Intro from Jay Allison: Jesse Hardman has been to Transom before, premiering his delicate piece about his father's Parkinson's Disease. Lately he's been traveling, setting up radio programs in the developing world. Right now, he's in Sri Lanka, doing... well, this is his short answer: "I drive around in a white Toyota van with four or five Sri Lankan reporters along the perimeter of the war zone here. I am in charge of both training these reporters and helping them produce a weekly newspaper and radio show. In the van we have one Sinhalese Buddhist, one Muslim, one Tamil Hindu, and one Tamil Catholic." Jesse has prepared a remarkable description of what he's doing, how, and why. He has included photos and audio and he's prepared to talk with all of you about making radio under these conditions. Highly recommended.
A Brief History of International Media Development
The goal of international media development organizations is to improve access to information and open media policies globally. Some of the best-known organizations in this field include Internews, the BBC Trust, Developing Radio Partners, Journalists for Human Rights, IREX, UNESCO, Reuters AlertNet, Search for a Common Ground and the International Center for Journalists all work in media development in places like Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America. The idea behind much of this work is that access to information, like shelter, food, and water, is a human right. People have the right to know what is happening in their countries and communities, in an open, unbiased manner.
The most recent example of this important work is the earthquake in Haiti. With that country’s infrastructure devastated, locals were left without the basics, including information. Aid agencies helped the radio stations that survived the disaster expand their capacity for reaching displaced and suffering Haitians with important news and details about their situation.
Many of these development agencies are currently figuring out how to use media to play a companion role in areas like disaster prevention, management, health issues and democracy. When the 2004 tsunami hit countries like Indonesia and Sri Lanka, media focused NGO’s jumped into action creating channels of media for locals to know what was happening and where they could get necessary resources and help.
Now important issues like AIDS, global warming, and even constitutional rights are getting a makeover by media organizations looking to educate journalists on covering these issues, and then find ways to get this essential information to the larger public.
A World Apart
Beginning around Christmas of 2007 I had the fortunate opportunity to travel to Sri Lanka as part of a new humanitarian information initiative. Basically I was asked to train and work with a team of local reporters who would create a radio show and newspaper that covered the increasingly desperate war displaced population in Sri Lanka, which numbered in the hundreds of thousands. I had originally intended to be in Sri Lanka for six months, the duration of the initial funding. Little did I know, after six months, we were just getting started. Almost a year and a half after I first set down in Sri Lanka, I was forced to leave, just before the conclusion of the devastating 25-year long civil war.
The following synopsis of my time in Sri Lanka was written in April of 2008. The civil war between the Sri Lankan Government and the terrorist organization LTTE(Tamil Tigers) ended in May of 2009. An estimated 70,000 Sri Lankans remain displaced almost a year after the completion of the war.
A Brief History of My Time in Sri Lanka
To give you a bit of a primer on the nuances of my current assignment, let me explain Sri Lanka a little. First of all, it hosts one of the longest surviving cultures in the world, the majority Sinhalese population (around 70%). The Sinhalese have their own language, Sinhala, are mostly Buddhist, and live predominantly in the Center and South of the country. The Tamil population, one of two main minorities, lives in Sri Lanka’s North, East and Central region and is a mixture of Catholic and Hindu. Tamils share a language and some culture with Southern India. Then you have a large Muslim community that also speak Tamil, but are not referred to as Tamils. All of these groups have their regions of geographic influence, and varying degrees of conflict and frustration with one another, and often internally as well. Throw hundreds of years of Dutch, British and Portuguese colonial rule in the mix and you have yourself a doozy of a country.
In 2004 the devastating tsunami hit Sri Lanka’s coasts, killing an estimated 30 thousand residents. Three years later, post-tsunami development and reconstruction is still going on. A peace agreement ended in January, and the now 25-year long civil war between Tamil extremists who want a separate homeland in the north and the Sri Lankan government is back on. Despair is on the rise here as the economy takes a dive, people’s security is compromised, hundreds of thousands are displaced, and more and more locals seek to get out, both legally and illegally.
What Am I Doing Here?
The short answer, I drive around in a white Toyota van with four or five Sri Lankan reporters along the perimeter of the war zone here. I am in charge of both training these reporters and helping them produce a weekly newspaper and radio show. In the van we have one Sinhalese Buddhist, one Muslim, one Tamil Hindu, and one Tamil Catholic. Everybody speaks some English, which makes my life here possible, but there is a pretty substantial gap between what is said and what is understood. We also have a rotating cast of characters that join us as we travel from one coast to the other recording interviews and producing reports. Our project mandate is to increase coverage of issues related to the massive humanitarian disaster that is Sri Lanka’s North and East regions. Between the tsunami and the civil war, hundreds of thousands of mostly Tamil and Muslim people have lost their homes, their jobs, their possessions, and their most basic necessities. They are categorized as internally displaced peoples (IDPs), populations who usually live in temporary shelters (corrugated sheet metal), and who have been waiting to return home for anywhere from six months to eighteen years. There are also resettled communities (those who have been able to return, although not necessarily to their original homes), and returnees (those who fled the fighting to places like India, only to come back to Sri Lanka). Hundreds of international and local NGOs, including us, are here trying to help these people solve their problems.
