media, monthly newsletters, and monthly meetings.

The workshop also reminded participants to be responsible communicators in today’s digital landscape

Another volunteer, Jonera Rakiin, 22, looked giddy when she showed the photo from her mobile phone taken after a photo walk exercise at the city’s wet market. “While it is true that a picture paints a thousand words, a photo could just as well hold that power of uniting people and igniting change,” said Rakiin.

Jonera took a break from college where she majors in journalism to support her single mom who has lost a lot of their possessions after the war. “I am grateful that through this group, I am still able to do journalistic work and apply what I learned that could have an impact in our community,” she added.

The workshop also treated participants to basic videography, from storyboarding to editing, while using either the Tagalog or the Maranao language. Outputs from the writing exercises, photojournalism, and videography lessons were  presented during a gala on the third day of the workshop. Winning pieces were awarded with prizes such as books and writing pads as sort of “startup capitals”.

All participants agreed that there is a need for deeper reporting on the recovery and rehabilitation programmes in Marawi City. They said that there is currently a greater demand for information on other services that are available to other displaced communities and this is where they could be of support, by being active citizen journalists.

“My personal stake at this is twofold: first, I want to illustrate a fuller portrait of what a Maranao is and to show an accurate and respectful representation of our culture instead of scaring the public. Second, I want to report on the milestones of UN-Habitat’s Project and provide alternative sources of information for our community that has something to do with the facilities available in the resettlement sites, other government programmes that we can take advantage of, and others,” said Jamal. “It also wouldn’t hurt to have something specific to Marawi City, so our communities have coverage of important events,” he added. In an era where everyone with a smartphone is a publisher and to pair that with the tradition of storytelling of the Maranao people, it would not take long before one hears someone like Jamal tearing down walls of prejudice and uniting people through his writings.