Bolivia's media is highly polarized but a new program is finding common ground. Media on both sides of the political divide are supporting Latin America's first vocational training program for journalists.
The colorful scarf wrapped around her hair gets Isabel Vega lots of attention as she enters the seminar room at the Fundación para el Periodismo (FPP) - a journalism foundation based in the Bolivian capital, La Paz. Vega and the other 14 graduates in the room cheerfully greet and hug each other.
They are first set of trainees to complete a one-year multimedia program conducted by FPP, that combines theory, practical training and work placements. It was an intensive time, with seminars looking at business and sports reporting, arts coverage, and data journalism, as well as interview formats and multimedia reporting.
This is the last time the group will come together at the foundation.
"It was exciting to work as a team because we all had different types of media experience when we started here," says Isabel Vega, who works as a video editor at the Catholic news agency, Fides.
Work placements are central to the vocational training program because they enable students to apply what they learn in the classroom to a real media environment.
Professional journalism for the long term
As part of the program, the trainees had vocational placements at both state-owned and private media outlets. This is unusual in Bolivia where factional clashes between supporters and opponents of President Evo Morales' government are reflected in the country's polarized media landscape.
Outlets often accuse each other of partisan political coverage but have been willing to cooperate when it comes to supporting a new generation of reporters: both sides are supporting the project with one training position each.
And these are badly needed, says FPP chairperson Renán Estenssoro. He is one of the program's cofounders, along with DW Akademie and the German development agency, GIZ.
The program's name is also its mission statement - Pro Periodismo (For Journalism).
"There have been huge deficits in the system for decades," Estenssoro says. "Media publish information but don't cite sources or distinguish between fact and opinion. The only way to boost professional standards over the long term is to improve the training itself."
Interview with a female shaman
Pro Periodismo is sending out a signal as the first professional training program in Latin America to include practical components. Prior to this, aspiring journalists were thrown in at the deep end and either taught themselves or looked to working journalists for guidance.
Although universities in the region offer courses in communication studies, they focus mainly on theory.
"Until now, there were no institutions in Bolivia that offered quality, systematic training at an international standard, and that reflected upon the role played by journalists in a democratic society," stresses Elena Ern, DW Akademie's country coordinator for Bolivia.
In the months leading up to graduation, the trainees produced high quality radio programs and videos, wrote articles, and developed online multimedia content. German and Bolivian trainers stood by for support.
Isabel Vega says a seminar on arts journalism clearly stands out in her mind. The trainees spent five days researching cultural topics but stayed away from familiar ones such as theater, museums and literature.
"These so-called 'high culture' topics are only interesting to a small circle of elites," she notes critically.
But culture, she says, also includes values and traditions. And if Bolivians aren't aware of them, she says, they can't stand up for their rights.
The young reporter interviewed a female shaman and was very impressed. "The woman spoke openly about violence against women. This not only encourages other women to do the same, it also forces men to confront the issue as well," Vega says.
Vega, who along with her colleagues has now graduated from the program, says there were no disadvantages to being the first group of trainees.
In fact, it was the opposite, Vega says - they had a sense of being pioneers.
"We were incredibly motivated as a team and we all want to contribute to a new type of journalism in Bolivia," she says.
In 2016, the Pro Periodismo project for aspiring journalists will welcome a new set of trainees into its vocational training program.