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Mount Qiloane, symbol of the Basotho. (Photo: mjj)

MASERU, Lesotho – At the U.S. destination of “Four Corners” – where the states of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah converge – tourists bend over to be photographed with a limb in all four.

Today, I manage a global Four Corners of my own: as an American foreign correspondent, journalism teacher-trainer, and freelancing father of three striving for a simultaneous presence in southern Africa, Far East Asia, Central Europe and the U.S.

This website, which I’d dubbed From East to Eastas I oscillated between my home in post-Communist Eastern Europe and work in China — has swerved south into sub-Saharan Africa, to document a journalistic journey that includes writing from our new home in the “Mountain Kingdom” of Lesotho, teaching in Hong Kong and training in Prague.

Spliced in are my articles and photos for Foreign Policy, Christian Science Monitor, Harvard’s Nieman Reports, The Mantle and many others listed to the right. Thank you for reading! … mjj

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[When it comes to freelancing foreign correspondence, no one is more current or savvy than the Indian journalist Mridu Khullar Relph, the 2010 "Development Journalist of the Year." Mridu is also tireless in educating others about the field through her fine website, produced from her New Delhi home. So, it was my pleasure to answer her questions about how I do what I do. The following interview was first published on her site on Nov. 20, 2012. For more on freelancing, please read my August 2012 piece on how I'd break in today.]

Mridu Khullar Relph (Courtesy MKR)

Q&A With Michael J. Jordan, International Journalist

No, not THAT Michael Jordan. Although when it comes to his craft, he’s just as good.

I first “met” Michael online through a friend and was immediately struck by how open he was with his contacts, how helpful and encouraging. Michael and I became part of a small freelancers group that shared tips, editor names, and advice with each other, and when I interviewed Michael for my mailing list, I got such an amazing response, that I knew I had to share it with more readers.

His official bio: Michael J. Jordan is an American freelance foreign correspondent and journalism teacher-trainer now based in Lesotho. Beyond southern Africa, he also maintains a toehold in Asia and Europe, as a Visiting Scholar at Hong Kong Baptist University and as Senior Journalism Trainer for Transitions Online in Prague. He has previously been stationed in Hungary, Slovakia and at the United Nations, as a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and many others.

Q. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and the work that you do?

I’m an American foreign correspondent, journalism teacher-trainer, and freelancing father of three young children. Since November, I’ve lived in tiny Lesotho, in southern Africa, for my wife’s job in international development. (more…)

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Nagymező utca, the “Broadway of Budapest”: one of countless spots to soak in atmosphere. (Photo: mjj)

[The following piece appeared Sept. 7, 2012, on The Mantle.]


BUDAPEST, Hungary –
I’d fallen out of love. This summer, I wanted so badly for that passion to reignite. No, I’m not referring to my marriage, but to the grand old city of Budapest.

Eight weeks later, I’m delighted to report: the embers still smolder. The elegant architecture. The vibrant café culture. The festive night life. Feels like 1997 again!

Budapest is in my blood. I’m a Hungarian-American who launched a career here as a freelance foreign correspondent, back in 1994. I enjoyed the best years of my youth in the city, from age 24 to 30. My father was born here. My wife, too. My three kids spend large doses of time here – and speak the tricky language as well as natives.

Yet the politics of the place have often mortified me, during the two decades of transition from cruel Communist dictatorship to rapacious capitalist democracy. As the atmosphere descended into one of the most noxious in all of Europe, with hatred and depression sucking up oxygen, the capital, too, grew uglier: graffiti scarred the urban landscape; so many shops, boarded and abandoned; pee-stained alcoholics crashed out on benches along once-regal, Habsburgian boulevards.

We now live in Lesotho, in the hardscrabble mountains of southern Africa. In the tiny capital, Maseru, the three or four cafes, three or four restaurants, just don’t compare to Central Europe. As a frigid winter approached, I flew my kids – more an evacuation, really – up to the summer steaminess of Hungary. They’ve spent weeks reconnecting with their grandparents along the family-friendly, fried-fish-peddling shores of Lake Balaton.

Meanwhile, I’ve flown solo in Budapest much of the time, with the luxury – during hot days and breezy nights – to mill about the old stomping grounds of my free and footloose years of early adulthood.

My conclusion: both city authorities and denizens show signs of resilience.

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[The following piece appeared Aug. 30, 2012, on The Mantle.]

Graduates of the July 2012 Foreign Correspondent course decompress afterward. Seated center is TOL Director Jeremy Druker. (Photo: mjj)

PRAGUE, Czech Republic – Foreign correspondence is dead. Long live foreign correspondence!

