Anniversaries of disasters, like Hurricane Sandy, are important, because they help gauge what’s been learned and what progress has been made. They allow people an opportunity to grieve. But just as often, anniversary coverage overlooks the most important detail that inevitably comes up in a humanitarian situation—peoples’ resilience.
When Hurricane Sandy hit, I had been living in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighbourhood for two months. Long enough to know where to drink a beer, and where to go for a pick-up game of soccer on the weekend. Not long enough to have any kind of relationship with my new community, which since 1939 has been home to the Red Hook Houses — with more than 6,500 residents, Brooklyn’s largest public housing development.
Radio producer Jesse Hardman has a tenuous connection with William Graham, a man who once lived as a fugitive from federal authorities for over 20 years. They both are preacher’s kids, sons of episcopal priests. In fact, Jesse’s father, Robert Hardman, was a student of Holt Graham at seminary. Jesse became interested in Graham’s case, and the two men began a correspondence, and then a series of telephone conversations from prison. William Graham, now known as Morgan, recalled his 15-year odyssey of political extremism, robbery, murder, hijacking, and evading capture. Eventually Jesse starts to realize how alike the two preacher’s kids actually are.
Violence visits New Orleans with sobering regularity. The local paper keeps a grim roll call of the city’s annual murder count—95 and climbing this year—and the figure can be numbing. But that doesn’t mean coverage about it needs to be.
Take, for instance, a recent episode of the Listening Post, a weekly segment on WWNO, the local public radio station. Prompted by an August drive-by shooting that killed two and injured five, the piece features an array of voices addressing a charged question: “What’s your experience with violence in New Orleans?”
For the first 50 years of his life Donald Stokes lived happily in Braithwaite, a town of a few hundred residents in Plaquemines Parish. In 2006 he and his wife decided to leave.
Stokes says it was such a painful departure that it took him two years to actually complete the move. “Slowly but surely I put stuff on a trailer, came back, put stuff on a trailer, came back. It wasn’t easy. It felt like I was uprooting my life.”
Low-lying coastal areas are the front lines for sea level rise, and increasingly frequent and destructive storms at sea. Hurricane Sandy proved it’s not just the South or the Gulf Coast at risk. Staten Island, one of New York City’s five boroughs, saw heavy flooding after Hurricane Sandy, which hit two years ago this month.
The way Eddie Perez tells it, the night of October 29, 2012 played out like one of those movies about the apocalypse. “About 7:55 I was watching the news and they said at 8 o’clock it was coming.”
WWNO’s Coastal Desk has been on tour, looking at water management in other cities. Austin and Philadelphia were the first stops. Now we’ll hear about the final city: Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
A delegation of New Orleans city officials and non-profit leaders recently headed to Wisconsin. They learned how Milwaukee, built as an industrial hub, has become one of the greenest big cities in the country.
Last week a delegation from the Crescent City traveled to Austin, Texas. The idea: to check out how Austin manages its water. Drought-stricken Texas has too little water; New Orleans often has too much. But they have a surprising amount to learn from each other.
Outside their city government office building, five employees of Austin’s Watershed Protection Department show off a series of small rain gardens they’ve built. The plots sit along the curb of a major intersection. They’re meant to absorb as much storm-water as possible, to help prevent overflow and flooding to the city’s drainage system.
The best way to understand Louisiana’s rapidly changing coastal map may be to look from above. That’s how you see the small highways headed south, slim like bony fingers, disappearing into a blue backdrop. What a map can’t express are the histories, hopes and desires of communities along the bayous of the Gulf Coast.
The best way to understand Louisiana’s rapidly changing coastal map may be to look from above. That’s how you see the small highways headed South, slim like bony fingers, disappearing into a blue backdrop. What a map can’t express are the histories, hopes and desires of communities along the bayous of the Gulf Coast.
A big part of Louisiana’s coastal Master Plan centers around something called “diversions.” Fresh water from the Mississippi River is diverted so that the water, and the silt it carries, can rebuild the sinking coast. But this technique, a centerpiece of Louisiana’s coastal Master Plan, is contentious.
Those who have been lucky enough to travel to the Wax Lake Delta are prone to gush about it. “You’re going a place that is one of the few bright spots on the coast of Louisiana,” says Ben Weber, who leads trips to the Wax Lake area as an outreach coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation.
The face of coastal erosion in Louisiana is often defined by the most visibly threatened communities. Towns that are literally trying to determine how long they have before they might have to move. And while there’s few people calling on New Orleans residents to start making Plan B’s, some local leaders are trying to get their constituents to be more aware.
For the past decade Austin Badon has officially represented New Orleans East’s District 100 in the state legislature. But he’s unofficially been a local tour guide for a lot longer. “I’ve spent almost all of my life in New Orleans East,” says Badon, as he steers his Red Humvee from his office parking lot onto Bullard Avenue.
This spring a state committee approved $477 million for coastal protection and restoration. When you throw in federal dollars, and private funding as well, fixing Louisiana’s coast is becoming big business.
New Orleans native and local fine arts photographer Michel Varisco developed a curiosity about the Gulf Coast region at a young age. With a mother who is a former biochemist, and engineer dad, she started learning on family road trips. Her dad would explain the Bonnet Carré Spillway, or point out dead trees while driving down LA1 to Grande Isle.
The Listening Post is a community media project that aims to start a conversation about local news in New Orleans. Every week on our radio segment we talk about issues ranging from healthcare to WhoDat, tattoos to transportation.
Listeners can both contribute thoughts and commentary about important issues in their neighborhoods, and also receive important local news and information.
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If you came across a microphone just planted in the middle of your neighborhood, what would you say into it? What if the microphone was tucked into a hanging cardboard tree and had a series of questions taped next to it, begging to be answered?
