International media


5 Tips for staying safe in conflict zones

A young Kurdish YPG fighter runs past sniper fire in the contested zone in Kobani, Syria. The role of freelancers, who make a living by selling individual stories to multiple outlets, has expanded across conflict zones in recent years with the spread of technology and social media. While some are cautious and well-trained, others take major risks in hopes of getting a picture or story that no one else has, and thus is more valuable. And they often lack the institutional support staff writers receive if they get into trouble in a conflict zone.  (AP Photo/Jake, Simkin)

A young Kurdish YPG fighter runs past sniper fire in the contested zone in Kobani, Syria. The role of freelancers, who make a living by selling individual stories to multiple outlets, has expanded across conflict zones in recent years. While some are cautious and well-trained, others take major risks in hopes of getting a picture or story that no one else has. (AP Photo/Jake, Simkin)

The world isn’t getting any safer for members of the media: According to Reporters Without Borders’ annual “roundup of violence against journalists” 66 were killed, 119 kidnapped, and 853 arrested in 2014.

At the same time, difficult and dangerous stories still need telling, and there will always be those drawn to covering conflicts. The big players’ budgets are shrinking but the ways in which information is spread have become more mobile and immediate. In turn, anyone who uses social media now has access to a near-global audience. As a result, the work of outside sources is increasingly used to satisfy our expectation for news in an instant. All of which means it has never been easier for inexperienced, poorly supported newbies to give risky reporting a go.

Conflict novices are OK; Every hard-bitten war correspondent has a “first time I got shot at” story – right? All roads to veteran status start with an initial frontline foray. But unprepared, poorly supported first-timers are not OK.

So for starters, read the following five tips to staying safe on a high-risk job.

  • Don’t go: Obvious, right? What better way to stay safe from the dangers of high-risk reporting than avoiding it in the first place? It’s an extremely effective method for the maintenance of mind, body and soul. Am I joking? Maybe a little. But there’s a serious side to this and that’s to ensure you properly consider whether this type of work is actually what you want to do. Conflict coverage can look enticing through the prism of a well-crafted report. In reality, it’s often dirty, distressing and dispiriting work. Ask yourself why you’re interested. Then consider the potential impact on those closest to you. If you do all that and still feel up for it then great, read on.
  • Train early, train right and keep on training: If you’ve never had hostile environment training, then you’re not as prepared as you should be to work in a hostile environment. Fact: Even if you were born and raised in a war zone, or consider yourself the hardest scribbler in town, this training is a must-do. It’s a poor soul who believes they already know everything about anything. It’s a dangerous colleague who thinks they already know it all about high-risk working. Get on a course as a priority. Embrace and enjoy the chance to learn amongst peers. If you already have some experience, then welcome the opportunity to pass that on and enhance the learning of others. Last, but most importantly, get medical skills. A significant part of such courses is training in basic trauma medicine. It’s life-saving stuff, and if you want to work in dangerous places you owe it to your colleagues to know this. So Hostile Environment First Aid Training (HEFAT) is a must. Do one, practice the skills, build knowledge and experience, refresh it all every three years maximum, and ensure you’re properly prepared. Speaking of being properly prepared.
  • Prepare with the right equipment: Doing high-risk work requires specialist safety kit. I’m talking body armor, head and eye protection, gas masks, medical equipment and survival gear. Know what you need and don’t leave home without it. What you take specifically will depend on the type of coverage and potential threats. But make sure you’ve done that assessment properly and have what’s required to cover all eventualities. Then ensure you’ve kit enough for any drivers or fixers you use, too. People often forget that last point. Generally because they haven’t bothered with tip number four.
  • Have a plan that works and a plan for when it doesn’t: We’re talking about work that may put your life in danger. I’d say that warrants putting some effort into a decent plan. So think about your deployment in detail before you rush out the door. How will you travel? Where will you stay? What are your alternative options? What kit do you need? What contacts do you have? What contacts should you have? What are the threats? What can you do to counter those threats? If you’ve been there before, has anything changed? If so, what is the impact? Do you have access to the latest information? The list could go on, but I’m sure you understand what I’m getting at. Plan and plan well. Then, once you’ve got a good plan, think what you’ll do when it all falls apart. Because things rarely go as intended in the world of high-risk coverage. Which brings us to the next tip.
  • Get help of the reliable and trusted kind: High-risk coverage is a team sport. It’s not for the wannabe loner-hero types. They eventually end up in trouble with no one to call, and their story ends there. You need support to stay in dangerous places and ensure you can safely return. So deploy as part of a team. Just as importantly, have someone sitting somewhere safe, who knows your plan, and knows what to do if it fails: A person to oversee your progress, be a point of contact for regular updates, and who will raise the red flag if suddenly those check-ins stop coming.

So there you have it. Five tips we can sum up in just three words. Preparation. Planning. Support.

