Award-winner Solan Kolli filming in Ethiopia. (Photo: Eduardo Soteras)

The standard of freelance acquired news has become so penetrative and informative that the big broadcasting brands would surely collapse without stars like Solan Kolli who won the news award, Brent E. Huffman who took the new features prize, and Joshua Baker who won the Sony Impact award. One of the judges summed up the collective awe: “Right across the range of entries there is a strong sense of bravery and courage. What stood out was bringing the sense of the humanity and the moment, showing us things that have not yet been seen.”

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As the world’s leading foundation established in 1995 to recognize – and reward – the most outstanding work produced each year by freelancers, the Rory Peck Trust (RPT) seeks to highlight through its awards their significant contribution to the international news industry. Given that major media ranging from leading television networks to newspapers have been cutting back heavily in recent years for budgetary reasons on full-time coverage of events worldwide, it is increasingly up to freelancers to provide the content needed. Yet such coverage is often undertaken at great personal risk and without appropriate financial support. (See article in Global Insights on the need to fund good journalism)

Filmmaker, writer and journalist Tira Shubart opening the 26th Rory Peck Awards in London. (Photo: RPT)

This commitment by freelance journalists is regularly reiterated by major humanitarian, human rights and other related organizations based in Geneva, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and Médecins sans Frontières International (RSF). They recognize that their reporting has become indispensable to making worldwide audiences aware of what is happening in crisis zones ranging from Afghanistan to Ethiopia, but also to highlight repression in countries such as China, notably its abuse of the Uyghurs, or threats against freedom of expression in places like the Philippines and Nicaragua. (See video on the purpose of the Rory Peck Awards)

Without the work of freelancers, many such stories might simply never emerge. This is what the Rory Peck Awards, which are supported by Google, SONY, AP and the Swedish government, seek to remind us by focusing on their work.

Filmmaker Solan Kolli, who won the news reporting award, filming in the Ethiopian-Tigray war. (Photo: Eduardo Soter)

Trips to Tigray, Myanmar (Burma) and Minnesota 

The news winner, The Cost of War: Coverage of Ethiopia’s Tigray Conflict, was full of depth and complexity. Solan Kolli followed Ethiopian leader Abiy Ahmed’s troops into the Tigray region as they were tasked to rout the regional ruling party TPLF forces. The attack had happened, but he faced a communication blackout and the government also froze out foreign media, during what became a nine-month conflict.

How did Kolli capture the aftermath so brilliantly?

“I filmed some of the footage from inside a car using my smartphone and a small hand-held camera. There was a lot of waiting and a lot of work in building rapport and obtaining permission from the authorities,” he said. “I started filming well aware that I could be stopped at any moment, so I focused on getting as much as possible before the authorities changed their mind.

“I learned that it is good to embrace every opportunity and face any challenges and risks that come to my life,” he added. “I learned that a sober approach pays off: I take no sides, but let the camera see and show. I wasn’t in Mekele when TPLF re-took the city.”

The other finalists were Katie G. Nelson and Ed Ou with In the Middle of Chaos: Living with the Daunte Wright Protests at The Front Door, and an anonymous Burmese filmmaker/journalist with Myanmar’s Military Coup.

Brent Huffman (right) filming his story: Uyghurs who fled China now face repression in Pakistan. (Photo: RPT)

From Pakistan, Nepal and Myanmar again

Professor Brent E. Huffman, from North West University, created Uyghurs Who Fled China Now Face Repression in Pakistan as part of a suite of stories that look at China’s economic expansions into other countries, with accompanying issues like debt traps. The story here is China in Pakistan and the groups that are resisting or fighting back, specifically the BLA (Balloch Liberation Army).

Huffman went back five times between teaching courses: “The situation in this story would get dramatically worse every time I went,” he said.

His hero was Mohammed Umer, a teacher of Uyghur culture who ran an underground railway, smuggling people out of China. His work got tougher and tougher (he fled to Turkey) because China invested billions of dollars in CPEC.

“The smaller characters are the most interesting. The Uyghur activist is the one I would spend more time with, because in the future I want to do more small stories that reflect the bigger picture,” said Huffman.  

The other News Feature finalists were Tuja Kareng, Hkun Li, and Edward Win with Myanmar: An Uneasy Alliance, and Rojita Adhikari and Sreya Banerjee with Widows of Everest.

Kanta Yamamoto presenting the SONY IMPACT Award to filmmaker Josh Baker for his story: Return from ISIS: A Family Story. (Photo: RPT)

From the USA, Kenya and Eritrea

Josh Baker shot Return From ISIS: A Family Story over four frustrating years. He said: “It was amazing to get involved with, but it was incredibly difficult. Everything about it was challenging, because Sam Sally, the person at the centre of our story, was an unreliable narrator.

“Sam does not lie overtly. She lies by omission, so the 10 per cent she leaves out can change the whole way you can see something,” he added. “There were so many lies, and throughout the story she maintained she had no idea that she was going to ISIS. It basically took ages, running around every accusation and assertion she made to find the truth

Baker has since been busy interviewing another ISIS link, Shamima Begum, for BBC2. He was glad that Sam’s son Matthew, after being forced to do things for ISIS, returned to his biological father. He said: “Through no fault of his own, he suffered greatly.”

Josh Baker filming in former ISIS torture prison in Raqqa. (Photo: Josh Baker)

The other finalists in the Sony Impact category were Evan Williams & Eritrean Undercover team with Undercover in Africa’s Secret State, and Njeri Mwangi and Judith Kanaitha with The Baby Stealers.

Journalist and producer Riana Raymonde Randrianarisoa reporting from Madagascar. (Photo: RPT)

The Martin Adler award for freelance journalists and field producers, was won by Riana Raymonde Randrianarisoa from Madagascar.

In announcing this – the other finalists were Parth Nikhil form India and Speda Alnaqar from Iraq – sponsor representative Mikael Kumlin Granit, Swedish Ambassador to the Court of St James capped the event mood. She said: “Democracy and the freedom of the press is worth protecting every day. The freedom to participate, speak, think, communicate and love can never be taken for granted.”

George Jarrett is a media journalist – writing about both technical and creative subjects – since 1969. He has been freelance since 1986, and now writes mainly for IBC365. He first attended IBC in 1970, and was editorial founder of the IBC Daily, and the Soho Runner. He has produced and chaired over 100 industry conference sessions.

For more information on the Rory Peck Trust and what it does to support journalists, such as assistance grants, trauma & resilience workshops, online resources and safety training, please see:

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