HONOLULU | My week was long, intense days in the conference rooms of the East-West Center here, analyzing, dissecting and encouraging democracy in all its venerable or shiny new or merely aspiring forms.
We 15 are journalists charged — by our readers, viewers, news organizations and ourselves — with the building, care and/or feeding of our democracies. As the center’s Jefferson Fellows, we are assessing “Challenges of Democratic Transition.”
Eleven of the conferees came from 10 nations across Asia, from Afghanistan to Myanmar to Tonga. Their young faces are many rich shades of brown, and they are bright-eyed, full of stories and eager to learn.
They are warriors for democracy, fighting on the front lines.
And here we sit, we four Americans, armed with our powerful First Amendment, our Sunshine, Freedom of Information and shield laws and our strong, supportive companies — my three U.S. colleagues are from The Washington Post, CNN and Fox News.
We have nothing to complain about, and we don’t need to be reminded how lucky we are.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 1,044 journalists have been killed on the job worldwide since 1992, four of them so far this year. There are 211 journalists in prison; Turkey has the most, with 40.
Our good fortune to do journalism in the American democracy is vividly framed by the stories of our Asian counterparts. Imagine:
Hashmatullah Kohistani of Afghanistan noted the Taliban have retaken power in some areas, even near Kabul, and wondered what future a journalist would have if they return. Even with the U.S.-supported government, his work is censored.
Saw Yan Naing of Myanmar (Burma) said that, since the military rulers have begun to allow some freedom in the past two years, the media now can function.
“Before, you have to submit your story before you publish it. Now, you can publish without submitting it, but if it’s on a controversy, an issue they don’t like, they can take action, shut down the media. I have to be very careful about every word I write.”
Four reporters recently were arrested for “exposing the nation’s secrets,” he said, and they’re still “being questioned by authorities.”
After The Associated Press reported on a massacre, a foreign intern working on Yan Naing’s magazine lost his visa and had to leave.
“Currently, media freedom is a distant bell,” Hein Min Latt of Myanmar wrote in a paper for the fellowship. “The government has recently attempted to threaten journalists by suing them for defamation and disturbing the union’s stability. Similarly, a media law was enacted to restrict freedom of the press.”
Journalism can be seen as a mortal threat even in the established democracy of India. Anupma Khanna happily reported the implementation of a new Right to Information law, but added that public awareness is low and there have been “at least three cases of RTI activists trying to uncover corruption” being murdered.
Hannah Torregoza, a reporter for a Manila newspaper, said the Philippines have been ranked by Reporters Without Borders as the second most dangerous place to do journalism, after only Iraq.
“It’s especially dangerous if you’re covering Mindanao, where all the politicians are part of a clan,” she said.
About five years ago, a vehicle loaded with reporters trying to cover an election was attacked by a private army, she said, and 34 were murdered, strafed with machine gun fire, including a friend of hers.
Philippine journalists still hold regular protests. Torregoza wears a black T-shirt that says, “Stop Killing Journalists.”
Some of the fellows acknowledged that their families would rather they do something else — one started out as a civil engineer — but that wouldn’t have lit the fire you see in their eyes. They happily succumbed to the passion that most of us journalists have, to tell stories.
These Asian journalists’ fires burn hotter because they know first-hand about the darkness.
They are here and eager to learn from each other and from America, as, of course, we’re the gold standard for press freedom.
But these are young and innovative and digitally powered journalists, unfettered by traditions, assumptions and presumptions of privilege. What can we learn from them?
We’ll see. As you read this, we’ll be in Indonesia for a week, including in the troubled province of Bandeh Aceh, then in Army-controlled Myanmar for another week. I’ll keep you posted.
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