April 6 in Chicago: People-Centered Immigration Storytelling

I led a workshop at the Journalism and Women Symposium in Virginia in October that I think was supposed to be about technology.

But the only tools anyone really needed was some scratch paper and a pen.

Daria Nepriakhina/CC BY 2.0

What I’ve found in developing a social strategy for Public Radio International and for our immigration coverage, Global Nation, is that while many newsrooms and institutions want to develop relationships with the communities they cover, they often end up seeking “likes” and retweets instead. Facebook and Twitter provide particular types of data about their performance and — instead of focusing on their actual goals — they focus on upping the numbers these for-profit platforms give them most easily.

Which brings me back to the scratch paper. The most difficult part of creating a strategy, a process by which you can engage with a wider public, isn’t finding numbers to measure your success. It’s actually knowing what success means for your organization — without depending on what’s on the screen in front of us.

I’m going to give another, more in-depth version of the session I gave last fall at City Bureau in Chicago on April 6. I’ll talk about how we defined success in Global Nation, and how we measure it. And I’ll do my best to help participants scratch out their own goals. If you’re in the area and like this kind of stuff, please join us!

Public Newsroom #13: People-Centered Immigration Storytelling

Hosted by City Bureau, South Side Weekly and Illinois Humanities

Thursday, April 6 at 6 to 8 p.m.
Build Coffee
6100 S Blackstone Ave, Chicago, Illinois 60637

Find out more and let the organizers (and me) know you’re coming.

Changing the China News Narrative

“China is a breeding ground for heroes,” Foreign Policy contributing editor Christina Larson said at a roundtable discussion at the University of California, Irvine hosted by The China Beat yesterday.

Larson has done a lot of reporting on China’s environmental movement, where she has found great stories about a dynamic country. Environmentalists in China, she said, have created a legal space for their advocacy. Registered environmental nongovernmental organizations now make up the largest sector of civil society in China.

“None of these people think of themselves as dissidents,” Larson said. They are working to enforce existing laws, not make the current regime crumble.

But the China news narrative in the United States is often dominated by stories about dissidents and victims, corruption and communism, painting a narrow picture of what activism and political engagement can mean there.

Things that aren’t about Pastor Jones

It’s 9/11 in America. I feel like every year for the past nine years, we’ve been questioning our identity, our values in this country. I wanted to remind myself that this is not a country of people like Terry Jones. Rather, this is a country where people like Terry Jones might end up all over the news, but also where Lee Ielpi, Henry Rollins, Amman Ali and Bassam Tariq can carve out their say. So here are a collection of things I saw and heard that gave me a broader view.

This Week: Singapore in the news

When I lived in Singapore I stayed in Bukit Timah, on the west of the island near a large nature reserve and beneath the city-state’s tallest peak, which is not the grandest mountain at just over 530 ft. Bukit Timah is just south of the bridge that crosses into the Malaysian border town of Johor Bahru, in the southern Malaysian state of Johor. At the end of February, 2008, soldiers combed this area and security along the border was tightened in an effort to catch terrorism suspect, Mas Selamat, who had escaped a maximum security prison from an unbarred window in a restroom. Fliers of Selamat with a mustache, without a mustache, every detail of what he was wearing, his alleged limp, his favorite meal (ok, that last one is from an interpretation by Singapore’s most famous satirists) — one by one, the government released more and more details and asked for vigilance.

The big news this week is that Selamat was captured in early April, over one year after his escape. Authorities believe that Selamat, who had been held without charges under Singapore’s Internal Security Act since his first capture in 2006, is  the leader of the Singapore arm of Jemaah Islamiyah, or JI, which is responsible for the 2002 Bali bombings and an alleged plot to attack Singapore’s Changi Airport. News of his arrest came out last week, withheld, say Malayasian officals, to allow for continued investigation into the JI network. According to Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng, Selamat escaped across the Johor Strait on an improvised flotation device; weaknesses in border security, say Singapore authorities, will be addressed. Perhaps now is a good time to revisit another mr brown show classic, Blame It on Somebody (or perhaps the remix, or the follow-up episode Just Can’t Quit). For a good explanation of the whole story, read the account from AFP.

From FP Passport via International Economy via vesseltracker.com, global trade is taking a hit, and Singapore, the “world’s busiest port for container traffic” according to International Economy, is feeling the pain. Compared to last year, traffic in Singapore dropped almost 20 percent in January and February, 2009. See the short but striking report (and a really startling graphic) on a PDF from International Economy. Other indicators of Singapore’s financial predicament are the central banks’s move to devalue Singapore dollars and Singapore Airline’s move to give people $1 hotel stays.