So wrote the British journalist-scholar Timothy Garton Ash not long ago. I couldn’t agree more, as a freelance foreign correspondent who has trained hundreds of young, aspiring colleagues in Prague – and just guided my 17th batch of trainees in how to secure their first foreign-datelined article.

Despite the plummet of foreign-reporting budgets and rise of the not-quite-a-journalist “Citizen Journalist,” various traditional and online media continue to allocate space for serious contributions from abroad. As Garton Ash rightly noted, there’ll always be a need for credible correspondents to do the “witnessing, deciphering and interpreting” of global events and trends for audiences back home.

What I can’t guarantee wanna-be correspondents, though, is that you’ll find full-time work abroad. Or can live exclusively off freelancing. Or will always be paid for material many editors now expect for free. You’ll surely have to hustle, as many do in a city like Istanbul. Or you may ultimately settle for a bit of foreign reporting on the side, coupled with a teaching, editing or PR-writing job.

But that said, nothing should discourage the hardier of you to at least try. Some surely will, to judge by the burgeoning of journalism programs world-wide, many of which seek to “internationalize” both curriculum and practical experiences for students. (See here and here.)

With this in mind, my latest training in Prague for the Transitions Online Foreign Correspondent Training Course gave me pause to consider how I myself broke into the business – and how I’d modify it today if I were to start over again. Here, then, is a revised roadmap to foreign correspondence.

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[The following post was published March 30, 2012, on The Mantle.]

MASERU, Lesotho – The email arrived on the eve of a journalism workshop I’d lead at Kick4Life, an NGO that promotes sport and HIV awareness in a country with the world’s third-highest rate of HIV infection.

Lesotho blends beauty with bleakness. (Photo: mjj)

The three-session workshop would be for the newly formed Writing Club, where young Basotho explore their first-hand HIV experiences with pen and paper.

No one here, it seems, is unaffected by HIV. My task would be to teach them a bit about third-person feature writing – to give voice to the voiceless. (For my dispatch on the workshop itself, watch this space in the near future.)

The email, then, was a collection of their vignettes, names withheld, for me to get a sense of what I’d be working with. The first few pieces start slowly, but they begin to bite harder and harder. Themes emerge: beer, sexual aggression, low self-esteem, risky behavior, HIV.

One teen apparently admit to rape. Another tells of a friend impregnated by her father. A third describes an HIV-induced suicide.

Taken together, they paint a striking portrait of life today for young Basotho. That’s why I’ve posted them below, unedited …

“PROBLEMATIC PREGNANCY”

Though I always visited my girlfriend time and again, that her mother was pregnant I was not aware.

After giving birth, she openly told me she was HIV positive. Hospital officials told her after giving birth. She was so disappointed, lonely and felt alone.

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[The following post was published Feb. 16, 2012, on The Mantle.]

MASERU, Lesotho – My Hungarian in-laws didn’t take the news well.

Hello, Basotho herders! Are you in need of journalism training? Perhaps help with your blogs? (Photo: mjj)

It was late summer when my wife informed her parents that we’d be moving far away, to the southern tip of Africa – and hauling three beloved grandchildren with us. I thought I was safe from blame: three years in Lesotho wouldn’t be due to my career, but for my wife’s job in international development.

How naive I was. They pointed an accusatory finger, regardless.

You should have been the one to dissuade her,” bemoaned my mother-in-law.

Another counter-argument emerged: But what will Michael do? I excitedly explained all the journalism teaching and training needs that would surely exist in a country afflicted with so many calamities, like the world’s third-highest HIV infection rate, or that 40 percent of the population live below the international poverty line – yet no full-fledged program to teach watchdog journalism.

In Lesotho, I envisioned an opportunity to make a difference.

“You sound like a missionary!” my father-in-law sneered.

What’s so wrong about that, I wondered.

I’m not talking about the real Christian missionaries I count among my new friends in sub-Saharan Africa (see here and here), or the “media missionaries” who purvey God’s word via various media tools.

I plan to evangelize, alright, but preaching the sort of serious, responsible journalism detailed by American journalist and media analyst Ellen Hume in her 2004 monograph, The Media Missionaries: American Support for Journalism Excellence and Press Freedom Around the Globe.

Three months into our stint in Lesotho, here I am: The Media Missionary of Maseru. And the media landscape here is even bleaker than I imagined.

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[The following Feature appeared Jan. 17, 2012, in Foreign Policy magazine. It was republished on Jan. 20 on The Mantle.]

Budapest Winter: Can anyone stop the Putinization of Hungary?

