Activism in Pandemic: GNMI’s Shift from Offline to Online

As the COVID-19 pandemic has progressed, many offices have shifted from offline spaces to online platforms to run their regular operations as before. Although, it was challenging but it also brought new opportunities to work differently during pandemic.  Global Neighbourhood for Media Innovations (GNMI) halted its operations in March with a spike in coronavirus cases in Pakistan. In July, the organization decided to resume its activities seeing the infodemic surrounding COVID-19 reporting to equip journalists in Pakistan with essential trainings required for responsible reporting in the pandemic. 

‘COVID-19 pandemic was an eye-opener for everyone including GNMI as it pushed us to go the online route. We had expertise of live online events using services like Zoom and StreamYard, still, this adaptation was a different experience for converting in-person workshops, trainings, on-ground communications, and events to virtual activities,’ said Programme Manager, Muhammad Ali Bilgrami. ‘With few tweaks, we managed to come out on top and schedule and execute the proceedings by shifting almost all of the scheduled activities online.’

Bilgrami is responsible for several projects that focus on capacity building and awareness raising on gender equality, human rights, freedom of information, right to information, digital news startups, gender equality journalism, Covid-19 and Polio using modern digital tools and platforms. Bilgrami with senior journalist Mr. Aoun Sahi had designed and implemented training workshops in Sindh and Balochistan with journalists, news content creators, vloggers/bloggers and journalism students. 

He and his team coordinated with press clubs and university administrations to engage participants online for learning news tools and techniques needed in this pandemic. 

GNMI also worked day and night to make its training sessions inclusive, safer, and easier to attend for the participants. Founder and president of GNMI, Najia Ashar told how they rescheduled activities seeing workload and the strict work schedule of journalists. Some of the workshops were split into two-hour sessions each day to not add into their workload.

‘We told women participants to be comfortable with their mic and camera settings. If they do not wish to switch on their camera and mic, we were okay with it. We told them that we just wanted them to learn and participate in these online trainings with their ease. It gave them confidence. A large number of women from Sindh and Balochistan attended digital literacy sessions during the pandemic.’

She said the shift to online platforms was sudden and unexpected but they went with the flow and adjusted with new normal settings. There were some challenges but the team overcame those with the help of each other and of the participants.

Online meetings proved none less than a challenge for journalists in Balochistan region where the access to internet is not that easy. 

‘The biggest challenge was to conduct trainings in Balochistan. We had done all preparations for the trainings. Our tickets were booked, the venue was booked, the dates were set but we had to cancel everything and to shift it to Zoom. Another challenge was working with our US trainers due to time zone differences which we overcome by scheduling their trainings on timings optimal for both the trainers and the participants”, said Programme Director Ashar Ali.

GNMI also prepared a guide on how to access online platforms for trainers and participants to help them understand the new platforms. ‘The difficulty was to educate our participants about how to attend the trainings before the actual training as the majority had no clue how to do that,’ said Programme Manager Muhammad Ali Bilgrami. ‘We selected Zoom, like the rest of the world because it has a cleaner more user-friendly interface. We developed quick-to-learn guidelines and tips for the participants. Before each training, we would train them on how to attend online training.’ 

Bilgrami is also the person in charge of the mobile applications that GNMI uses for internal coordination within its team. Talking about the experience, he said the team management software in combination with instant messaging apps like WhatsApp proved a lifesaver in lockdown.

‘Coordination with trainers and among the team remained almost the same as it was before the training, over the phone or email or WhatsApp. I must highlight here that the use of WhatsApp in any sector has boosted during Covid-19 for team communications. We also started using online team and task management software like ClickUp and Microsoft Teams to increase productivity and communication within team.’

The online shift also required a full-time moderator for the training session that would coordinate with all stakeholders to ensure smooth communication.

‘Although, with participants it requires a lot more effort as compared to an in-person training or event as we must constantly coordinate with them for guiding about Zoom, getting their questions out there and answered, troubleshooting regarding weak internet connections, mobile problems, content sharing, using breakout rooms and video frame, etc. For this, a full-time moderator was assigned to the trainings to facilitate both the trainer and the participants.’

GNMI built capacity of approx. 1,000 trainees from all provinces of Pakistan during the pandemic. 

GNMI also ensured extra safety procedures to enable its staff to return to the office in August requiring them to wear masks and maintain social distancing at all time. 

‘GNMI office has very strict SOPs in place. Masks are mandatory and are available within the office along with several sanitizers placed at multiple locations for ease of access. The seating of the staff ensures a gap of over six feet and the office is cleaned and sanitized every morning,’ Bilgrami told.

Ashar said that GNMI will adopt a hybrid environment post-pandemic to reach out to trainees in remote areas to build their capacities especially of those who could not avail these opportunities in offline settings for their personal and professional commitments. 

‘It was an amazing learning experience for us. Online meetings and working proved highly productive for GNMI. We plan to take those forward in the future.’

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