Toby Woodbridge is a media safety specialist with Bloomberg News. Previously employed by the BBC, he has extensive experience supporting Media, Energy and NGO organizations in high risk locations worldwide. Read more


MediaWireWorld: Anchor shot in Pakistan, Greste trial continues in Egypt

Posts on MediaWire tend to focus on what’s happening with journalists in the U.S., but every day I see headlines about what’s happening with journalists around the world. That news is often disturbing, sometimes encouraging and, if it involves Rob Ford, probably kind of funny. Today I’m starting a daily post of links with news about journalists and journalism outside the U.S. If you come across something I’ve missed, please pass it along to me through Twitter, @kristenhare, or email,


On Tuesday, Mohamed Lotfy reported in The Guardian that Australian journalist Peter Greste goes back on trial in Cairo today. Greste and two of his Al Jazeera colleagues, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, face terrorism charges. According to The Guardian, Lotfy is observing the trial on behalf of Amnesty International. He wrote:

The continued detention of Greste sends a message to all journalists working in Egypt: “no one is safe”. By imprisoning a foreign Australian journalist, the Egyptian authorities can warn local and international reporters they will be monitoring news reporting and will stifle anything they perceive as dissent.

On Sunday, Committee to Protect Journalists reported that Geo News senior anchor Hamid Mir was shot.

Mir is reported to be in serious condition with wounds to his abdomen and pelvis, but is expected to survive. On March 28, gunmen sprayed the car of TV anchor and analyst Raza Rumi, a member of the Express Group of media organizations. He escaped serious injury, but his driver, Mustafa, was killed. Earlier in March, Sharif pledged to a visiting CPJ delegation to take several steps to improve journalist security.

Not sure if this is the making of a Bulgarian selfie or if the people pictured are taking a photo of the object in front of them (I think it’s the latter.) Still, this is a nice image on the front of DUMA, from Sofia, Bulgaria.

Read more

USA vs. CHN Curling

Sochi photo coverage takes ‘patience, planning, logistics’

Harry Walker, photo director at McClatchy-Tribune Information Services, has a unique vantage point overseeing MCT’s visual coverage of the Olympic Games.

Raised in Savannah, Ga., Walker graduated from Morehouse College in 1980. He started his photojournalism career at The Columbus Dispatch, where he worked from 1988 until 1992. Before joining MCT, he worked as features and weekend photo editor at the Kansas City Star. He has served numerous organizations, with stints as a member of the National Association of Black Journalists’ Visual Task Force and as chairperson of the National Press Photographers Association’s Best of Photojournalism contest.

What follows is an edited version of our conversation about MCT’s ongoing Olympics photo coverage:

Me: So, Harry, you are nine hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time. How is that an advantage or disadvantage for your MCT photographic reports?

Walker: Having the nine-hour time advantage allows you to cover more events than in the past. For example, a hockey game that starts at 9 p.m. in Sochi can be covered and you can still deliver photos to clients in plenty of time for publication. Each of our photographers covers three events daily, or two events that consume a lot of time.

On the other hand, communication with people at the Washington office and with loved ones has been a challenge. When you are nine hours ahead, it is never a good time to communicate. When I have a free moment before event coverage in Sochi starts, everyone is asleep or the office is closed. When they are functioning on the East Coast, I am on deadline and then ending my day. My average day here at the Olympic Games starts around 10 a.m. and ends around 2:30 a.m.

MCT Director of Photography Harry Walker is overseeing photo coverage at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. (Harry E. Walker/MCT)

Me: What has been your highlight so far?

Walker: As a veteran of many Olympics, I am not easily impressed. I did find the Olympic Park on Sochi/Adler to be well-planned. This is the first Winter Olympics I have covered where you can actually walk to all of the venues. There is a transportation system, but when you’re on deadline moving from one event to another, sometimes you can walk to the next venue faster than waiting for a bus. This has proven to be very useful.

Canada’s Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford perform during the team pairs figure skating short program at the Iceberg Skating Palace at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Thursday. (Harry E. Walker/MCT)

I have enjoyed shooting ice dancing and figure skating. Many of the photo positions are very good thanks to a wise system of allocating the coveted floor photo positions in the field of play. Tickets are distributed to all of the National Olympic Committees, which ensures each country gets a share of the available photo positions. This eliminated the situation we faced in Vancouver, where the floor positions were available on a first-come, first-served basis. Some people would literally spend the night in line to secure one of the 50 floor photo positions. If you wanted one of them, you had to spend hours waiting in line before the event started, which would also reduce the number of other events you could cover.

USA’s Meryl Davis and Charlie White perform during the team pairs ice dance short dance program at the Iceberg Skating Palace at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Saturday. (Harry E. Walker/MCT)

Me: What has it been like in Sochi? Are the criticisms about Russia’s lack of preparedness accurate? Are the concerns about the hotels and the venue on point, or overblown?

