01 Oct

Alum’s new book puts a face to India’s farm crisis

Hardikar signed copies of his book at a store in India

Raised in a cotton-growing region of central India, Jaideep Hardikar has focused much of his 25-year reporting career on farmers and their increasingly perilous livelihood.

In September, HarperCollins published Hardikar’s second book about India’s agricultural system: “Ramrao, The Story of India’s Farm Crisis.” 

The book received glowing reviews, including one by the Hindustan Times that said Hardikar “tells us what it is like to be – financially, socially, emotionally and mentally – an Indian farmer today… The result of years of committed reportage, Ramrao turns an ordinary life into an essential biography for our times.”

As India’s economy liberalized and globalized, Hardikar writes, farmers saw production costs multiply and the cost of living rise while real incomes stagnated. Some farmers protested, and many others committed suicide.

In April 2014, Hardikar went to Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region to interview a desperate cotton farmer named Ramrao Panchleniwar, who had tried to commit suicide by drinking two bottles of insecticide but was saved.

In this condensed conversation with Alfred Friendly Program Director David Reed, Hardikar talked about Ramrao, the book, and the impact of his Alfred Friendly fellowship in 2009, when he trained at Poynter Institute and worked at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. [Click here for a video version of the interview)


I really wanted to tell the story of this crisis to an audience that might not necessarily understand the complexities of the issue. I am trying to help them understand how people survive and live with a crisis of this proportion. 

More than 400,000 farmers committed suicide in India between 1996 and 2018. Every 30 minutes in India, one farmer commits suicide and ends up as a mere statistic. 

It was only in 2016 or 2017 that I began to think that I need to follow Ramrao for more years and see if I could tell his story, and through him the crisis in farming. He is an average farmer who symbolizes India’s farming community. 

Reed: What are a few actions the government and society could take to improve the situation?

Hardikar: There are no simplistic solutions. It’s a complicated and complex issue. But if you ask me two or three things that we need to do, we need to augment incomes phenomenally because right now it’s not even subsistence levels that they are at. And we need to structurally see what we can do with our poor farming conditions, which means we need to invest more, not necessarily in big projects, but we need to invest in the rural economy in a way that augments income standards. 

Reed: In what ways did the Alfred Friendly Fellowship experience have an impact on your career?

Hardikar: Those six months in the U.S. and at the Sun-Sentinel were a game-changer, a life-changer. My whole perception changed. I worked alongside very good reporters at the Sun-Sentinel and met a lot of good journalists from many parts of the United States. I‘ve learned from them and stayed in touch with them. I don’t look at events, I now look at processes. The idea of a book or the very fact that a journalist could graduate from a 1,000-word story into a more substantial contribution in terms of length, in terms of scale and time — that came during those six months. They were invaluable. Some of those moments are still with me, very alive.

26 Aug

Alfred Friendly postpones 2021 fellowship program

The rapid, worldwide spread of the Covid19 Delta variant compelled the Alfred Friendly Foundation Board of Directors to move the fellowship program from September 2021 to early 2022.

The annual program’s usual start date in March had been pushed to September because experts predicted the coronavirus pandemic would be controlled by that time and newsrooms hosting 2021 fellows planned to start reopening in the fall. All of the incoming fellows received vaccinations and applied for visas early in the year that allows them to work in U.S. newsrooms. 

However, the unexpected virulence of the highly contagious Delta variant caused infections and hospitalizations to rise swiftly, while vaccination rates stalled. Newsrooms planning to host fellowship trainees decided to continue as remote workspaces into the new year. Several incoming fellows were unable to get visas in countries where U.S. embassies had limited operations because of the worsening pandemic. 

The Alfred Friendly board concluded on Aug. 22 that the nonprofit organization could not deliver a fellowship program that met its quality standards. The program, which has trained more than 330 early-career journalists from 80+ countries since 1984, demands hands-on university and newsroom training as well as in-person mentoring. Also, the U.S. State Department rules for J1 visas require in-person programming. 

The seven incoming fellows will now join the program in January or later when conditions are safe enough for trainers at the Missouri School of Journalism to hold in-person sessions and for newsrooms to move away from all-remote work environments.

Seven reporters in the 2001 Class will participate in the program next year: Anastasia Valeeva from Russia and David Mono Danga from South Sudan, sponsored by the TRACE Foundation; Jody Garcia from Guatemala, sponsored by the Patrick and Janna Stueve Foundation; and four investigative reporters from the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project — Chencho Dema from Bhutan, Indunil Arachchi from Sri Lanka, Parth Nikhil from India and Saurav Rahman from Bangladesh.


