20 About 20 - Mehdi Benchelah

20 About 20 - Mehdi Benchelah
Support for radio stations is perhaps not what most would associate with emergency response but information can be crucial to survival, as Mehdi Benchelah found in Haiti.

Mehdi Benchelah
Journalist
From France and Algeria, 41 years old
Communication programme officer, UNESCO, Haiti March 2010-December 2011


Saving lives with words

A French-Algerian journalist, Mehdi was seconded to UNESCO’s communication programme in Haiti following the devastating 2010 earthquake. He arrived in Port-au-Prince two months after the disaster struck.

“When the earthquake happened, internet and telephone communication shut down. Radio became the only way to get out information; on where to find hospitals, where there was food distribution, how to avoid contaminated water or where to get trauma counselling,” he explains. “Helping people get that information, restoring radio studios and training reporters was incredibly important.”

Restoring radio

“The devastation was overwhelming. Buildings, houses were smashed to pieces and even the UN compound was completely damaged. The roads were full of debris which made it hard to move around. We spent hours in endless traffic jams. The UNESCO office was one of the few UN buildings still standing. Everyone in the office felt a strong responsibility to keep working, to maintain enthusiasm and energy whilst being realistic of what we could do.”

Mehdi was responsible for developing and running the organisation’s communication programme. This included providing support for local ratio stations, training journalists and setting up IT centres in the camps.

“In Haiti, the local radio stations are a critical source of information. Many radio stations had been damaged, and the premises of the national network of community radio stations collapsed. We helped restore the studio in Port-au-Prince and produce a series of radio programmes on education and public health. This was then broadcast on 35 radio stations across the country,” he explains.

Support for journalists

“The training focused on reporting skills and multimedia journalism. We focused specific training on female journalists from community radio stations, because the Haitian media is still a very male-dominated business, where women often are confined to reporting on culture or music. The training gave guidance on how women could get on air with other topics.

Apart from disseminating life-saving information, support to media was an essential part of the recovery and reconstruction process, Mehdi says.

“Journalists are key actors when working to re-establish a democratic process. Haiti is still  quite a young democracy, with a weak media tradition. Ethics, political reporting and election coverage were therefore also topics covered in the training” he explains.

Despite the setbacks suffered by many media outlets and radio station as a result of the earthquake, Mehdi's work helped to boost journalistic activity, and the national association of journalists actually increased its membership by 20 per cent during the course of the programme.

Reconnecting people

Youths both in the local population and in the camps set up for the internally displaced people also benefited.

“We run a project with mobile multimedia units. This is a small, mobile IT centre with eight computers with internet access which the inhabitants can use. In addition, we provide basic and advanced computer skills training for more than 3,000 young people.”

“The provision of computing and internet facilities we found was very important. Cybercafes, schools, and offices where people usually had access had of course collapsed. I remember very well this young woman, a student of nursing. She used the centre to do research on sexually transmitted diseases which she needed for her work,” Mehdi recalls.

“The centres allow people to communicate with their families, and also to gain new computer skills. They became a means for people to express their reality to outsiders. For example, in six camps we set up a blog where people posted pictures, drawings, poems and writing. You might not think it, but having a way of sharing what you are going through can make life a little less painful, or simply help you get on with life”. 

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