Walker: It depends whom you speak with. I thought I had problems until I heard first-hand about some of the other issues. I myself have a good room, but I do not have any television or reliable Internet. The television I quickly learned to live without, but the Internet is a major problem. For the first few days, I could not see a Wi-Fi signal, and even now it is not dependable. It works for a while, then goes down — sometimes for hours or all night. This forces me to stay at event venues or the Main Press Center later each night to use the Internet. Most of my communications, planning and report reviews require the Internet — and the same goes for any entertainment or news. Try living without television or Internet for a week — it will make you realize how connected you really are and what an important role the Web plays in your life. All of my calls to the U.S. are done via Skype — I need the Web for that to happen.

Austria defenseman Andre Lakos (64) and Canada forward Jonathan Toews (16) crash into the glass while battling for the puck during the second period in a men’s hockey game at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, on Friday. Canada defeated Austria 6-0. (Harry E. Walker/MCT)

One additional issue is that my cellphone does not work at my housing complex, though it seems to work everywhere else. This makes me even more cut off without the Internet.

I did speak with other photographers who had no light bulbs, doorknobs or in some cases, working electrical outlets. Keep in mind you need electrical outlets to charge batteries for cameras, use laptops, charge phones, etc.

Me: What is working at the Olympics in terms of photographic coverage?

Walker: It has been a very pleasant experience. I have worked mostly in Olympic Park in the city and allowed my two colleagues — Chuck Myers of MCT and Brian Cassella of the Chicago Tribune — to handle the photo events in the mountains.

USA’s Erika Brown, center, delivers a stone as Debbie McCormick, left, and Jessica Schultz prepare to guide the stone during women’s curling competition against China at the Ice Cube Curling Centre during the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Wednesday. (Harry E. Walker/MCT)

Only a few photo assignments have been ticketed due to high demand. The remainder have been open to everyone. Most of the time, it is easy to move around the venue for various photo positions. During a photo meeting of all photographers one day before the games started, it was stated that 750 photographers had been credentialed. I challenge this due to the number of empty lockers and the amount of desk space. Two days ago, a member of my staff misplaced his photo credential and needed to get a temporary one. The replacement credential was No. 377 — these credentials are normally issued in sequential order for security and management purposes.

Why is the number of photographers at the Winter Games nowhere near the number that was stated at the meeting? I believe distance and the cost of travel were major influences. Security issues may have deterred many as well.

But overall, it’s been a very positive experience covering the games.

Russia’s Victor An (250), right, and teammate Vladimir Grigorev (252), left, cross the finish for a first and second place finish during the men’s 1,000-meter finals race at the Iceberg Skating Palace during the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Saturday. (Harry E. Walker/MCT)

Me: How many people are working on your team and contributing to your report? How many editors do you have, and how many photographic reporters?

Walker: MCT has a very small team covering the games. This is a result of the economic realities of the newspaper industry. MCT has three photographers and four writers, with no office space in the Main Press Center. This is the third Olympic Games where we have used this model, and it seems to work well for us. Communication is done via planning emails nightly and throughout the day, and text messaging also proves very valuable. MCT photographers are moving in excess of 200 photos daily, and we also have access to coverage from our image partners — the San Jose Mercury News, Colorado Springs Gazette and Minneapolis Star-Tribune. These image partners file images to our Washington, D.C., photo desk for posting to the wire. The three MCT photographers on site, shoot, edit and move photos live on the wire from each venue, ensuring fast and timely delivery of content to subscribers.

Russia’s Yulia Lipnitskaya performs during the team women’s figure skating short program at the Iceberg Skating Palace at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Saturday. (Harry E. Walker/MCT)

Me: Is there anything new in terms of photographic technology that has impressed you?

Walker: Not that I am aware of. Many are using a VLAN — a virtual local area network — to transmit photos from cameras for editing at venues or the Main Press Center. But this is common for many high-profile events. The large agencies are using robotic cameras, but not as much as during the Summer Games in London.


Me: Has there been any interference from Russian officials or the International Olympic Committee regarding what you can or cannot document?

Walker: I am not aware of the local media situation and cannot comment on it, but I have not had any situations where Russian officials have limited access to what I have available to photograph. I have assigned photos in the towns of Sochi and Adler and heard no reports of access being limited. Working in and around Olympic venues and sites has been as the same as in past Olympics. Security is very high as compared to past games, however.

Me: Given the heavy security restrictions and the threat of terrorism, are you subject to photographic limitations?

Walker: Security personnel record all entry into and out of buses and venues electronically. Thus all movement is tracked. You also have your normal airport-style security checkpoints when you enter the Olympic parks in both the mountain and Sochi Olympic parks.

Security is definitely very tight. There are lots of undercover security personnel about — you can spot them easily at times, though I am sure there are others we don’t notice. For the first time since I have been covering the Olympics, I needed a passport to secure my accreditation. In the past, the Olympic accreditation you received before traveling to the games served as your visa and passport. Going into Russia, you needed your passport every step of the way. You needed it to get your photo armband for floor positions, your hotel room and many other items that seemed surprising since you were already in the Olympic credentialing system.

Me: Have you made any special preparations to cover a terrorist event, should one occur? If so, what are they?

