How an innovative partnership with the media delivers mutual benefits in Angola.

The night the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) was evacuated from its office building in Luanda, Angola, journalists helped Margarida Loureiro carry her boxes to her apartment. At the time, Loureiro was the External Relations Officer-Partnerships, and the journalists were eager to interview her about a wildly incorrect news report saying the Angolan government had allowed 11,000 refugees to disappear.

On the walk to her apartment, Loureiro joked with the journalists, “Can you imagine? Now I’m an IDP!” The journalists all laughed, because they understood that “IDP” stands for “internally displaced person.” This collegial relationship — and, in some cases, the understanding of the acronym IDP itself — was the result of trainings the UNHCR operation in Angola initiated to educate the media about refugee-related issues.

On this particular day, the Angolan government was distressed about the inaccurate reporting and wasted no time letting UNHCR know the claim was absolutely untrue. Loureiro and her colleagues interceded quickly, issuing a press release to set the record straight within an hour. From the lobby of her apartment building, Loureiro and a representative of the Angolan government appeared on TV together to explain the situation: Refugees had not disappeared, but were simply being moved to a different settlement in Angola. The joint interview was an opportunity to correct the journalist’s misunderstanding of the facts and educate the public about refugee life in Angola.

This level of cooperation didn’t exist just a few months earlier. Journalists in Angola have always taken pride in quality reporting, but many of them did not have a thorough understanding about the work of UNHCR, the situation of refugees in Angola or even the basic terminology used to talk about refugees. At one point, a journalist referred to refugee settlements as “concentration camps.” Calling refugees “illegal” was another inaccurate term journalists sometimes used.

It’s not that UNHCR and the Angolan media were adversarial, but like any relationship, it had its complications.

“It’s like being in a personal relationship where things aren’t quite working out,” says Loureiro, who is now a Senior Inter-Agency Coordination Officer with UNHCR for the Venezuela situation. “When UNHCR and the media started working together, we learned that both of us were trying to do our best, but we spoke different languages. We had to learn how to talk to each other about things so we would feel comfortable with each other, and then things are easy to solve.”

There was no established path to creating a stronger relationship between UNHCR and the media in Angola. But Loureiro and the team quickly recognized the need to change the way things had been done in the past, and their colleagues were supportive. They weren’t sure where they were going, but they took it one step at a time, trusting there was a better way forward.

Step one: Get a fresh perspective

When she arrived in Dundo, Loureiro’s Portuguese language skills made her instantly popular with her colleagues at UNHCR, even though she started her assignment there as a Protection Officer. She was reluctant to do any media at first, but both her colleagues and members of the media began asking her to share information about the influx of refugees into Dundo, Angola, triggered by the outbreak of generalized violence in the Kasai region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in March 2017.

Loureiro realized the media was using the wrong terminology to describe the settlement and reception centers UNHCR had set up for refugees. But even more surprising was how open the media was to being corrected, she says.

“I would explain little by little with the right wording and the feedback was quite amazing,” Loureiro explains. “Instead of being offended because I was correcting them, they started asking questions.”

She began talking about UNHCR and the other agencies on the ground, such as UNICEF and WFP, and how they were working with refugees. She also made efforts to reshape the media’s perception of Congolese refugees, which was sometimes quite negative, despite many members of the Angolan media having been refugees once themselves, by repeatedly describing the realities of the refugees’ lives. It wasn’t long before Loureiro was working with the media on a daily basis, giving interviews and answering a wide range of questions.

It was all those questions — and the media’s eagerness to learn — that prompted Loureiro to propose that UNHCR and the media collaborate to provide a two-way training. The goal was to ensure that journalists understood the terminology and sensitivities related to refugees and that UNHCR proactively acknowledged the importance of media in protecting persons of concern. Improving the accuracy of their reporting would reflect well on the media, both locally and in the worldwide press, and UNHCR was keen to make sure UNHCR and refugees were being reported on correctly.