BY MICHAEL J. JORDAN |JANUARY 17, 2012

A humiliation for many Hungarians. (Photo: Reuters)

BUDAPEST/PRAGUE – With the European Union’s threat of a lawsuit against the Hungarian government for meddling with the independence of its central bank, the world is finally taking notice of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s aggressive recent moves to consolidate power.

But for some Hungarians themselves, the gravity of what’s happening in today’s fractious Hungarian political scene was driven home on Dec. 3 by the blurred-out face of the former Supreme Court chief justice, Zoltan Lomnici.

It was one thing for Orban’s muscular center-right government to replace the upper ranks of state television and radio with its own loyalists after winning a two-thirds “supermajority” in the April 2010 parliamentary elections — seizing control of state-run media by incoming governments still remains an acceptable spoil of political warfare in post-Communist Central and Eastern Europe.

But it was another when, in a news report, Hungarian state television pixilated the face of Lomnici — a one-time Orban loyalist who had recent fallen afoul of the prime minister — to conceal his identity from viewers. And that was the final straw for Hungarian TV staffers Balazs Nagy-Navarro and Aranka Szavuly.

Navarro and Szavuly say the Lomnici pixilation proved that the minions of Orban’s party, Fidesz, have taken media combat one step further: They are willing to manipulate stories, edit tape to suit their agenda, and instruct reporters on whom to interview and whom to ignore.

To Szavuly, these tactics epitomize Fidesz’s society-wide conquest. Step by step the party has gobbled up all forms of independence, opposition, and checks-and-balances in one of the EU’s newest members — reminiscent of the “salami tactics” of the late 1940s, when Hungarian Communists gradually hacked away at enemies like slices of salami.

Although Hungary was once “the best pupil in the class” of ex-Communist states striving to join Western institutions — a model of economic dynamism and political reform — wayward Budapest has become a political thorn in the side of a European Union already reeling from Euro-induced calamity.

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[The following post appeared Nov. 29, 2011, on The Mantle.]

MASERU, Lesotho – There’s so much to say, I don’t know where to start. So how about with a Sesotho-language greeting: Dumela!

I moved to Lesotho just one week ago; it’s too early to explore themes and spout theories. (There’ll be plenty of time for both.) I’ll stay humble, knowing I have a hell of a lot to learn about these people, this country, this region, this continent.

On the Lesotho side of the South African border, a poster warns of human trafficking. (Photo: mjj)

Instead, I’ll stick to what I’m seeing and what I’m hearing, the experiential and the sensory, about the look of the place, the look of the people – and our dramatically different lifestyle amid both.

Lesotho is a deeply troubled place, plagued by poverty and HIV, violence against women and human trafficking, alcoholism and obesity, among many other afflictions. Nothing is more telling than the fact life expectancy for both men and women is a measly 42 to 43 years … my age exactly.

Lesotho is ravaged by the world’s third-highest HIV rate. A country of 2 million is home to an astounding 100,000 AIDS orphans. Five percent of the population? Or much higher? The scale of tragedy is unfathomable.

Funeral homes are certainly ubiquitous around Maseru. Today I asked a wiry-looking guy for directions; up close I realized he was downright skeletal. On the first day I met our housekeeper-babysitter, I asked if she had any children: “I have one son … but I had three children.” I froze, afraid to probe any further.

So, let’s turn for a minute to the positive.

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One of my new Basotho friends, grilling meat roadside in Lesotho. (Photo: mjj)

MASERU, Lesotho – Surreal. It’s a shopworn term – defined as unbelievable, fantastic or incongruous – that is thrown around way too casually in the Anglophone world. By me, included.

But how else to describe my sensations this past week, as I stumbled into the next stage of my life: here in remote Lesotho, the “Kingdom in the Sky” of the Basotho people?

Just two months ago, I wrapped up 17 years as a Central Europe-based foreign correspondent. The place may be rife with cobblestones and castles, age-old hatreds and poppy-seed strudel, but the post-Communist world is also perched on the doorstep of wealthy, industrialized Europe – and hitched to the fate of the European Union.

Then I spent two months in China, mostly in the hyper-developed, hyper-kinetic and hyper-counterfeiting mega-cities of Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai. The Chinese seem hell-bent on proving to the planet – and to themselves – that they’re worthy of the mantle “the next global superpower.”

A mere 36 hours later, via plane, train and automobile, I arrived in Maseru, the capital of Lesotho. Courtesy of my wife’s job in international development, I find myself with our three kids, for three years, in one of the world’s poorest, least-developed, and worst-HIV-ridden countries.

