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Peace Through Journalism: Why Beena Sarwar Founded Sapan News Network

Beena Sarwar has a passion for journalism in her blood — both literally and figuratively.

Though she never met him, Sarwar’s uncle was instrumental in building Pakistan’s media ecosystem, founding the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists as well as the Karachi Press Club. Her other uncle also was a senior journalist in Pakistan. Sarwar herself has decades of experience as a global journalist and peace activist, and now, as an affiliated faculty member in Emerson’s Journalism program . 

When she’s not teaching courses like Global Journalism, Sarwar dedicates her time to Sapan News Network, an independent media organization that she founded in 2021  to cover and connect “Southasia” and its diaspora.

The Backstory

Photo of Beena Sarwar
Beena Sarwar

After graduating from Brown University, Sarwar returned to Pakistan, not expecting to be a journalist. She worked for a time at an ad agency, then returned to a paper she had interned at before college as an assistant editor. From there, Sarwar worked as a freelancer, launched the weekly publication The News on Sunday, worked in documentary television at Goldsmiths College, London and joined the founding team of Pakistan’s first 24/7 television news station. 

She eventually returned to the U.S. in 2005 for a fellowship at Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation, followed by a fellowship at Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. She met her current partner during her time as a fellow and married in 2008 before officially moving to the U.S. in 2011. Ten years later, Sapan News Network was born.

Sapan uses the term “Southasia” as opposed to “South Asia,” intending to  “restore some of the historical unity of our common living space, without wishing any violence on the existing nation states.” It is through this lens that the network operates, inspired by the Southasia Peace Action Network (Sapan).

“I’ve always been a part of movements for democracy, media freedom, women’s rights, peace, and I’m also a journalist,” Sarwar said. “And in the States, that’s like, ‘No, no, you can’t be a part of the movement. You have to be journalistic, maintain your objectivity.’”

Movement Journalism

Despite this notion of complete objectivity, Sarwar has continually embraced her passions for activism and journalism, unafraid to let one supersede the other. Still, Sarwar and the  volunteers at Sapan News follow journalistic standards when editing and publishing stories, verifying information, providing context and ensuring writers are engaging a diversity of sources.

Sarwar leads a lecture at Brown University.
Photo courtesy of Brown University.

“At the end of the day, you’re accountable to the public, to the readers. To make sure you are presenting facts,” Sarwar said. “If I can do that, even when I am part of a movement, [I think that’s O.K.].”

This convergence of social justice and journalism acts as the foundation for Sapan News. The organization emerged organically, with little planning. 

“It just kind of grew out of the speed of the movement. That’s the idea Sapan uses, to amplify the narrative of peace and reasonable dialogue, to do the longform, nuanced pieces that go behind the headlines,” Sarwar said. “Our aim is more mission-driven.”

Sarwar said Sapan News is less focused on the monetary value of engagement, instead guided by extending the reach of its stories. 

Sarwar gives a speech at the South Asian People’s Forum. Photo courtesy of South Asian Union.

The network has syndicated stories to more than 30 media outlets for free. And, as Sapan News has grown, so has its need for fundraising.

Becoming a member of the Independent News Network (INN) and Local Independent Online News (LION) has qualified Sapan News to receive funds from NewsMatch, a campaign that donates money to organizations that are a part of INN.

Sarwar has been steadfast in her goal to continue fundraising for Sapan News Network. Since Sapan is entirely volunteer-run, donations support the operations of the digital platform, and would allow Sarwar to represent Sapan News at the Poynter Institute’s Media Transformation Challenge, honoring news leaders worldwide. Through Poynter’s year-long training and mentorship program, Sarwar aims to develop Sapan News from a voluntary to a professional media outlet.

Ultimately, Sarwar hopes readers resonate with Sapan’s mission and the distinctive stories it produces.

“This is a unique media outlet that helps develop space for empathy and understanding and builds bridges,” Sarwar said. “[Sapan] doesn’t fit neatly into any box. It’s realizing that everything is connected. Human beings are connected.”

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Isa Luzarraga View All

Isa is a senior journalism major minoring in media studies. She is from Omaha, Nebraska but loves coming back to the city. Outside of coursework, Isa is the Managing Editor of Your Magazine, the secretary of Emerson's chapter of NAHJ and a freelance writer for publications nationwide. She loves reading in the Common, going for long runs and sipping iced coffee.