Chiemelie Ezeobi who was the 2018 recipient of the prestigious United States International Visitors Leadership Programme, writes that it was targeted at how the media can counter violent extremism using diverse messaging strategies.
World over, the issue of violent extremism is a boiling issue and what better way to counter it than bring in journalists, researchers, scholars, government officials and communicators from regions to rub minds together on ways to counter such issues using their media messaging strategies.
From battling ISIS and Al Qaeda in the Middle East to Boko Haram in Nigeria, to domestic terrorism and school shootings in the United States, to radicalisation in Europe, the global phenomenon has given rise to nations seeking measures to counter such narrative that is not limited to security moves.
As part of such measures, the United States Department of State, set up a multi-regional project under the International Visitors Leadership Programme (IVLP) tagged 'Countering Violent Extremism: Media and Messaging Strategies. A Multi-Regional Project'.
For the 2018 IVLP, the Defence and Crime reporter for THISDAY Newspaper, Chiemelie Ezeobi, was nominated by the United States Government to represent Nigeria.
The participants were drawn from different regions given that it was a multi-regional programme and they include Bukar Babagana Wakil from Nigeria, who is the Head, CVE desk for Dandal Kura Radio International; Caveiro Da Costa Campos Rodrigo of Brazil, the Assistant International Editor for Correio Brazilense; Edward Jonathan from Malaysia , a journalist at Malay Mail; Farroukh Mahmoud from Palestine, the Editor-in-Chief, Dunia Al-Watan; Gabor Portia Sonia Adoley from Ghana, News Anchor, TV3; Hope Marcia from Trinidad and Tobago, who is the Manager, Corporate Communications, Ministry of National Security; and Kehal Hamza from Algeria, a reporter and anchor at KBC TV.
Others include Khan Jeelani from India, the Chief Bureau of Uttar Pradesh; Kosovic Srdan from Montenegro, the Digital Director and Online Editor, Daily Vijesti; Kundrate Dace from Latvia, a senior expert, NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence; Ljimani Salji from Macedonia, the advisor, Municipality of Tetovo; Malagic Admir from Bosnia, expert advisor, public relations and spokesman, Ministry of Security; Ervina Binte from Singapore, journalist from Berita Harian; Oueslati Sami from Tunisia, project manager for training and Assistant Director, African Centre for the Training of Journalists and Communicators (CAPJC); Shamsi Amber Rahim from Pakistan, an anchor/special correspondent, Dawn News; Vladimir Snidl Slovak Republic, a reporter with Dennik N; Vejvodova Petra from Czech Republic,an Assistant Professor and head of security and strategic studies, Department of Political Science, Masaryk University; Winter Ofir from Israel, a research fellow, Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) and Zidan Aishi Irene Ester from Finland, Middle East Correspondent, Yle.
The liaison officers
Whilst the trip was facilitated from the Nigerian end by Mr. Aliyu Ibrahim and Mr. Tayo Famutimi, with Darcy Zotter, the Public Affairs Officer of the U.S. Consulate overseeing the team, this reporter left the shores of Nigeria on February 9, 2018 to Washington.
On arrival, the liaisons on ground included Brittany Lynk, Robert Glick, Barbara Junge, who is also a legal practitioner with a soft spot for IVLP participants and of course, Ms. Alyce Hill, whose maternal guidance was put to use often times.
For the multi-regional project which is on 'Countering Violent Extremism - Media and Messaging Strategies, it started on Monday, March 12, 2018 and stopped on Friday, March 30, 2018 and cut across six states. The U.S. State Department Project Team that put the programme together was the duo of Monica Shie and Tina Hall, while Ann Driscoll and Saad Chaudhry of World Learning Project Team handled and outlined the intricacies of the day to day event.
On arrival in Washington, District of Columbia (DC), the team was housed at Donovan House, from where the daily trips were made and back.
According to the project objectives, violent extremists have used promotional and social media in their attempt to undermine democratic principles and subvert populations to advance their own ends.
Thus, the project for journalists and specialists was to support the U.S. Department's strategic goal of countering violent extremism and supporting democracy by exploring the relationship between government and the media in countering violent extremism.
During the programme, the participants examined the roles and influence of professional journalists who keep democracies vibrant by contributing accurate, timely, and verifiable information to the body politics.
We also examined the roles and responsibilities of a free press in a democracy and the principles and laws governing the press in the United States; as well as gained an understanding of the evolution, current status, and trends in a variety of media in the United States, including blogs and social media.
The project also explored ways in which governments and professional media influence communities, policies, laws and regulations; which led to the understanding the role that professional journalists play in U.S. society to raise awareness of issues of social concern and report on illegal or abusive actions by extremist groups, politicians, criminals or corporations.