We are trying to contribute to this recovery by producing a newspaper and radio programs in Tamil and some Sinhala, which are accessible to the displaced and resettled so they can learn how to right their ship. We tell them what agencies are offering programs that might help them, how to do basic things like get new documents if they lost theirs, and where they can get job training to make some income. The radio program is broadcast nationally through a Tamil language station, and also on a couple of regional Muslim stations. We also publish a newspaper which is delivered as part of a Sunday supplement and brought directly to some IDP camps.
Our reality is that as we travel from region to region visiting displaced camps, NGO’s and government leaders, we are still getting a grasp on this tragedy. More than anything we learn that people feel forgotten, lost and desperate to be heard. Recording interviews with them is a pretty emotional exercise, there is hope that if we can just get their voice out there, maybe things will change a little. Part of my job is to teach my reporters how to take these emotional situations and turn them into well-organized, thoughtful assessments of what is really happening here. What can people learn from this voice? How will it improve their situation? How can they come away from our paper or radio show feeling empowered?
If you think editing and producing quality radio is a challenge in your native tongue, try doing it in two languages that are completely different, neither of which you remotely speak, and a third, Sri Lankan English, that is as murky as it sounds. Many of my days here are fairly reminiscent of Bill Murray’s travails in the film “Lost in Translation.” I have to understand through broken English translation what is being said in Tamil and Sinhala, in an attempt to make sure the stories are not only good, but also won’t get us in any hot water with the government. What might sound good in English does not work in Sinhala or Tamil, or might take twice as long to say (there are more than 300 characters in the Tamil language).
For equipment we have H4 Zoom recorders, Adobe Audition for editing, and a serviceable studio for voicing our program. Very little field reporting is done by the mainstream press in the country, so we are novel in that we travel to the stories and use equipment to record sound and first person accounts of what is happening.
Our radio program is one half hour, and it’s a mix of our brand of humanitarian news with what’s popular and comfortable here. As we’ve honed our program, it’s become quite clear that four-minute radio features, while common for me, are not how people listen to information here. Part of development work is figuring out how things work in whatever country you are in, and what kind of foundational elements are missing, and marrying the two. Our show is now a wonderful mix of radio dramas, interviews, PSA’s, short features, some headlines, and songs about things like landmine awareness. Our main national broadcast happens over the course of two hours, on Saturday mornings, airing in between Bollywood music hits. If that isn’t good radio I don’t know what is. NPR should rethink its programming structure.
Life In The Trenches
As an outsider I often feel one step away from completely losing it here. Things are so foreign and confusing to me that I can’t even begin to sort them out in my mind. What do you do when an army captain tells you he doesn’t want you in his country, and an IDP elderly woman asks you to save her, and educated people like a Sinhalese doctor and a Tamil professor tell you war is the only option. But my discomforts pale in comparison to what my staff goes through. My reporters feel frustrated to see people suffering, they struggle to take an objective approach to this devastating reality, and they look to their different faiths to make it through the day. Our ever sensitive driver, a devote Muslim often feels overwhelming melancholy. His frustration meets his faith with a softly spoken “God is with us.”
Here are some thoughts from the Lifeline Team.
More from the Road
This is not my first go round in the realm of media development. Last year I was a Knight International Journalism fellow in Peru, a year long posting managed by the International Center for Journalists. I was hosted by a Peruvian journalism school in Lima, and taught radio classes during the week. On the weekends I traveled to different parts of Peru to do workshops with rural reporters.
I also organized and produced a few different public projects, including a live radio show (Radio Canchita), kind of like if A Prairie Home Companion was broadcast in Spanish from a bar, a Spanish language “This I Believe” (Yo Creo), and a very organic version of Story Corps (Relatos del Peru), which was me, a card table, a laptop, two mics and a banner.
What I’ve Learned
I think the most compelling thing I have discovered in my journeys the last few years is that I have as much (probably more) to learn than to teach. Touching down in Peru I kind of had this “media missionary” mentality: I was going to right some wrongs and help develop a backwards culture of journalism. Naive, stupid, you betcha, that was me. What I know now is that this work is so much more complicated then I will ever fathom. You cannot walk into a room full of Peruvian journalists, many of them senior reporters, and tell them that what they have been doing for decades is wrong, even if, based on what you believe are non negotiable standards, it is. When I’m out and about in the world, the truths I hold on to and bring with me to share, they are still valid. But there are lots of truths out here, and you have to be open to seeing and embracing all of them. At the end of the day, if you believe that information indeed plays a role in peoples self agency, in their ability to live meaningful lives, there is no more rewarding work than this.
In conclusion, I wanted to invite any questions people might have about media development work. How do you edit in a language you don’t speak? How do you work within the limits of government censorship? How do you protect journalists whose lives are at risk? How do you change a culture of media that has lost its way? Those are a few I’m happy to elaborate on, but feel free to ask your own. Fire Away!