What started as a National Security and Press Freedom Reporting course, taught by first-time professor, longtime journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner Dana Priest, has now blossomed into Press Uncuffed, a full-fledged campaign.
With the goal of selling bracelets in order to raise money to free imprisoned journalists around the world, this university’s student-run campaign launched March 25, with the goal of raising $30,000 on crowdsourcing website Indiegogo.
The funds raised go toward producing the three dollar bracelets, which will sell for $10, Priest said. The bracelet sales would ideally raise $100,000 to support the Committee to Protect Journalists and The Gene Roberts Fund for Emergency Assistance and make another round of bracelets, Priest said.
In seven days, the campaign has met 71 percent of its goal with donations from more than 190 people.
And it all began with Priest’s class.
The award-winning Washington Post journalist, who has covered foreign policy and diplomacy issues for the past two decades, gave each of her students an imprisoned journalist’s name and their picture on the very first day of class.
Priest said students researched their assigned imprisoned journalist and attempted to contact them in order to write a story pertaining to freedom of the press.
“Much to my satisfaction, students really got into their journalists,” Priest said. “They felt really close to them and did great work.”
Priest said students dug deep into their journalist’s story, using social media networks like Twitter, Facebook and Skype to contact the journalists’ friends, family members and colleagues.
“There have been times where a couple journalists that students have been writing about actually got freed,” Priest said. “I got emails in the middle of the night, saying ‘My journalist is out. I’m so happy. I’ve got tears in my eyes.’ Or another person [said] something bad happened to their journalist and they were just really angry. They took ownership and they felt connected. That to me was such a great thing.”
Press Uncuffed campaign director and recent Merrill College graduate Lejla Sarcevic said she experienced this sense of attachment to her assigned journalist.
Priest assigned Sarcevic Australian journalist Peter Greste, whom the Egyptian government imprisoned with two of his colleagues for reporting material allegedly threatening to national security, Sarcevic said.
While some students in the class had reporters with little to no information about them on the Internet, Sarcevic said her challenge was too much coverage on Greste’s imprisonment.
“I had to try and cover it from a different angle,” Sarcevic said. “I went on to what I like to refer to as my ‘carpet-bombing’ strategy where I just tweeted out to everyone that was connected with him. I tweeted to his colleagues, to his family members. I tweeted to anyone I could think of. The only one that got back to me was his brother, Andrew.”
After connecting to Greste’s brother and uncle, Sarcevic was able to send a letter to Greste while he was imprisoned in Egypt.
“I wrote him a letter about a couple pages long typed up and Andrew delivered it to him,” Sarcevic said. “And then about three or four days later, Andrew emailed me with pictures of a handwritten response from Peter.”
Sarcevic said it was incredible to receive Greste’s response and to develop a connection.
“[Greste’s brother] told me that Peter got a lot of letters while he was in jail, but this one really resonated with him, so that was a really great thing to hear,” Sarcevic said.
In January 2015, after Sarcevic spent weeks working on the project and contacting Greste through his family members, Egyptian authorities released Greste from prison.
“When he finally got released, I sat down and had a really big cry,” Sarcevic said. “Because you become so attached to these people. The fact that I also had a lot of contact with the family and I talked to them about what they were going through and how they were coping with it was just a really awesome experience.”
Like Greste, Nega, an American University graduate was sentenced to 18 years in prison by the Ethiopian government. His advocacy of journalism and reporting in 2012, also received considerable coverage, Amenabar said.
“Rather than profiling him, which was a decision I made because he’s so well known, I focused more on the journalists he hired and what is more a slowly developing digital age in Ethiopia,” Amenabar said. “Ethiopia has a very low percentage of people connected to the Internet, and their Internet and telecom connections are all government owned.”
As a journalist, Amenabar said getting to the other side and learning about the impact of Nega’s imprisonment in Ethiopia interested him the most.
“There is a growing blogosphere [in Ethiopia],” said Amenabar, who said he wanted to figure out why Ethiopia was limiting press. “Eskinder and journalists like himself, who were originally writing for print, are kind of inspiring these future columnists.”
As the students’ dedication to their individual journalist’s grew, so did their passion for the project, Priest said.
“Some of them said, ‘Well, we want to do something more than the papers,’ so a group of us brainstormed. And this idea of some kind of bracelet came up,” Priest said.
Inspired by these journalists’ stories, a closed Facebook group formed and soon the class was discussing and debating the bracelets’ concept, Priest said.
“Would it be like the Livestrong bracelets? What would be on it?” Priest asked.
Little by little, the class developed the idea, and, with the help of alumni, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Public Policy’s Department of Philanthropy and other university departments, the Press Uncuffed campaign started taking form, Priest said.
Breaking the Chains
Priest said the campaign’s creation was not absolute.
“We didn’t totally know because there’s so many details that we don’t think about,” said Priest, who admits finance wasn’t in her long list of journalist expertise. “We didn’t know until about a month ago whether it was absolutely going to work – whether to put on the Indiegogo campaign on.”
But with the work of the student team, the class launched the Indiegogo campaign and has already raised more than $21,000.
The imprinted transparent bracelets are currently sold on the Indiegogo campaign, currently for donations of $25 or more along with other incentives, including a free Washington Post digital subscription for $100 or a behind the scenes access for a taping of MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews for $250.
And while the students want to raise awareness about the nine featured imprisoned journalists, Sarcevic said Press Uncuffed is more than that.
“It’s about the fact that as soon as you start incriminating journalists you are blocking the free fall of information,” Sarcevic said. “You are preventing a functioning society from flourishing. It’s not just about uncuffing people, it’s about uncuffing information.”
Priest said she hopes students will do their research and start a conversation that will lead to a change.
“My fantasy is that students connect to people around the world who are involved with these imprisoned journalists and that there’s a conversation or exchange of information,” Priest said. “The point is to figure out a way to pressure the government that is holding all these people to release them. That is the ultimate goal – to get these journalists out of prison. And I think that’s possible, or I wouldn’t be doing this.”
Brittany Britto is a graduate student and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.