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Empowered Myanmar Women’s Struggles, Contributions Come to Life in New Book

Kiplinger Fellow Jennifer Rigby (Class 2015) returned this year from a nearly three-year stay in Myanmar where she chronicled life in the Asian nation, particularly focusing on the empowering women who gained prominence after years of oppression, the “other ladies” of the oftern chaotic nation.

Here is a recent Q&A with Jennifer who is back in her native England with husband and child.

 

Q1. Give us some background how you found yourself in Myanmar and for how long. And, when did the idea of the book come to you?

 

I moved to Myanmar with my now husband, who is also a journalist, in 2015. It was a compromise: we both wanted to live and work abroad, but while I suggested somewhere pleasant, like Denmark, he suggested Syria. Myanmar was a mix of the two: reasonably safe, for foreigners at least, and a fascinating place to live with some heartbreaking, challenging and important stories to tell, too.

 

We also moved there at a time of great hope. After decades of oppression at the hands of a military junta, the first free and fair elections were taking place (in November 2015), and the human rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi was set to win. She did win, but it hasn’t been quite so hopeful since. Her government has overseen what has been widely called a genocide of the Rohingya people, and as I write, two Burmese journalists working for Reuters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, have been sentenced to seven years in prison just for doing their jobs. It’s not the democratic future she was expected to herald.

My book was originally inspired by Suu Kyi – affectionately known simply as “The Lady” in Myanmar – and the hope she inspired in the Burmese people and around the world. But a lot had already been written about her, and I didn’t want to add more to that. Then, over the next 18 months or so living in Myanmar, I found many more people and stories in the country that embodied hope almost as completely as she did.

 

So I decided to write about them instead – the ‘other ladies’ of Myanmar of the title. And it’s a good thing I did, because with every day that has passed and every atrocity that has taken place on Suu Kyi’s watch, these women have become more than an addition to her. Rather than her backing singers, as they perhaps were in my original idea of the book, they have now become the headline act; they are carrying the whole tune, and with it, hope for Myanmar’s future.

 

Q2. How did the book materialize?

 

I had the idea for the book, but for a freelance journalist to take time out from making money with stories is a precarious business. So I applied for and got a grant from the International Women’s Media Foundation, which enabled me to focus on all of the women’s stories in depth – traveling to meet them, shadowing them, spending days with them. That was brilliant, and essential to give me time to do the book properly. At the same time, I pitched it to publishers, and the Institute of South-east Asian Studies took it on.

 

Q3. Was there any time you were concerned about portraying these women given they were rebellious of sorts and you were giving them attention?

 

The women were all totally aware of what was going on when we were speaking, and the fact that the interviews would end up in a published book. For some of them, their rebellions are not contentious – the refugee sexual heath nurse, for example, or the acid attack survivor – while they are bravely fighting for change, they aren’t fighting for the kind of change that will wind up an increasingly authoritarian government.

 

That’s not the case for some of the more overtly political campaigners, such as the Rohingya human rights activist, Wai Wai Nu. She is perhaps in a more precarious position, but it’s a place she has incredibly courageously chosen to put herself many times since she got out of prison. As an activist, she uses the local and international press to try to raise awareness for various causes, and so I think – I hope – my book can be part of that for her. But I do think she and a few of the other women had to be careful in what they said at certain points.

 

Q4. Myanmar is a complex country that seems perpetually mired in conflicts of politics, war and religion. How much of the turmoil factored into your decision to approach a book from these unique feminist views?

 

Myanmar is spectacularly complex, and I don’t claim to understand it. However, what I did notice as I lived there, learned more and read more books about it, was that any attempts to understand it or explain it came from the male viewpoint, the male voice.

 

Apart from Aung San Suu Kyi, I just felt that the perspectives of women in Myanmar were completely unheard in the wider world. And at a moment when it seemed the country was about to undergo a historic change, it seemed to me that they were going to play more of a part in its future, and in making it a feminist future. So I wanted to hear from them, and I wanted the international community to hear more from them.

