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Rawan Jayousi and Madraj

Madraj: building a media ecosystem to support democracy

“Our goal is to support the right for people to be informed, to be active citizens, and to participate politically in their country, to practice accountability and their right to vote… We need citizens who can push back and demand their right to a democratic state. Independent journalism is the main pillar to do that,” says Rawan Jayousi, founder and director of Madraj: Media and Digital Runway for Arab Journalists, in conversation with EED.

Rawan’s vision for Madraj is to create an ecosystem for independent media in the Arab speaking world with gender equality and sustainability at its core. “It was my dream to open a space that could be a hub and an incubator to support independent journalists,” she says.

A challenging space

As Rawan relates, independent media throughout the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf region face multiple challenges.

“There are not enough media outlets; independent journalists can’t earn enough to support their families or to provide for a career. They face financial ceilings, legal restrictions, and of course, media freedom ceilings. There’s also the question of viability. How do you develop a sustainable model that will generate enough money and reach wide audiences?” she says, also noting the breakdown in trust between society and politicians, and society and media, in the region.

Madraj is working to address these issues by building a community of empowered journalists from across the Arabic-speaking region, incubating innovative projects, accelerating alternative media start-ups and carrying out research on key media issues and digitalisation of media business models to enable sustainability and viability.

Innovation as key

Innovation sits at the heart of Rawan’s vision. “Many incubators target scientists, engineers and the IT sector, but in media, data and information are also products. Why can’t we look at independent journalism through the lens of business, innovation and technology?” she says.

This focus on innovation does not come naturally to all journalists from the region. “Journalism as a profession has many stereotypes. Becoming a TV presenter is appealing to young graduates; or if someone has a nice voice, they maybe want go to radio. But journalism is not about that. It’s about critical thinking, about accountability and the fight for freedom. We need to work on changing these stereotypes in our profession.”

She explains that Madraj is focused on working with young people and women, and she is determined to engender a sense of innovation in these journalists. “When we think about start-ups, we need to think what kind of start-up will be more viable in the long-term. What business models will be effective and have the potential to grow? Innovation needs to be central to everything. We don’t support newspapers, or radio stations. We support business models that can be effective and have the potential to grow.”

Madraj’s team of seven provide training and mentoring to journalists from throughout the region. Over the next month, Rawan is travelling to Iraq and Yemen to deliver training on media digitisation to women journalists. This follows a highly successful ‘Google News Initiative’, a mentoring project delivered by Madraj, and attended by 16 start-up media outlets from across the region over a six-month period.

Rawan believes that networking and building a strong community of practice is also important to maintaining this sense of innovation, and she is looking to building synergies with other professions. In a project next year, Madraj will work with multi-disciplinary teams of students of engineering, business and media studies with a vision of engendering new media start-ups.

Core-funding key to sustainability of media start-ups

It was thanks to a Knight Fellowship from the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) that Rawan was able to set up Madraj. An EED grant is now covering Madraj’s operational costs, and it also enabled Rawan and her team to mount an advocacy campaign prior to the passing of a new cybercrimes law in Jordan that many fear could see an alarming surge in online censorship. Rawan is grateful for this support.

“This core funding meant I could focus on establishing Madraj, and I have the freedom to seek additional funding and implement other projects. It’s important for any start-up to have a minimum two-three years core funding,” she says. This is something she constantly reiterates to donors.

A self-acknowledged workaholic, with an academic background in media studies, human rights and humanitarian development, and now pursuing a doctorate in political science, Rawan believes that her professional trajectory was the best preparation for her current role.

“I trained hundreds of journalists from across the region – from Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco, Iraq… Journalists with different dreams and huge limits on these dreams. They want to change things in their communities, but they lack the funding, freedoms, and the tools. Today, journalists call us from all over the region. They ask if their ideas are feasible and viable. We advise them about their audiences, their network and potential donors. We provide the knowledge,” she says.

She’s focused too on encouraging more women to work in the media. “I’m lucky. I’m well educated. I had an international network…I was a radio manager when I was young. I had a supportive family. As a woman in a conservative community, I worked hard. Now, I want to support others by educating them, helping them to network, supporting them to become viable, and linking them to donors, and helping them find technological solutions,” she says.

She admits that this work is not without its challenges, but she’s ready for these. And she has another focus: to finish her PhD.

This article reflects the views of the grantees featured and does not necessarily represent the official opinion of the EED.