USA’s Emily Scott (155), leads Lithuania’s Agne Sereikaite (140) into a turn during the ladies 500-meter short track race at the Iceberg Skating Palace during the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Monday, Feb. 10, 2014. (Harry E. Walker/MCT)

Walker: MCT has a plan in the event of an attack. Without going into too much detail, we all have phones that work world-wide, have a designated place to meet and have a request with the State Department for overseas travel should the U.S. put an evacuation plan into effect.

Me: How does this compare to the 2002 Winter Games when you were the assistant photo chief in Salt Lake City?

Walker: Many of the same systems are in place. The ticketing process seems smoother. Individuals and smaller organizations have a better opportunity to get coveted floor photographer positions than in the past. There are many volunteers at each venue to assist with everything from information to tours of the buildings.

With hockey, a high-demand sport, a system of assigned seating around the glass and in elevated photo positions has been implemented. The photo managers have done a great job negotiating photo positions. There are 60 photo positions for photographers along the glass on the ice, in addition to dozens more overhead.

Me: Have weather challenges made your photographic coverage problematic? If so, how have you overcome these challenges?

Walker: The weather in Sochi is the news of the day. It was warm at the last Winter Olympics in Vancouver, but Sochi is much warmer — it has routinely been in the upper 50s or low 60s since my arrival. Naturally it’s colder in the mountains, but it’s like a spring heat wave in the city at the Olympic Park.

All the weather challenges have been in the mountains, where there is a lack of snow due to the warm weather. Not only is it not snowing, but the snow on the ground is melting. I personally am fighting off a cold. It is warm outside but very chilly inside. I wear moderate winter clothing because the temperatures inside a venue like the Alder Long Track Speed Racing facility can be as much as 20 degrees lower than outside.

USA’s Meryl Davis and Charlie White perform during the team ice dance free figure skating dance short program at the Iceberg Skating Palace at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Sunday, Feb, 9, 2014. USA’s team won the bronze medal in the event. (Harry E. Walker/MCT)

Me: What have been your most valuable lessons learned so far?

Walker: Patience, planning and logistics. Working with venue photo managers has been pleasant. They are eager to assist you in getting a good photo position. Convey your needs and they try to accommodate you, and they seem to remember who you are the next time you come back to the venue. I wonder if it is because of the reduced number of photographers at the games or because I am the only African-American photographing the games. I guess I’m easy to pick out of the crowd — it’s funny that people ask me a lot about Shani Davis, the only African-American long track speed skater in the games. Read more

China Citizens Movement Trial

Covering China: for foreign and domestic press, self-censorship’s the threat

A plainclothes policeman, center, tries to block a foreign journalist filming while police detain the supporters of Xu Zhiyong near the No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court in Beijing Wednesday. Xu, a legal scholar and founder of the New Citizens movement, is on trial facing a charge organzing a crowd to disrupt public order. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

It’s not easy being a journalist in China these days.

Chinese reporters are facing new government restrictions, including forced training in Marxism and a new written “ideology” exam. Some, pushing the investigative envelope, have been detained, demoted and fired. Bloggers have been arrested under a new law that forbids rumor-mongering.

Meanwhile, foreign journalists have had visa renewals held up by the government, with the threat of expulsion. The standoff grew so contentious that Vice President Joe Biden had to make a personal appeal to China’s president before last-minute visas were issued earlier this month.

The troubles have prompted soul-searching among journalists about their cumulative effect. The key question for many is whether government intimidation will lead to self-censorship. Read more


Another journalist killed in Indian state

The Hindu | Times of India

Local protests in India this week follow the killing last Friday of India journalist Sai Reddy in the Bijapur district in south Chhattisgarh, The Hindu reported.

The 51-year-old journalist was attacked at a weekly market. Maoists are suspected in the killing, although none have taken responsibility, the newspaper said. Read more


Why censorship looks like ‘harmony’ inside Chinese media

The first time I got in trouble at China Radio International was for saying it’s OK to drive over the speed limit as long as that’s  the speed of traffic.

I was hosting a show called “China Now,” which aired live in Beijing from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday, on a weak AM signal that no one could actually pick up.

The show was also recorded and sent to CRI partner stations in far-flung places like Port Vila, Vanuatu and Monrovia, Liberia. The primary purpose of the show seemed to be to fill three hours of airtime. It was roughly half music, mostly Top 40. My Chinese co-host had a thing for Lady Gaga.

We ran one or two pre-recorded reports per hour, including a seven-minute snoozer about Mahjong filed by a British reporter, and a much shorter and more entertaining piece by a Canadian reporter who visited a prominent Revolution-era Red Army base and asked his interpreter if she had ever wanted to shoot a raccoon with a machine gun. The rest of the time we filled with mostly idle chatter, a little news, a little weather, and the dreaded Topic of the Day.