 

Q5. Were there some figures or topics that were just too sensitive to approach in a book? Did you ever think “officials” might be staring over your shoulder as you interviewed them? Anyone who wanted to talk with but couldn’t?

 

I didn’t really feel that there was anything too sensitive for me to approach, but that’s probably because as an international journalist, I was able to leave Myanmar whenever I wanted. Although I did write the book outside of the country, and I haven’t been granted a visa to return since.

 

Until recently, I would have said writing it in Myanmar would have been fine anyway, because it really seemed like press freedom was on the up since the dark days of the junta – but the recent sentencing of the two Reuters journalists has called that pretty seriously into question.

 

Otherwise, I spoke to everyone I wanted and didn’t feel anything was out of bounds – apart from Aung San Suu Kyi herself of course, who I would have loved to speak to but who doesn’t really grant interviews with the international (or indeed local) press that much anymore. Another great sign for a democratic leader…

 

Q6.  What’s the one takeaway you hope for someone reading this book?

 

I hope people reading the book see beyond Aung San Suu Kyi into the nuanced, wonderful, sad, frustrating, inspiring and fascinating country of Myanmar, and realize that there are women there –  as there are anywhere in the world – fighting the good fight to make sure our world is an equal one.

 

Q7 What the reaction to the book been like, so far?

 

It’s been positive, which is great. I hope to do more promotion in the next few months as I finish a few other bits of work, but I’ve had some good criticism and some good reception from a few editors for reviews and articles. And for now my husband is keeping track of the Amazon sales (it nearly topped the gay and lesbian bestsellers for a few days, which is cool but a bit odd, seeing as it doesn’t fit into that genre really in any way).

 

Q8. Plans for more travels or books coming up?

 

I’m about to have my second child (due in January), so I won’t be travelling much or writing after that for a year or so. Otherwise, it might just be because it is occupying my thoughts a lot at the moment, but I’d like to do a series about birth around the world: the different approaches of different cultures to this fundamental life event that everyone goes through.

 

I’d also love to get back to Myanmar when I can, partly to promote the book and also to discuss whether there is any interest in translating it into Burmese. Otherwise I’ll see what lies ahead!

 

Here’s the link to buy the book btw – any promo appreciated! https://www.amazon.co.uk/Other-Ladies-Myanmar-Jennifer-Rigby/dp/9814818259

 

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Data journalism unearths stories in Zambia

As part of Kiplinger’s ongoing mission to train professional journalists worldwide, I spent the first week of May in Zambia, where, at the request of the U.S. Department of State and the embassy in Lusaka, I taught 22 journalists the fundamentals of data journalism.

It was a challenge given their understanding of data use in reporting and their abilities to get information from the government. In the end, we overcame both and the hopeful results will be more informative, fact-based journalism to the public.

Challenge one will be getting information from a government that controls a large share of the publications, TV and radio stations. Those employees, underpaid and overworked, aren’t likely to flex their press muscles to demand access to data. Those who work for private media outlets and are often seen as government oppositions, are spoon-fed selected information and denied access to raw data. But, they are thirsty and driven. And, tired of being denied.

Zambian journalists spent four days at the U.S. Embassy learning data journalism.

The second challenge is technological. In a nation where internet services are spotty and WiFi is a hit-and-miss proposition, spending a lot of time sifting through data or even searching for it can be difficult. They can almost forget, at this point, building their own data sets. They’re not there yet.

So, the week focused on the ins and outs of starting data projects, no matter the size, the search for data and how to manage it. We covered finding, uploading, sorting and interpreting data. I used Xcel and Google Sheets, walking them through the simplest ways to control data. We even delved into data-visualization-made-easy apps.

Thank goodness for the data site that is the World Bank.

As we methodically data mined  World Bank collections we unearthed an amazing amount of information they’d never seen. In some cases, the data refuted the government party line on poverty, health care, environmental protection and literacy. Shock.