“I told them. ‘You are the expert in communications and I am the expert in refugees and the terminology, so let’s work together on this,’” Loureiro explains.

To avoid making it seem like UNHCR was telling the media what to report, Loureiro intentionally called the trainings “working sessions.” Later, the journalists themselves would begin referring to them as “workshops,” reflecting the value they placed on the learning opportunity.

Step two: Use common sense as a guide

None of this was in Loureiro’s original job description, and there was no policy or procedure in place at UNHCR to guide the development of workshops to educate journalists. Loureiro and her colleagues developed the initiative as they went along, working closely with the media along the way. They also took inspiration from initiatives at other UNHCR operations, but in many cases what was required wasn’t communication expertise, but basic common sense.

The operation recognized that the idea would only work if it was done as a partnership between UNHCR, the media and Angolan officials. It also required a willingness to experiment and “go with the stream and see where it takes you,” as Loureiro explains.

“We didn’t just say, ‘Oh, let us help you.’ We said, ‘Let’s work together — help us help you,’” she says. “The media is as good as a partner, because communication is protection for refugees and asylum seekers, so we wanted to make the media feel accountable and useful.”

To encourage journalists to attend the working sessions, UNHCR joined forces with Centro de Imprensa Aníbal de Melo (National Institute for Press), Angola’s governmental national media coordination body, to offer accreditation to national and international journalists who completed a working session. Giving the journalists a certificate of completion was strategic, Loureiro explains.

“The certificate shows they know how to report on refugees,” she says. “And if they make a mistake they could not say they didn’t know.”

But the responsibility didn’t fall entirely on the media. The working sessions established a true partnership with UNHCR. Journalists knew they could call Loureiro at any time of the day or night and she would answer their questions. The media also quickly developed close relationships with other UNHCR staff, including Philippa Candler, UNHCR’s Representative in Angola, and Martim Empis Gray Pereira. As Assistant External Relations Officer at the time, Pereira was Loureiro’s main supporter, working diligently behind the scenes to arrange TV appearances, debates and other opportunities to address topics in front of the broadest possible audience.

Step three: Build something new together

The first workshop, held in Luanda, was attended by about 50 communicators, including journalists, editors, and camera operators from the media, as well as institutional communication departments from Angola’s Ministry of the Interior and Ministry of Defense, both of which are actively engaged in refugee protection and coordination.

“We were very happy so many people attended,” Loureiro says. “We had a lot of media coverage and positive news on how UNHCR was assisting Angola and what a good job officials were doing receiving refugees.”

This success prompted UNHCR to host a second working session, which provincial authorities lobbied to be part of and help organize. As Loureiro says, they were pleased that UNHCR was not only addressing the media but also communication in general.

The second working session brought together three provinces. This time, there were 180 attendees — so many that the hosts ran out of certificates and had to deliver some after the training.

During the workshops, everyone was eager to learn. For example, participants asked UNHCR to clarify the difference between migrants and refugees. Loureiro acknowledges that sometimes UNHCR can be confusing in its own communications, so these dialogues were a learning opportunity for everyone — making it more of a knowledge-sharing opportunity than a top-down training from UNHCR. At one point, Angolan authorities were pointing to the printed materials UNHCR had provided and correcting other attendees on terminology.

“I was sitting there with a UNHCR colleague and we looked at each other and said, ‘Okay, it seems our idea is working.’”

By the third and final working session in the series, which took place over about four months in early 2018, UNHCR had to do very little. Angolan authorities took care of all the details, journalists contacted each other and about 100 people participated, demonstrating that this kind of collaboration can be maintained over the long term.

“The session was useful and clarified some mistakes we were making on our approach,” says Isidoro Muiombo Samutula, who has been a journalist for Jornal de Angola — a state-owned national daily newspaper for eight years. “After the session, we were better informed about refugees and how the press should report on technical issues, such as the differentiation between reception centers, refugee settlements, and refugee camps, as well as the need of everyone’s contribution to protect refugees.”

