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”Participatory Journalism” – a way to build trust in our mission.

In the closed Facebook group ”Mission Afghanistan”, where about 7500 members share their knowledge about deportations, Dialogue Journalism is developed. The Blankspot editor-in-chief believes that this working method promotes involvement, ensures improved features and is a way to rebuild trust in the media.

”Point of order: Don’t share any unconfirmed information about the timing of deportations or any names of persons who are to be deported in this group. First, much of the information is unconfirmed and it creates tremendous stress for persons who are detained or otherwise concerned. If you want to share this type of information with Blankspot and want us to cover the developments, please send us an email or a DM. Regards.”

This is a status update in the closed Facebook group ”Mission Afghanistan” (Uppdrag Afghanistan) that currently has about 7000 members.

How do you ensure successful interactions between thousands of citizens and a group of reporters who have spent their entire careers working in traditional journalism? What are their respective roles? The answers to these questions also show us how contemporary journalism can be developed as a collaborative process.

The whole interview will be published in its entirety in the upcoming book about ”Mission Afghanistan”.

Tell us what happened in December 2016. Why did you start ”Mission Afghanistan”?

– Ever since Blankspot was created through crowdfunding, the project has been about so much more than just to raise money. It has been just as important to use the readers’ knowledge and passion. We have always felt that the readers are the ”untapped resource” of Swedish journalism and we don’t use this resource enough. The traditional view of the reader is that of a generic, almost non-existent, person who only reports typing errors. The journalists have been afraid of the reader.

– In Blankspot, we have chosen to see the journalist not only as a content producer, but as someone who creates a lot of things together with readers. We want to invite the readers to come with us on this journey. We often find that the reader knows more about the facts than the journalists themselves. The access to the reader’s knowledge is a key factor in the editorial process. We call it ”Participatory Journalism” and have tried to collaborate with the readers in the closed groups that we have created. In our view, 50% of the reporter’s time should be spent on dialogues and the rest on writing. We worked this way when we went to Peru to examine the mining industry, and when we went to Burma or to the military dictatorship in Thailand. Our followers have helped us and contributed with lots of knowledge, but we still haven’t found the perfect example, the one that would really demonstrate all the strengths of Dialogue Journalism.

You haven’t found it yet?

– No, we haven’t come all the way. We have tested the method by using closed Facebook groups for different issues, where the members contribute with their ideas, knowledge and perspectives. In his investigation of i.a. the Swedish arms export and development aid, Nils Resare took the readers with him; whereas I have written a lot about the Horn of Africa, Eritrea and Ethiopia. Other groups have looked at the blank spots of industry and democracy movements on the African continent. We have also been thinking seriously about doing something on migration, primarily based on the international consequences of the migrant flows and the new refugee paths to Europe, but also considering the changed Swedish migration policies. We have identified a need for more journalism in this area.

You talk about ”Participatory Journalism”? What is the contract between the reader and the journalist, and how do you handle the distinction between a journalist and an activist?

– I would say that the respective roles and the processes itself are made clear. Our work towards a published article or story is transparent. Our research interviews are not intended for publication, but are supposed to make us wiser, by talking to somebody. For an ”accountability interview”, on the other hand, you have to know the facts beforehand; and the objective is to hold someone accountable before you publish something. These distinctions are clarified. Some interviews are not good enough, and sometimes there are ethical issues that could prevent publishing, e.g. issues concerning the publication of names and photos, persons that could be put at risk by talking to us, the protection of sources etc.. The only new thing is that we involve the readers in our discussions about ethical issues. Hundreds of persons are involved in this process, and they all get an insight into the craftsmanship of journalism. We are being transparent with issues that previously were only discussed in the newsroom or with the freelance reporter in the field. When we publish the final article, the readers already know what we have chosen not to publish and why we made those choices; they understand how quality journalism is produced.

How did ”Mission Afghanistan” start?

– In December, we received a message on Facebook. Someone was standing outside the detention facility in Märsta telling us that 13 Afghanis were to be deported. The person was there for a manifestation and explicitly asked Blankspot to go to Kabul to follow up what happened to the deported persons.

– Instinctively, we felt that this was exactly the sort of thing that we should do. We quickly established that the travel costs and the salaries would amount to SEK 160000. The organization ”Vi står inte ut” (We can’t stand this) promised to help us disseminate information in order to raise funds for the trip. It was important for Blankspot to clarify that we don’t do ”paid content” and that if we go to Kabul, it is to find out what really has happened to these persons. If we could establish that someone had a family to return to or that someone did not have reasons for protection, we would write about it.

Quick discussions and quick decisions. What happened next?

– We started the Facebook group “Mission Afghanistan” and on the same time we started raising funds in order to send journalists to Afghanistan. The response was unbelievable; in three weeks we raised about SEK 500000, for journalism on Afghanistan. Today, the group has about 8000 members. There are professionals, who work with unaccompanied minors, but also persons who are or have been detained and activists, lawyers or guardians etc..

