In the odd times through which we are living – with the game-changing Wikileaks, the elaborate Panama Papers, the Snowden revelations of top-secret surveillance data – it is fitting that Meiryum Ali, of Pakistan-based online news platform, Soch Videos, was crowned our Young Journalist of 2019 at a gala awards night held in London on November 25th.
Her work is remarkably different from that of previous winners and a great victory for investigative, data-based journalism.
With a mix of traditional journalistic skills, compelling expression and unmistakable clarity, her explainer video of the complex data connecting former Pakistani president, Asif Ali Zardari with a high-profile money-laundering case, packs a visual punch.
The video exposé, made for the era of social media, is simultaneously bold, rigorous and humorous. Analysing a 128-page legal document that she describes as “an extremely dense and complicated financial read” and turning it into something palatable for the public is a major undertaking. However, it’s Meiryum’s simple, yet honest visual language and masterful treatment of the information that truly reveals her skills as a data journalist.
From information to insight, she explains how the public isn’t interested in sifting through large amounts of data and that without the analysis, the report by Pakistan’s Supreme Court-appointed Joint Investigation Team, may have died unread.
“At Soch Videos, I decided that the best way to inform people of the report’s contents was to script and create a visual narrative, explaining exactly how money-laundering works, and piecing together the money flow,” she says.
“The video helped shape public discourse around the former president’s trial because it was the only one to disseminate information clearly and interestingly enough from a report which people wouldn’t have otherwise read.
“It was released shortly before Zardari was expected to appear in court and went viral upon release. Surprisingly, it was also tweeted by the current ruling party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. It is now the second most-watched video on Soch Videos.”
Coincidentally, Soch Videos has produced Pakistani Young Journalist finalists for three years running, with Maham Javaid in 2017, Asad Pabani in 2018 and now, Meiryum. Salman Yousafzai from Pakistan's New Lens was a contender for the prize in 2016, but Meiryum is the first Pakistani to win the award.
In its eighth year, the Thomson Foundation Young Journalist Award is one of the highlights of the UK’s Foreign Press Association (FPA) Awards and enables journalists aged 30 and under from developing countries and emerging economies to enter their work for scrutiny by the foundation, and then an independent jury selected by the FPA.
Since its inception, the annual prize has focused on the work of reporters who have provided a portfolio of stories aimed at creating impact on audiences in their respective countries. This year’s award attracted almost 200 entries from 55 countries.
Says Thomson Foundation’s chief executive, Nigel Baker: “All of Meiryum’s stories are strongly in the public interest, had significant impact and required scrupulous research. Her analysis of the money-laundering case was especially commendable, as was her engaging explanation of the details of the case.”
The FPA judging committee also praised Meiryum’s “creative freshness” and described her work as “very impressive” and “quirky,” particularly in the case of ‘The Zardari System.’
Knowing how to get to a story via data is a prized skill. However, the best stories emerge from talking to people and data works best when it’s partnered with experts or ordinary citizens affected by the issues. As Meiryum’s growing body of work demonstrates, they often help to provide the nuances that data alone can’t.
In one of her video reports, Meiryum speaks to distressed shop owners in Karachi’s Empress Market, their livelihoods broken by an anti-encroachment drive by the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation. In another, she empathises with more than 3,000 families in the country’s capital, Islamabad, left homeless and using makeshift tents after their slum homes were demolished to make way for infrastructure projects, “…their belongings thrown out with the rubble. Exactly what was their crime?” she asks.
These are the issues that Meiryum is striving to shine a light on and she harnesses the power of data and technology to find the subjects she wants to report on. Some of her video pieces include numbers, some have no numbers in them at all, but there is always a human story behind the data crunch.
We look forward to seeing more from Meiryum, and the two worthy finalists who joined her in London to attend the gala awards night – from India, Sarita Santoshini, and from Nigeria, Damilola Banjo. Congratulations to all three.
Video by Cheolan Jeong
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