An innovative project in New Orleans is testing out this unusual way to make news into a two-sided conversation, with a little bit of help from public art and not-so-secret recording devices.
Patti Snyder was 8 when her family moved into a white bungalow a stone’s throw from the sea. Her Italian immigrant father wanted his children to have the opportunity to regularly enjoy what for years he had known only on vacations.
Michael Burnett, who lives in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood, is trying to get people interested in fixing up a local park. Burnett wants to create a permanent space for his Kingz of New York youth football program, but he’s struggled to find funding and support.
When Jose Manuel “Manolo” Gomara arrived in New York City for the first time in 2010, he had been away from his home country of Spain for a year, working at a restaurant in Cancun, Mexico. But he wasn’t done with his travels, and the image of this metropolis, one he gleaned from watching television as a kid, had always loomed in his mind.
With New York City mayoral hopeful Bill de Blasio waiting to speak and an audience of a few thousand in Brooklyn’s Cadman plaza waving signs and flags, dancing, and chanting “Si se puede,” 23-year-old Pakistani immigrant Hina Naveed, a student from Staten Island, didn’t miss her moment. She captured the identity and energy of the crowd in one quick phrase: “Being undocumented sucks!”
Around 11 p.m. on a Monday night at B.J.’s Lounge, an old wooden shack of a dive bar in New Orleans’ Bywater neighborhood, 40-year-old musician Jimmy Horn warms up his vocal cords. “We got beans and cornbread” he sings, as he strums his guitar, “100 percent good, I tell you what.”
Like any good bluesman, he’s just telling it like it is. There are, in fact, beans and corn bread (with jalapeños) about four feet from where he’s playing. Earlier in the day, he and his band, King James and the Special Men, slow-cooked five pounds of red beans and rice, simmering it for six hours. Just like every Monday night at B.J.’s, their weekly gig, they’ve made enough for everybody, which tonight is about 50 people.
A get-out-the-vote campaign in one of New York City’s largest Muslim communities targets recent arrivals who are learning the basics of democracy as they vote
A year after the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, fishing families in Bayou Pointe-au-Chien, Louisiana still worry about health effects and seafood contamination
Eskinder Nega now faces the death penalty for calling for respect of human right. Photo/CPJ
Ethiopia: development yes, dissent no
Ethiopia has jailed a local journalist for a column he wrote urging the government to respect human rights.
It’s not the first time. More like his eighth. Except this time, Eskinder Nega is charged with terrorism, punishable by death.
Ethiopia has seven other reporters behind bars. In fact, more journalists have fled that country in the past decade than any other, according to the Comittee to Protect Journalists in New York.
Our next contributor knows Eskinder Nega, having recently visited his country of contradictions.
Barcelona and Real Madrid are two of the best soccer teams in the world. They’re also bitter rivals, and when they met Saturday in the showcase El Clasico match-up, fans around the world turned out to watch the game. Reporter Jesse Hardman joined soccer enthusiasts at New York’s Spanish Benevolent Society.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Before he came to the United States, David Beckham once played for one of the world’s most storied soccer clubs, Real Madrid. His old team was in action against its greatest rival, Barcelona, this weekend. And while that game drew a sold-out crowd in back in Spain, it also filled a slightly smaller, but no less enthusiastic, venue in New York. Jesse Hardman reports.
(SOUNDBITE OF MAN SPEAKING ON PA SYSTEM)
JESSE HARDMAN, BYLINE: About a hundred Spanish soccer fans haven’t even found their seats yet when Real Madrid scores a goal, 20 seconds into the game.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
HARDMAN: Barcelona strikes back about 20 minutes later.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
HARDMAN: Jose Cherez, an Ecuadorian in his 50s, is decked out in a Barcelona jersey and scarf.
JOSE CHEREZ: Well, the game-Real Madrid got lucky. They scored the early goal, but we tied it, and we going to win 3-1.
HARDMAN: You think so?
CHEREZ: I know. I’m positive.
HARDMAN: The enthusiasm and language of the crowd, not to mention the Estrella beer and tortillas, creates the feel of Spain in this Manhattan brownstone.
ROBERT SANFIZ: (Spanish spoken)
HARDMAN: Robert Sanfiz welcomes soccer fans and other visitors to the Spanish Benevolent Society, a social organization that first opened its doors in the late 1860s.
SANFIZ: Literally people would come here, and we would give them a meal and a place to stay for a few days.
HARDMAN: Sanfiz says Little Spain, as the neighborhood was known, was full of Spanish businesses and families.
SANFIZ: We would have, you know, little mini running of the bulls. We would have flamenco shows.
HARDMAN: But that was in its heyday in the 1950s. Since then, membership has waned, and three years ago the Benevolent Society almost closed. That’s when Sanfiz, a lawyer who lived in the neighborhood, got involved and began to engage a new crop of Spanish immigrants.
IAN HARDIES: And I’ve only been here my first time past 20 minutes and it feels very homey already.
HARDMAN: People like 42-year-old Ian Hardies, a furniture designer originally from Southern Spain. And in the second half, his team, Real Madrid, is now losing.
(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE CHEERING)
HARDMAN: A lucky bounce puts Barcelona ahead, 2-1, prompting Barca fan Jose Cherez to jump in front of the big screen and wave his scarf in the air.
(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING IN SPANISH)
HARDMAN: The game ends with Barcelona on top, 3-1 Jose Cherez was right
CHEREZ: I called it 3-1. My predictions came true, and I’m a very happy Barcelona fan.
HARDMAN: While the majority Real Madrid crowd is disappointed, everybody seems to have had a good time, speaking Spanish, drinking Spanish beer, and feeling right at home. For NPR News, I’m Jesse Hardman in New York.
(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING IN SPANISH)
CORNISH: This is NPR News.