How is the group moderated?

– At first, I took care of the group, but all of us, notably Nils Resare and Brit Stakston, have worked with it. Initially, there were no prior checks of posts, but we read everything and deleted when necessary. But we had to start doing prior checks, since there were so many posts that they ”drowned” our own posts, and we had to keep the group focused on journalism.

Do you check prospective members? To avoid threats and hatred.

– Originally, you had to be a Blankspot member to join the groups, but now we have turned things around: When you join a group, you will get information on the type of journalism that we produce and discuss. We believe that this could make the step towards contributing through micro-financing shorter. The threshold is lower when you have already read our content and might feel that this is something you would like to support.

– Fairly early in the process, we established some principles explaining where to draw the line; for instance, that the publication of names can cause enormous stress. This was important, considering that many group members have self-harming behaviours and that we have already seen three suicides. 7000 persons have followed these guidelines without questioning them, and the conversations are very civilized.

What were the first challenges you had to face?

– Our first dilemma was that there were numerous interviews with persons who had just landed in Kabul, interviews in local TV channels. On the same time, everything was very unclear. Who was really doing the interviews? How free were they to talk? Someone talks about being tortured and someone else talks about money from Sweden to Afghanistan. The information was confusing.

Was this why you wanted to have a reporter in Kabul?

– Yes. On the same time, we had to evaluate proposals from different persons in Kabul who wanted to do work with us. We had to meet these persons and interview them. However, it didn’t feel right and we really wanted to send our own journalist there, someone who was used to handle the ethical conflicts and had the right sense of proportions. We decided to let things take some time and to do everything in the right order.

How was this received in the group?

– We had an open discussion. For instance, we talked about a guy we had seen in one of the videos; he was obviously was not doing ok and seemed to suffer from some psychiatric diagnosis. We explained why we did not use this material.

– In the group, we also discussed how you prepare a reporting mission and assess the kidnapping risk in one of the most dangerous countries for journalists in the world. We all remember the murder of the Swedish journalist Nils Horner. No Swedish media actor has had any permanent correspondent in Afghanistan the last few years, because of the safety risks.

Can you give us any other examples that could show us how this working method clarifies the distinction between journalism and propaganda?

– One example is an article that we published in December 2016. We requested the implementation reports from the transport service of the Correctional Services. The reports showed that the flights had not been calm at all. The deportees had threatened the staff during the flight, and we wrote about this. Some group members reacted to this, because it was not the type of reporting that they expected. They wanted us to tone it down, but it is very important for us to describe the events correctly, and we feel that there was a point in explaining this. This was the first really tough discussion we had with the group.

Did anyone leave the group?

– Well, maybe they didn’t fully support the project anyway. The discussion clarified our mission, with our distinctive roles. It was a good discussion.

What happened next?

– After the departure of the first chartered plane, we proceeded with the risk analysis and the planning for the team that was going to Afghanistan. We started filing the visa applications and in parallel we started writing about the persons who were still being held at the detention facilities in Märsta, Gävle, Kållered and Åstorp.

How has it been to meet the detained persons?

– The interviews have been difficult, with young persons who are afraid of being deported and of dying. Kids that have been raised in Iran and have never even visited Afghanistan before. Some have self-harming behaviour and would rather die in Sweden than be deported. But there were also persons who felt that they could finally talk about everything, things that they had never told anyone before. Persons who had converted to Christianity, for instance.

– To prepare for these meetings, I tried to research how to interact with children and young people who have been traumatized. It has been a heavy responsibility to interview them, just because they are so young. I received a lot of good tips in the group and the group members told me where to find the information I needed.

Have the detained persons themselves been members of the Facebook group?

– Yes, and I think that this forced us to become better journalists. Every little detail has been very important. These persons might be locked up in a detention facility, but they do have full Internet access and can follow our work the whole time.

– We also wanted to explain the role that media plays and what this role could be. In many countries of origin, the press has a very different role. The expectations have sometimes been too high, and it has been important to explain that they shouldn’t see the journalists as their saviours. In the context of suicide attempts, the reports have to be carefully balanced in view of these expectations. It is a very difficult task.

This organic way of working, where the journalists don’t know where they will end up, what is it like to work like that?

– In the beginning it was very frustrating. We wanted to have ”boots on the ground” in Kabul immediately. There was a rush to do this quickly, but my gut feeling as a journalist told me that things would have to take time and that there would be more things to follow up when the unaccompanied minors had been back in the country for a while.

How many stories have you published?

– About 100 articles and a number of videos. A team visited Kabul for ten days in February.

Could you describe their work?