Another critical factor was that the project helped to assess the impact of governmental counter-measures and messaging through social media and new communication technologies in support of democratic traditions.
A tale of six cities
From Washington DC to Arlington in Virginia to Baltimore in Maryland to Minneapolis in Minnesota to Portland in Oregon, Denver in Colorado to Houston in Texas (three split cities) to New York, there was no stopping the IVLP train.
The first stop took the group to Washington, District of Columbia, where the first programme on the itinerary was a tour of the city including the White House, the National Assembly and monuments of American past heroes and leaders.
On Monday, the professional part of the Programme kicked off with a visit to the World Learning Centre where the trio of Shie, Driscoll and Chaudhry led the group through what was expected.
The next programme took the team to Arlington, Virginia, on Tuesday where Dr. Jeremy Mayer, an Associate Professor, took the class on American Federalism at Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. We also visited the national cemetery where the bodies of soldiers were buried.
The next meeting was with Mr. Michael Koliska, an Associate Professor on communication, culture and technology programming, who delved into 'Journalism in the U.S.: Development and Trends'.
On Wednesday, the group spent the day at the Newseum, a private, non-profit museum, which is targeted at increasing public understanding of the importance of press freedom.
The next port of call was on Thursday at World Trade Centre in Baltimore, Maryland, which houses the National Public Radio. Also visited was the Baltimore Sun, where Ms. Catherine Rentz took us through her journey in covering hate crimes.
The IVLP journey took the team
Congresswoman Frederica Wilson office at the Capitol where they were engaged on boiling issues across the globe. But of particular interest was Nigeria because the congresswoman has been very passionate about the issue of Chibok girls, so more focus was placed on Nigeria.
Graciously organised by Barbara Junge, the congresswoman who was unavoidably absent sent her representative, Cheyenne Range, to meet with team and she took us through the work they have done.
Afterwards, the team was also graciously given passes to sit through a session to hear the lawmakers flesh out details about a bill to be passed.
But prior to that meeting, this reporter was opportune to cover the March against gun violence by school kids as they protested the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, as they called for safety in schools.
On Friday, the team had a meeting at the U.S. Department of State, where Irfan Saeed, the Director of countering violent extremism talked about the power of the media, adding that ISIS understands this power and that is why they pass a message that resonates.
On ways to counter their radicalisation messages he said the media has to visually tell the stories, partner local and private sector in driving the narrative.
Kareem Shora of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, noted that terrorism was not such on a large scale until 911 happened, adding that since then, they have taken great strides in protecting the nation.
He said in messaging strategies, one must make sure they talk about the government's resolve in tackling all forms of violent extremisms, adding that more positive speech counters hate messages.
Still that day, a meeting was scheduled at Global Engagement Centre, where they talked about their work with different countries by reaching out to their local partners, thus helping to change the narrative on violent extremisms. They are charged with leading the U.S. Government's effort to counter propaganda and disinformation from international terrorist organisations.
The next move was to the Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) of the office of U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), where John, explained the role the agency played in Nigeria after the Chibok girls saga. Predominantly based in the North-east, he said the agency has succeeded in giving youths an alternative to joining Boko Haram by setting up local income generating ventures like cash for work and entrepreneurial trainings.
Those series of meetings rounded off the Washington phase as the team flew down to Minneapolis in Minnesota where we were received by Laurel Draine, the programme officer for Global Minnesota. The theme was focused around building strong communities and the Minnesota Somali-American for communities.
The first meeting was held with Mohammed Amin Ahmed, popularly known as Average Mohammed, a cartoon character he created to counter ISIS messaging of radicalisation.
The Minneapolis resident uses cartoons to reach kids before Al Qaeda and ISIS does. He spoke about the role of social media in extremist recruiting of young Somalians and other Muslims and how that same tool can be used to counter their recruiting efforts.
After him was that of the Centre for Multicultural Mediation and Restorative Justice (CMMRJ), which was founded in 2008 as a second chance programme targeted at the youths. This means that the offender accepts their fault and seeks for ways to amend it through community service.
From the Somali American Police Association (SAPA), we had Officer Mohammed Farah, who explained how they work to improve relations between the police department and the Somali American communities.
The next day, Michael O'Donnel, the Chair, Communications and Journalism Department of the University of St. Thomas, spoke on the ethos of journalism, harping on transparency and dedication to truth.
Also speaking was Mr. Fred De Sam Lazaro of St. Thomas University, the Director of Untold Stories Project, which produces news and documentaries for public media round the world. He offered a comparative look at American journalism practices and discussed the challenge of bringing the under- reported international stories to the attention of the mainstream U.S. media.