The southeast Asian country of Burma may be best known for its repressive government, but it also has one of the world’s lowest per capita incomes.
Government controls, inefficient financial policies and corruption have stalled the Burmese economy, sending a flood of workers East, looking for a better life. There are two to three million Burmese migrant workers in Thailand, according to Thai government estimates. Most find work in garment factories, constructions sites, and farms. One of the best paying but most dangerous jobs for men is in the fishing industry.
Jesse Hardman brings us this story.
March 14, 2011
There is a line that stretches for miles in the desert. A line thousands of people long. A line for food, a line for work, a line for humanity, a line for home. But where and what is home? Being born in a single place no longer satisfies a lifetime. People leave as soon as they are tall enough and strong enough to work. That’s why tens of thousands of Bangladeshis are sitting here, with me, in the middle of the Tunisian desert, looking for rice because they can’t stand the baguettes the locals keep bringing them to eat. And that’s why it’s silly to send them back to the place of their birth, Bangladesh, because that place means nothing to them now — there is no home for them there. Within a few months they will leave again for India, or wherever they can find a job. They were born there, but Bangladesh has provided nothing for them since they became 13-year-old adults, so they left, and they moved to Libya to work for the Chinese, the Koreans, the Europeans.
And don’t tell a Somali he is going home. He has no interest in home, as he can articulate quite well in English. In fact, he can speak four languages if you press him a little (how many can you speak?). Home is not Mogadishu, or Somaliland anymore. Home is a Kenyan refugee camp as a teenager, or in Sudan for a job, or in Tripoli for a slightly better job, and now a U.N. tent in the desert. These Somalis smile, are polite, play soccer at the camp and pray. They are basically stateless right now, and they want to go to Paris, not Khartoum. Minneapolis, not Mogadishu. They are told by the U.N. that that’s not how the world is set up — the world we recognize as governments and international regulations, anyway. But their world is not run by those rules. Their world is based on how much money it takes to get around those rules. Their smiles while they walk hand-in-hand around a growing encampment filled with discarded orange peels, plastic spoons and dusty blankets tell me that they know something I don’t. They are planning something. They will get to Paris or Minneapolis eventually.
Angry about a proposed move to another refugee camp being constructed by the Emirates, the Sudanese stage a revolt at the massive garbage bin next to the border highway. Hundreds strong, they raise their flag (where did they get a Sudanese flag in the middle of the Tunisian desert?) and sing a song in unison, and march around in a massive push as the rest of the camp watches carefully. This is how information spreads, how voices are heard in this tent city. There is no TV, no radio and no simple announcements giving people the information they need to make it through this tough time.
Eventually the protest peters out; marching in the desert can be exhausting. First the Bangladeshis marched to go home, and then for rice, not baguettes, and then the Somalis marched for a return to anywhere but Sudan or Somalia, and according to one protester’s sign, “more air.” Now it’s the Sudanese’s turn. Tomorrow it will no doubt be the Ghanaians’, whose ranks have swelled to thousands over the last few evenings.
But after a few days, this convergence of nationalities begins to bleed together and become a convergence of humanities. The Bangladeshis make the Ghanaians laugh, the Malians join forces with the Somalis on the soccer field, the Tunisian volunteers try to calm the Sudanese. I walk through the camp to get away from the blue tents where the U.N. plans its rescues of these transmigrated souls, and as I walk I am greeted with “Salam Alaikums” from tiny Bangladeshis, quiet smiles from tall Mali boys, and “How are yous” from grinning Somalis. A young Ghanaian, trying to avoid an angry mob of Sudanese, pulls me aside and asks where he can give his passport to International Organization for Migration, the agency that will hopefully take him home. I help him out, and he breathes a sigh of relief.
In a few months, hopefully, this camp will become a desert again, and these boys (there are few real men here), will be somewhere safe, working, making money to send to their families. Maybe they will make it to the promised land, somewhere near where you live, a place where they can work at 7-Eleven and have a small apartment, watch football matches and hopefully find a restaurant that will serve their food. That’s what they want. And if they do make it, I suggest that you treat them like your brother, because the only difference between them and you is where you were born and whom you were born to. That’s a lottery. One that I can’t explain. But I think about it as I walk through the desert, and wonder how it is that I arrived here and why it is that I get to leave when darkness falls.
Jesse Hardman works for Internews, an international nonprofit organization. He recently returned from an assessment of information needs on the Libya/Tunisia border.
Between the Red Sox’s season-saving victory over Cleveland, the annual Head of Charles Regatta and the Bikram Yoga regional championships (no, this is not a joke), Saturday was heaven on earth for any Boston sports fan. But the most historic event took place with very little fanfare. That’s right, Harvard and Princeton battled for the 100th time on the gridiron.
I was on hand for the big event and asked everyone I could find — from coeds to old timers — about the significance of the game and most returned my question with a chuckle. Others gave me an empty look and returned to smoking cigars and fixing their VERITAS lapel pins. Needless to say, this wasn’t exactly Ohio State-Michigan.
One exception was Harvard junior Blake Brown, who was flipping burgers and drinking beers with 30 other members of the H-Club, a school sponsored tailgate organization. Brown apologizes for the low turnout. “It’s 12:30 on Saturday, and most students are sleeping or doing homework. We’re trying to not be those kids.”
On the bright side, Brown says the beer was paid for by the University. “Harvard paid for this whole tailgate. Our tuition is finally doing something for us.”
All told there are just over 100 people gearing up for the game in the tailgate area. I move over to the Princeton side to see if the Tigers are any more ferocious. Pete Allen and Collin Anderson greet me and recount their hijinks from last night.
“We went up to Cambridge and walked through their territory last night. All I can say is go big or go home.”
