Sunday, July 27, 2014

Press Freedom Advocacy Groups Voice Concern over Arrest of Journalists in Iran

Rabin Man Shakya

Iran used to have a vibrant press and used to be a country where press freedom, freedom of expression and human rights were guaranteed by the Iranian constitution, when Iran was a monarchy. Not any more, not after Iranian monarchy was toppled by the Ayatollahs and  Muslim fundamentalists in 1979.

Iran, today, is a theocracy-controlled nation which  does not care about the press freedom even a little bit. This is the nation where scores of journalists have been threatened, beaten, incarcerated, subjected to unfair trials. Not without reason, the Freedom House has declared Iran a "Not Free" country in terms press freedom and democratic values.

Whenever I confront some of the Iranian Americans here in Portland, Oregon, without beating around the bush and without mincing the words, they emphasize that religious  fundamentalism remains the cornerstone of Iran's governance and that, for right now, there is no scope for political and press freedom in Iran. Exit of hardliner Ahmadinejad and more liberal politico Rouhani taking centerstage in  Iranian political scenario has still not minimized the stubbornness and adamancy of the theocrats  in Iran, they say.

Meanwhile, according to news reports, The Washington Post's correspondent in Iran is believed to have been detained this week, the newspaper said on Thursday. The correspondent, Jason Rezaian, was reported to have been taken into custody Tuesday evening along with his wife, Yeganeh Salehi, also a journalist, and two other people. The Post's foreign editor, Douglas Jehl, said in a statement,"We are deeply troubled by this news," Mr Jehl said,"and are concerned for the welfare of Jason, Yeganeh and two others said to have been detained with them." (The New York Times, July 25, 2014).

In New York, the  Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a press freedom advocacy group voiced concern over the arrest of journalists. CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Sherif Mansour said:" We  call on Iranian authorities to immediately explain why Jason Rejaian, Yeganeh Salehi and two other journalists have been detained, and we call for their immediate release."

"Iran has a dismal record with regard to its treatment of imprisoned journalists. We hold the Iranian government responsible for the safety of these four," added Mansour.

Likewise, Reporters Without Borders (RWB) also condemned the arrest of journalists in Tehran. Reza Moini, the head of the RWB Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan desk said:"Arbitrary arrests, illegal summons,  for example, by intelligence officers of the Revolutionary Guards, are adaily reality for journalists in Iran. Media workers, particularly foreign journalists based in Tehran, are most often accused of spying. They are the victims of a policy of demonizing the foreign media, which is aggravated by the settling of scores among different groups engaged in a power struggle."

Iran ranks 173rd out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index 2014 prepared by the Reporters Without Borders just followed by Vietnam, China, Somalia, Syria, Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea. With 65 journalists and netizens in prison - five of them foreign nationals - Iran is one of the world's top five prisons for those working in news and information, said the Reporters Without Borders.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Core Qualities of a Good Journalist

Rabin Man Shakya
Former Lecturer of Journalism, Peoples Campus and RR Campus, TU.

There are old as well as new books, articles, pamphlets, seminar papers and studies on journalism coming out all the time. Judging by the contents of the mass media, you would think that what it takes to be a good journalist changes constantly. Journalists are born, not made, some say. But today, the majority of journalists working in mass media have a degree or diploma from a journalism school. Today more than ever, you have got to have computer skills and knowledge. Internet, blogging, online journalism and social media are making deep in-roads into mass media.

And sure, as times change, the culture changes and technology advances, different journalistic concepts might fall in and out of fashion. But I believe there are core qualities that transcend all of that. Though there are lots of qualities needed to become a good and successful journalists, the core qualities are: good writing skill, fearlessness, impartiality and accuracy. Integrity, truthfulness and honesty should be the mantra of modus operandi of a good journalist.

Madan Mani Dixit of weekly "Samikshya" and Gopal Das Shrestha of "The Commoner" were great Nepalese journalists in the 70s and 80s. In a way, Dixit and Shrestha were the pillars of modern Nepalese journalism in Nepali and English, respectively.

During my tenure of journalism in The Rising Nepal (1992-2005), I had the privilege of interviewing some of the Nepalese journalistic luminaries: Madan Mani Dixit, Bharat Dutt Koirala, Padma Ratna Tuladhar and P. Kharel. I never interviewed Gopal Das Shrestha but late Shrestha provided me with important ideas and suggestions for my PhD dissertation paper when I met him a couple of times in 1987 at The Commomer's office at Naradevi. All these prominent journalists of Nepal during the meeting with me emphasized the core qualities needed for becoming a good journalist. (Coincidentally, I was familiar with Usha Shrestha - daughter of the late Shrestha - who also went to a school in Minsk, Belarus.)

