A growing band of activists wants to take on perceived bias in mainstream media outlets, but can they succeed?
Paris, France — At the Quatre Temps shopping mall in the Paris district of La Defense, four friends vent their frustration about the media landscape.
“There’s no such thing as media independence here,” says Yasser Louati, in front of a half-finished cup of coffee and notes he jots down while speaking.
“Media ownership is concentrated in the hands of a few billionaires.”
The pilot-turned-anti-racism activist is greeted with nods of agreement from the others, and journalist Nadia Henni-Moulai interjects: “These people are investing their money in media companies at a loss for a reason, and that is to buy influence.”
Henni-Moulai’s complaint stems from the fact that some of France’s most well-known newspapers are owned either by extremely rich individuals or large corporations.
The conservative Le Figaro, for example, is owned by Dassault Group, best known for its subsidiary which produces fighter planes.
The centre-left Liberation newspaper is part-owned by Patrick Drahi, who has other major holdings in radio and TV stations.
For the group gathered at the coffee shop, this means mainstream outlets are compromised by their owners’ interests and unable to reflect the concerns and values of ordinary citizens, particularly the poor and those from ethnic minority backgrounds.
The influence of big money on the media, they argue, means the bounds of acceptable debate are beholden to what their owners are willing to tolerate.
“You will see faux-radicalism, but the only type that they are allowed to express, the type that is not dangerous,” says filmmaker Joseph Paris.
For YouTube talk show host Nadiya Lazzouni, the relationship between politicians and journalists is too close for comfort and compromises reporters’ abilities to properly convey what is in the public’s best interest.
“The media is so close to the political parties and financial institutions that they end up feeding each other,” she says.
“There can’t be any neutrality when they are so close.”
What distinguishes this meeting from any other involving activists vexing a litany of grievances at the media, is that Louati, Henni-Moulai, Lazzouni and Paris have taken on the challenge of producing an alternative.
They are involved in projects or fledgling media outlets aimed at catering to an audience they say the mainstream has neglected.
Henni-Moulai is the founder of Meltingbook.com, a website that covers news relating to France’s large ethnic minority population and features on French-North African culture.
I wanted to include the voices of people that weren’t heard in the mainstream … people like me.
Nadia Henni-Moulai, Founder of MeltingBook.com
“When you look at the composition of mainstream journalists, they all come from the same background: they are white and upper-middle class, and what they produce always appeals to others of the same mentality,” she tells Al Jazeera.
“People are fed up with the same stories and the same opinions. It’s important to break this cycle.
“I wanted to include the voices of people that weren’t heard in the mainstream … people like me.”
Lazzouni echoes that sentiment and says there is an “appetite for something different” among many who feel neglected.
Together with six friends, she launched the “Speak Up Channel” on YouTube in March.
In each 30-minute episode, a new topic affecting Lazzouni’s community is discussed, from subjects as diverse as the effect of US celebrity Kim Kardashian’s brand image on young women to the presidential election campaign.
“Most people go to social networks like YouTube now for entertainment instead of the TV or the newspapers,” Lazzouni says. “That is where they hear voices like theirs.”
The scope of the group’s media ambitions is not limited to journalism or entertainment alone, but also educating young people from impoverished suburbs about their rights.
In May, he plans to start his own organisation aimed at empowering grassroots activists with training videos and documentaries.
Our objective is to politicise the grassroots so they can mobilise and organise … it’s activism, but journalism is a very important component of activism.
Yasser Louati, Anti-racism activist
Topics will include the legal rights French citizens are entitled to, the historic structures of racism in France, and what fledgling activists can do to fight discrimination.
“The goal is pure empowerment and taking control of the narrative,” Louati says, unflinching.
“Our objective is to politicise the grassroots so they can mobilise and organise … it’s activism, but journalism is a very important component of activism.”
Filmmaker Paris agrees with using media to educate activists.
He is a member of Radical Cinema, a Europe-wide media collective which he says runs according to “anarchist principles” and focuses on documenting state violence, as well as the struggles of refugees and migrants.
“We need to highlight the voice of people who are not heard in the mainstream but also to educate people who want to do the same as us,” he says.
As part of a recent documentary, Paris filmed migrants forming a squat to live in.
The film serves not only as a record of the event, but also a guide for others to do the same.
The blurring of lines between advocacy and documenting distinguishes alternative media from the mainstream.
The group argues that the concept of objectivity practised by the mainstream is deeply flawed.
“Real objectivity doesn’t exist. When I write, I write with a vision of the impact I want it to have,” says Henni-Moulai.
“You look at the stigmatisation of Muslims in the big newspapers. How is that objective?”
The emphasis seems to be more about protecting the purity of their publications from outside influence than adopting what would be considered an objective approach.
Henni-Moulai and the others are vigilant about accepting funding from sources they consider would compromise their message and place a high value on becoming financially independent.
Competition and collaboration
But as well as acting as an alternative to the mainstream, for all their criticisms, members of the group also see their projects serving in a complementary role for bigger outlets in France and abroad.
By virtue of their contacts in communities mainstream journalists struggle to get access to, Louati, Paris, Lazzouni, and Henni-Moulai often beat big media outlets to the story.
Joseph Paris says that the objective is to spread the message as widely as possible, even if it means going through the media outlets they are so critical of.
“When we do news, it’s because I want other outlets to pick it up. I want my own projects to help diffuse the information into wider media.”
“We cannot work without the mainstream media if we are to have an impact,” adds Lazzouni. “So yes, we’re very critical but we cannot work without it.
“But the balance of power has to change.”