Pete and Collin are decked in bright orange shirts, orange foam No. 1 fingers and bright orange hunting hats. They look like construction cones. These two friends try to muster a few taunts, calling Harvard fans “lackluster,” and telling them to “Warm up the bus, it’s a long way back to Cambridge.”
But they say the reason they came to the game is to convene with the notable Princeton community. “You’ll get people here who graduated eighty years ago,” Allen says.
Harvard alum Bill Temby is not quite that old, but he did graduate from Harvard just after World War II. “I’ve been to every Yale game since 1946 except for two.”
Temby is loyal to Harvard football in part because it has maintained the spirit of collegiate sports. “These are people who will graduate, take their place in life, not a whole lot different than if they hadn’t played football.”
As I make my way into the 30,000 seat coliseum that is Harvard Stadium, I am struck by two things. First, how can a school with an endowment of around $30 billion have a football stadium with no actual seats, just concrete slabs? Second, how did I buy a ticket to a football game and wind up at a Brooks Brothers fashion shoot?
At just about any other college football stadium, the crowd would be a sea of beer stained sweatshirts and windbreakers. At Harvard, gameday apparel consists of bow ties, tweed blazers and khakis. I sit down in front of a guy named Sumner and a few rows down from a Kennedy (I wasn’t sure which one, but the woman in the row behind me wouldn’t shut up about it). The three gentlemen in front of me are decked out in cardigans and nibble on Ben and Jerry’s ice cream bars. One of them yells at friend who passes in a suit and tie, “You look dapper. You know this isn’t a political fundraiser.”
Laughter ensues, but if I did not know better, I would say that is exactly what is going on here. Much of the crowd is wearing nametags with their graduation year and the years of any legacies they may have produced. Firm handshakes and million dollar smiles abound.
As I watch Harvard’s lone baton twirler spin and drop her baton for the fifth time, I have to smile. Yes, she’s had more drops than the Crimson receivers, but she’s out there because she wants to be. Nobody gave her or anyone on the field a scholarship to be here. Student athletes do not go to Harvard or Princeton for football, and maybe that is partly why the game is fun. Everybody is an amateur, including the fans. It is competitive, but it’s just a game.
In this century old rivalry the prevailing attitude is that life will go on, which is a good thing when you consider who is in the crowd. If these powerful Ivies got too worked up about a little football game, stock markets might crash, politicians fall, and who knows what other catastrophes would hit. Yes, the world can rest easy tonight knowing that a good natured football game happened this weekend, and few will remember the outcome.
When the magnitude 8.8 earthquake hit south-central Chile early on February 27, everything went silent. No electricity, no cell phones, no computers, and most importantly, says Mauro Morshiatti, no radio. But within 15 minutes Morshiatti and his team of engineers, producers and reporters at the Radio Bio Bio network, headquartered in Concepción, a town of a half million people near the epicenter, had broken the silence with a simple broadcast. He had no information about the extent of the damages or the government response, but Morshiatti knew he had to get on the air.
“When there is silence it means you’re absolutely alone. And after an earthquake that’s distressing. And the newspapers can’t solve that, it has to be the radio,” he said. “It has to be a voice.”
Radio Bio Bio and dozens of small community radio stations throughout Chile’s disaster zone became the voice of emergency, response and recovery in the hours, days and now weeks following the devastating earthquake and tsunami. While government agencies and the military are widely criticized for a slow response — and in some cases, no response at all radio operators have been hailed as heroes. Indeed, for all the praise heaped on Chile for being the most developed and technologically advanced nation in the Americas (15 million cell phone users and 5.5 million Internet users in a country of around 17 million), at a time of crisis, Chileans turned to radio, one of the most basic and traditional forms of media.
“We have to tell the truth, even if it hurts.”
All along the south-central coast, the area hardest hit by the earthquake and tsunami, communities were searching for answers: Where can I get water? When will the electricity be restored? How long will I have to wait for a temporary shelter? Where will my kids go to school when classes start in a month? A week after the disaster residents of Coronel, a town of 100,000 people just south of Concepción, were hard hit by the earthquake and still looking for basic answers. On the bluff above the town, Marcia Torres spoke in a hushed tone so her daughter would not wake up. The two of them had been sleeping on an air mattress next to the recording booth of Radio Dinamica, the family-run station she’s managed for sixteen years. A foot from their bed a large crack ran under the carpet. The tremors apparently passed right under the station and pushed part of the terrace over the adjacent cliff. Torres spent the first week after the disaster taking turns with one other radio announcer, keeping the station going 24 hours a day. “I have to be here,” says Torres. “People cling very much to the radio; they see it as a huge support for them.”
Thanks to an emergency decision by the mayor of Coronel, within hours of the disaster local firefighters had outfitted Radio Dinamica with a generator and the fuel to get it back on the air. The station became the center for the relief effort. Torres even put up speakers on her damaged terrace to broadcast important information to neighbors down below.
“People had to come by foot because there was no transport, no gas, so people walked many kilometers to get here and ask for help.”
Torres says she was able to connect people with missing family members, organize and collect water, food and other relief materials, and communicate other important emergency information. Looting in the aftermath of the earthquake destroyed local pharmacies, grocery stores, and other essential businesses. Radio Dinamica responded by turning one of their two studios into a makeshift pharmacy, putting out an amnesty call to locals to bring back medicines — no questions asked — to the station.
“We asked people to bring us the medicine they didn’t need. So we started helping people who needed medicine for cancer, thyroid disorders, high blood pressure. And if we didn’t have the medicine, we asked for it through the radio.”
Throughout the emergency zone local authorities and small radio stations emulated Dinamica and the town of Coronel and partnered to get basic information out to affected listeners, and coordinate aid efforts. The Municipality of Tome witnessed the destruction of two of its small fishing villages by the enormous tsunami waves that followed the earthquake. Mayor Eduardo Aguilera used both Radio Bio Bio and local station Radio Aquamarina to reach his constituents with emergency directions.