In what could be considered as a swipe at some of the opportunistic pro-Panchayat journalists of that period, late Shrestha (who was one of the very few people educated in the US at that time) told me that journalists should be able to expose the misdeeds of higher authorities, a thing that was never done by the pro-Panchayat "mouthpieces." The editorials in The Commoner (written by the late Shrestha) and his short articles were appreciated by what was then a small community of English language readers of Kathmandu.

There is no doubt that a journalist is part of an enterprise that is challenged by a multiplicity of problems and issues, and a good journalist is the one who is able to overcome various challenges, issues and problems. Journalists should always exercise sound judgment, and should be able to play the role of a trailblazer. The press is the watchdog of the nation. More often than not, the watchdog role of the press is sometimes misrepresented by some pseudo-journalists. Instead of playing a watchdog role, there are some newspapers which carry on obsequious profiles of "dubious and corrupt" businessmen and politicians thereby becoming notorious media lapdogs. A journalist should not bring discredit to journalism - which is regarded as the Fourth Estate - by disseminating biased and sometimes untrue news stories.

No wonder, some in the social media and online journalism, have sometimes derided the mainstream Nepalese journalism as pussyfooting vigilantes because they sometimes on purpose avoided  challenging super-rich tycoons and corrupt politicians. 

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Yellow Journalism: Is George Clooney the Latest Victim?

Rabin Man Shakya
Former Lecturer of Journalism, Peoples Campus and RR Campus, TU.

In Nepal, there is no dearth of newspapers which try to damage the image and reputation of some people by publishing bad and misleading  materials about them. In case of Nepal's journalism, there is still a journalistic stigma attached to the weekly newspaper journalism as many of them are brazenly pro-corrupt politicians and tycoons. Therefore, the practice of yellow journalism and mud-slinging is not uncommon in Nepal. But make no mistake. Yellow journalism and sensational reporting is not confined to countries like Nepal alone, they are practiced even in countries like the US, the UK, Russia etc.

In fact the country of origin of yellow journalism was the United States where Joseph Pulitzer's "New York World" and William Randolph Hearst's "New York Journal" waged the intense battle to outdo each other in increasing the newspaper circulation in the period between 1895-1898. Therefore, it looks like, the term is first coined during the internecine warfare between the New York World and the New York Journal.

At first, the origin of the yellow press had nothing to do with the reporting and writing. In fact, the term yellow press derived from a cartoon strip about life in New York slums called Hogan's Alley by cartoonist Richard F Outcault. Pulitzer's New York World kicked off printing colorful comics and the well known 'protagonist' came to be known as the Yellow Kid and hence originated the Yellow Journalism.

Sensationalization, telling one side of the story, lack of well-researched materials, distorting or exaggerating the news to attract readers, using eye-catching headlines, treating  news in an  unprofessional or unethical way - the mantra that defines the yellow journalism.

In fact, the tabloids  in the UK and weekly news magazines in the US, even today, are running after the celebs not only to star hotels but into the sleazy clubs and restaurants too to find some embarrassing moments. Remember, the cause of death of Princess Diana were the paparazzi. Unhealthy reporting practices are reported frequently in the UK and US. Is American celebrity George Clooney who is going to marry Amal Alamuddin, a British national of Lebanese descent, gonna be the next target of yellow journalism?

The most recent epitome of the sensational journalism is the tabloid headline of the British newspaper  The Daily Mail about George Clooney: Sexiest Man Alive Becomes Angriest Man Alive. The Mail headline was, palpably, prompted by the ongoing war of words between the British newspaper and the US celeb.

The news stories on Clooney splashed across the front page of the Daily Mail and its web publication Mail Online are creating sensation in the US and the UK media, stirring a debate once again about the newspaper stories on  poking nose and exaggerating the quotes and the disgraceful intrusion on the private lives of the celebrities and politicians.

Even today, the popular weekly news magazines in the US, such as, Enquirer, Star, OK, People, In Touch and Us are competing to sell more copies by exaggerating news events, sensationalizing the stories, scandal-mongering and lurid revelations.

Not long ago, here in Portland, Oregon, USA, I confronted a Russian from Moscow who emigrated to the US recently. I told him that I was in the former Soviet Union for ten years and that I was pretty much acquainted with the Soviet propaganda journalism. (There was no yellow journalism in the USSR). We started talking in Russian about journalism in Russia and this was what he told me:"During the Soviet period, there was only Soviet journalism which was just the propaganda journalism. Now you can find newspapers of every hue including the yellow journalism in Russia."