And not related to Singapore at all, an Asia Pacific Arts story is getting a lot of buzz in the Los Angeles neck-of-the-woods. I’ll let the headline sell it: Hot Asian Actors Hollywood Doesn’t Yet Realize It Needs.

Clinton on Pakistan

A quick post — I was really surprised to hear Secretary of State Hillary Clinton being very forthright about America’s errors in Pakistan and Afghanistan. “Let’s remember here,” she told a congressional hearing, “the people we are fighting today, we funded 20 years ago.” She links the problems in the region now, in part, to America’s policies in fighting the Soviet Union. “Let’s be careful what we sow, because we will harvest,” she said. Here’s the clip from CNN:

 

Front page, DawnThe major English-language daily in Pakistan, Dawn, highlighted her comments: US created Taliban and abandoned Pakistan: Clinton. Reporter Anwar Iqbal writes the lead, “Two days of continuous congressional hearings on the Obama administration’s foreign policy brought a rare concession from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who acknowledged that the United States too had a share in creating the problem that plagues Pakistan today.”

While it is significant for Clinton to have made such a blatant statement, the U.S. policy on Pakistan is still problematic, according to a Saturday editorial. Dawn writes: “Secretary Clinton may well be right in saying that the Pakistani people ‘need to speak out forcefully’ against the government’s policy of appeasement in Swat. But this amounts to going over the head of the government it claims is an ally and undermining its authority among the people. And all the tough talk against Pakistan cannot conceal that the Americans are themselves puzzled about how exactly to approach Pakistan.”

Update: Turns out, the State Department is looking for suggestions.

This Week: Follow-ups to terrorist attacks in India and the earthquake in China, perspectives on Iraq and North Korea

I’m starting a weekly post that rehashes some of the most interesting and unusual reports on Asia (in English) and the world. Let me know what you think, and if you find this kind of feature useful. For more interesting things on the web, from newspapers and blogs, see my shared stories page.

First, two Saturday features by two great reporters. Babara Demick for the Los Angeles Times writes a follow-up to stories about the Sichuan earthquake last May. Families there are still waiting for the official death toll and results of DNA testing to confirm the identities of the victims: China quake survivors still wait for word.

Emily Wax in South Asia for the Washington Post writes about discrimination against Muslims in Mumbai following the terror attacks last year: Muslims Find Bias Growing In Mumbai’s Rental Market.

And two from the BBC: First, a piece featuring the voices of American female soldiers serving in Iraq: Women at war face sexual violence. Army specialist Mickiela Montoya and others are explicit about the treatment of women in the army. She says:

A lot of the men didn’t want us there. One guy told me the military sends women soldiers over to give the guys eye-candy to keep them sane.

He told me in Vietnam they had prostitutes, but they don’t have those in Iraq, so they have women soldiers instead.

The BBC also ran this week an article that is quickly making the rounds on the web: Iraqi gay men face ‘lives of hell’.

And one more, from the Christian Science Monitor: American journalists could be bargaining chips for North Korea. It’s a well-reported piece that complicates the story of the two Current TV journalists who have be held by Pyongyang for a month.

yellow shirts see red

Sondhi Limthongkul

When people ask me about Thailand — particularly, if it is safe to visit — I tell them that the political turmoil that has plagued the country for several years has not amounted to violence.

That story has, of course, changed. A friend told me that on her way to the airport in Bangkok on Tuesday, a group of people put shopping carts in the road, blocking the taxi in front of hers. They beat the driver with wooden bats as her own taxi driver swerved out of the way. Certainly, the time of peaceful demonstration, where power changes hands in bloodless coups and elections is over.

Thailand’s protester-in-chief, Sondhi Limthongkul (above), was attacked by gunmen today. The Bangkok Post reports that the media mogul has survived the attack. He was injured by shrapnel to the head from over 100 rounds that were shot at his vehicle. Images of his injuries (left) were published in the Manager Daily, a newspaper Sondhi owns.

Sondhi is a former journalist and owner of the major media company Manager Group. Once a close friend to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, he is now  the leader the People’s Alliance for Democracy, the principal group that staged huge protests and agitated for Thaksin’s ousting in a 2006 military coup. When Thaksin-aligned leaders were elected in 2007, Sondhi took centerstage again and led yellow-shirted protests that shut down Bangkok’s major airports. Sondhi’s agitation ended when the current Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, was apointed, but Abhisit is now the target of pro-Thaksin red shirt protests which have devolved into riots and confrontations with soldiers at Bangkok’s busiest intersections.

