Rising Voices note: For security reasons, members of Amigos de Januaria [pt] prefer to be anonymous.
The intention was for just one citizen journalism training course in 2011. But once the class had ended, its students continued using online platforms for access to public information, and to produce reports on their hometown of Januária, located in the Brazilian federal states of Minas Gerais. Thus, the project Amigos de Januária [Friends of Januária] has grown over the last two years, through it's blog and through social media. In this interview for Rising Voices, they explain some of their decisions to continue the project.
Rising Voices: What motivated you to continue this project after the training course finished?
Amigos de Januária: When the project ended, the newly formed group of citizen journalists got together and decided to continue the project. We needed to spread all that knowledge and to help people obtain information about their municipality, to improve the place where they lived. As time went by, unfortunately, some reporters had to follow other paths, either for professional or personal reasons, or due to the requirements of the project itself, which demands time and can include external pressures. At first, we were twelve, and at the moment we are six young journalists. The work is entirely voluntary…
Before beginning this project, were you involved in other journalistic or political activity?
No. I was not involved with any journalistic work before, though I have always enjoyed reading the news. I used to follow politics only through national and local news articles, and I didn’t get involved in anything.
What did motivated you to join the project originally?
Initially it was the chance to learn some journalism techniques: how to take pictures, make videos, write texts. After some initial work on the project, I realized that my goals could be much greater, and that instead of complaining about the state of my town I could work to improve it. At the same time I learned how to find public information, I could better understand the reality of my town, demand and propose changes, while also helping the population to be better informed, and shift the perspective of conformity and empty complaints to something new.
What have some of the contributions of the project Amigos de Januária been to the town of Januária?
People from Januaria and from all over the world have visited our pages, and sent messages and emails. This shows that when people search for “Januária” on the web, they end up on our site. Many of our articles help people to access accurate and reliable information…
How has been the response of the population to the project?
Favorable. Initially people did not understand it well and they wanted to know who we were, and who the writers were. But after some time reading our articles, people realized that the project is run by young journalists who are concerned about the future of the town itself. Each of our articles is carefully checked, with links and images to present information concisely, in a high-quality manner. Social media helps a lot to increase access to the information we publish…
The town of Januária has many inhabitants who are connected on the web. But they haven’t realized yet that to help the town and to improve it, they need to be well-informed even if it is out of their comfort zone…
Have you considered coordinating with other municipalities to take the project to other towns?
Yes, we would like to have “siblings” in various towns… People can just copy the model and take the job seriously, and it will give good results in other towns. To repeat the initial course itself or to open offices in other locations would demand a structure that we currently don’t have, but this does not stop well-intentioned groups in other localities of Brazil to take ownership of our model to change how their municipalities function.
The investigative work of bloggers and journalists can be dangerous in Brazil, especially in small towns. According to the organization Reporters Without Borders, five journalists were killed in Brazil in 2012. How do you deal with this when speaking about sensitive subjects that might bother powerful people in town?
This is a very serious issue. Unfortunately, there are people who use anonymity, especially of social media, to provoke discomfort and to raise controversial issues about the administration of the town. Because of this we have always been careful on validate the information we present. We insert photos and links that show where the information came from, we interview people, and compare data, which has enabled Amigos de Januária to build a reliable and trustworthy identity for the population to rely on.
But it is not easy to write about politics in a small town. Everyone knows everyone and wants to know why we are seeking the information, even if it is [technically] public… We search for public data so that we do not need to ask too much. We write as citizen journalists. Finally, our articles show how this information is important for the population. Some reporters sign their articles, but others prefer to be more discrete in their contributions to the town’s improvement.
Do you think that the current local government feels more committed to the public transparency due to the work of the blog Amigos de Januária?
Some civil servants follow us and read our articles. In the last election we interviewed some candidates to be the mayor of the town, including the winner, the current mayor. We believe that eventually he reads what we write. It is even a way to help him out to rule the town as it is the citizen’s opinions…
Can you give a few examples to demonstrate how your group has caused change in town?
We have one example of an article about of a square that was [being slowly demolished] and losing its original features, and when we warned the population it caused great commotion among our readers.
We have also received an interesting invitation to make videos to publicize the town of Januária abroad through the [iPhone] application Camra, one of a few invited groups in Brazil.
The interview was translated from its original Portuguese by Thiana.