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[The following appeared Nov. 18 on The Mantle. To glimpse some of the future faces of Chinese media – my students – please click here.]

HONG KONG – Last Friday, I would’ve been within my right to sleep in and relish a break from Hong Kong Baptist University. For six weeks, I’ve slavishly tutored another 79 of Asia’s brightest journalism students – mostly mainland Chinese women. (They’re worth it, but my right eye has gone blurry.)

Most of HKBU's 2011-12 class, with the author lurking in back. (Photo: Robin Ewing)

Instead, I woke early to hydrofoil across the rocky, sun-soaked Pearl River Delta, back to the English-language United International College in Zhuhai. In a sauna of a classroom, before 20 (mostly) wide-eyed journalism undergrads, I sweat through three hours of my Parachute in! The Adventurer’s Guide to Foreign Reporting lecture: how I broke into freelancing 17 years ago, and how I’ve done it ever since.

All this, for free. For a friend. For the students … Ah, who am I kidding? I did it for me. As I returned home Friday night, thoroughly wiped, I thought to myself: “You may have an addiction to China.” Or, more specifically, an addiction to teaching Chinese journalism students.

The weekend didn’t cure me. On Monday morning, I volunteered to rise at another ungodly hour and represent our Master’s program in International Journalism at the graduation of last year’s students. I’d trained them twice: for six weeks in Hong Kong, then one week in Prague.

On stage, I enjoyed a bird’s-eye view as dozens of beaming young Chinese heard their names called and – before family and friends – marched across to receive the hearty handshake of a pair of HKBU dons.

I can’t deny it: China and her young Chinese have cast a spell on me. This country matters. Economically, diplomatically, militarily. The world’s emerging superpower is so endlessly fascinating, I’m dizzy with all that I want to write about it. Then there’s the teaching. I now hear myself utter over and over again, to anyone who’ll listen: “China matters – which means my Chinese journalism students matter, too.” The apple of my eye today is HKBU’s current crop of students.

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[For Part I of this post, click here; for Part III, click here.]

HONG KONG – I’m not a professional photojournalist. Yet as a freelancer in the field, I recognize the value to being able to offer clients what I humbly refer to as “decent, usable” photos to package with my articles.

This semester, among the hours I spent with 14 separate groups of mostly Chinese students – cramming in myriad advice on how to professionalize their journalism blogs – I included a quickie tutorial on how to snap a no-frills portrait of their subjects. With their IPhone.

After all, if you’re off in an interesting place, interviewing interesting people, odds are your client will not muster the resources to send a photographer to retrace your steps. A headshot, at least, will a) make the story more visually appealing and b) help readers connect with your subject. Oh, and it may put a few more dollars in your pocket.

Two essential tips, then, I was taught long ago. First, turn your subject 45 degrees – get some angularity in their pose, rather than a straight-shouldered mug-shot. And second, like a hunter, don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes – the proverbial “window onto their soul.”

Naturally, I experimented with a guinea pig in each tutorial, to show the others. The result, it turns out, is a cherished memento for me – and a photo essay of the next generation of Chinese journalists:

Thirteen more below …

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[Part III of a three-part post; view Part I here, Part II there.]

HONG KONG – An Australian friend and colleague began teaching journalism this semester at Hong Kong Baptist University, and we recently commiserated over deep-fried pigeon how aggravating it is when students dare ignore our wisdom.

Since my colleague is new to university teaching in general, I preached to him the virtues of an occasional tongue-lashing of wayward students. Bouquets of praise and encouragement only go so far. Whether face-to-face or via email, I find nothing wrong with letting loose the occasional abuse – a tough love, borne of concern.

In the sanctuary of university brick and mortar, they can get away with missteps or outright mistakes. Next year, in the real world, they may pay a price. Why not scare them straight?

Since I always advocate the benefits of “show, don’t tell” through concrete example, here’s an email I sent to students during their recent reporting project — written for the class of my HKBU colleague, Robin Ewing, but which I then critiqued — on how to sensitively and professionally approach the reporting of minority communities.

Not surprisingly, it drew stony silence — though, the final articles produced were impressive overall:

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[The following commentary appeared June 6, 2011, in Harvard's Nieman Reports.] It was republished June 10 on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia – Western intervention in Libya – and in the Arab Spring itself – has revived debate over “exporting our values,” especially the kinder, gentler, non-militaristic forms of soft power.

Then along comes James Miller’s exquisitely timed broadside, “Questioning the Western Approach to Training,” against one of those soft-power instruments – Western journalism training – in the Spring 2011 issue of Harvard’s prestigious Nieman Reports. (Full disclosure: I’m a contributor to the magazine.)