Ankur Paliwal
12 Aug

Alum exposes caste barriers within India’s top science institutes

Ankur Paliwal

Ankur Paliwal, a science reporter and a Fellow in Alfred Friendly’s Class of 2018, revealed significant discrimination when he examined the effectiveness of India’s reservation policy. The policy, a kind of affirmative action, mandates that 15 percent of students and staff at public research and education institutes come from the Dalit community.

Paliwal focused on his area of expertise. He spent months interviewing Dalit researchers in some of the top Indian science institutes, analyzing data and collecting stories of discrimination, isolation, and consequences of speaking up. 

Records Paliwal obtained from scientific institutions through India’s Right to Information Act, along with data from government reports and student groups, reveal that many organizations aren’t meeting the inclusion requirement for Dalits, who make up about 17 percent of India’s population and were previously known as untouchables.

Here’s a link to his article in the digital science magazine Undark, which has been widely republished around the world.  

During his specialty reporting fellowship, Paliwal studied food security issues at the University of Missouri and then went to work for Scientific American magazine and Undark for six months.

“The Alfred Friendly fellowship helped me immensely in achieving my goal of reporting and writing deep and moving stories about food insecurity in Africa,” Paliwal wrote in a blog post. During the fellowship, Paliwal researched story ideas and collaborated with the Pulitzer Center, which funded two reporting trips to Africa and is affiliated with Undark. 

Paliwal speaks during the annual gala in Washington after his graduation in September 

India’s caste system is a rigid social hierarchy defined by family of origin and described in ancient Hindu legal texts. Brahmins (priests) occupied the top of the pyramid, followed by the Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (traders), and then Shudras (artisans) at the bottom.

Paliwal wrote that today, caste remains an ever-present reality in Indian culture, and functions somewhat similarly to race in America.

For the Undark article, Paliwal featured Raosaheb Kale, a Dalit who was born in the drought-prone Beed district in 1950 — three years after India became free from British rule, and the same year India’s new constitution outlawed caste discrimination and adopted the reservation policy.

Here are portions of Paliwal’s story:

Kale shared a mud-walled, tin-roofed house with his parents and four younger siblings. Like other Dalits, his parents were unable to own land and barred from entering temples. In his village, Dalits were assigned various jobs such as sweeping streets, supplying firewood,

delivering messages, and picking cotton. In return, they received grains, leftover food, or, on very rare occasions, one rupee for a day’s labor — well below a livable wage.

Against staggering odds, Kale excelled in academic science. He fought his way through the upper-caste-dominated School of Life Sciences, became its dean, and received a prestigious award for his contributions to radiation and cancer biology research. In 2014, he completed his tenure in one of the top academic posts — vice-chancellor of a university — in India.

When he spoke with Undark early this year, Kale was reading “Caste,” the New York Times bestselling book by Isabel Wilkerson, a Black American writer who draws parallels between the caste system in India, racial hierarchies in the U.S., and policies in Nazi Germany, arguing that “caste is the infrastructure of our divisions.” 

While Kale discussed these issues back in January, the Indian media continued to report on ongoing atrocities against Dalits, including the rape of a Dalit girl by upper-caste men in September 2020 in northern India.

As Kale reflected on the events, the afternoon sun was descending behind buildings outside the balcony of his apartment. Kale’s forehead creased. “I think the society is going backward,” he said. “I am very worried.” Kale believes that Dalits and their supporters are fighting hard, but that there have only been small changes.

For a big change, a national-level movement needs to emerge, he said: “We need a storm.” 

In an email, Paliwal said the storm needs to be similar in strength to the black lives matter and me-too movements in the United States.


02 Aug

Pandemic reporting in Kenya leads to life change

Mercy Adhiambo, Class of 2016 from Kenya

By Mercy Adhiambo

In a few weeks, I will leave Nairobi for New York City to attend the Columbia Journalism School. I will carry with me my love for telling stories and a lingering fear of what lies ahead.

The last few months have been the most redefining moments in my journalism career. What started as scattered reporting in our newsroom about a strange disease witnessed in Wuhan, China, thousands of kilometres from my home country ended up being the global crisis that would jolt me into making hurried changes not just in my career but my life too. Oh, the ironies of life! 

By March last year it was apparent that journalism, at least in my country, was at a crossroads. An email from our CEO at The Standard newspaper soon after the first case of coronavirus was reported in Kenya announced pay cuts and restructuring that would cause job losses. 