The Topic of the Day covered subjects from, “What alcohol is popular in your country?” to “Do drivers in your country follow traffic laws?” We had to discuss these topics for about five minutes at the top of every hour. We also had to solicit listener comments, which was curious because no one in Beijing could hear us and everyone else was listening (assuming anyone was listening) on a delayed recording. It was an open secret that all the comments on the website came from within the office. The most frequent commenter was “fallenpink,” who we all knew was the show’s producer.

During the discussion on alcohol I got a string of outraged comments from fallenpink after I said Chinese rice liquor smells bad. In my defense, baijiu smells so bad it has actually inspired some expats to use the stuff for cleaning, with mixed results – good for general cleaning and disinfecting but weak on mildew.

In the first five minutes we talked about whether people follow traffic laws, my co-host and I managed to agree that Chinese drivers generally don’t, which made more discussion difficult. Trying to be helpful I thought back to driver’s-ed class when I was taught that you should drive over the speed limit if that’s the speed of traffic. For reasons still unknown to me, my co-host got extremely upset at this, and we proceeded to have a surprisingly lively discussion about whether it was, in fact, OK to drive over the speed limit under any circumstances.

A few days later, my producer informed me we would all have to stay late that day for a “sound check.” She told me this involved listening to a segment of the show and then discussing what worked and what didn’t. This sort of made sense because unlike radio stations elsewhere, staff at CRI generally don’t listen to the radio. Aside from my co-host, the sound tech, and myself, most of my coworkers would be hearing the segment in question for the first time. I was one of the last to enter the room, and as I strolled in I asked my producer what we’d be listening to.

“You,” she said.

They saved a single chair in the corner of the room opposite the door. That was for me. Everyone else was arranged in a semi-circle around me. In addition to my producer and co-host, there were the half-dozen young women who took turns doing reports and working the soundboards, the manager of the newsroom and the manager of the English service. The only other foreigner in the room was DJ Duggie Day, a middle-aged Scotsman who hosted a music show called “Duggie’s Hot Pot.” (The name of the show was sort of a cross between Paris Hilton and a popular Sichuan dish that involves cooking your own food in a pot of boiling broth.)

The recording droned on for a few minutes as we went through introductions and plugged upcoming segments on the show. The dozen or so people gathered for the sound check looked like kids who’d been given after-school detention. And then the argument about speeding started. Suddenly people were engaged. They were laughing. Some were agreeing, others disagreeing. But they were listening. For a few minutes we approximated interesting radio, and of course that was the problem. When the recording was over my producer asked me for my thoughts.

“I thought it was all pretty dull until the argument started. Then it got interesting,” I said.

“But don’t you think it makes listeners uncomfortable when the co-hosts argue?” asked the producer.

“Well, obviously not. That was the only part people liked.”

This got sheepish grins from my coworkers, exasperation from my producer and awkward silence from the managers, while my co-host stared resolutely at the floor.

For the next 20 minutes different people in the room offered suggestions as to what exactly was wrong with the offending segment, and none of them seemed to stick. This was problematic because the purpose of the discussion was to make it clear that I had done something wrong, and everyone knew I hadn’t. Finally the Scotsman piped up and said “Well, it sounded to me like you was suggestin’ it was OK to break the law.”

Everyone seemed quite relieved at this because here, finally, was a way out. Except it wasn’t, because at that point I was apparently supposed to confess my sins and promise never to do it again, whatever it was, and I failed to play the role properly. So the discussion went around in circles for another 10 minutes before I said, “I think we’ve all said everything we had to say, and I don’t think any agreement is possible. So unless anyone has anything new to say, I’m going home.” No one did, so I left.

A few weeks later I got in trouble again. While preparing the five brief news stories we read every day, I came across an item in China Daily about the trial of a dissident who was accused of subversion for challenging the official account of the number of children killed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake; this dissident had also criticized the government response to the “June 4th Incident” (Chinese code for the 1989 crackdown on pro-Democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square). I knew the story was probably off-limits, but a state sensor at the China Daily had already vetted it, so I went with it.

While a song was playing shortly after I read the story on air, the human resources manager for the English service came in the studio and whispered in my ear, “We know you got that story from China Daily, and usually that’s OK. But sometimes China Daily is not as official as other sources. And we don’t talk about June 4th on our programs. Please don’t do it again.”

And that was it. No sound check. No inquisition-like proceeding. Just a simple warning. I got in more trouble for saying it was OK to speed than I did for talking about the June 4th Incident.

‘Harmony,’ not ideology, may be motivation

From the outside looking in, Chinese state media looks like a monolithic propaganda machine. On the occasions that Western media feel the need to cite Chinese news sources they invariably preface it with something like “the Party mouthpiece” or “the official government TV channel.” But from the inside, Chinese state media looks a lot more like the lumbering state-owned factories that made such a mess of the Chinese economy until reforms started in the late 1970s. It’s not that they don’t want to be a big propaganda machine. It’s that most of the time they aren’t capable of actually pulling it off.

This is especially true for China’s many clumsy attempts to establish an international media presence. Domestically their propaganda is much more effective. But as recent events in Guangzhou showed, even that is beginning to crack.

