PESHAWAR -- Defying the vast distance between Pakistan and Australia, journalism students from both countries recently worked together to create joint news stories.
The students from the University of Peshawar and Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) were linked virtually via Skype and participated in four weeks of lectures and coursework May 2-23 before reporting on stories together.
The University of Peshawar's Prof. Altaf Ullah Khan, RMIT's Professor Alexandra Wake, and course creator and researcher Keith Bowen from Stanford University in the United States taught the course.
The course's impetus was the belief that journalism students who would otherwise not cross paths can learn from each other and build relationships.
"The aim of this initiative was to encourage and involve the journalists and students from both countries to help each other and produce quality journalism," Khan told Pakistan Forward.
Creating virtual exchanges between young journalists in Pakistan and Australia "developed mutual understanding and communication", he said. "Now they can work together and can help each other from their own countries."
Overcoming security concerns
Journalists in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) are always at risk because of the fragile state of security, Khan said.
"However, a local journalist may face less threat than does a foreigner," he told Pakistan Forward. "It is hard for Western journalists to visit Peshawar and FATA and produce stories from this region."
Eighteen students from each university participated in the "Reporting from Zones of Conflict" course, Khan said, adding that journalists from conflict zones have complementary relationships with their Western counterparts.
"They frequently work alongside Western journalists as freelancers but lack knowledge of the cultural context and inner workings of the Western press," he said according to an RMIT report.
"Active supporters of journalistic and democratic norms, these young reporters can still find themselves confused and disillusioned by operational and editorial practices they don't understand," he said.
Lectures on safety and other topics essential for journalists were part of the course.
"The participants were informed about journalists' safety techniques and were educated on how to report from conflict zones," Khan told Pakistan Forward. "The presenters also delivered lectures on global, peace and development journalism."
Students participated in live debates and exchanged their experiences and views with each other, he said.
It is quite difficult for young Australian journalists to report stories from Peshawar because it requires additional resources -- such as translators, security permits and clearances -- that make it hard to find firsthand information, said Wake, senior lecturer at RMIT's school of media and digital communication.
But now, Wake said, after the successful completion of the international virtual exchange course, her students can now report news stories from Peshawar and FATA with the help of their Pakistani colleagues.
"They can collect information using their contacts in Peshawar and use it to write stories for publication in Australia," she told Pakistan Forward.
Exchanging information, experiences
A unique part of the training was the creation of news stories by small groups of students.
Students from Pakistan produced news stories about issues in Australia, while the Australian students wrote news stories about Pakistan.
The Australian students said they were excited about participating in the course and shared some of their insights with Pakistan Forward.
"The use of Skype and social media to connect with journalists in another country was a very modern and interesting experience," said RMIT student William Ziebell.
Working with journalists from Peshawar was an "amazing" experience for the Australian students, he told Pakistan Forward. "It meant we could discuss ideas and learn a lot about Peshawar from experienced and knowledgeable journalists."
Ziebell's group wrote a story on how political tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan are affecting cross-border marriages.
He said they would not have been able to get enough information on the story without help from their counterparts in Peshawar. "They helped in gathering case studies, data and information," he said.
The Australian students helped their Pakistani counterparts report on the Apex gang and social problems facing some immigrants in Australia, said RMIT student Ellen McCutchan.
"We collected data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Victoria Police and politicians' offices," she told Pakistan Forward. "We also interviewed a young offender [an Apex gang member] about what crimes he had been involved in."
McCutchan said she valued the course, adding that she would never have been able to write a news story about Afghan families without the help of her colleagues in Pakistan.
"Working in groups with our Australian counterparts was a unique experience," University of Peshawar student Hassan Ali told Pakistan Forward.
"We were able to collect information from FATA for journalists in Australia," he said. "Similarly, our Australian friends gave us information on the Apex gang comprised mostly of immigrant youth in the state of Victoria."
Building on success
The future of this course is very bright, Wake said.
In the near future, the University of Peshawar and RMIT are planning to arrange more online courses to promote greater correspondence among young journalists, she said.
Wake and Khan link the success of the course to the stories produced by the students.
"One can witness the achievement by reading the stories from Peshawar in Australian media and the Australian news in Pakistani media," said Khan.