– We ensured that there were a number of persons they could meet and we minimized their time on location in Afghanistan. We did not want them to visit the countryside, for safety reasons. The first thing we realized was that many of the minors had already fled to Iran or Pakistan, but we were able to meet a few of them.

Could you describe the team?

– It was the photographer Martin Von Krogh and the reporter Göran Engström. They are both experienced Aghanistan travellers and it felt safe to use persons who already knew the country. The result of their stay was a story in five parts, each describing a different case. Some of the minors had disappeared, others were hiding in the mountains, fearing the Taliban; and some were trying to make plans to return to Sweden on a work visa.

What does it do to you as a journalist, to have these special relationships with asylum seekers?

– You want to follow them for a long time. They have had their cases tried in court, so I don’t deal with any legal aspects. However, the journalist Wares Khan is a different case. He should have had his case reviewed. There was a written death threat against him from the Taliban. The reason was his YouTube channel with journalistic content that has over ten thousand followers. He uses his channel to investigate the Taliban movement. In other words, Khan is our colleague and this makes the threats against him even more serious. However, the Swedish Migration Agency reached a different conclusion. But who is really a journalist? That is the bigger question and I often feel that the prevailing view is wrong. It’s not only persons with press cards that should be protected; we should protect the working methods of journalism. Bloggers, who reach so many with their texts, should also be included. I think it is the ”journalist mission” that should be protected.

Were there any surprises during this process?

– I find it astonishing that Sweden has no strategy in place to follow up what happens to these persons. We have no idea what happens to the several thousand deportees. In this context, journalism has an important role to play. We have excel sheets where we trace lots of people; a quantitative follow-up that we will be able to revisit.

You have also interviewed the Swedish Ambassador in Kabul?

– Yes. What was striking with that interview was that while Norway has stopped its cooperation with IOM, the body that handles the reception of the deportees, after a corruption case, their contract with Sweden continues, without any follow-up what so ever. The Swedish Ambassador didn’t even know about the corruption case. According to the Swedish agreement with Afghanistan, the deportees should be received with dignity. In reality, they just are left at the border without any follow-up what so ever.

– We feel that the one missing piece in ”Mission Afghanistan” is an interview with Morgan Johansson, the Swedish minister of Justice and Migration. We would like to meet him to discuss the negotiation process for this specific agreement, how Afghanistan claims to follow things up, and if it would be possible to work in any other way. In the future, we would like to write more about the policies, to focus on the political level. We haven’t had the opportunity to set that as a priority yet. What do other countries do?

– Also, in the Facebook group we would like to discuss any other perspectives that we still haven’t covered. What happens after the third or fourth deportation? What do we do then? Do we ”turn off the lights”? What are the expectations on us? We are still in the middle of our work, but in June our funds will run out. Then we have to ask ourselves if we should continue.

What has the budget included during these six months?

– I have worked half-time with this, and then there has been a team of reporters including several writers and photographers. In total, eight persons have been involved in the work: Sofia Arnö, Ivar Andersen, Urban Hamid, Martin Von Krogh, Göran Engström, Nils Resare and me.

– It is amazing to work with 7500 experts who are acting as cheerleaders and push us, argue with us and give us this unused resource to tap. We see many possibilities to work this way in the future, for instance with school issues or climate issues. There is a lot of interest to fund this type of investigative journalism. This continuous conversation could result in a news story, a pod, a picture or pretty much anything. Together, we see where it leads us.

As a journalist, do you view the traditional working methods with self-criticism?

– Working this way, close to the group, close to the readers, who in many ways are our stakeholders, has inspired us to tell the stories. I would say that the transparency actually has strengthened our journalism – since the choices we have to make are openly declared. This gives us a stronger final-product, and as journalists, we feel needed. The activists, who want different subject matters to be covered, like the transparent way of working, using methods that are not just about finding interesting angles or distorting reality; instead, we give them something that is the very opposite of propaganda. An open and transparent process is of key importance to rebuild the credibility of the final product. We are happy that so many support us in this collaborative effort.

What will happen next?

– There will be new deportations and we will continue to follow the deportees for the rest of the year. We don’t know how things will end. Many of our group members are teachers. They want us to start working with the schools, where school classes could get involved and get direct access to a reporter. This has inspired us to start our current school project, which is a sort of spin-off based on the same working methods.

Will you start telling the stories in any new ways?

– To some extent, we have already started; we are trying to let the readers themselves contribute with texts in a dedicated part of the site called ”Voices”. There we publish entries from members. Some are anonymous, but in those cases we verify that the stories are authentic before publication. We have also tried to let the readers publish short videos. It’s all about trying new things, testing the limits of journalism and working in a collaborative way. Sometimes it is like balancing on a razor’s edge, but we constantly learn new things.

Read some of the translated articles:

“I only have one dream now – to die.”

Sweden launches second wave of controversial Afghan deportations

Sweden to deport 106-year-old refugee to Afghanistan