Kabwe, a town about 90 minutes by car from the capital, is renowned for being one of the most polluted spots in the world. For years, a lead mine provided the mineral for the world at the health and environmental expense of the people and their land. Today, scavengers still mine the remnants by hand. Health issues are aplenty. The environment has been laid to waste. Data from the government is almost impossible to get. The World Bank, which has poured millions (one single donation topped at $60 million USD) into remediation of the town, has a treasure trove of data and reports online.

As we peeled back the layers it was heartening to see that most of the journalists had never seen that organization’s data and reports. They rapidly took notes and openly expressed their frustrations about not knowing this important data sitting in cyberspace for years. This was a win for journalism.

You could see the lights coming on as each day we discovered more data and they learned more skills. Story ideas popped into their heads. The desire to refresh old stories was embraced. Kawbe is still a very active story 12 years after the mine closed. I think it will get renewed attention in the coming months. The same became true when we reviewed fertility, poverty, environmental, agricultural and literacy data sets. They have plenty of stories to take to the people.

And, that was really the mission – first to convince them they were leaving a lot of stories behind by not invoking data, and second, give them the abilities to go after the data and manage it for the betterment of their reporting.

The end game is to empower the press to work more diligently and productively to become a true Fourth Estate pillar that shores up democracy in that nation. Hats off to the Zambian journalists who will take on that responsibility.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Kip Fellow personally familiar with Greek financial crisis

Reprinted with permission by Nikolia Apostolou.  This story appeared in USAToday, Nov. 15, 2016.

 

ATHENS — When President Obama stood in the shadows of Acropolis and talked about the crippling impact of austerity measures on Greece, I thought, wow, I could have told you that.

After all, my grandparents were collateral damage. And my father is next.
My grandparents’ story starts five decades ago — like thousands of Greeks who left the country in the 1950s and ’60s to find work after the devastating Greek civil war, my grandparents went to Brazil.

In Brazil, they worked hard and eventually opened a coffee shop and a clothing store. They were doing well but didn’t want to stay there forever. After seven years, they moved back to Greece.

In Athens, Grandpa sold children’s toys from a stand in Omonia Square, until he found a job selling watches and clothing in a shop. By the 1970s, my grandparents had earned enough to become their own bosses again, opening a small coffee shop near the Acropolis.

Grandpa paid his pension contributions. According to the law at the time, he couldn’t cover his wife, so Grandma never had her own pension. When they reached their mid-60s and closed their café to retire in the early 1990s, they lived off his benefits.

In the beginning it was OK. They didn’t travel much. Nor did they eat out.

Then, in the mid-1990s, like thousands of Greeks, Grandpa decided to invest some of his savings in the Athens stock market. Politicians were urging Greeks to invest and take advantage of the growing economy. Stockbroker offices opened up in neighborhoods and villages throughout the country.

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Nikolia Apostolu with a Syrian refugee child. Apostolu has been covering the Greek financial crisis and the Syrian refugee plight for more than two years now.

It was a heady time that turned into a frenzy. People sold their houses to play the stock market. Then in 1999, the bubble burst. Millions of people lost money, and the public pension funds went into the red. Allegations of fraud and insider trading were rampant. But nobody was charged with misdoings.

In 2001 when Greece adopted the euro, we were excited, though we thought the currency exchange wasn’t equal. Why should 1 euro have to be 340 drachmas, while 1 euro was 0.5 German marks? We weren’t economists.

Before the euro, a newspaper would cost 100 drachmas, or 30 euro cents, the U.S. equivalent of 33 cents. After the euro, the paper cost 1 euro, or $1.12. The same happened with potatoes, tomatoes and so on. We didn’t need to be economists to see the consequences of bringing together widely disparate economies adopting a single currency as part of the eurozone.

Grandpa, a proud man, never complained to me. But his habits slowly changed. He started attending anti-government protests. While watching the news, he’d curse the government.

