(Originally published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
Hamza Idris is a Nigerian journalist. He spent most of the past decade in northeastern Nigeria covering the Boko Haram terrorists who wipe out villages; bomb, immolate and machine-gun Christians in their churches; rape boys and turn them into child soldiers; rape girls and turn them into “brides.”
Hamza’s life has been threatened by both the Boko Haram cretins and by the Nigerian soldiers trying to subdue them. Neither side likes critical news coverage.
Hamza has had to live and work in the epicenter of these killing fields alone. His wife and two young children live far away for safe-keeping.
Hamza came to Pittsburgh in 2013 on an International Center for Journalism fellowship to visit the Post-Gazette for a few weeks so he could see how American journalism works.
When I met him at the airport, he launched a blinding smile and boomed, “I am HAMZA! From NIGERIA!” As we drove into town and got acquainted, Hamza, bewildered, said, “But there are no fences. The houses have no fences.” In Nigeria, houses are surrounded by walls topped with broken glass or barbed wire.
As we drove on, every time I turned toward Hamza, I could see a little more worry drain from his face. I asked if it was a relief to get away from the unrelenting danger of his work in Nigeria. He pointed to his face and said, “YES! LOOK! I am smiling!”
I’ve hosted foreign journalists at the Post-Gazette for 16 years and have seen this a lot. Reporters and editors arrive from war zones or revolutions, from living under threat from totalitarians or terrorists. They know that, if they cross certain lines in what they write or broadcast, if they anger the wrong people, they could be jailed, beaten, kidnapped, tortured or executed.
And yet, they edge up to those lines almost every day, and walk over them when they think they must. They feel a professional and personal obligation to write both the good things and the bad things about their countries. Most of them are in the vanguard of democracy movements and see independent journalism as indispensable to the free societies they seek to construct. They know that only when problems are exposed will they be addressed, and only by addressing them can their countries advance.
Most of the programs that bring foreign journalists to news outlets in the United States — such as the Alfred Friendly Press Partners, which has posted journalists to the Post-Gazette for more than a quarter-century — were founded to train journalists from “developing” countries. The idea was to sharpen their writing and reporting skills, show them how a free press works and pass on certain values – such as remaining independent of political and economic interests while trying to be fair to all sides.
These programs used to seem patronizing — America was the gold standard of journalism and these poor people needed our help – but they now have become a more equal exchange of ideas and information among professional colleagues.
Still, a lot of Americans – in journalism and other realms – think we have little to learn from foreigners because we are exceptional in every way.
The list of benefits that American journalists receive by hosting their foreign counterparts is a long one. Here are just a few:
• We broaden our understanding of the world: Ukrainian journalist Oksana Grytsenko, a 2015 Friendly Fellow, covers the Russian-sponsored separatist war in Ukraine and gave us a ground-level view of its dynamics. Russia and Ukraine have become significant issues in this year’s U.S. presidential election.
• We see ourselves through others’ eyes: Oksana also wrote about how shocked she was to find America littered with guns and plagued by shoot-outs. It reminded her of the war zone at home. This year’s Friendly Fellow, Olena Goncharova, also from Ukraine, scored the U.S. ahead of her country on gay rights: The 2016 pride parade in Kyiv drew 2,000 participants, a record, but they had to be guarded by 6,000 police officers.
• We get tapped into our own communities: Visiting journalists find local stories we miss. Kejin Qian (2005, China) wrote about Chinese soldiers who fought at Gettysburg. Who knew? Arshad Dogar (2014, Pakistan) discovered the largest processor of halal meat in America is based in southwestern Pennsylvania.
• We call on them for stories after they return home: Wallace Chuma (2002, Zimbabwe) powerfully described the disastrous land reforms of dictator Robert Mugabe through the experiences of his own family. Ljubica Gojgic (2000, Serbia) spent part of her Friendly Fellowship in Belgrade covering the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic and exploring Pittsburgh angles for the Post-Gazette.
• We are inspired by them: Friendly Fellows and other visiting journalists usually live in countries where they must fight, often at grave risk, to establish rights we take for granted: the right to speak freely, to expose the misdeeds of the powerful, to examine society without fear or favor. They remind us of our ideals, of why we became journalists and of the fact that we, too, must guard against encroachments on free expression.
This inspiration can take many forms. On the last day of his Friendly Fellowship in Pittsburgh, as he dropped his bags into the car that would begin his trip home to Zimbabwe, Wallace Chuma looked up to see the sky unleash a blizzard of snowflakes the size of quarters. Wallace had never seen snow. He raised his arms and lifted his face and smiled with rapture as though ascending into heaven. I realized then that maybe I had never really seen snow before, either.
Greg Victor is the Post-Gazette’s op-ed/Forum editor (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1570).
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