I’m compelled to respond because Miller – a Visiting Professor at the Center for the Study of Global Media and Democracy, Goldsmiths, University of London, on sabbatical from Hampshire College – sounds like he’d dispatch with overseas journalism educators like me. There it is, in black and white, when he derides “media missionaries.”

I do indeed preach the gospel, whether to university students in post-Communist Slovakia and Czech Republic, or in Hong Kong to Chinese students from the heavily censored mainland, or to minority Roma (a.k.a. “Gypsy”) journalists in the Balkans, or to hundreds of international participants in a biennial foreign-correspondent training course in Prague. I’m not unlike the proselytizing, wholesome-looking Mormons I see around the globe, in their white shirts and black name-tags. Except I do my sermonizing in the classroom, about what I call serious, responsible journalism.

In his essay, Miller writes, “This is a time of unprecedented international efforts to codify and inculcate Western-style news reporting and editing – to train on a global scale what its proponents assertively call ‘world journalism’ – in places quite different from American newsrooms and classrooms, with nothing like the journalistic or political-cultural history of North America and Western Europe.” It’s unclear if he’s calling for a less-Western, more sensitive style to such training, or urging that it be scaled down altogether. Both views are wrong.

He cites the case of post-Communist Eastern Europe – a place I know well, after 16 years as a foreign correspondent out here. “Cold War modernization theory,” says Miller, has fostered “a surprisingly idealized version of mainstream journalism” as a “necessary means of democratization.”

My question for Professor Miller: What’s wrong with that?

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[The following post appeared June 1, 2011, on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA – From the slumber of their winter hibernation, I’ve pulled our bicycles from the depths of our cartoonishly overstuffed hall closet.

Dad’s self-appointed task: wipe down the dust and cobwebs, pump some life into those tires. Sure, I’ve suffered minor injuries, like a bruised shin, but I get no sympathy from this crowd.

There’s another cost, too. When you go so many months between riding a bicycle, as we did from fall to spring, certain muscles grow dormant. Guess what? They begin to atrophy. At least at my age, they do.

In the wake of that initial sojourn, then, I know I’ll feel a little achiness in the buttocks, knees and calves. So much so, I’ve begun blurting out a new slogan to anyone who’ll listen: I ain’t gettin’ any younger.

Yet, the muscle memory is there, retained. That maiden voyage flips the switch and re-activates the muscles. Soon enough, your confidence soars until even biking with little kids feels oh so natural.

Well, writing is just the same. Neglect certain skills, watch them wither.

I was thinking about this as I sat down to write another article for Harvard’s Nieman Reports. Sorting through hand-written notes, jotted in a notepad, becomes something of a chore. I find myself procrastinating. But of course I must go through these damn notes.

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[The following commentary appeared March 22 on the Christian Science Monitor's Opinion page. It was republished March 24 on The Mantle.]

Slave Labor? I Didn’t Get Paid For This Piece — And I’m OK With That

More and more writers are publishing their work without payment in exchange for the promise of ‘prestige’ and ‘platform.’

BRATISLAVA – AOL’s tidy $315 million purchase of The Huffington Post in February produced more pity for the folks who drive much of the site’s success – the HuffPo hordes of bloggers who won’t be offered a slice of the spoils.

They are expected to continue writing for free.

Some call it slave labor. I call it fair barter. Seriously, I would write for HuffPo for free. Heck, I even agreed to write this commentary piece without compensation. [Editor’s note: Thanks again, Michael. You’re very generous.]

I’m a freelance foreign correspondent. I have a wife and three kids to help feed, and I believe that productive labor should be rewarded. So why on earth would I voluntarily submit to sweatshop conditions?

The reason is … Subscription Required for Premier Content

Just joshing. Did I have you going? The real reason I blog for free is, well, because my wife lets me. Another joke! Only partly true. Journalistic Borscht Belt, here I come. But seriously, folks. The key to why I numb myself to compensationlessness can be summed up in on word: investment.

We freelance journalists out on our own today have to “build our brand.” I can’t believe I pulled a mantra from the PR flak’s handbook, but that’s the reality today. How else to distinguish yourself amid the din of countless competing voices and social media? To survive, you have to absorb short-term sacrifice for long-term gain. Even if that means writing for free.

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[This "Dispatch" appeared March 9, 2011, in Foreign Policy. It was re-published March 10 on The Mantle.]

Hungarian Premier Viktor Orban (AFP/Getty)

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — Just days before Christmas, Hungary’s new right-wing government, which now controls a near-invincible two-thirds of parliament, succumbed to temptation: It rubber-stamped a draconian-sounding new media law that looked as if it would slip a leash of censorship around the necks of both traditional and online media.