“I warned the people to stay in the higher areas, that we would distribute help once it got there to the different areas and that people should come to this place to inform us about the damage their homes had. That was what we did then; we asked people to calm down, to respect the rules and not to expose themselves to any dangers during the night.”
Aguilera says he started a routine of having afternoon meetings of his emergency response staff, and then directly afterwards going to the radio stations to personally share the information. Putting local leaders like Aguilera on the air helped comfort community members and also gave them access to ask important questions.
A full two weeks after the initial earthquake, downtown Concepción came back to life as rubble was cleared from the streets and businesses that somehow survived the horror of an earthquake followed by massive looting began to open their doors. A group of young reporters gathered in a small naturopathic pharmacy storefront and took a seat amidst a sea of herbal remedies. Radio Ines de Suarez and its offices were completely destroyed by a falling wall from a large department store. The station was back on the air after a week of repairs, broadcasting from a small shack next to the transmitter on a nearby hill.
Claudio Arévalo, the news director for the station, got up from his seat and began to rally his troops, a group of six who had not seen each other since the disaster. Many of them still did not have running water and were busy making sure their families were settled before they took the step of getting back to work. Arévalo told his team that while they missed covering the initial emergency there was still a lot of important work they could accomplish in the aftermath.
“People need guidance, information, they need a service that can connect them in a better way, so that they know how their relatives are, in which condition the bridge is, when is the best time to cross it, when there is more traffic, contacting the police, knowing what’s happening with the municipalities. There’s a lot of help but I know areas where they haven’t received anything. And this is something journalists need to cover. We have to tell the truth, even if it hurts.”
A week after the disaster, residents of the fishing village of Candelaria lamented the loss of their homes and most of their possessions to the tsunami. The community of approximately 30 families were now living in makeshift tent encampments in the hills above their former town. Besides saving his fishing boat and his small home, Hectar Oliveres said what he wanted most in the quake’s aftermath was information.
“When we were living here [in our homes], we had a television, we had newspapers, radios.” But no one at the encampment had access to a radio. If they had, he said, people would have
felt less alone. “Because if you don’t have information, you donʼt have anything, really.”
Freelance journalists often face big-league dangers by Jesse Hardman January 21, 2010
The Wall Street Journal recently compiled its list of the 200 best to worst occupations, taking into consideration levels of physical demands, stress, employment outlook, income and environment. Reporters ranked toward the bottom, well below nuclear-plant decontamination technicians. Perhaps it’s not surprising that during a year when the Great Recession has compounded a decade of newspaper revenue declines and newsroom firings, reporting has become a career on par with garbage collectors.
What is surprising is that so many young people continue to want to become journalists despite this bleak reality and the unknown future of the industry. Graduate school applications at institutions such as Columbia University, NYU and Northwestern’s Medill are up. Columbia had a 38 percent increase in applications, despite continued low wages and few opportunities in the industry.
But for those who choose to work in the field, job opportunities are so scarce that many would-be journalists appear to be increasingly willing to risk their safety for a career break. The last year has seen numerous high profile cases of journalists in peril, from North Korea to Somalia, from Afghanistan to Iran. Many of these cases have involved young freelancers, people trying to get their foot in the media door by reeling in big stories abroad.
The world has changed since the days of Edward R. Murrow, Ernest Hemingway or even David Halberstam. Increasingly hostile governments and armed groups operating around the globe have shown they are not afraid to use reporters as bargaining chips, or worse. And with less and less financial backing for foreign coverage, few of these intrepid young documenters have institutional support when they do get into trouble.
Canadian freelancer Amanda Lindhout is the most recent poster child for this increasingly risky work. Lindhout was released in late November after spending 15 months as a hostage in Somalia. She was reportedly released after her family helped pay a ransom — by some accounts, as much as $1 million — to her captors.
The Minnesota region has been touched by this year of living dangerously, as two reporters with local ties have found themselves stuck in Iran’s notorious Evin prison near Tehran. North Dakota native Roxana Saberi had been reporting and studying in Iran for six years, filing news spots from Iran for NPR and other news outlets. Saberi was accused of purchasing alcohol, and later charged and sentenced last April to eight years in jail for spying. She was released last May after a wave of protest, including overtures by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on her behalf.
Shane Bauer, whose mother lives in Pine City, Minn., was arrested while hiking on the Iraq/Iran border last July. Bauer had been living in Syria and filing stories from around the Middle East for various media including The Nation magazine and the radio program “Democracy Now.” Bauer and two companions remain in Evin prison, accused of spying.
These three examples paint a clear picture that despite the danger, young, passionate reporters are going to keep trying to bring back stories from far-flung places. The accessibility and affordability of digital media, and the equipment it requires, make their hopes and dreams increasingly possible. And whether a young journalist went to graduate school or not, all are aware that freelancing is what is available, and that the payment for such work is low.
But if media outlets are going to continue to request and take their material, they must also figure out a new system to help support and protect these eager reporters. The responsibility cannot remain squarely on the backs of those willing to take a chance, and the families they leave behind. If news organizations are willing to publish or broadcast their work, they should also be willing to make sure such stringers get training before they head out, and support during their time abroad.