“What shall we do? What will happen to us?” — these were a few of the questions that colleagues asked in hushed tones.

Nobody knew the answers. Advertising revenues were sinking. Audiences were shrinking as Kenyans shifted their focus to social media platforms that gave first-hand information on how the pandemic was spreading. Rumors started that the coronavirus could spread by people touching newspapers. Some readers believed it. Revenues sunk even deeper. Digital disruption showed its fangs as internet penetration widened with government directives that people work from home. 

Suddenly, I was digging through the corners and crevasses of the internet to understand the world of virology and break it down. I felt lost. Words like ‘reader fatigue’ started floating around, a reminder that we were dancing on that dangerous line of irrelevance that no journalist ever wants to be on. To say I was overwhelmed would be trite. 

I wrote a lot of sad stories. A woman who had to give away her children because she was sick with cancer and could not afford treatments while taking care of her three children. Young people who were counting their losses in business due to Covid-19 lockdowns. People victimized by the pandemic’s economic impact describing their interrupted dreams and derailed plans. A presidential report that found that 50 percent of adolescents in Kenya battled mental health conditions due to the effects of the pandemic.

One evening, I was interviewing a man whose wife had just died of cancer and he had her body in the house while waiting for the curfew to end so they could transport her to the morgue. He was sobbing softly on the phone while saying he was alone and scared. He asked me over and over what he should do. 

I said, “Let’s wait…let’s just wait….” Even to myself, I sounded unconvincing. I had a panic attack. 

I remember feeling a deep pain in my chest, perhaps a sign from my system that I was crashing right then as I talked with a new source. It was a few minutes before midnight. Drawing in air felt like a needle was piercing my chest.

My mind was tired. My body was exhausted. I desired change with everything in me. I just wanted something different. 

That night, I struggled to sleep. It was not the first time I was tormented by a story I had done – but it was the first time I wanted to step out from the emotional burden of it all. 

I desired, nay, I deserved, a break. 

I spent the following weeks scouting the internet in pursuit for something that would give me some sort of clean slate. I was not giving up on journalism. I just wanted my passion to be reawakened.

I was interested in reporting on science. But self-doubt weighed me down. 

I started what turned out to be a lengthy conversation with my mentor, Clytie Bunyan, who had guided me when I was working at The Oklahoman during my Alfred Friendly fellowship in 2016. She told me during the WhatsApp conversation that specialization holds a big space in the future of journalism. Clytie then typed out a message that tugged my heart: 

“Mercy, you have not reached your potential yet…You are unique and you have your own style. Develop it and some day, you will unleash it to the world and in whatever style or manner you choose.”

Someone was rooting for me. That support, coupled with the fact that I had been placed at The Oklahoman health desk during my fellowship and I did fairly well, nudged me to take a leap. 

I decided to apply to the Columbia Journalism School. The email that I had been accepted to pursue a master’s degree in science reporting brought hope. 

Now it’s time for what I imagine will be a sort of “start over.” I’m scared and excited at what the future holds for my love of journalism. What I know for sure is that hope has birthed inside me. I guess what I am trying to say is: Columbia, here I come!

The 2016 Class (l-r) Mario Penton, Cuba; Mercy; Amal Khan, Pakistan; Olena Goncharova, Ukraine; Gokce Aytulu, Turkey; Thobile Hans, South Africa

27 Jul

Ruth Pearl’s mission lives on through journalists emulating her son

Ruth Pearl, the mother of a Wall Street Journal reporter kidnapped and executed by al-Qaida terrorists in Pakistan, has died. Her long-ailing lungs finally gave out, 85 years after her birth in Baghdad. 

Photo courtesy USC Shoah Foundation

Her legacy, an extension of Daniel Pearl’s legacy, lives in the hearts and minds of more than two dozen reporters, editors and broadcasters from Pakistan and other Muslim countries who were trained in a journalism fellowship program from 2003 to 2019 that advanced the kind of compassionate multi-cultural reporting practiced by her son.

Ruth Pearl, who died in Los Angeles on July 20, took an active role in selecting the 28 journalists who participated in the program run by Alfred Friendly Partners. The nonprofit organization has since 1984 trained some 330 foreign journalists taught ethics and best practices before working on the staff of major news organizations for up to six months.  

