Inspiration can come from many sources, but one of the most powerful is seeing someone walk the path before you. Our Community Correspondent, Syed Amir Abbas found his inspiration in Stalin K., the founding director of Video Volunteers. "I met Stalin at VV's national meet in 2017 and I was very impressed by his own journey. It struck me that either I can wait for an opportunity or create an opportunity for myself like him," he says.
He was introduced to Video Volunteers in 2015. "It was at VV that I got a medium to voice concerns about local issues and experienced how strong media pressure can be on any administration.”
In the last seven years, he's been with VV, Amir has routinely used the power of community journalism when it comes to highlighting issues affecting his community. As the CEO of his media firm, his aim in the next three years is to train a group of young journalists to focus on hyperlocal issues in his hometown Patna.
“I want to do stories of those whose issues, and problems are ignored by society, the administration, and the media.”
While most educated people from Bihar, a state in east India, leave their homes for work opportunities in the government or media houses in the metro cities, our Community Correspondent Amir Abbas has chosen to do the opposite. Despite his college education in media studies, Abbas decided to stay put and create a team of hyper-local journalists who report on and tackle issues that solve the problems of the people of Bihar.
Amir is an enterprising 27-year-old journalist from Bihar's capital city Patna. His love and concern for Bihar, the state in East India where Gautama became enlightened as to the Buddha, is apparent in the issues he reports on and creates affirmative impacts for the neglected, underserved and marginalized people of his home state.
Amir's early life was marked by struggles and challenges. Growing up without a father after his passing when Amir was only three years old, he was raised by a single parent. Despite this, Amir was determined to make a better life for himself and his family. From a young age, he helped support his mother by earning a small income of Rs 4000 a month (USD 53) by distributing pamphlets and teaching younger students. Through hard work and determination, Amir has overcome these early struggles and has been able to achieve success in his academics.
His early struggles were also compounded by the impact his neighbourhood had on him. Amir comes from a locality which is densely populated. Though located in the heart of the city, Amir's locality had been denied the fruits of progress and development that should have been readily available. His neighbourhood witnessed a persistent social and economic divide that created a stark contrast between the haves and the have-nots. Amir, as a firsthand witness of these injustices and shortcomings, saw how his neighbourhood had been denied the basic benefits of progress and development that should have been readily available. The inequality and lack of resources that he witnessed daily, fueled his determination to bring attention to these issues and fight for change, both in his personal and professional life.
Growing up in a community plagued by social and economic inequality, Amir developed a strong sense of resilience, determination and passion for making a difference in the community. He channelled these qualities into his chosen field of journalism, using his skills as a journalist to bring attention to issues in his community and fight for change. He took journalism as his subject, which not only gave him the opportunity to make a real impact in his community but also helped him to give voice to the voiceless.
One of the early impressions he had about the power of journalists, was when he was working in a local tea stall. He was barely 9-10 years old. He watched as the mere presence of a person with a microphone or camera would make the owner of the stall nervous, and he often wondered who these powerful figures were.
He never imagined that one day he would grow up to become one of them. But now, armed with a camera and microphone of his own, he uses his power to tell stories that bring justice to marginalized communities.
Cutting his teeth as a journalist
Amir's background and experiences have propelled him to excel in his studies and profession, where he has become an advocate for those who have been denied the basic benefits of progress and development.
In 2015, Amir was introduced to Video Volunteers (VV) by a member of a theatre group he was associated with. At that time he was pursuing his Bachelor’s degree in History from Patna University.
It was from then that Amir has routinely used the power of journalism when it comes to highlighting issues at the Patna University, including when the library was inaccessible to students for two years and if there were protests on the campus.
Amir, a top-ranking student at Patna University, used his position to bring attention to the lack of resources for visually impaired students at the school. He created a story for Video Volunteers about the issue, and it had a significant impact.
The University's administration was prompted to take action, and facilities such as braille books and access to the library were made available to visually impaired students the day after the story was released.
"My story on the condition of blind students at Patna University stirred up the administration. The students did not have braille books and access to the library. The story led to immediate impact, and a day after the story was out, all the facilities were put in place for the students," says Amir.
His association with VV has been instrumental in helping him to become a more effective journalist and advocate for his community. Once Aamir was trained in video journalism at VV, he began to focus his camera on issues and areas that were often overlooked by mainstream media. Utilizing his writing skills, he crafted video scripts that shed light on the struggles of homeless individuals who were not receiving the support they needed in government shelters.
His coverage of the NRC issue, which centres on citizenship in India, included powerful interviews with Muslim men who were willing to pledge their allegiance to India and even die for their country, rather than be labelled as Bangladeshi refugees.
Amir's unique approach to storytelling and his willingness to cover under-reported issues has been instrumental in bringing attention to important social and political issues.
In addition to covering more complex issues like NRC, Amir also used his platform at VV to bring attention to the more basic yet pressing issues faced by marginalized communities in India. He reported on the lack of basic facilities at government shelters for homeless individuals and shed light on the struggles faced by ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activist) workers, who are often overworked and underpaid. His coverage of these issues helped to bring about awareness and advocacy for the rights of these marginalized communities.
In 2018, Amir joined the Delhi-based organization 'Youth ki Awaaz' (Voice of the youth) and started handling their social media feed. In 2019, he resumed his studies and did his Master’s in journalism from the Patna University.