The people who work for government media in China are not journalists, and the vast majority aren’t dedicated propagandists. They’re actually a lot like the people who work for the government in other parts of the world. They have all the drive and passion for their work that the people at your local DMV have. They want a steady paycheck and decent benefits without fear of a layoff – China’s “Iron Rice Bowl.” They want pensions, not Pulitzers.

When I started at CRI in July of 2009, the HR manager gave me the same speech he gives all new foreign hires, extolling the virtues of “harmony” in the office. Harmony is a useful concept for the Chinese manager because it includes everything from not stealing pens to not talking about the “Three T’s”: Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen. It’s sort of taken for granted that people won’t do those things, because that would upset office harmony.

A Canadian DJ who started at CRI about a year after I did found this out when he said on air that the difference between Canada and America is kind of like the difference between Taiwan and China. As the next song was playing his co-host frantically explained that suggesting China and Taiwan are two different countries was “totally wrong”; the co-host told the startled Canadian he would have to apologize after the song, which he did, thereby restoring harmony to his show.

The emphasis on harmony also explains why I got in more trouble for talking about speeding than about Tiananmen Square. Unlike the situation with the confused Canadian, my co-host was not noticeably upset when I read the story about the trial of the dissident, either because he genuinely didn’t care or because he was satisfied that I was swiftly reprimanded by management. But in the speeding argument he felt he had “lost face.”

Causing a co-worker to lose face is just about the worst thing for office harmony, and is very hard to gauge. A different co-host might have been thoroughly uninterested in talking about speeding, but deeply offended by my mention of the “June 4th Incident,” triggering a totally different disciplinary response. On a day-to-day basis, management decisions are driven more by the need to maintain harmony than by Party orthodoxy.

Viewed through the harmony prism, the incident earlier this month at Southern Weekly takes on different meaning. The original staff editorial about constitutional rights was problematic not because it contradicted Party ideology, but because it was unharmonious. The censor responsible then sought to “harmonize” the editorial (Chinese netizens use the same term when censors delete posts or shut down websites deemed offensive).

This often-used ploy backfired when the Southern Weekly staff and some if its readers publicly refused to be harmonized. The official response was conciliatory, leading some observers to see the incident as a hopeful sign for a new direction from China’s new leadership. More likely, the response came down to the simple calculus of harmony.

Leaders probably calculated that a heavy-handed crackdown would have decreased harmony rather than increased it, something leadership desperately wants to avoid as Xi Jinping assumes power. Read more

In this photo taken and released by a protester, a local university student, left, a supporter of the Southern Weekly, is interviewed by a foreign media before being taken away by plainclothes policemen outside the newspaper headquarters in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, China Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013. Police attempted Thursday to prevent more of protests outside the compound housing the Southern Weekly and its parent company, the Nanfang Media Group, in Guangzhou, a city long at the forefront of reforms. About 30 police officers guarded the area and ordered reporters and any loiterers to move away, saying there had been complaints about obstructing traffic. The influential weekly newspaper whose staff rebelled to protest heavy-handed censorship by China's government officials published as normal Thursday after a compromise that called for relaxing some intrusive controls but left lingering ill-will among some reporters and editors. (AP Photo)

What China press censorship protests say about digital shift and democracy

It is telling that the protests in China this week over government control involve a newspaper and censorship — not a military tank in a public square.

China has walked the fragile road of modernism and capitalism without democracy. But history keeps repeating one message about trying to balance economic advances without freedom. Information by its nature is democratizing.

In China, the information box is already open. Half of the Chinese public is online, according to the data from fall of 2012 by the Pew Research Center. Fully 93 percent of Chinese have cell phones; 62 percent engage in social networking. And half the Chinese public, according to Pew’s data, share their personal views on social networks. (I was founding director of Center’s Project for Excellence Journalism for 16 years until December.)

What the Chinese are willing to share in these spaces is equally fascinating. Most — 86 percent — say they share their views about “movies and music,” but only 10 percent are willing to share their views about “politics.” At the same time, fully half say they share their views about “community issues.”

Those answers hint at the problem for authoritarians. The line from culture to community to politics at a certain point is only rhetorical.

The old Soviet Union tried to control thought by registering every typewriter owned in the country. When in the late 1980s fax machines, satellite TV and VCRs made it impossible to know what ideas people were learning and sharing, Soviet leaders created the first institutes in the country to conduct public opinion polling. When they could no longer control what people knew, they began to try to study what people thought so that they might begin to try to manage it. They also had to relax TV and radio programming to adapt to new popular demands, then tried to pull back, which led to similar frictions as we see now.

The Chinese for a time tried to post soldiers by every fax machine in the country.

In this photo taken and released by a protester, a local university student, left, a supporter of the Southern Weekly, is interviewed by a foreign media before being taken away by plainclothes policemen outside the newspaper headquarters in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, China Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013. (AP Photo)

That brings us back to the source of the protests in China today. They began when authorities censored the New Year’s editorial in Southern Weekend, a well-known liberal newspaper, which had called for the new leaders of the Chinese government to make good on rights articulated in the Chinese constitution.