Half of the Daniel Pearl Fellows are from Pakistan, and the others are from Egypt, Sudan, Tunisia, Yemen, Jordan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Turkey and Afghanistan. Many have become prominent, influential journalists in their countries, such as Umar Cheema, who co-founded the Center for Investigative Reporting in Pakistan. Some are correspondents for international news outlets such as Saher Baloch, who works for BBC in Karachi, and Sherine al Madany of Egypt, a reporter for Bloomberg News. Two Pearl Fellows from Afghanistan are currently reporting about their country’s crisis for world audiences.

Aoun Sahi, a Pearl Fellow from Pakistan, worked at the Wall Street Journal’s Atlanta bureau during the 2010 fellowship and said upon his graduation, “I have high hopes now for more serious, more courageous journalistic practice.”

Five years later, Sahi later shared in a Pulitzer Prize won by the Los Angeles Times for its coverage of the terrorist attack in San Bernardino. A Pakistani woman and her husband, a Pakistani American, went on a shooting rampage at his workplace holiday party, killing 14 people. Sahi’s role was to find out about the woman and where she came from by interviewing people in her hometown and shedding light on the societal issues behind the act of terrorism. 

The paradox overshadowing Pearl’s death was that his killers, Islamic militants angry with the West, murdered a reporter who was particularly sensitive to their views and grievances and committed to explaining them to his readers. Daniel Pearl wrote objectively and often about the hardships and aspirations of people in Islamic countries.

The Daniel Pearl Fellows often remarked on this paradox along with the elegant irony of his mother’s mission — a Jewish woman in California funding a fellowship to benefit Muslim journalists in Asia and the Middle East. 

What’s also remarkable is the fact that when she was a six-year-old child in Baghdad, Ruth Pearl’s family barely escaped a pogrom by anti-Semitic marauders. She emigrated as a teenager to Israel, where she spent time in a refugee camp, joined the Israeli navy and eventually settled in the U.S., where she worked as a computer software analyst.

“Ruth Pearl took the uncommon road in life,” Alfred Friendly President Randy Smith said. “When her son, Danny, was killed by terrorists, she and her husband, Judea, responded with a program that aimed to further their son’s goals for journalism in the world’s troubled areas. Danny’s living legacy is the daily work of dozens of journalists who were empowered by the Pearl family’s wisdom. Ruth Pearl led this effort with an uncommon passion.”

Jonathan Friendly, a son of the founder and chairman of the Alfred Friendly Foundation, said, “Ruth made it a point to meet all of the Pearl Fellows she and Judea sponsored over the years, and she always inspired them to live up to the model that her son set. May her memory be a blessing.” 

In their applications, each Daniel Pearl Fellow was required to write an essay that described “how your career goals match the mission and spirit of Daniel Pearl as a journalist and person.”

The Daniel Pearl Fellows also worked for a week at the Jewish Journal in Los Angeles and participated in a panel discussion hosted by the Los Angeles Press Club in which they talked to a largely Jewish audience about what it is like to practice journalism in a Muslim country. 

During the week in L.A., Ruth and Judea always met and socialized with the Pearl Fellows, and sometimes their daughters Tamara and Michelle joined them at group dinners after the panel discussions. 

“She was one of the most gentle souls I had ever met,” 2012 Fellow Aida Ahmad of Malaysia wrote in a Facebook post on Monday. Recounting an afternoon tea with the Pearls, she wrote, “The couple’s stoicism despite what had happened to their only son, was nothing short of admirable. My heartfelt condolences go out to the Pearl family.”

Amal Khan, a 2016 Daniel Pearl Fellow from Pakistan, wrote a column in January that criticized what she called Pakistan’s shocking Supreme Court order to release the man who masterminded Daniel Pearl’s kidnapping and murder. 

She also wrote about getting to know Ruth Pearl when she worked in Los Angeles and appreciating the fellowships that “continue their son’s legacy. It is an unnerving kindness, and one I thought about every day I lived in Danny’s old city, working in different newsrooms in his name.”

In a Facebook post on Monday, Amal wrote, “My most favorite memory with Ruth is of an afternoon spent in her home. She made me tea and we had just sat down when suddenly the living room was invaded by hundreds of tiny flying insects. They came out of nowhere, and the two of us were at once reduced to shrieking damsels swatting them with shoes and laughing uncontrollably. I remember thinking when I saw her that way, that I’d seen the little girl who still lived in there. She was truly my friend, and I am heartbroken she is gone. Somewhere spinning in time, the two of us are still swatting flies on a hot day in LA.”