Asli Ashkir of Wellshare, an organisation that provides health and health education services to Somalis living in the U.S., talked about their challenges in countering the anti-vaccine misinformation that measles vaccination causes autism.
The next meeting was with the Centre for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking (CRJP),
where we were told how the Ummah Project mediation was used in the courts in helping individuals in addressing conflicts.
The next meeting for the city was with Professor Jane Kirtley, who spoke on U.S. journalism and the law, harping on right of privacy, libel cases, media literacy and right to shied sources. Also, we visited the World Public Radio where Mr. Mukhtar Ibrahim talked about the importance of reporting facts.
Although Minneapolis was a full section of meetings and talks, the team still found time to visit the Minihaha Falls, a natural beauty of snow frozen falls, where we engaged each other in a snow fight.
From Minneapolis, the team was split into three cities; Denver in Colorado, Portland in Oregon and Houston in Texas. This reporter went to Denver alongside Marcia, Salji, Sami, Amber, Petra and Admir with our liaison officer as Brittany. We were received by World Denver.
The first visit was to Overland High School. The visit to the school was important because in 2014, three students of the school were stopped by authorities from travelling to Syria to join ISIS. In this school, the students were well informed as they asked hard biting questions about terrorism and its attendant effects.
The next move was to the office of the U.S. Attorney General, District of Colorado, where we met the attorney, Bob, who lamented on the absence of domestic terrorism law. Also on the meeting were Ms. Hetal Dosha, who gave an overview of extremists recruiting in Denver, while Ms Jenny Presswalla, the Denver-based regional director for strategic engagement expressed concern about terrorist and white supremacist. We were presented honorary medals before we left.
The next day being Saturday, we went to the Counter Terrorism Engagement Lab popularly known as the CELL, where our tour guard took us through the labyrinth of terrorism and its motivation. I again also covered the nationwide March for our Lives Protest to canvass against gun violence.
The next day was a free day and our liaison officer recommended a hiking trip. So that morning, we set off to hike the Red Rocks. After navigating the windy rocks, we headed downwards. Not done, we visited the amphitheater where we had our picnic before heading to the Little Bear Saloon to unwind.
On Monday, we visited the Colorado Muslim Society where Imam Shafi, took us through how they resist radicalisation recruiting by extremists and educate their members on the dangers of terrorism, while promoting interfaith dialogues.
We also met Dr. Annie Miller, the co-director, Colorado Resiliency Collaborative, who focused on radicalisation and the need for the media not to under report it. With that, we rounded off our visit. We soon set of to New York, where were all reunited.
Our first meeting was billed at Sesame Street office, where they took us through how they prepare educational programmes that help kids grow smarter, kinder and stronger. We moved on to have our post team city sharing session with Prof Colette Mazzucelli.
The next move was to the Brennan Centre for Justice at New York University School of Law, where an interactive session was held to examine the various aspects of CVE.
We soon moved to the panel discussion at the New York Foreign Press Centre, where a joint presentation was held with Dr. Shuki Cohen from John Jay College of Criminal Justice; Daisy Khan of Women Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality as well as Humera Khan, ex-director of Muflehun Resource Centre, which specialises in countering hate, extremism and violence.
We also visited the National September 11 Memorial and Museum.
We also spent our cultural activity at Ethel Barrymore Theatre where we watched a musical titled 'The band's visit. With that move, what was left off was our evaluation with Ms Shie and Ann, which was handled and our observations noted. That signaled the official meeting end of our training and exposition.
After New York, the trip wound off on the 30th of March as we tearfully said our goodbyes to our liaison officers, colleagues, World a Learning Team and the U.S. Department of State.
Although the three weeks training was jam packed with events, one cardinal lesson picked was on the importance of the media in churning out counter narratives to the already portrayed attraction of terrorism and other vices.
International Visitor Leadership Programme (IVLP) is the U.S. Department of State's premier professional exchange program.
Each year nearly 5,000 exchange participants come to the U.S. on the International Visitor Leadership Programme (IVLP). More than 200,000 International Visitors have engaged with Americans through the IVLP, including more than 500 current or former Chiefs of State or Heads of Government.
Launched in 1940, the IVLP helps strengthen U.S. engagement with countries around the world and cultivate lasting relationships by connecting current and emerging foreign leaders with their American counterparts through short-term visits to the United States.
About world learning
World Learning is a non-profit organisation that empowers people and strengthens communities and institutions around the globe through education, sustainable development and international exchange programmes. For more than 85 years, the organisation has focused on developing human connections to solve local problems and empower future generation of leaders.