Bottomline: You like or you don't,  yellow journalism is there in almost all countries (except North Korea, China, Cuba, Vietnam etc), it is here to stay for ever. You can't root it out easily, even if it is a bad journalism.

Instances of yellow journalism taking place now and then are one of the by-products of corrupt, immoral politicians, ostentatious celebrities, scandal mongers. One of the best way to control the yellow journalism is through the strict enforcement of code of conduct brought out for journalists. More professional journalistic training and workshops should be organized for the reporters. Adequate remuneration and perks will help the journalists stay away from the yellow "creature".

Obviously, the name "journalist", "reporter", or "press photographer" do not give anybody carte blanche to write salacious gossips or act like irresponsible paparazzi. Actually, they can not morally get away with anything they do, say or write.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

John Reed and "Ten Days That Shook the World"

Rabin Man Shakya
Former Lecturer of Journalism, Peoples Campus and RR Campus, TU.

"Ten Days That Shook the World" written by American journalist, John Reed, was one of the several books that I had read both in English and Russian. It was in Minsk, then the capital of Soviet Belarus (it still is the capital of Republic of Belarus) where I happened to read Reed's historically acclaimed book in Russian in 1980s. And it was Prof Dr Ivan I. Sachenko who inspired me to peruse an American journalist's accounts of October Revolution in Russia in 1917.

The book offers a wide spectrum in terms of journalistic styles, themes, places and coverage of the October Socialist Revolution - led by Russian Social Democratic Workers Party (Bolsheviks) headed by Vladimir Lenin - that toppled the provisional government of Kerensky paving the way for the formation of  the powerful USSR, which, in turn, changed the political map of the world for more than  70 years.

Reed was a freelance journalist. During his journalistic innings, he was briefly associated with publications like "The Forum" and "The Century Magazine", but in 1913 Reed joined the staff of  "The Mass" brought out by Max Eastman. Reed was on a reporting assignment for "The Mass", an American magazine of the socialist politics, when he was reporting the October Socialist Revolution in Russia. As an international correspondent, Reed brought an entirely new approach to the coverage of revolutions and wars.

Writing about his own book, Reed said: "This book is a slice of intensified history - history as I saw it. It does not pretend to be anything but a detailed account of the November Revolution, when the Bolsheviks at the head of the workers and soldiers, seized the state power of Russia and placed it in the hands of the Soviets."

On March 1, 1999, The New York Times reported New York University's "Top 100 works of Journalism list" and Reed's book "Ten Days That Shook the World" was on the seventh ranking of the list.

The short life that Reed lived had encountered many vicissitudes. Reed was arrested and confined to prison in the US for political reasons. He had boarded ships for long voyage to Europe several times. A journalist is a part of an enterprise that is challenged by multiplicity of problems and issues, and Reed confronted many of those in his journalistic life. Reed had to deal with the vicissitudes of life, with the trials and tribulations of being a journalist.

As a true journalist, Reed had supporters as well as detractors, but through his articles and news stories dispatched from abroad like Russia, France and Mexico in the beginning of the twentieth century,  Reed had proved his mettle in his new avatar of war correspondent.

It is just a pleasant coincidence that I have been living for last ten years in Portland, Oregon where Reed was born on Oct 22, 1887 in a rich American family, and for several times I had been to Moscow where Reed was buried on Oct 17, 1920 with state honor on the Kremlin Wall necropolis.

In 2001, a memorial bench and plaque north of Lewis and Clark Memorial were created on the Rose Garden premises  in Portland to honor the Portland born journalist. The plaque has a quotation by Reed on his native city:"Portlanders understand and appreciate how differently beautiful is this part of the world - the white city against the deep evergreen of the hills, the snow mountains to the east, the ever changing river and its boat life - and the grays, blues and greens, the smoke dimmed sunsets and pearly hazes of August, so characteristic of the Pacific Northwest. You don't have to point out these things to your people. Walters, I think, paints them  with more affection and understanding than they have yet been painted."

Late Reed's journalistic activities had a significant impact on the world cinema too. Sergei Eisenstein, a Soviet movie director, created a silent film  still in 1927: "October: Ten Days That Shook the World" which was based on his book. Likewise, Warren Beatty produced a movie "Reds" based on the life of Reed. The movie bagged three Academy Awards and was nominated for nine others.