Ruth and Judea Pearl pose outside a restaurant after a panel discussion involving the 2017 Daniel Pearl Fellows, Nicholas Chang of Malaysia (far right) and Salman Yousafzai of Pakistan. Behind the fellows is Rob Eshman, and behind the Pearls are Corie Brown and Chris Fager, who hosted all of the Pearl Fellows in their home

21 Jul

Afghan Fellow covers U.S. exit, dire consequences

Humayoon Babur, a reporter and editor from Afghanistan, is working with international correspondents and his colleagues at the Kabul-based Pasbanan News Agency to describe the deteriorating conditions since the U.S. military’s departure.
Babur, a Daniel Pearl Fellow in 2019, and Hugh Tomlinson, a staff correspondent for The Times, had an article published Wednesday about the Taliban’s crackdown on the media in territory under their control.

The scores of journalists fleeing the Taliban advance confirmed that local newspapers, radio stations and broadcasters have shut down as staff members go underground, terrorized by murders of media workers in recent months.
A few outlets have survived by agreeing to self-censor their work, replacing news reports with Islamic sermons, recitations from the Quran and Taliban-approved bulletins.
For a previous article with Tomlinson in The Times, Britain’s oldest national newspaper, Babur interviewed Afghans about the Afghan army’s retreat. More than a thousand troops fled across the Tajikistan border in the face of Taliban advances.
The Afghan soldiers escaped across a bridge after being routed by the insurgents during clashes in the northern province of Badakhshan. “Most districts in Badakhshan are falling without any fighting,” a resident of Faizabad told Babur.
A few days before leaving his post, Gen. Austin Scott Miller, the commander who masterminded the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan, expressed alarm at the speed of the Afghan army’s retreat.
The Taliban onslaught came within hours of the last U.S. troops vacating the massive military compound at Bagram airbase, a linchpin of the American war effort during 20 years of conflict.
“The Taliban have cut off all gates out of the city, and there are checkpoints on all the roads, searching for government officials,” a Badakhshan resident said. Those who can have abandoned the city, by air of course.”
Babur has continued to report from the front lines and Pasaban, where he works as an editor, continues to publish.
In this week’s article in The Times on the media, Pasbanan founder Shershah Nawabi said that security was worsening by the day and that most journalists were trying to leave.
Journalism was always a perilous job in Afghanistan. Dozens of journalists have died during the 20-year conflict, and Danish Siddiqui, the award-winning Reuters photojournalist, was killed in a Taliban ambush in southern Kandahar last week.
The Taliban’s wave of murders also has targeted lawyers and professional working women.
Babur worked with Tomlinson on a story about ISIS attacks targeting female journalists and the murder of two female supreme court judges in Kabul earlier this year, part of an increasingly vicious campaign to eradicate Afghanistan’s educated middle classes. (Babur approved the use of his stories in our newsletter)
Babur improved his journalistic skills and English language abilities during the fellowship while working at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Park Point University’s Center for Media Innovation, which improved his chances of landing freelance work with international publications.
Babur co-authored a story published in the Pacific Council magazine earlier this year about the wave of violence targeting women as the United States was contemplating withdrawal from Afghanistan. Many courageous Afghan women have paid the ultimate sacrifice while striving for a better future for their country, he wrote.
Not all of Babur’s articles focus on the fighting. In another collaboration for the Pacific Council magazine, he wrote about the completion of a dam across the Helmand River on the Afghan-Iran border in Nimruz province in February.
One of his interview subjects lives on the outskirts of Zaranj, the capital city of Nimruz, where nearly half of all residents face a shortage of potable water and agriculture.
Humayoon Babur is one of many journalists whose careers have been transformed by their experiences during the Alfred Friendly Fellowships, and their impact broadened. Please take a minute to contribute to our organization so we can continue training promising young reporters from Afghanistan and other areas of the world that need high-quality reporting.

Alfred Friendly’s Class of 2019 gathered during their training at the Missouri School of Journalism.

18 Jun

Ugandan alum recognized for brave reporting in Tigray region

As the East Africa correspondent for The Associated Press, Rodney Muhumuza has closely covered the warfare and its tragic consequences in the Tigray region of Ethiopia since the conflict broke out in November.

However, Muhumuza and other journalists could not reach areas under the control of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the party of Tigray’s ousted and now-fugitive leaders. The Ethiopian military refused access, so the reporting was confined to reports from people who fled the battle zone.

But earlier this month, Muhumuza and a video producer and photographer from The AP managed to report firsthand from Hawzen, a town that was held by Tigray’s rebels.  The AP gave Muhumuza and the rest of the all-formats team its Best of the Week award “for smart, careful and courageous reporting to become the first outside journalists since the conflict started to interview fighters loyal to the TPLF.”