That led journalists and their supporters to issue an open letter. “By Sunday night,” the New York Times reports, “the protests had transformed into a melee in the blogosphere.”

The initial flashpoint over the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 were journalism, too — a series of columns in the World Economic Herald, as Jonathan Mirsky reminds in a fine essay this week in the New York Review of Books. There was no blogosphere then for people to gather. So they met in a square and faced tanks.

The spark this time is similar. And they are a reminder that even in the digital age, journalism and democracy are inevitably and inextricably linked.

Fundamentally, the act of producing journalism is an act of putting more information and ideas in the hands of more people. That, in turn, inspires public conversation. Look back and you see that the birth of a periodical press can be traced to the Enlightenment and the evolution of democratic theory. Look wider and you find that societies with more journalism, of all sorts, have tended toward more freedom.

Meeting with journalists around the world over the last decade, I’ve learned, sometimes unexpectedly, that journalists everywhere tend to share a common cause. Whatever system in which they operate, in their own way, all journalists are concerned with accuracy and truthfulness. It is in the nature of being in the business of finding things out and making them public.

The march toward freedom engendered by making information transparent is not a straight line. It is often closer to two steps forward and one step back, or dancing a box step. The protests in China this week may lose momentum rather than presage immediate change. Mirsky reports that the words “Southern” and “Weekend” have now vanished from the Chinese Internet.

But the long view reveals something inexorable. As information begins to flow, so do ideas. That is the essential insight of the First Amendment.

Tom Rosenstiel is an author and journalist, a member of Poynter’s National Advisory Board, and the Executive Director of the American Press Institute. Read more

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4 media shifts to watch for in China

I was honored to represent the U.S., the Poynter Institute and KING Broadcasting Co. at the Colloquium on Future Global Communication and Journalism Education held Dec. 15-16 at Tsinghua University in Beijing. The first session featured five international speakers — including me — who presented in English.

Here are four key takeaways from the conference and from my conversations with professors and students there.

Journalism education is flourishing in China

Professor Shi Anbin, who invited me to speak at the conference, told me there are 1,000 journalism schools in China. While the government continues to control the news media there, state-run news agencies are growing fast (much like the country’s economy for the past 20 years). There is also an increasing presence of foreign media in China to report out to the rest of the world.

All of this new opportunity means an increased need for education and training. Schools across the country are moving to meet the professional and academic need to understand the impact of Chinese media on, and its place in, the rest of the world.

A flyer at Tsinghua University advertised the talk by author Mark Briggs, who is standing beside it.

In my public lecture to graduate students at Tsinghua the day before the conference, I was impressed with the overall awareness of global media trends the students showed. In fact, their multiple-point questions during the Q&A were more challenging than many I have faced in college classrooms in the U.S.

It’s still early for entrepreneurial journalism in China

As you already know, the Chinese economy has exploded in the past decade. News startups, however, have not been part of that explosion. Yet.

About 60 students packed into a lecture room at the Tsignhua School of Communication for my “public lecture” on Friday. I was told there was unusually high interest in my topic — entrepreneurial journalism — because many students are looking for options upon graduation besides working for state-run news agencies.

A professor told me that one of his former students just left an agency job to take a post with Bloomberg in China and will earn 3-4 times more in salary than what he was previously being paid.

All that interest does not mean activity. When asked if anyone could name an example of entrepreneurial journalism in China, the room was silent.

In talking with professors at Tsinghua, it seems it’s only a matter of time. A handful of fast-growing social networking platforms has loosened the grip of government censors on the flow of information in the past couple of years, creating new opportunities for news and journalism startups. The fear of government shutdown has dampened news startup activity so far, but given the capitalistic momentum in China these days, that is likely to wane.

Other high-tech entrepreneurialism, especially social networking, is exploding

The Chinese government has barred Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google (these sites are available on laptops and PCs by paying additionally for a VPN, but not on smartphones). The move apparently had as much to do with business as politics.

Rather than helping grow the fortunes of U.S. tech titans, China created a huge opportunity for Chinese companies. Sina’s Weibo, Tencent’s WeChat, Renren, Baidu and other fast-growing tools and websites are very similar to Facebook, Twitter, Google and the like with one important distinction: they are domestic companies serving Chinese audiences.

Weibo has more than 400 million users who share news, photos, jokes and other Twitter-like musings. But the momentum has shifted to WeChat, an MMS platform that launched in late 2011 and already has 200 million users.

That kind of rapid growth means fertile ground for experimentation among news-related tech startups.

Aggregation and curation of news and social media has yet to arrive in China. Entrepreneurs who are hesitant to create content businesses for fear of government censors should look to platform plays. Building tools for these emerging social networks and using their activity to curate content appear to be plausible next steps in the digital evolution there.