The law would have required all domestic and foreign-owned media, including websites and blogs, to register with the authorities. It could also smack media organizations with crippling fines if their coverage was deemed to be lacking sufficient “balance” or respect for “human dignity.”

Moreover, all this would be interpreted and enforced by a new five-member “Media Council” — each member tapped by the party that steers parliament. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe was understandably beside itself, and a representative branded the new law as “unprecedented in European democracies.”

Hungary is already one of the most worrisome countries in Europe. One poll of ex-communist Eastern Europe suggests that Hungarians are the most disillusioned with democracy and capitalism. And in last April’s elections, the European Union watched anxiously. Reigning Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany had been caught in September 2006 lying about the country’s economic woes, which incited the public and spurred a chain of events that decimated support for his Socialists. The right wing won big. Historically big. The leading opposition party, Fidesz, seized 53 percent of the vote; the scaremongering far right claimed a startling 17 percent, another landmark in the post-communist world.

In the months since, Fidesz and its parliamentary majority have tightened their grip by politicizing the Constitutional Court, central bank, state audit office, and the largely ceremonial post of president. Then came the media law.

For the European Union, the heavy-handed tactics of a ruling government in a smaller, ex-communist member might have been easier to ignore if not for the inconvenient fact that Hungary assumed the rotating EU presidency on New Year’s Day. With Budapest holding the gavel — and the limelight — Brussels was red-faced. It responded to the new Hungarian law with unparalleled scrutiny, including a European Commission inquiry.

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[The following piece appeared Feb. 10 in The Global Journalist; it was republished Feb. 11 on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA – From the relative serenity of Central Europe, I’m following events in Egypt like many of you: scan headlines, surf for more and more voices. To watch history being made in real time is a thrilling, if voyeuristic, experience. Virtual ring-side seats to a title fight between David and Goliath.

But beyond the dominant story-line – that the Egyptian revolution may tip the dominoes across the Arab world – is a significant subplot: the triumphalism of Twitter and Facebook as mighty weapons of war. And democracy. No wonder China is watching so nervously.

First Tunisia, then Egypt. All hail “social media and its entry into the mainstream! (Even if it sometimes makes us sad.)

Now, I don’t mean to be a buzz-kill, but let’s pause to examine the limits of social media. Because, I’ll wager my payment for this piece on one prediction: the dust won’t have settled in Tahrir Square before certain pundits, activists and academics point to Egypt and sing the praises of “citizen journalism.”

The phrase makes my skin crawl for how it blurs the lines of serious reportage.

There’s no doubt that for protesting Cairenes and embattled journalists, social media is a lifeline to the outside world. Behold Mubarak’s forces, bumbling in futile efforts to stifle the Internet and modern communication. Then, in full view of the world, a disgraceful crackdown on Egyptian and foreign journalists – including one killed. We justifiably toast journalists like Egyptian Sarah El Sirgany, a sudden folk hero for relying on Twitter to persist with her reporting.

It’s become faddish for true-believers to tout We are all journalists now. Anyone dexterous enough with an iPhone is a potential photojournalist. Any grassroot netizen blogging solitarily from a café, or from home in their pajamas, can produce actual “journalism.”  Effectively enough to supplant the icky, whorish “MSM.” (The mainstream media, of which I’m a card-carrying member.)

What nonsense.

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[The following post appeared Jan. 20 on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA – It’s not the daily grind. More like a monthly juggle.

Juggling projects, that is. When I “penned” the first two entries of this soul-baring, me-as-guinea-pig blog last spring (here and here), I was writing about a different book. Which I hold off on publicizing, to spare myself the shame. It’s been shoved to the back-burner, along with other half-baked projects. And ideas for projects.

Instead, teaching in Hong Kong leapt to the front-burner. It meant a golden opportunity to return to mainland China and launch the book project I hatched in Fall 2009, the first time I taught in Hong Kong. Since Slovakia is a long way from China, I knew I couldn’t visit my subjects too often. It made sense to join forces with an HK-based colleague.

So, with the support of my long-suffering wife, I pull cash from our savings and pay for a one-week reporting trip to the mainland, prior to my HK teaching stint. A train trip, two flights, nights in a hotel. Now that’s what we call in the freelance biz an investment. Will there be a return? Damn straight.

But that was just the cash. Then came the time and effort. From the time I returned home to my family in Bratislava, end of October, it took me almost two full months to complete an introduction and sample chapter. For me, a staggering 12,000 words. At 250 per page, that’s about 48 pages.