He also stopped buying newspapers. That was something I couldn’t accept. A man who had worked for more than 45 years wasn’t able to afford a newspaper anymore. From then on, I’d always bring him a paper so he could indulge in one of his few pleasures.

In 2004, Grandpa was diagnosed with four brain tumors. A week later, we watched the Athens Olympics together. We wondered how much the spectacle cost taxpayers. Such an extravaganza seemed out of place in a small, troubled country like Greece.

More than $11 billion was spent on stadiums that now sit unused. Other funding went to much-needed infrastructure, however, like the subway and a new Athens airport.

A few months after the impressive opening ceremony, my grandfather passed away in his bed, surrounded by family. Grandma moved to an apartment across the street from my parents. She received 80% of her late husband’s pension and could just make ends meet.

Since the Greek fiscal crisis a few years ago, my grandma had been afraid the government would cut her pension. We dismissed her worries, assuring her that she received one of the lowest pensions in the country. Nobody would dare touch it, we said.

But, year after year, everything got more expensive, eating away at Grandma’s purchasing power. Taxes increased. New taxes hit heating oil, cigarettes — Grandma still smoked — telephone bills and so on. In July, Greek lawmakers cut my grandma’s benefits. Hospitalizations decimated her savings.

Thankfully, she didn’t really know about her financial situation. My mother used to go to the ATM for her and, with my aunt, covered much of her expenses before she died this fall.

I’m happy my grandfather isn’t around to see the current state of things. He would have been humiliated and depressed at not being able to survive financially after working hard for 45 years.

But my father isn’t likely to be spared that feeling. He just retired, and more pension cuts are looming.

Correspondent Apostolou is based in Athens

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Kiplinger announces 2017 Fellows

Twenty-one veteran journalists from newsrooms around the globe will make up the 2017 class of Kiplinger Fellows at Ohio State University.

The 2017 class includes national, large-market television and radio anchors and producers, leadership at three wire services, reporters from major daily newspapers as well as general assignment reporters from thriving community publications.

Six fellows will visit from outside the United States, hailing from Canada, Puerto Rico, Singapore, Spain, Australia and Afghanistan.

Nearly 500 journalists applied for the fellowship program, which will take place April 23 – 28 at the Ohio State campus in Columbus and the Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University in Athens.

“This year’s pool of applicants continues to signal to the Kiplinger Program that we are a much sought-after fellowship,” deputy director Kevin Z. Smith said. “We continue to be amazed at the caliber of journalists, domestic and foreign, who apply. It’s always a difficult and lengthy process to select the few who come. Each year’s class is unique and well representative of today’s journalism profession.”

Smith said the goal is to return the Kiplinger Fellows to their newsrooms armed with a new set of digital skills and the motivation to train others and improve the level of journalism.

The international 2017 Kiplinger Fellows are:

  • Anuj Chopra, Agence France-Presse, Kabul, Afghanistan
  • Eduardo Fernandez Diaz, El Mundo TV, Madrid, Spain
  • Stephanie Gomez, El Vocero, Puerto Rico
  • Nelissa Hernandez, Publicitas Content, Singapore
  • Declan Hill, The Star, Toronto, Canada
  • Lauren Novak, News Corp, Adelaide, Australia

 

The U.S. 2017 Kiplinger Fellows are:

  • Michelle Theriault Boots, Alaska Dispatch News, Anchorage
  • Deblina Chakraborty, Scripps-KMGH, Denver
  • Joe Danborn, The Associated Press, Denver
  • Monica Davey, The New York Times, Chicago
  • Kate Giammarise, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
  • Dalia Hatuqa, freelancer, Chevy Chase, Maryland
  • Andy Hurst, KUOW Public Radio, Seattle
  • Kyle Iboshi, KGW, Portland, Oregon
  • Jess Mador, NPR-WYSO, Yellow Springs, Ohio
  • Samantha Melamed, Philadelphia Inquirer
  • JP Olsen, HBO, New York City
  • Lee Powell, Washington Post, DC
  • Claudio Remeseira, Dow Jones, New York City
  • Fernanda Santos, The New York Times, Phoenix
  • Larry Seward, KHOU, Houston