The Tigray reporting project was supported by The Pulitzer Center, whose executive editor is also a former Alfred Friendly fellow, Marina Walker Guevara.  

Muhumuza was working for Nation Media Group in Uganda when he was selected for an Alfred Friendly fellowship in 2009. After training, he worked for nearly six months at The Kansas City Star, mentored by now-Alfred Friendly President Randy Smith. With new skills and world-class experience, Muhumuza was hired by The AP soon after he returned to Kampala, where he still lives with his wife and three sons.

The reach of Muhumuza’s work now is immense: More than 15,000 news outlets subscribe to The AP, and its staff is known for fast, accurate and unbiased news reporting from 250 locations worldwide. More than half the world’s population sees AP journalism every day. 

The AP said Muhumuza’t team spent days trying to find someone willing to take them into Hawzen to meet with fighters loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. Roads that were said to be open turned out to be blocked, and officials, even international NGO workers, were reluctant to talk. 

“Access required passing through numerous dangerous military checkpoints,” The AP said. “Knowing the dangers of staying too long, the team limited themselves to less than an hour in the town. Working quickly, they managed to obtain exclusive reporting on the fighters occupying the town, as well as a hospital destroyed and looted by Eritrean forces. Hours after the team left, government troops shelled the town. By the next day, it was back under government control.

Muhumuza returned to Kampala to continue covering an even bigger story, the Covid19 pandemic. His most recent story was about the vaccine shortage in Africa.

“A sense of dread is growing in some of the very poorest countries in the world as virus cases surge and more contagious variants take hold amid a crippling shortage of vaccine,” he wrote.

“Africa is especially vulnerable. Its 1.3 billion people account for 18 percent of the world’s population, but the continent has received only 2 percent of all vaccine doses administered globally. And some African countries have yet to dispense a single shot.”

Muhumuza is one of many journalists whose careers have been transformed by their experiences during the Alfred Friendly Fellowships, and their impact broadened. Please take a minute to contribute to our organization so we can continue training promising young reporters from East Africa and other areas of the world that need high-quality reporting.

Rodney Mohumuza, center and to the right of Jonathan Friendly, poses with the other members of the Class of 2019 during their training seminar. Randy Smith is in the top row, far right.

27 Apr

Cuban alum reports on crises in his native country

Editor’s note: Mario José Pentón emigrated from Cuba to the United States via Guatemala and Mexico in late 2015, a dangerous 1,600-mile odyssey using a “coyote” to get across the border. During his Alfred Friendly fellowship in 2016, Pentón developed multimedia reporting skills at the Missouri School of Journalism, applied them during his internship at el Nuevo Herald and taught them to his colleagues at 14ymedio, Cuba’s first independent news platform.

While many other Cuban émigrés left out of desperation or fear, Pentón is clear on why he came to the United States. “It was the possibility that I could help Cuba,” he said for his profile story in 2016. He’s now working full time for both the Miami Herald’s sister paper and 14ymedio, primarily reporting on Cuba through his large social media network and letting people know what’s really happening on the secretive island.

By Mario José Pentón

The last few weeks have been crazy busy. My co-worker just gave birth to a beautiful baby, so the job of covering Cuba falls on me almost completely. I doubt that without the training I received in Missouri with Alfred Friendly and without the experience at the Miami Herald, I could not have endured so much work.

On April 16, during the eighth congress of the Communist Party, Raúl Castro, Fidel’s younger brother, formally withdrew from the leadership of the only party allowed in Cuba. This was a historic event because, for the first time in 62 years, a Castro did not direct the destinies of the Cuban nation. At least in name.

The reporting we did at the Miami Herald was focused on helping people understand the meaning of this change of command. We included the perspectives of analysts and experts and the thoughts of Cubans inside their country. The island is experiencing its worst crisis in 30 years, just like in the 1990s when I was born, what is called a “special period” there.

Covering Cuba is not easy. We are more than 200 miles away and we face among other things the demonization by the regime and censorship. Agents of the secret police of the regime have threatened my relatives for the work I do, to give you an example.

Penton interviews an immigrant on the U.S. border with Mexico in 2019

Today’s Cuba is a country eager to express itself freely, but still living in fear after decades of censorship and repression. Covering the coronavirus pandemic has been complicated by the paucity of official media and censorship. There is evidence that Cuba manipulates the statistics of Covid19 deaths and illnesses at the same time that it carries out a very strong propaganda campaign to sell its vaccine candidates and medicines that are not tested against the coronavirus.