Chinese media will play a key role in global news

CCTV, the state-run media behemoth in China, has ambitious global expansion plans. It is reportedly spending $6 billion on external programming and already has bureaus around the globe, including several in the U.S. Just as the BBC, Al Jazeera and CNN have pushed far beyond their domestic borders, CCTV is primed to follow suit.

Mark Briggs (@markbriggs) is a former Ford Fellow for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the Poynter Institute and current director of digital media at KING Broadcasting in Seattle. He is the author of “Journalism Next” (2nd edition was published last month), “Entrepreneurial Journalism,” and “Journalism 2.0.” Read more

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Journalism students from Hong Kong view profession differently after U.S. visit

For two weeks I played host to six college students, all journalism majors, as we flew from Hong Kong to Washington, D.C., to cover the U.S. Presidential Elections. I packed the agenda with numerous newsroom visits to show them what journalism in the U.S. was all about. We were going to meet and greet senior news executives, I told them. Their job was to interview them and write up short reports. “This is a work trip,” I reminded them.

Little did I realize that the visits would ignite a passion and perspective in these young people and re-ignite my passion for the profession.

“That’s the executive editor, next to him the managing editor, next to him the deputy,” said our tour guide going down the newsroom hierarchy as we stood inside The Washington Post. The students looked wide eyed and the excitement only heightened when the tour guide showed us the Pulitzer Prize medals and the front cover headlined, “Nixon Resigns.” (Photo courtesy Hong Kong Shue Yan University)

A female student later shared with me her feelings about our visit.

“It’s so different than newsrooms in Hong Kong, over here it seems like journalists are respected,” she said, describing how disheveled newsrooms and journalists often looked back at home. In Hong Kong, it is well-known that the profession was viewed as second class, and for many a young journalist it is seen as a stepping stone to a better paying career in public relations or government.

The road I traveled

As I planned the trip last summer, I often thought about what kind of impression I wanted to give these young people. Being a Chinese-American, the U.S. was my homeland. And most of my students had never been to America, much less an American newsroom.

Our visits included the National Journal, The New York Times, NPR, CCTV America and the Newseum, where the students marveled at this beautiful structure devoted strictly to news.

This was my first time stepping foot in newsrooms since I last worked as a full-time reporter at The Deal in 2008.

After some 12 years as a full-time reporter in the industry, I was starting to burn out. Shrinking newsrooms and newspapers were becoming a part of everyday shop talk, while Google, Facebook and Twitter were becoming necessities on the job. I started to regard the once beloved profession with cynicism.

In 2009, I officially left journalism after being part of a layoff at a financial magazine where I was a reporter.

“Journalism is in disarray, I need to reinvent myself,” I would tell friends and family when I talked about the leap from the newsroom into the classroom. The spark and spunk I once had for the profession had seemingly flatlined.

And the flatline continued even as I taught writing and reporting here in Hong Kong, where the profession didn’t seem to hold too much of a future.

My students’ descriptions of journalism in Hong Kong are basically true. As a young reporter in her 20s, I first came to Hong Kong in 1996 and spent time working in Hong Kong newsrooms.

For two years I worked as a reporter at the Hong Kong Standard, back then and even now one of the two daily English language newspapers in Hong Kong. The editors came from all over the world — Mainland China, Britain, South Africa and Australia.

The standards of the paper were nowhere near as stringent as how I was trained as a journalism student. There was no ethics manual to sign, no rules regarding attribution, sourcing or guidelines surrounding how much we could accept in gifts. We cranked out copy to fill the pages. A fellow reporter jokingly said that “we were like word machines.” In my time there, never once do I recall the newspaper producing an invesitgative piece. The word “watchdog” didn’t exist.

Between America and Hong Kong

Turn the clock forward to 2012. My students often question themselves and their decision to study a profession that isn’t respected here in Hong Kong. They talk about the long hours, little pay, and the overall public perception that journalists are a nuisance.

Then there is the underlying and much more disturbing reality that press freedom is eroding and is being replaced by self-censorship in Hong Kong. Most newspapers here are headed by pro-Beijing factions, with the exception of The Apple Daily.

“In America you have freedom and it seems like the journalists really enjoy their press freedom,” a student shared after one of our visits. “In Hong Kong we don’t even have the freedom to vote.”

At the end of this trip, I had regained an appreciation for the media and journalism in America. Although the industry’s transformation is chaotic and newspapers like The Washington Post are shadows of their former selves in terms of number of staff, the reality is that America remains one of the best places to practice journalism.

As the plane departed back to Hong Kong, a student shared with me that until she came on the trip she was having second thoughts about being a journalist. Seeing how American newsrooms operated changed her mind.

“I’m energized again,” she said. It was an unexpected surprise and outcome from the marathon trip. “Same here,” I said as we headed to the other side of the world.

Amy Wu is a Chinese-American and teaches journalism full-time at Hong Kong Shue Yan University. Before that she spent 14 years as a professional reporter and worked for Gannett, Time magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle and The Deal. She is from New York and earned her master’s degree in journalism from Columbia. Read more

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