Had to do it, though. One cardinal rule of journalism, and of life itself: to convince readers, or any audience for that matter, it’s better to show, not tell. I’m only an Aspiring First-Time Author. (A snazzy title I may soon print on my business cards.) I have little to stand on, beyond those thousand-plus newspaper and magazine articles.

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[The following piece from the Harvard International Review cited my article, "When Journalists Depart, Who Tells the Story?", which appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of Harvard's Nieman Reports.]

December 22, 2010 by Robert H. Giles

There are two fundamental ways of thinking about the state of journalism across the globe. The first worldview is reflected in headlines and stories describing violence against journalists in Mexico, Russia, Iran, China, Zimbabwe, Colombia and a long list of other countries.

This tragic trend is typically found in countries that have little or no tradition of democracy and, consequently, no appreciation for the watchdog role of a vigorous press. The second worldview finds newspapers remaining a thriving industry, growing in some regions and shrinking in others, although less dramatically than newspapers in the United States.

In both types of country, the impact of the digital era is widely evident. Independent online news organizations have been established to cover local news, international news, and politics and to produce investigative journalism in the public interest. In countries where the mainstream press is restricted, citizen journalism is increasingly  having an impact.

Modern technologies, especially mobile smartphones, are enabling individuals to report and transmit news from their communities to global audiences, often overcoming official constraints of repressive regimes. For independent journalists, the risks increase; they have no institutional support and limited experience in dealing with intimidation, harassment or imprisonment.

In this article, I will examine these two types of journalistic environment individually, empirically accounting for recent developments and, in particular, the current situations faced by journalists around the world.

As Paul Steiger, chairman of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an organization based in New York that responds to attacks on the press worldwide, points out: last year, for the first time, “Internet journalists represented the largest professional category on CPJ’s annual census of journalists imprisoned worldwide. Forty-five percent of all journalists in jail are now bloggers, web-based reporters or online editors—a  stark indicator of the challenges ahead.” (more…)

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[This piece appeared Sept. 30 on The Mantle.]

HONG KONG – The Chinese government is mighty successful at muzzling its media, threatening them with everything from censorship to arrest. Recognizing those talents, the watchdog Reporters Without Borders ranks China 168th out of 175 countries world-wide.

The Internet, though, is proving much more stubborn to rein in.

Indeed, the Chinese blogosphere – now said to number about 70,000 bloggers – is where journalists and commentators enjoy the most elbow room to speak out. And, even the opportunity to shape Chinese policies.

There’s no stopping those who taste the liberation of writing freely, as one Chinese blogger told Time magazine: “It is like a water flow – if you block one direction, it flows to other directions, or overflows.”

This is why I’m thrilled to be training a small battalion of China’s future bloggers. Here in Hong Kong, the country’s one haven for freedom of expression, a Hong Kong Baptist University colleague and I at are now showing more than 70 mainland Chinese graduate students – a large majority of whom are women – how to launch a blog of their own.

And we’re not talking “silly” blogs, as I told them: Nothing about your walk in the park, with birds singing and sun shining. Nothing about where you ate dinner last night, or what movie you went to see.

No, we’re talking journalistic blogs. (more…)

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[This piece appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of Harvard's Nieman Reports.]

Press releases and broadcast-ready video substitute for European Union coverage, as news organizations cut back on staff reporters in Brussels.

By Michael J. Jordan

Irina Novakova

At the age of 28, Irina Novakova holds a lofty perch in Bulgarian journalism, covering Brussels as European Union (EU) correspondent for both the most serious newspaper and weekly magazine in Bulgaria. She is prominent among the pack of correspondents from ex-Communist Eastern Europe who try to explain the often bewildering EU to its newly democratic members.

The watchdog role of the press resides at the core of any healthy democracy. For countries that have little or no tradition of democracy, as in Central and Eastern Europe, the absence of the journalist in the broad mix of policy discussions is a troubling trend. Nevertheless, she’s anxious. The economic crisis is roiling the region’s media. Finances are so bad for her paper in Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, that management hit the staff with pay cuts.

In Brussels, meanwhile, recent EU member Lithuania is already down to zero correspondents. The last Latvian fends for survival, and a Hungarian correspondent tells Novakova how his country’s sagging interest in EU affairs may force him to freelance, moonlighting in public relations. A veteran Serbian correspondent whose postwar nation aspires to join the EU laments he might need to leave because no client in Belgrade can afford to pay him to report from there. Novakova has attended several farewell parties where the correspondent departs without being replaced.