The quest to tell poignant stories
The training Amir received at Video Volunteers (VV) had a profound impact on his approach to journalism and storytelling. One of the most significant impacts was his ability to tell stories through videos, which allowed him to bring attention to the issues faced by his community in a powerful and engaging way.
Growing up in a neighbourhood facing a land shortage, high traffic and limited access to basic amenities, it was an ambitious goal for Amir to pursue a career in media, knowing that such ventures often depend on funding and advertisement.
Even while working with VV, Amir attempted to start a YouTube channel twice in 2018 and 2019 but was unable to sustain it. Despite facing discouragement and taunts from his relatives and community, who did not see YouTube as a promising career option for the middle class, Amir was determined to continue his efforts to bring attention to the developmental crisis in his community. He showed a great deal of courage by attempting to start a YouTube channel thrice and not giving up.
Unlike the local newspaper or YouTube channels that focused prominently on politics or romanticized the cultural aspect of the city, Amir's channel was determined to bring attention to the real issues of the community.
Inspiration to go on
Describing VV in three words, Amir says, "Empowerment, Capacity to think, Platform to act". He cites the example of how working with VV has given him the capacity to think critically.
Amir's journey with Video Volunteers has been greatly supported by his mentors and coordinators. He credits his mentor Manish for teaching him valuable skills and his first lesson in team management came from VV's Bihar coordinator Ajit Bahadur. Even today, when he faces conflicts or arguments, Amir tries to put himself in Ajit's shoes and imagines how he would have resolved the issue, a testament to the lasting impact of the guidance and mentorship he received from his VV team.
In the last years, that he has been associated with VV, he has worked on 32 video stories impacting 4615 lives.
Learning from an early debacle
From his past experience of starting a news channel, Amir learned the importance of building a strong and supportive team. In his previous venture, he had taken on too much responsibility, handling everything from writing scripts to shooting and editing, which was not sustainable.
Before launching "Democratic Charkha" (Democratic wheel), he assembled a team to help him with various aspects of news reporting. They began with a pilot launch in 2020, using just a YouTube channel and Facebook page. After receiving positive feedback, they launched a website.
In 2021, Amir and his team reached out to Independent and Public Spirited Media (IPSM) as they felt their values of serving the community were aligned.
IPSM is a Bengaluru-based foundation that promotes and funds excellence in independent, public-spirited, and socially impactful journalism.
The onward journey
After a series of meetings with IPSM in November 2021, DC received a grant from IPSM.
DC is a mixed-medium platform that features written articles and video stories. The platform aims to bring attention to under-reported issues and give a voice to marginalized communities, just like Amir's experience with VV. The grant from IPSM has allowed Amir to pursue his passion for community journalism and make a real impact in his community through the stories he tells.
“We started our journey by covering Patna but till today we are in Begusarai, Samastipur, Siwan, Katihar, Saharsa, Supaul, Sitamarhi, Aurangabad, Sheikhpura and Araria.”
Till date, we have made a direct impact on more than 100K lives. In 2022, he got a second round of funding from the Google News Initiative. Amir’s media venture is highly successful and making profit.
How was Democratic Charkha different
In the 6 years, he's been with VV, Amir says that he noticed that despite the impactful, grassroots-level journalism that they do there were some gaps that needed to be addressed.
"VV's stories are great and create an impact on the ground. But they were a long-drawn process, in documentary format and sometimes stories took a month to be published. Also, there's only a limited number of people who got to see these stories. I felt the need to do stories faster and wanted a wider reach of audience and the only way to do that was to start my own media organization", says the enterprising journalist.
DC has 22,000 subscribers to its YouTube channel and the monthly viewership of the channel is around 100,000. It has website traffic of over 150,000 every month.
According to him, while VV does angle-based stories, they did not do much mainstream or regional political coverage. He feels the need to cover that gap and through his platform Democratic Charkha manages to do 50% of articles that are like spot news and covering various issues and 50% are videos.
"On DC, we've opened the platform for the common person to write articles on issues that are troubling them or the community they belong to so that their voice comes out unfiltered. We are getting a good readership by adopting this method. We adopted a public-spirited approach," the community media's young CEO claims.
Challenges of minority-run media
Amir's media house is a minority-run platform that he began with two friends and like-minded journalists. However, the acceptance level of a fully minority-run media house among established media firms has been a point of debate.
There is no concrete data on fully-minority run media houses in India. However, it is worth noting that media ownership in India is highly concentrated, with a small number of large companies controlling a majority of the industry. This can make it difficult for minority-owned media businesses to compete and thrive. Additionally, marginalized communities may face additional barriers such as a lack of access to funding and education, which can make it more challenging for them to enter the media industry.
"What I faced was that people have issues if there's a media house fully owned by a minority community. Nobody points fingers at similar media houses that are owned by people of the majority community and staffed by their own people. I've been told to include other community members in the top management of DC. But I will not buckle to such demands," he says of the 'double standards' he's faced.
As the CEO of his media firm, his aim in the next three years is to train a group of young, go-getting journalists to focus on hyperlocal issues in his hometown Patna and a small town called Bhagalpur. During the impact-driven 7-year stint he's had with VV, Amir is looking to continue the work he's doing.
From the dreamy-eyed 9-year-old working in a non-descript tea stall in Patna who was in awe of “the man with camera and mic”, to owning a media house and having a team of 25 people including stringers reporting to him, Amir surely has come a long way.
"Everything I know about video journalism today is because of my training and support from VV. I want to do stories of those whose issues, and problems are ignored by society, the administration, and the media. That's possible with VV," says Amir.
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