Without tourism for months because of the pandemic restrictions, the fragile Cuban economy has been left without one of its main sources of financing. It turns out that Castroism for 60 years has not been able to create an efficient industrial base. For decades, the country lived on subsidies from the Soviet Union, an estimated $65 billion in all, and then was aided by the oil wealth of Venezuela until the leadership led that country to the worst crisis in its history.

The economic crisis that the island is experiencing is palpable as scarcity increases. Lines to buy food are seen all over Cuba. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the government adopted a series of long-delayed reforms such as the unification of the currency, which collapsed the purchasing power of Cubans by more than 50 percent, according to economists. The Cuban economy is one of the hardest hit in Latin America because the crisis had been brewing before the pandemic.

In the midst of this crisis, and with an increase in repression to a level unseen since the thaw initiated by the Obama administration, many Cubans see only one way to salvation — the sea. They try to reach the shores of Florida without knowing whether they will drown, or get caught by authorities in the water or on land and returned to the island. So far this fiscal year, the number of “rafter” interceptions has doubled. I have had to write sad stories, such as the case of a mother and her two young children who died when a boat taking them to Miami capsized.

As the island plunges into another crisis, pro-democracy activism in Miami picks up steam. A group of internationally known artists decided to break with the regime and sing for freedom. Hence the song Patria y Vida, which the regime has taken as an affront.

On the island, several movements led by artists have raised their voices calling for greater civic freedoms. This led to unusual protests in Havana and to episodes such as those that took place in the San Isidro neighborhood, on the outskirts of the capital: people prevented the police from arresting dissident artists and sang Patria y Vida — a song forbidden by the authorities — in the middle of the street.

[Alejandro González, a former 14ymedio leader, describes Alfred Friendly’s impact on 14ymedio in this short video.]

Penton Interviews the United States Charge d’Affaires in Havana, Mara Tekach


The 2016 Fellowship Class at the University of Missouri




20 Apr

Ukrainian Fellow returns to war front amid Russian buildup

As Oksana Grytsenko writes in her dispatch for The Guardian, a massive buildup of Russian combat troops near Ukraine’s eastern border and the effective collapse of a ceasefire have sparked alarm in the west that Moscow is preparing to invade.

Grytsenko says her reporting benefited from her Alfred Friendly fellowship

Grytsenko has covered the war with Russia since its beginning for the Kyiv Post and now for The Guardian and other publications. She returned to the borderland this month and spoke to Ukrainians living in a small government-controlled town close to a separatist stronghold who feel “fear and despair.”

When the war began in 2014, natural gas supplies were cut and have still not been restored. Most of the town’s businesses were either destroyed by the fighting or ceased trading. Many of the fields in the agricultural hinterland are mined, which makes farming impossible. Drinking water has to be bought since the water in taps and wells is contaminated. …

In the evenings Marinka is deserted, apart from occasional groups of teenagers and stray dogs roaming the centre. A few men quietly fish at a local pond, ignoring the signs that it is mined.

(90-year-old Vera) Basova survived the second world war and says she never thought she would have to endure another, even longer, war at the end of her life. When she hears shooting or shelling, she reads her prayer book to calm herself.

Here is a link to the article, and below is Grytsenko’s personal account of her work: 

“I had a big break in my trips to the war-torn Donbas. It was quiet last year. A ceasefire that started in July and lasted for about six months was the longest and the most similar one to a frozen conflict. But the events this year showed how fragile the ceasefire is and how easy it can be rolled back to real war.

 “I haven’t been to Marinka before, but many things there were familiar to me. Sounds of shooting and shelling, bad roads, damaged houses, mines and slag heaps, signs about landmines, a broken phone connection near military facilities. And there was also the feeling of an approaching danger in which local people live. Because any ceasefire always ends up with an escalation.

In her front yard, Vera Basova holds a paper with a front page headline that says Russia is bringing tanks to the eastern Ukrainian border. “What do they want from us? Why are they dragging those tanks here?” Basova asks her neighbour. Photo by Anastasia Vlasova

 “I had the same feeling of relief when I traveled to the United States in the summer of 2015 for my Alfred Friendly fellowship. Apart from improving my journalism skills and English, getting to know American culture, and acquiring many great friends, the six months of my fellowship helped me to erase the stress I received from my work in Donbas. I returned to Ukraine revived.

 “But many people living in the Donbas had no break from that situation. Now the war is in its eighth year. And nobody knows for how many years the local people will have to live with a feeling that someone may destroy everything they have at any moment.”

