By Ted Yoakum
Last year’s Arab Spring revolution movement in the Middle East that led to the ousting of authoritarian regimes in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen reawakened the American public’s debate over whether all humans deserve the universal right of free speech and democratic rule.
However, one freedom that is often overlooked in these discussions is the freedom of the press, a right that can be taken for granted here in the U.S.
Laws in nations such as China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Russia limit the access journalists are given to newsmakers, with most of the media presented to the public in a fashion that suits the nation’s leadership. In some nations, reporters can be imprisoned or executed if the material they publish doesn’t fall in step with the regime’s rhetoric.
Last fall, cable news giant CNN and Reporters Without Borders, an international journalism advocacy organization, joined forces with college students nationwide in order to spread the word about press censorship. The two entities created the “For Press Freedom” contest, which challenged university students to submit video public service announcements about this practice.
The top five entries have been selected, and among them is a pair of WMU film students: Sophomores Cassie Stagner and Wil Granaderos. If the judges choose their video as the winner, their work will be aired on CNN on May 3, in commemoration of World Press Freedom Day.
“We’re so passionate about this being shown,” Stagner said. “Other college students like us didn’t know this [censorship] was going on, so with having our video going on people can see.”
According to the form they sent with their entry, the purpose of their PSA is help enlighten the public to the often brutal conditions many reporters working with state-controlled presses.
“Countless numbers of reporters are being persecuted for simply informing the public of information they should not be deprived of,” the form says. “Our goal is to motivate the public to take a stand, make a scene, defend, and end this silence.”
Stagner and Granaderos enlisted the help of a few of their friends, Alexandra McLeod, Leonard Zongo, Cassandra Vandersloot and Tamuir Hayat, using them as talent for their project.
“In the submission guidelines, they urged something that was highly creative, and pretty edgy and bold. So we wanted be blunt, but in a creative way,” Granaderos said.
The two initially heard about the contest in February, after reading about in an email sent out by School of Communications advisor Marilyn Kritzman, about a month before the submission deadline. Although the pair initially entered the contest mostly to test their mettle as amateur film makers, they soon found themselves wrapped up in the sobering reality of press censorship.
“So far, in 2012, 16 [journalists] have already been killed, and over 160 are imprisoned,” Stagner said, referencing numbers published by Reporters Without Borders.
“You have to applaud [these journalists] for their bravery,” Granaderos added. “People have the right to know what’s going on. Nothing should be hidden.”
After spending about a day brainstorming ideas, the two shot and edited their film in 14 straight hours, from 6:30 p.m. to 8 a.m. the next day. “We were blessed with how quickly it came together,” Stagner said.
This project marks the second collaboration between the two film students, who struck up a friendship during their freshman year after meeting inside the residence halls.
“We work really well together. We compliment each other’s strengths,” Granaderos said. “She’ll come with one idea, and I’ll figure out a way to make it better, or I’ll come with an idea and she’ll find a way to make it better.”
“We’re like a power team,” Stagner joked.
Stagner said she received word of the judges’ decision via email around 10 p.m. on April 2, and immediately called her partner to relay the news.
“He was just like ‘What, are you serious?’” Stagner recalled. “We just didn’t believe it at first.”
The final selection for the contest will be made on Thursday, by a panel of judges that includes CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, CNN executive vice-president and managing editor Mark Whitaker, Calvin Sims from the Ford Foundation, Reporters Without Borders executive director Olivier Basille, Reports Without Borders USA chairman Peter O. Price, Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi, Bashana Abeywardane of Sri Lanka’s Journalists for Democracy, Bahraini journalist Nada Alwadi and Academy Award nominated documentary filmmaker of Hell and Back Again, Danfung Dennis.
Although they are excited at for the opportunity at the prospects of CNN broadcasting their work to a national audience, the film students said they are simply grateful for the experience of further honing their craft.
“Every time you work on something you learn something new,” Granaderos said. “It was nice trying to create something as professional looking as we could.”