Notre équipe a la parole !

Our team has the floor!

They come from Marseille, Paris, Tunisia or Germany: at CFI, our 60 employees all have very different backgrounds, but above all... lots of stories to tell! Enjoy interviews with the men and women who have agreed to talk about their career paths in our new series: "Our team has the floor!”

Episode 1: Henrik Ahrens, at the crossroads

Notre équipe a la parole !

Henrik is German, works for a French operator, lives in Amman and works on a daily basis with journalists from Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Palestine. Does that make sense? Henrik tells us all about it, from his studies in Germany to his arrival at CFI as the Qarib project director in 2021.

Henrik, what was your career path before joining CFI in December 2021?

After studying political science, philosophy and Islamology in Berlin and Cairo, I worked for around ten years in the world of development and media support. I worked for MICT(Media in Cooperation and Transition) as editor and country director in Iraq for four years, then for Democracy Reporting International and, finally, Internews Europe as project director for the North Africa and Middle-East region. It was in the latter environment, during a project in Syria, that I established my first links with CFI. From 2017, I carried out several assignments as an independent consultant, always in the field of media development. When I saw CFI's advertisement for the position of director of the Qarib programme, I thought this was the job for me: I speak French, I know the region well, and the project really suits my field of expertise. I applied, and took over leadership of the project in December 2021!

Can you tell us about Qarib, the project you are now running from Amman in Jordan?

This is a project funded by the French Development Agency (AFD) to support social cohesion through the media in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine. More specifically, the aim is to improve the representation of certain marginalised or minority groups and topics within public debate. Today, certain genders, ethnic groups or socio-cultural and economic categories are almost invisible in the media of these countries. Our role is to give them the right to participate as citizens through better journalistic coverage , and to thereby help improve social cohesion in the region: here, as everywhere, the media are key players in communicating values and representing identities; as such, they are powerful tools for social transformation. We are also working to raise the profile of a number of topics that are not yet covered in great depth, or at all: climate change and its effects on the environment, local governance, elections, etc...

Could you give us a few examples of concrete actions you and your team have taken as part of this project?

We carry out a wide range of actions in the field: financial support is an absolute priority, because the independent media are in an almost structural crisis due to political, legal, regulatory and economic circumstances. This topic is also at the crossroads of the debate on decolonisation, which should be taken very seriously by a player like France. But beyond these broad topics, our approach is based on the idea that each medium has very specific needs, which we need to meet in the most individual and tailor-made way possible. This involves training and advice in all areas, from journalistic and editorial support to digital marketing and business consultancy. We are also setting up programmes to enable our partners to cover certain events (e.g. COP28 and 29). We created a network of partners to encourage the exchange of expertise, best practices and cooperation, etc. Finally, we support the structuring and improvement of legal and regulatory frameworks in the countries where we work. 

What are your greatest sources of satisfaction in your current role? 

To be honest, it's not always easy to get any satisfaction from my work, given the current wars and conflicts. Because we work with journalists, we are very close to the news. Our partners live in war zones like Gaza and are directly affected by the suffering and destruction. But I'm lucky enough to work with an incredible team who are very committed to the project, motivated and who know how to give their best, both professionally and personally. So I feel like I have a great team around me. I also really enjoy working in our multilingual and multicultural environment: I work from Amman for four different countries, and in our day-to-day work Arabic often mixes with English and French with the staff at headquarters. I appreciate this open, fluid environment. But my greatest source of satisfaction is to see the positive impact of our work, especially in difficult times: a thank-you from a journalist we support, an outstanding piece of journalism broadcast by our beneficiary media, a new story that emerges... For me, these are all precious signs that we are on the right path, and that our actions really do meet needs. It's the feeling of making at least a small contribution to positive development in times of crisis. 

What's the most difficult issue on a day-to-day basis? 

Obviously: the current war in Gaza and the possibility of regional escalation. I took over the project in peacetime and now we're facing a war. It's a huge challenge to transform our support to match the current needs of our partners. In Palestine and South Lebanon, for example, there are security and protection measures for correspondents, and in all the project countries there are competing narratives about local, regional and international perspectives on events, with misinformation playing an important role. As I mentioned earlier, the proximity of events also exposes us more directly to the coverage of violence; the psychological challenges and trauma for our partners and my team also need to be addressed. But there were also challenges before the war: press freedom and freedom of expression are severely restricted in all the countries where we work, for a variety of reasons. We have to deal with a series of conditions, restrictions and red lines in a sometimes complicated security environment. On a more operational level, we also have to deal with a certain amount of red tape, mainly due to the fact that the project is based on public funding, the use of which we have to justify. It often takes a long time, but we do our best to ensure that our actions can be pursued. 

What are the main personal lessons you think you will learn from this project? 

The Qarib project taught me how to manage a complex, regional-scale project with a substantial budget (€10m). It's the first project of this scale that I've managed from start to finish and, of course, it's been a great learning experience. It's also a very time-consuming and often stressful project: to get through it, you have to learn to manage your energy over time, take time out and look at things from a distance - and, when possible, with a sene of humour. Qarib is also teaching me to navigate between very different worlds and to know how to communicate with each of them: I already knew the world of the Middle Eastern media, but what was new for me was French diplomacy. For example, if someone sends me a message starting with “Unless I've made a mistake”... I understand now that they're not really asking themselves if they've made a mistake! Another example: at the start of my work, during a meeting at the French embassy in Amman, I was approached as a member of the “French team”. After all, my grandfather was a German soldier occupying France. In these times of crisis, when it's not easy to be optimistic, it shows in a way that peacebuilding is perhaps possible... but when it comes to football, I still support the German team!

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