Last December page A-27 of the New York Times displayed a picture of a very American-three story house complete with Christmas adornments and a welcoming open door. Above the house sat a caption in big bold letters, “How Venezuela is Keeping the Home Fires Burning in Massachusetts.” Yes, that’s right, Venezuela, a country most Americans could not pick out of a Latin American lineup a year ago is beating its chest in the New York Times. Now people from Quincy, Massachusetts to Chicago’s barrios know the name Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s president, and many consider him a good and generous man who wants to help them pay their winter heating bills. This positive image of Chávez has emerged despite the fact that the U.S. government vehemently hates him, and the truth that as a leader, he floats somewhere between good, amusing and at times extremely divisive.Since Hurricane Katrina and the U.S. government’s visible failure to respond to the needs of its own people, Venezuelan officials have waged a large-scale public relations effort to sell their country as the new super power on the block. They have backed it up with a range of socioeconomic promises and programs, some empty, some marginally successful, right here in the United States, a place not even sworn enemies like Cuba and the Soviet Union ever dared to publicly tread. This effort is fueled by an increasingly valuable massive oil reserve and driven by Venezuela’s willingness to use its newfound wealth in a brash, autonomous fashion all over the hemisphere, mostly through energy subsidies. But what does it mean that President Hugo Chávez is taking oil and socialism to the streets of the United States? And who is buying into this curious venture by a country best known for its own poverty and disarray?
In a September speech to the United Nations General Assembly in New York President Chávez served notice of his intent to change the world, “Simón Bolívar, founding father of our country and guide of our revolution swore to never allow his hands to be idle or his soul to rest until he had broken the shackles which bound us to the empire. Now is the time to not allow our hands to be idle or our souls to rest until we save humanity.” During the same trip, his first to the United States in his six years as president, Chávez said he wanted up to ten percent of the Venezuelan oil refined in the U.S. to go to poor people at reduced costs, and, he added, “we’re just starting with this project.” This promise might seem like a stretch, but Chávez’s cause is buoyed by the fact that Venezuela owns the Citgo gas corporation, a Houston based network that includes tens of thousands of gas stations around the U.S. and nine refineries. Citgo has been the driving force behind Chávez’s energy assistance program, an effort that has brought small amounts of discounted heating oil to low income neighborhoods in the South Bronx, Boston, Maine and Rhode Island. Vermont and New Hampshire are also in the hunt for discount fuel deals.
A controversial figure in the highbrow U.N. General Assembly fall meetings in Manhattan, President Chávez sought comfort by heading north to the Bronx, to visit some of New York’s poorest neighborhoods. “This,” he said, “is my real summit.” During his visit, Chávez played maracas with a salsa band, kissed babies and promised at least three non-profit groups to fly them down to visit Venezuela. Emilia Wiles works for one of those non-profits, an after school center for at-risk teenagers. President Chávez stopped by her program and held a private meeting with her twenty students. Wiles says the visit was life changing for an impoverished neighborhood that often feels ignored, “he talked to each student individually, learned their names, gave them a lot of inspiration telling them “the heart of change is in the poor,” “The kids are still quoting him to this day. They found him so inspirational, I mean, who comes to the South Bronx?”
Since Chávez’s visit, Emilia Wiles has tried to organize the promised visit of her students to Venezuela. So far she has gotten nowhere. Venezuelan officials explained that President Chávez promises lots of things and that not all of them can come true. In fact Chávez’s own embassy in the U.S. struggles to keep up with his offers, having to go back and study speeches and interviews to see exactly what he promised and to whom. In a September interview, Chávez announced a slew of pilot initiatives that would kick off in a predominantly Latino neighborhood in Chicago, Little Village, where Citgo would provide heating oil and discounted diesel fuel for school buses. When the time came to figure out the details, Venezuelan and Citgo officials realized Chicago runs its heat on natural gas, not heating oil, and that the recently built Little Village high school was constructed for the specific reason that kids could walk to school. Not to be deterred, the local Venezuelan consulate then promised a program that would donate diesel fuel to the Chicago Transit Authority in exchange for reduced public transportation fares for poor people. The CTA initially rejected that offer, saying that the kind of fuel Citgo produces would damage some of the public busses. The city agency also questioned how officials would decide who could access the reduced fare offer. While the CTA was busy rejecting Venezuela’s offer, it simultaneously raised transportation fares by twenty-five cents to two dollars. Public outrage ensued and both politicians and activists have called on the city to find a way to take the Venezuelans offer of a billion dollars worth of fuel.
Whether or not Venezuela is actually coming through on its offers, it has found a way to come across as the good guy. The Bush government was derided by a variety of U.S. activists, intellectuals and politicians for rejecting President Chávez’s offer of water, food, generators and medical supplies after Hurricane Katrina. While Chávez used Katrina as a launching point for his “petro-diplomacy” efforts in the United States, in reality his social initiatives had started almost a year earlier when he ordered consulates in places like Chicago to begin making inroads with community and nonprofit groups. Venezuelan officials also began cultivating ties with the U.S. Congress, befriending people like Massachusetts Congressman William Delahunt and New York Congressman Jose Serrano, who were instrumental in bringing reduced cost heating oil to their districts.
For some communities in the U.S., Venezuela has even emerged as the go-to-guy. Robert Free Galvan is a Native American activist who contacted Venezuelan officials last August after visiting the country for a conference. He wanted to know if Indian tribes might be able to get a deal on fuel. Since August, Galvan has been actively trying to locate tribes who are close to Citgo refineries and have infrastructure compatible with their fuel. Free Galvan says since word got out about his efforts, he has been receiving hundreds of emails, many of them like this one:
Dear Mr. Free,
I am writing to inquire about how to apply for low cost heating oil from Venezuela for my elderly Mother. She is not a Native American; just poor.
Free Galvan helped broker a deal with the state of Maine and Citgo to provide eight million gallons of heating oil at a 40 percent discount to four different tribes.