I interviewed Sondhi for AsiaMedia in 2006 and I can remember vividly his outspoken confidence about his place in Thai history. He used his money and influence and media company to publish boldly on Thaksin’s alleged corruption, calling his work “new time journalism” which required a certain amount of activism in the face of serious threats. From the transcript:

AM: What do you say to people who say that this new time journalism isn’t really journalism?

SL: What makes them think that they are real journalism? Time changes, things change. New factors — how do you report news in a country which is completely non-transparent, in a country where semi- or unofficial censorship happens? How do you do it? How do you get the other side of the story?

Let’s say you’re doing a story on corruption, all right? You’re doing a story on corruption and then you pose a question to the people involved, in charge, and they deny it. They say, ‘That’s not true.’ Are you going to believe in what they say, or are you going to go and dig in more? And once you go and dig in more, you’re going to find a lot of sources. And all of those sources are scared to death. They say, ‘Don’t quote me.’ Give me a reliable source who wants to withhold the name. Once those reliable sources who want to withhold the names happens more than two, three, four, five times, you begin to question, are they really your source? You see? So this is the dilemma.

So each society, each country has different ways of doing things. People who are actually critical of what I’m doing are getting too used the way Western media has been displayed. Right here, you can go to the computer and punch some name on it. There’s some basic background or in-depth background coming up. Or you want to talk to the mayor on official record, the mayor will speak to you. But you want to talk to the mayor of Bangkok on official record, and they will say that’s not true. So it literally shut the door. So you have to go on your own. When you go on your own, you are acting like Spartacus because you have to roam around with no direction. You find somebody and you talk to them, and they look around, they look up, look down.

Literally, when I fought Thaksin, my phones have been tapped. I’ve been using five phones. I mean, how could a prime minister tap my bloody phone? This is not happening here [in the United States]. Even though the Bush administration has asked Congress to give him the freedom to tap suspected terrorists — even at that statute, you guys were making a hue and cry.

Look at me. My life has been threatened. There were literally assassination attempts on me. How do you explain this to some guy who is sitting by the Hudson River and writing a story? You guys are used to the rule of law. But there seems to be a rule of law, but only in names, in words, but not in action in Thailand.

Thailand’s army chief has said that he believes no protesters have been killed as soldiers cracked down to end the current unrest. But the state of emergency continues in Thailand and reactions to the attempt on Sondhi’s life are still coming.

the China bloggers post

I’ve been a loyal reader of Tim Johnson’s McClatchy Newspapers blog, China Rises, since it started three years ago. It’s only today that I thought about it, though, because Johnson is leaving the blog behind. He writes:

All good things come to an end, and that is true today for myself and China Rises. This blog is taking a rest. At some point in the near future, a new McClatchy correspondent will arrive in China and likely take over this blog – certainly with a different perspective than my own.

It’s been nearly three years since I started the China Rises blog, and my family is on its sixth year in China. English-language blogs on the Middle Kingdom have exploded in that time, and there’s a huge variety to read.

Indeed, China blogs have come to dominate my reading from Asia, mostly because there are so many good quality blogs out there. It began with my daily look at EastSouthWestNorth. The most recent addition to my China reading list is a Hindustan Times blog, Middle Order. I wrote a quick piece and Q&A with the author for The China Beat:

In the land of news-meets-the-Internet, China has been fertile soil for very interesting blogs by journalists…Perhaps what is most interesting about these blogs is the opportunity to get a greater picture of reporters’ perspectives as foreigners living in a new country. But if the recession — and the seating arrangements at a G-20 summit dinner — tells us anything, it is that the West’s perception of the East is not all that counts. How emerging powerhouse economies see each other is of great importance, and lucky for us is incredibly interesting. An excellent entree into Asian takes on Asia is a Hindustan Times blog, Middle Order, written by the newspaper’s first China correspondent, Reshma Patil.

Next up on the cross-culture China blog list: Double Handshake, written by Tom Pellman in Peru.

the scales of justice

I haven’t written much about Singapore. As I approach my last few months here, I’m starting to ask myself why.

Perhaps it’s because I live here — sometimes it’s easier to observe things when you are a complete outsider. That doesn’t seem satisfactory though. I’m a curious and inquisitive person by nature, wherever I am. I remember as a kid one Christmas, while all my sisters were getting toys and clothes, my uncle bought me a really fat, hardcover, Costco-esque book called “The Big Book of Tell Me Why” — he said maybe it would be better to consult the book, then to ask so many questions to the adults.

So, as much as I try to gloss it over, the reason I don’t write about Singapore is pretty clear. While I know the risks are actually quite minimal, I just don’t want to deal with the hassle of people here finding out that I’m writing about Singapore politics. Reading that last sentence again, I realize it sounds absurd, but that’s how this little island really operates. People self-censor to make their lives easier.