Samutula adds that following the working session, he immediately began using more accurate terms than he had in previous articles. He says he also formed a closer relationship with UNHCR’s communication team as a member of the press, which has facilitated his work.

Step four: Take inspiration from others, then pass it on

Much of the information shared during the workshops was also provided in printed booklets UNHCR created for the media to use for future reference. These booklets were inspired by similar materials created by UNHCR operations in Belgium and Spain, tailored to the specifics of Angola and translated into Portuguese — a practice now being adopted by other operations across UNHCR.

The booklets include common terminology and subtle language usage specific to refugees and other displaced people. In addition, the booklets supported sensitivity training provided during the working sessions, reminding the media about the right way to approach refugees who might be feeling frightened or nervous about sharing their story. The booklets include a section dedicated to photographers and camera operators, with specifics on capturing sensitive situations such as images of children.

UNHCR elaborated on this guidance during the working sessions. This sensitivity training made staff feel more comfortable having media on site, but was particularly beneficial to refugees being interviewed.

“I told the journalists they have to put themselves in this person’s place — if someone asked them, ‘Hey, how was your mother killed?’ they would not like this question,” Loureiro says. “They must remember these people are traumatized by war, some of them very recently.”

Loureiro and her colleagues also worked with the media to make sure refugees are portrayed as the resilient people they are.

“They are not victims — victims are the people who died back at home and these are the survivors,” she explains. “We want journalists to portray refugees as strong and dignified, not victims of anything.”

Step five: Make an inventory of your accomplishments

What the team did in Angola proves that innovation doesn’t require a policy or official guidelines to develop into a successful strategy — in fact, that lack of structure may help innovation develop in the first place. Being open to following the thread of a good idea proved very worthwhile in this case, and is a mindset that can easily be applied to initiatives across UNHCR.

There’s no question that the working sessions and other efforts to forge a closer partnership between UNHCR, the media, and government officials have been a benefit to everyone involved.

For one thing, the working sessions helped UNHCR significantly increase its media contact list, because attendees had to provide their email address and phone number to receive the informational booklet and certificate of completion. UNHCR’s media list in Angola grew from 20 or 30 contacts to about 300.

According to Loureiro, between January and early June 2018, the Angola operation recorded 145 positive news items about UNHCR in the press. In addition, when reporting errors do happen — which can happen anywhere, to anyone — the close relationship has made it easier to work together to issue corrections.

However, educating the media on communicating accurately about UNHCR and refugees has made errors less common.

“I have been writing more appropriately on the subject, and I can always count on UNHCR’s assistance in case of any doubt,” says Nisa Mendes, a correspondent for Agência de Notícias de Portugal (the LUSA news agency) for more than 10 years, who has been covering UNHCR activities since mid-2017. “Especially with the situation of DRC refugees, I have learned more about the rights that this group is entitled to.”

Although she did not attend any of the working sessions, Mendes — whose stories are distributed worldwide — recognizes how the relationship between UNHCR and the media has been strengthened, making information on refugees in Angola more available.

“The openness of UNHCR is very important for journalism, as the openness of sources prevents mistakes from being committed,” she says. “I wish that the partnership between UNHCR and the media is maintained, and continues to be strengthened for mutual benefits.”

Samutula would also like to see ongoing collaboration, including more training sessions for local journalists, because he values the closer partnership that resulted from UNHCR’s initiative.

“The most important thing is that we are fighting for the same cause, which is protecting refugees — each one of us is doing it in a different way, with the same goal,” he says. “It is a very positive experience to tell these moving stories because the reality of refugees and the situation that each one has passed until entering in Angola marks the lives of everyone involved in this honorable cause.”


We’re always looking for great stories, ideas, and opinions on innovations that are led by or create impact for refugees. If you have one to share with us send us an email at [email protected]

If you’d like to repost this article on your website, please see our reposting policy.