Although 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic brought many challenges, it has also been a busy year for The Marie Colvin Journalists' Network (MCJN), with many notable achievements. For MCJN Editor Dima Hamdan, she gained international acclaim for her 2019 film, "The Bomb", and received the Palestine Cinema Days' Sunbird Award to support her next film project, all while working hard to ensure MCJN's members received the support they needed in 2020, whether through mentorship, emergency support or counselling. “2020 reaffirmed the Network's purpose and mission," she says. "It is not an understatement to say that we were a lifeline to some of our members this year."
In this interview, Dima summarises MCJN’s biggest achievements and challenges in 2020.
What has MCJN achieved in 2020?
This year we decided it was time to inform the wider public about who we are as a network and what we do. So we launched a new website featuring articles by some of our members talking about their professions, dealing with the trauma and stress of working in the field, their struggle for a fair payment, and many others.
It is not an understatement to say that we were a lifeline to some of our members this year
This was a significant decision for us. The Marie Colvin Journalists’ Network was established in 2016 with a membership of just over 40 journalists from across the Arab world. But it took four years for us to test our activities, understand the challenges, get to know our members better and incorporate their feedback into our work.
Now, we have over 200 members across the Arab world, many of whom continue to benefit from access to our experienced and dedicated mentors, such as Bissane El-Cheikh, Waad Al-Kateab, Rana Sabbagh, and many many others. Our website continues to offer a private safe space where members can exchange ideas and seek advice on editorial and ethical issues.
This year has been challenging for all of us. What were the biggest challenges for MCJN?
If I could summarise the challenges into one word, it would be the “unpredictability”. When the pandemic began to spread, none of us really understood how it was going to impact our work.
On the one hand, MCJN is a virtual network, so we were able to continue our regular activities and services; creating new mentorships; publishing articles and Q&As, as well as sharing a regular bulletin of jobs and training opportunities - which more than 90% of our members said was very useful to them.
But we also had bigger plans which we had to put on hold. We wanted to travel more this year to meet some of our members across the region, and to arrange workshops to bring them together. We kept postponing until we realised that these plans had to be cancelled altogether.
We wanted to travel more this year to meet some of our members across the region. We kept postponing until we realised that these plans had to be cancelled altogether
Many of our members lost their jobs because of the pandemic. Some were stranded outside of their countries and couldn’t travel anywhere. Others were affected on a psychological and emotional level. So we had to adapt quickly and shift our focus into finding ways to help our members get the support they needed, such as financial support, counselling or finding job opportunities through our bulletins.
Of course, this is not to mention all the other tragic events that hit our region this year; the Beirut explosion, the floods in Yemen and Sudan, the continued crackdown and targeting of journalists in Egypt and Iraq. These events had a direct impact on many of our members.
What were MCJN's strengths during the COVID-19 pandemic, and what do you wish we could have done better?
Being a small organisation, in a way, was a source of strength because we were able to think together and act quickly on our instincts without going through long and bureaucratic processes. When we realised we had to cancel our plans for some field workshops, we were able to shift swiftly into hosting webinars that addressed the issues and needs raised by our members at the time. We are lucky that our three founders, Lyse Doucet, Lindsey Hilsum and Jane Wellesley, are extremely supportive of the way we do things and are available to review any cases or make decisions despite their busy schedules.
A lot of the challenges we faced during had existed already, but were exacerbated by this pandemic. The lack of jobs, the need to create more independent media platforms that pay journalists well and treat freelancers fairly. Censorship and the crackdown on the press is already a big problem in our part of the world, and the pandemic made things much worse. We know some of our members wanted to report on mismanagement of the crisis in their own countries, but their editors wouldn’t let them because they had to toe the official line that everything was under control. We cannot address those challenges from afar, but we’re forging closer partnerships with other organisations to think of ways to address them.
What are your hopes for 2021 for MCJN and its members?
The unique thing about MCJN is that our members helped shape its identity by being vocal about their priorities and needs
Although most of the work and support we offer is online, every time we had a chance to meet our members we learned more things about them, and they also felt closer to us and understood what it means to be part of this network. So I really hope we can travel in 2021 to meet some of our members.
But even if we cannot travel, I hope we can continue to grow together as a network. The unique thing about MCJN is that our members helped shape its identity by being vocal about their priorities and needs. So we want the members to continue engaging with us to make sure our services and support is curated to their needs, as much as possible.
Many of those who joined us in the early days in 2016 have gained a lot of skills because they made the most out of their mentorships, and we hope that some of them will soon become mentors themselves, and pass some of the great things they have learned on to the newcomers.
PHOTO: Dima Hamdan, editor of The Marie Colvin Journalists' Network, speaking at The Circle of Women's Annual Gathering in London in 2019. Photo courtesy of The Circle NGO of Women, Photographer: Nader El Gadi