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There’s no journo fest huger than Perugia

THIS YEAR'S 11th International Journalism Festival, Europe’s largest annual media event, was like the Edinburgh Fringe for journalists. Naturally, numerous LFB members were in attendance.

Audience at the International Journalism Festival 2016;Tobia Faviero

An audience at last year's International Journalism Festival in Perguia.

For five chock-a-block days, media practitioners, NGOs and others gathered in Perugia, Italy for more than 250 panels, workshops and social events. High-profile speakers included Owen Jones and Craig Newmark.

Unlike the Edinburgh Fringe, however, this festival is free to attend and open to the public on a first-come, first-served basis. Sponsorship comes from Facebook, Google, Amazon, the EU and the Italian government.

In the Renaissance-era university buildings and churches of Perugia's city centre, about halfway between Florence and Rome, more than 600 speakers shared their experiences - reporting from Syria, Egypt, Azerbaijan, Hungary, Italy, the UK and elsewhere.

Some key themes this year included the first anniversary of Giulio Regeni's murder in Egypt; reports on immigration; data journalism; state surveillance; and emerging authoritarianism from Turkey to the Philippines to the US.

One of the most valuable parts of the festival, to me, was hearing from journalists themselves around the world about the political situations in their home countries - rather than through the lens of the Western mainstream media. Syrian journalist Zaina Erhaim, for example, spoke about present-day Syria as being "five Syrias" based on the different groups or parties ruling particular areas. She described the six-year conflict as a revolution, not a civil war - since it involves the regime using public money to suppress opposition movements, rather than multiple parties of equal power battling each other. This point feels important for those of us who report from the West to bear in mind, and to me it has added legitimacy coming from a journalist who is Syrian.

In a panel on reporting on migration, Yasir Khan, the senior editor of digital video at Al-Jazeera English, spoke about the company's unique policies on reporting about immigration. He said the company uses the term "refugees" (or "people") but not "migrants" and tries to report on refugees as survivors rather than victims, focusing on stories of empowerment.

In one widely shared Al Jazeera video they followed a refugee living in Berlin who, every week, makes a large pot of soup to feed homeless people in a makeshift soup kitchen under a bridge. Khan said this story got no trolls - because what kind of negative comment could someone make (even someone anti-immigrant) about a person helping vulnerable people?

In a panel of women defending free expression, Bahraini-Danish activist Maryam Al-Khawaja expressed concern that, in Europe, human rights have become secondary to discussions of extremism and radicalisation, with governments such as the UK's increasing their surveillance powers over citizens and trying to restrict the use of encrypted communication.

She also noted the danger in Western governments supporting or not speaking out against foreign governments and regimes that are suppressing domestic opposition movements - since those very movements are the ones working to counter radicalisation and extremism. By tolerating oppressive governments abroad, she said, we are only helping extremism grow.

All sessions at the festival were livestreamed and are available to view for free on YouTube.

  • Bylinefest, a festival of journalism in Sussex in June, promises to be a UK-based "Glastonbury for journalists,", with reduced tickets for NUJ members. See here for details.