Grytsenko. walks with Alfred Friendly classmates at the journalism school in 2015 with Randy Smith, the president of our organization and one of a dozen. professors who teach the fellows and prepare them to work in U.S. newsrooms

09 Apr

Alum in Myanmar recounts coup, worsening conditions

Saw Yan Naing, an Alfred Friendly Fellow in 2015, worked for BBC Burmese and wrote for the Global Investigative Journalism Network and other international publications after his fellowship. He was a technical lead and media trainer at an international organization that closed its office in Myanmar after the coup.

By Saw Yan Naing 

Early in the morning on February 1 in Yangon, I woke up without internet service or access to the phone and television networks.

I went outside and asked people in my neighborhood if they were able to use the internet and make calls. They said they were not.

It turned out that millions of people in Myanmar were cut off from the internet and mobile phone networks, except for those in some cafés, offices, and homes with WiFi. We could only watch a military-owned television channel, Myawaddy TV.

Yan Naing worked in Los Angeles for Tribe Media during his Friendly fellowship

News of a coup and the arrest of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint was the talk of the town. People fearing the consequences of the coup rushed to the markets to buy food while others went to ATM machines and banks to withdraw money.

A journalist friend of mine came to my home to check if I was safe and doing well. We went to a café where we could use WiFi to check the latest news.

Myawaddy TV announced a one-year state of emergency followed by a general election. After the election, power would be handed over to a winning party, a presenter reading from a script said. The presenter on Myawaddy TV announced that the new acting president was U Myint Swe, a former general who had been serving as a vice president.

I told my journalist friend that this one-year state of emergency is not a good sign for media workers, activists, and press freedom. We realized that the military, also known as Tatmadaw, will rule the country for at least one year.

Anticipating the risk of late-night raids and arrests, many journalists, including myself, moved around from one place to another to make sure we remained safe. Many journalists downloaded Signal apps to share information for safer communication. Some managed to use international sim cards and virtual private networks (VPN) as the internet is not stable.

An editor of a local media outlet told me that intelligence police officers from Special Branch went to ask his neighbors the whereabouts of his office and kept their eyes on his reporters. Five media workers were arrested on the night of February 14 while covering and live-streaming the tension between protesters and the joint force of police and soldiers. They were released on February 15 after signing a confession letter.

On February 16, the military-appointed State Administration Council held a press conference in Naypyidaw. Spokesperson Maj-Gen Zaw Min Tun said that the chairman of the State Administration Council, the army chief Sen-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, recognized the media as the fourth pillar.

Zaw Min Tun told Radio Free Asia at the press conference, however, that it was important that everything should be done within the bounds of the law and the military will do everything in accordance with the law. He also said that journalists whose writing encourages civil unrest would face action in accordance with the law.

The military prepared a cyber law. Media workers and activists fear that the law will be used as a tool to monitor and oppress journalists as well as limit press freedom, like the law that was used by previous military regimes.

So far, media workers and civilians, especially digitally savvy young people, continue to use digital platforms to report what is happening in Myanmar. However, we don’t know when this freedom will come to an end without warning. Internet shutdowns, restrictions to press freedom, and the fate of journalists in Myanmar remain uncertain under the one-year state of emergency.

Burmese media operating overseas and foreign media outlets will play an important role in reporting on Myanmar if and when the country is completely shut down.

The situation in Myanmar is getting worse as fighting and airstrikes were launched in southwestern Burma’s ethnic Karen State, my home region, forcing thousands to flee home. (When Yan Naing was a child, army soldiers attacked his home village and forced his family to flee. They lived for years at refugee camps just across the border in Thailand.)

The army airstrikes during the last five days of March in Karen State killed more than 10 people and injured at least 7 people. More explosions and fires were reported in big cities. Fighting between the Burmese army and ethnic armed groups in rural areas is escalating, forcing villagers to flee home and live in fear.

Activists, politicians, journalists, and even government employees fled violence in Myanmar, seeking safety in neighboring countries such as Thailand and India.

Protesters, especially young people, responded to military troops using guns and tear gas by creating homemade explosive devices and homemade guns. More than 600 people, including children, have died since the coup on February 1 and the military crackdown.

The situation in Myanmar is getting worse, and there is a possibility of civil war renewing under the military regime.

We honor Saw Yan Naing for his bravery in sharing this dispatch and appreciate his commitment to journalism at this challenging time. Your support goes directly to supporting the Fellows program that Yan Naing benefitted from in the past. Learn more and donate here: Thank you!

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