Some of Venezuela’s offers have gone beyond energy assistance. The Chicago consulate has been touting a health initiative since the fall that would provide eye surgery to poor residents. According to consul officials, an airplane would come from Venezuela to Chicago and other cities, pick up people who have filled out the requisite paperwork and have professional diagnoses, and take them to Caracas for eye surgery. Initially, the plane was supposed to arrive just after the New Year. More recent estimates say some time in March. The consulate says it has realized many of the applicants do not have passports or are illegal immigrants. Chicago’s consul general Martin Sanchez maintains his optimism as he sits behind a large wood desk that dwarfs his diminutive frame. An enormous portrait of Simón Bolívar hangs above him. Sanchez says helping people in the United States is not easy work, but he says his government means business. “People here in the U.S. really have needs. And the gap between rich and poor is wide too. We don’t see this as a P.R. stunt, but a sincere offer to the U.S..”
President Chávez likes to promote these deals as Venezuela’s attempts to be a good neighbor. Many of these offers are viewed by the U.S. as an attempt to solidify a leftist shift in Latin America, a move away from the free market, democratic U.S. way of doing things. Should this remind us of anything? Harvard University’s Marshall Goldman, an expert on Russian economics, says Russia used its state-owned oil reserves to woo countries to its side of the Cold War and support them when the U.S. turned its back on them. But there is one main difference says Goldman, Russia never brought its road show to the United States in a very public, direct way. Professor Phillip Brenner, a Latin American expert at American University, says President Chávez has found the United States government and media a tough sell because the Bush administration has been fighting an internal battle over how to view Venezuela. “If we think of Latin America in the way Teddy Roosevelt thought of Latin America or President Taft, that it is ours to exploit, than yes, it (Venezuela) is a threat. But if we think of Venezuela and Latin America in the Franklin Roosevelt model, as a neighbor, or in the Kennedy model, that we have a shared alliance for progress, he’s (Chávez) not opposing those goals, he’s opposing dominance by the United States.”
John Walsh, a senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America, says Venezuela’s social efforts in the U.S. are a kind of ideologically driven PR. “They do believe it is the right thing to do. They also believe, and I think correctly, that it’s a politically profitable thing to do. And not that it be an anonymous gift, but that it be very closely tied in people’s minds to the Venezuelan government.” Walsh says Chávez has a unique leverage when it comes to the United States because the Bush government depends on Venezuela for around a quarter of its oil. Walsh also points out that Venezuela is closer and a less volatile place than the Middle East, and it is making enough money from oil that it avoids handouts from the World Bank and IMF, avoiding the strings that tie most other Latin nations.
It is no secret that Chávez has won two elections and many referendums in large part due to his popularity with Venezuela’s poorest residents. Most recently, he has begun to use growing revenue from his country’s sizeable oil reserves to pay for things like widespread literacy, universal health care, and other social programs. Despite doubters, even within his own administration, Chávez has also used energy resources to expand his influence all over the Americas. Initiatives like Petro Caribe and Petro Sur, have begun to deliver oil products directly to Caribbean and Latin nations. These programs have given countries discounts on oil now, while prices are still high, and allowed them to pay Venezuela back over time. The Venezuelan government also helped Argentina pay off its IMF debt and is planning to develop a joint oil venture with Brazil. Uruguayan vice president Rodolfo Nin Novoa, a moderate conservative, was on the receiving end of a deal that would get Venezuelan oil at almost half the going rate for a barrel with no interest for 20 years. American University’s Phillip Brenner says when he asked Nin Novoa about the offer from Chávez, whom he differs with politically, he responded, “What do you think I think of him? This is an enormous gift that will let us move ahead. He didn’t ask anything in return.” Venezuelan Energy minister Fadi Kabboul says with prices so high, it is important to give friends and customers a break, at least in the interim. “The concept here, if you have a customer, and the price is too high, you have to decide, do you kill your customer or do you help him so he can still consume your product?” Furthermore says Kabboul, “you need to understand that oil belongs to the people.” Kabboul says nobody understands this better than Venezuela, which, despite having oil for more than 70 years, has allowed extreme poverty to persist.
But how much of this effort by Venezuela is pure show and how much is real assistance? Phillip Brenner says Venezuela’s initiatives in the U.S. are a “clever ploy,” but too small scale to be significant. Even some of Chávez’s own ministers try to downplay his big plans. Energy minister Fadi Kabboul says these efforts will only last until fuel prices go down, hopefully just a few months. Kabboul says Venezuela has no long-term goals to use energy assistance as a way to create social change in a place like the U.S., “Of course we don’t pretend to do this in the U.S. because this is the job of the U.S.. It’s not our job to go and do this.” Back in Venezuela some politicians and sectors of the public are wary of Chávez’s spending in places like the United States. They worry that when oil prices drop, Venezuela will be overextended, and not enough money will be left for domestic use.
While the political significance of these energy assistance programs is debated, Venezuelan officials continue their push to make inroads in communities around the United States. On an October morning last fall, Chicago consul general Martin Sanchez handed out flyers at his office for a speaking engagement on Chicago’s South Side titled “The Truth About Venezuela, What’s Going On? Will the U.S. Attack?” He also ran from phone to phone, making sure everything was in place for a Chicago exhibition entitled, “Venezuela Matters,” a two day conference aimed at business leaders and local Latino politicians. City Council member Billy Ocasio, who represents Chicago’s predominantly Puerto Rican West Humboldt Park neighborhood, cut the ceremonial ribbon at the event, “I’m glad to announce that they (Venezuela) have come to Chicago to launch themselves as the country that we all need to know, the country we all need to work with.” Attendees gazed at a high-end diorama of large screen televisions and billboards with enticing photos of beautiful landscapes mixed with text referring to human rights and social development. Venezuela’s highest profile exports, baseball players and oil were also prominent in the exhibit, which attempted a balancing act between inviting tourism and marketing socialism.