But why? What are the risks involved? There’s of course livelihood issues. Employers tend to not be so happy about their employees being outspoken on political issues. They subtly nudge their employees to focus on art and culture and economics so as not to risk their company’s reputations.

But there is also a judicial question. This country is famous for its efficient and fair court system, which is a big reason why so many businesses feel comfortable setting up shop on the island. They know that they will get a fair shake if something goes wrong.

But since the Far Eastern Economic Review was kicked out in 2006, and subsequently sued for defamation (here’s a nice summary and introduction to the issues by Columbia’s journalism school), there have been questions about how the judiciary in Singapore operates. It’s important to read the essay that created the stir (PDF), as well as some of the explanations for the suit (scroll down to the question about FEER near the end).

And now, with the defamation suit against Chee Soo Juan in full swing, those questions are coming back. The International Bar Association listed their concerns (PDF) about, among other things, defamation suits and their use in Singapore’s courts.  Here’s the Straits Times take, a view from Australia, a Wall Street Journal opinion, and a piece from The Economist. You can also get lost in the black hole of Singapore Rebel’s court transcripts for first-hand information, editorialized introductions to each blog entry aside.

What does this have to do with my hesitation to blog about Singapore? Well, nothing. And everything. When everyone around you self-censors — they whisper certain names, cut lines out of scripts, report heavily on certain speeches but not others — it’s hard not to think that they have real reasons for doing so. Not many people want to bring trouble on themselves for voicing an opinion, or even just reporting on others’ opinions. And after a while, even if I don’t know what can get me into trouble and what cannot, I just make a habit of not publishing certain things.

I don’t think this entry is objectionable — I have not taken a position on these issues and all of ten people read my blog. But I will reread it three times before I hit the publish button anyway.

ways to cross a border

These are kids in Myanmar, also known as Burma. They live in a town called Tachilek, on the border of Thailand. I met them in a mosque — a very small mosque on a sidestreet in the town. There is a lot of dispute about the position and treatment of Muslims in Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist country. I was happy to meet these boys — the one in the middle was particularly funny, meditating like a Buddhist monk but holding a slingshot in his hand. I don’t think they get many visitors.

meditation

I had planned to visit Yangon (Rangoon) with my friend Anil Kalhan in the second weekend of May, which was incidentally the weekend of the country’s constitutional referendum. Not surprisingly (though, I have to say, I was still a bit surprised) the Myanmar Embassy in Singapore closed its visa section for a few days about a month before our weekend sojourn. And then for the week after that. And the next week too, which was when Cyclone Nargis hit. When we finally got to the visa counter (on now my fourth visit to the embassy) we were told that a visa could not be ready until Monday, the Monday that we were supposed to return to Singapore.

So, our Yangon trip didn’t work out. Not to be deterred, we decided to take the back door to Burma. We went to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. We wandered around the city and met some people there who told us a lot about what was happening across the border in Burma. Then we went by bus to Mae Sai, the border town on the Thai side and our gateway to a country neither of us had ever seen but were very curious about.

Crossing the border by foot was a strange experience. It should have been a bigger deal than it was. You cross through Thai security, walk on a short bridge over the Sai River, are greeted by a large photo of junta leader Than Shwe, pay 500 baht (we tried to pay US$10, but they didn’t like that our bills had doggy ears), and voila! Myanmar. (Myanmar without our passports, that is. They hold on to them until you return.)

Tachilek and Mae Sai sit inside the Golden Triangle, the area where Thailand, Burma and Laos meet. It’s a place notorious for opium production, hilltribes and the spread of HIV. Not too pretty. But it’s also a place glossed over for tourists — these “dangerous” places have capitalized on their reputations in many ways. So too has Tachilek. The three-wheel taxi drivers have a little route they all follow, showing half-day tourists from Thailand Shan temples, Chinese-style temples and the beauty of the valley where Tachilek rests. Indeed, it is a beautiful country, but one that is conspicuously void of newspapers. Many buildings have satellite dishes, but the televisions we saw were tuned to WWF wrestling from across the border. One week after Cycle Nargis hit, our guide still thought only a few thousand had been killed.

So we wandered around, seeing all the things that all the curious onlookers see and trying to ask questions in between, It is certainly a strange place and one where you don’t speak too loudly, or walk past a polling booth twice, or take photos of referendum posters out in the open. Our guide made that abundantly clear to us. He also made it clear that people in Tachilek didn’t feel that their vote in the referendum was secret — so many voted “yes” to satisfy local leaders. So I took what photos I could — I’m afraid I couldn’t properly capture Tachilek, though.