Saturday, February 5, 2011

Nairobi, Kenya: clean, interesting

Just spent four days in Nairobi. My first impressions were all positive. I love the Kenya National Museum (featuring 2-3 million year old human remains) and the adjoining Snake Park (Left-black mamba. For complete photo album, click here). The city is clogged but clean. In fact, smoking is not allowed anywhere in the city center--even outdoors. Of course, I know that this tourist's-eye-view of Nairobi is just an illusion, since one of Africa's biggest and poorest slums lies just a few miles away from the city center.

The land(s) of the brave

From the Parkville Luminary

NAIROBI, KENYA—The Kenyan reporter sitting two chairs down from me was arrested, beaten, and eventually fled for his life. His crime: exposing government corruption. The young German media trainer sitting next to me is understandably concerned about her security in Afghanistan, but said she can’t afford mentally to obsess about safety issues every waking moment. The Zimbabwean newspaper editor across the room gets regular visits from government security thugs. These menacing goons are sent by Zimbabwe’s repressive government to intimidate the editor into ceasing his criticism of the country’s leaders. The grinning editor laughs off these incidents as though he were somehow bulletproof.

Soldiers get medals for their bravery. If they ever start giving bravery medals to journalists and those who train them, the courageous, dedicated professionals I just spent two and a half days with at a seminar in Nairobi, Kenya would surely be the first to be recognized for their fearless dedication.

These unflappable individuals gathered at a Conflict Sensitive Journalism (CSJ) Experts Forum sponsored by a Danish NGO, International Media Services. The 20 participants came from around the world, including Sweden, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Argentina, Liberia, Uganda, U.S., Kenya, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, and the Philippines. The seminar’s goal was to discuss conflict sensitive journalism projects around the world, and to leverage the participants’ experiences to improve resource materials for CSJ trainers. CSJ follows most of the same principles as its cousin peace journalism. Both aim, essentially, to help reporters avoid fueling conflicts and make choices that lay a foundation for peace.

The most striking conversations at the seminar revolved around safety and security issues for journalists. This is especially salient for these seminar participants, and those who they train, because of the hostile environments under which many of them operate. I have always known that properly executed CSJ and peace journalism can make societies safer. What these brave individuals taught me is that peace reporting can protect individual journalists by teaching professional skills and conduct that can help trainees avoid being victimized. Indeed, one presenter noted that 50% of journalists’ safety issues can be resolved if journalists conduct themselves ethically and in a professional manner. Thus, just doing our job as trainers can help reduce the appalling amount of violence directed at our journalistic brethren.

At the seminar, several CSJ presenters discussed country-specific security issues and initiatives. One trainer outlined a forward thinking journalist safety program underway in one of the world’s scariest places—Afghanistan. The need for this initiative, involving safe houses and a security hotline, underscores the bravery demonstrated by any journalist or any journalism trainer who dares to go to Afghanistan, where 22 journalists have been murdered since 1992 (cpj.org).

A trainer of Filipino reporters (71 murdered since 1992) relayed the sad story of an ambush killing of 32 journalists in a convoy in 2009. The murderers haven’t been brought to justice, so a number of journalists and trainers in journalism have formed a group called N23 (the mass murder was on Nov. 23) to apply pressure to bring the killers to justice. Equally horrifying was the tragic story of a Sri Lankan (18 killed since 1992) photojournalist who snapped pictures of five kids murdered by the government. When the photojournalist’s name became public, the photographer was dead within 24 hours.

What made all these presentations so powerful was that most of those delivering these messages are living and working under a cloud of intimidation in repressive, dangerous places like Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. (Incidentally, in Uganda, where I’m teaching peace journalism, there is intimidation, but not the kind of epidemic, jarring violence against journalists that characterizes daily life in other places.)

Despite the danger, the journalism trainers remain courageously committed to their profession and to the notion that their trainees can avoid inflaming conflicts while practicing security-enhancing professional and ethical conduct. 849 journalists worldwide have been killed in the line of duty since 1992. If our CSJ and peace journalism seminars can prevent even one reporter from being added to this tally, then our efforts will have been worthwhile.

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