Venezuelan ambassador Bernardo Alvarez was on hand for the festivities, as was Citgo CEO Felix Rodriguez, both of them working the crowd with handshakes and hugs. The buzz in the room was that Alvarez and Rodriguez would announce a major initiative to bring energy relief to Chicago. Rodriguez gave a speech in Spanish explaining how oil wealth comes with an enormous humanitarian responsibility, but he offered no concrete details of any local program. Ambassador Alvarez was pushed for some concrete answers in a press conference. One reporter asking, “Is this a program that would possibly start this winter?” Alvarez openly grinned his response, “it has to start, if not I lose my job.”
Chicago resident Jose Lopez sat idly in the back of the exhibition room. Lopez runs the Puerto Rican Community Center in the West Humboldt Park neighborhood, one of the city’s poorest. In the past year, his community has been visited by Ambassador Alvarez, the mayor of Caracas, and consul general Martin Sanchez. Citgo even shelled out a hundred thousand dollars last summer to save the cash starved local Puerto Rican day parade. Across the street from Lopez’s youth center sits a Citgo station, something he no longer views as a coincidence. He said it has been a long wait, but somebody has finally answered his community’s cries for help. “We have to look at the reality that you haven’t addressed the needs of those people for so many years. Why not get some imaginative proposals from other people.” Whether or not Lopez gets any meaningful direct help from Chávez is to be seen, but even if it is just rhetoric from a man who likes to talk, he appreciates the attention.
The verdict is still out on Venezuela’s surprising and at times unsteady venture into the world of foreign diplomacy and economic hegemony. Oil wealth has made the growth of Chávez’s presence in the Americas possible, but it is hard to say what exactly his efforts will amount to. What is certain is that Chávez has bought an audience from Maine to Argentina. Politicians scrambling to provide for their communities are happy to entertain energy deals, and their constituents, not least of all the poor, are eager to hear talk of a new world order, one where they are included. Chávez optimists say his willingness to utilize Venezuela’s oil wealth to foster social support not just internally but abroad could be a spark that moves the hemisphere in a new direction over time. Critics say as soon as oil prices drop, Chávez is doomed, that he has over-committed Venezuela’s black gold and scared away necessary foreign investors with his fiery rhetoric and socialist policies. But regardless of what happens next, Chávez, with a little assistance from the ghost of Simón Bolívar and Hurricane Katrina, has planted the seed that the United States is vulnerable, and that its poor residents are as eager for outside help as the masses of impoverished people around Latin America.
Jesse Hardman is a freelance reporter for National Public Radio and print. He has covered stories from Mexico, Chile and Colombia during his career. Hardman also works on issues related to free press and journalism development.
(August 1, 2008)Internews has given nearly 3000 transistor radios to families who have been forced to flee their homes by the conflict in Eastern Sri Lanka. The radio distribution is part of Internews’ “Lifeline” project to meet the information needs of Sri Lankans living in camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs).
Kowsalya Murugaiah, the local leader of the Alunkulam welfare camp in Sri Lanka’s Eastern Batticaloa District, calls out to her fifty-some constituents and then waits patiently under a shady tree. Mostly women and children emerge from small one-room huts where they seek shade from the unbearable heat that defines afternoon in this part of the island. The men are out doing physical work like cutting and hauling firewood from the local jungle.
Everyone in the Alankulam camp has been displaced from their original homes for more than two years because of the conflict that has killed an estimated 70,000 people since it began 25 years ago. More than anything, they want to go back to their home district of Trincomalee, a couple of hours north by road, to see what is left of the lives they knew before.
Most of them lost everything, from their rice paddies to their family photographs, when they fled intense fighting. Now they live in houses made from tarps and corrugated sheet metal, trying to survive on day laborer wages and rations.
The Alunkulum welfare center is more cut off than most, as it is set an hour from the nearest major town, Batticaloa, and does not receive the steady stream of assistance that many of the other Sri Lankan IDP camps receive.
The families at this camp are not just cut off from physical assistance; they are also cut off from the news and information that might help them improve their situation. These people have never owned radios and they cannot afford newspapers. They cannot access news on how to find work, how to improve their families’ health and nutrition, or how to replace essential documents lost in displacement.
But today, under a big shady tree, one vital need of the Alankulam residents is getting addressed. Each family is receiving a transistor radio from Internews.
“Today, we finally got something we really needed,” says camp leader Kowsalya Murugaiah. “Now we can get news and information to help us. Now we won’t be so lost.”
With a grant from USAID, Internews started its “Lifeline” project in Sri Lanka six months ago for populations like the people of Alankulam, to improve peoples’ access to vital information and knowledge and in doing so, help people to take more control of their lives.
The “Lifeline” team produces a weekly newspaper and radio program in one of the local languages. These outlets tell the displaced and others about projects and services provided by the Sri Lankan government, humanitarian agencies, and local organizations.
The “Lifeline” radio program includes a popular radio drama that covers topics such as HIV/AIDS and dowry issues. A series of radio spots addresses the legal issues that displaced people face, such as how to replace birth certificates and how to insure their land and livestock. Recent interviews with government officials in the war-torn districts of Batticaloa and Trincomalee conveyed how the local populations were coping and what resources they most needed.
Back at the Alankulam camp, one local resident tuned his radio contently. Sitting in a sarong and no shirt, he listened to some music for a bit.
His wife mentioned the “Lifeline” radio program. She says she heard a drama about dowry issues, and that she liked it. Her husband smiles and says he liked hearing the sounds and voices from another IDP camp featured in the program.
As the morning moves along, the sound of many radios being tuned fills the air. Everyone, it seems, can finally listen.
“Lifeline” airs for two hours on Saturday mornings as well as half an hour daily. Over the course of its six-month existence, “Lifeline” has also organized live information events at IDP camps and welfare centers, where the team hosts talks, music, and street dramas that air on “Lifeline.”