 

The Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism is in its 44th year at Ohio State. It has evolved since its founding, transitioning from a nine-month master’s program to a digital media fellowships in 2011. In addition to the weeklong fellowship, the program offers workshops and training across the globe. In 2016, the Kiplinger Program training reached nearly 1,800 journalists. Full information about the Kiplinger Program is available at www.kiplingerprogram.org.

The Kiplinger Program was endowed at Ohio State in 1973 by Austin Kiplinger in honor of his father, W.M. Kiplinger, one of the university’s first journalism graduates in 1912. W.M. Kiplinger pioneered a new kind of journalism when he became publisher of The Kiplinger Letter and later Kiplinger’s Personal Finance. He has been described by his son as “a dedicated journalist, a muckraker and an inspiration to young journalists… a very original thinker.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Eastern European journalists explore Columbus news media

Erkinbek Kamalov of Kyrgyzstan, left, and Artur Zahharov of Estonia with a bust of E.W. Scripps

Two visiting journalists from Eastern Europe found common bonds and challenges during a 12-day stay in Columbus that featured time in several newsrooms.

The Kiplinger Program recently hosted the journalists from Estonia and Kyrgyzstan as part of a U.S. State Department program, working with Washington, D.C.-based World Learning. The journalists are part of a new Eastern European association called Digicomnet (Digital Communication Network).

More than 20 journalists came to the Unites States for a month, and two asked for placement in Columbus for the last 12 days of their tour. Kiplinger sponsored Artur Zahharov, a public television producer in Estonia and freelance multimedia journalist for Estonian newspapers, and Erkinbek Kamalov, a senior journalist with the Jalabat Journalists’ Association in Kyrgyzstan.

While in Columbus, the two spent time shadowing journalists at the Columbus Dispatch, WSYX-ABC 6 and WOSU public television; visited the journalism program at Ohio State University; attended a rally for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton; and stopped over at the  E.W. Scripps School of Journalism in Athens, Ohio. Before arriving in Columbus, they spent time in Washington, D.C., San Francisco and Austin, Texas.

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Artur Zahharov of Estonia (left) talks with WOSU’s Mike Thompson prior to the station’s filming of Columbus on the Record.

Here are excerpts from an interview with Artur and Erkinbek on their last day in Columbus, before returning home.

Q. What are your impressions of American journalism?

Artur: Like in Estonia, there is a big challenge between profits or journalism. I believe all the journalists who are doing their jobs here are in a difficult position. For instance, the Columbus Dispatch example is one, not the best, but it shows how things are developing to make money over journalism.

With ABC 6, they produce very short stories. In Estonia, we have the same procedures but they are doing it more exciting, and the way they find topics and search for stories is great. It’s very different than in my country because here they don’t mind the search for the sources, on the streets and knocking on doors. Those guys are really amazing.

I think that it’s a good thing to study and it can be useful. An example, our guys are on our jobs in Estonia and then they are at home. They work from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and then they go home. And here, you guys work until the work is done, there is no stopping at 5 o’clock and going home. I don’t’ know, it’s probably the American culture.

Erkinbek: American journalism has, I think, more freedom to do journalism and it’s a competitive environment, much more competitive environment than in my country. And, here not only are they professional and creative but it makes a competitive sense. The pace or speed of delivery of the information is very important, and it does not underestimate the content. Here, I understood journalism still brings good results. But, also the constant evolving (of journalism). I asked this question of American journalists and they don’t know yet. It’s not clear for them yet. Where is the future? Where are they going to be? No one can say if it’s going to be this way or that way. No one knows the destination or how it will or what form it will evolve, and I think (journalism) is constantly searching for itself, in constant pursuit of itself.

 

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