This trend, though, is not limited to Eastern Europe. The EU press corps itself is dwindling: According to the International Press Association (IPA) in Brussels, the number of accredited reporters has shrunk from some 1,300 in 2005 to 964 in 2009. What’s happening in Brussels is part of the same storm system battering the journalism industry globally. The pressure is not only financial. EU agencies are embracing multimedia and using the Internet to deliver messages directly to constituents in what we might consider political spin-doctoring in real time. Back home, some editors think that European affairs, like so many other stories today, can be covered cheaply and easily from the newsroom via the Internet and telephone. Why keep a correspondent in pricey Brussels?

Novakova describes the “sense of gloom” that permeates the press corps. “I wouldn’t call it a crisis or panic but when you talk to colleagues over a beer, they say, ‘What can you do, these are the times we live in?’ ” she says. “There’s a lot of dark humor.” (more…)

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[The following appeared July 15 on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA – To be fair, I didn’t give Gabor Vona much warning.

When Foreign Policy contacted me about writing a profile of Vona [see post just below], an exciting new leader for the far right in Europe, my first goal was to humanize him a bit. That meant visiting his hometown and provincial corner of northeast Hungary. I only had thirty-six hours to do it, so I had to prioritize.

Speaking with himself Vona – whom Budapest analyst Alex Kuli likens to a “rock star” in Western media – would be dealt with later. Over the phone. From back home. Across the border in Bratislava.

That is, if I’d even get the chance. Based on his “Jobbik” party’s track record, I had my doubts. So, I wasn’t entirely surprised that after a week of back-and-forth via an intermediary, Vona rejected my request: he was “certain” his words would be “twisted, altered and falsified.”

My pursuit of a Vona comment is no failure, though. It not only sheds light onto the mentality of the newest political force on the eastern half of the continent. It also illuminates a lingering authoritarian impulse, especially when it comes to more independent-minded media.

Now, again to be fair, it’s understandable if Jobbik were to view me as “unfriendly.” I’ve freelanced from the region for the past 16 years, primarily for Western, liberal-leaning publications. I’ve written plenty about nationalism, minorities and inter-ethnic incitement, particularly as a barometer of the post-Communist transition from dictatorship to democracy.

I can imagine Jobbik wasn’t thrilled with my first article about its militaristic Magyar Garda, or “Hungarian Guard,” in March 2008. (more…)

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[The following appeared May 14 in The Mantle.]

PRAGUE, Czech Republic – Beyond the fact Prague is one of Europe’s great cities, you can’t walk down a street here – or anywhere in ex-Communist Eastern Europe, for that matter – and not spot a metaphor that illuminates how dramatically life has changed here, twenty years later.

A bilingual preschool in Prague. (Photo: mjj)

And if I didn’t have this blog, there’d be no one for me to tell. (Sniff, sniff.)

This week’s window onto the transition comes courtesy of Czech education. I was in Prague for a workshop on how to use multimedia journalism to better explain education issues in a more compelling way. My partner, the multimedia guy, and I, a print guy, showed eight colleagues how to assemble a written and visual project for the Prague-based magazine, Transitions Online.

And what a unique crop of journalists it was: six young women from post-Communist Eastern Europe, one from South Africa, and a fellow from Kenya. Divided into three teams, each was handed a pocket-sized video camera to use here, then take back home to produce more journalism for TOL.

I could go on for hours about how challenging this shoulder-to-shoulder training was for all of us, but more blog-worthy were the three faces of Czech education it revealed:

A Roma-specialized school in Prague. (Photo: mjj)

*The widening gender gap in the IT industry, and how little is done to encourage more women to pursue well-paying jobs in software or hardware development.

*That more and more Czechs are savvy enough about their children’ future – and enjoy the deep enough pockets – to send their kids to a growing number of bilingual preschools.

*A network of nine Czech schools that specialize in teaching Romani students, in a country that even the European Court of Human Rights condemned in 2007 for anti-Roma segregation in schools.

(more…)

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(This post appeared April 9 on The Mantle.)

BRATISLAVA – It’s always nice to hear what a colleague’s up to nowadays.

However, I was both pleased and troubled to recently find one featured in The New York Times, as the “curtain-raising” anecdote of an unhealthy trend emanating from Brussels.

Ina Strazdina is the Last of the Latvian Mohicans – her country’s only remaining correspondent in Brussels, covering the European Union. Heck, fellow Baltic state Lithuania has no journalist left to watch-dog the European body, which both of the ex-Soviet republics enthusiastically joined in 2004.

Times have grown so tough for much of Eastern Europe’s media, dramatic cutbacks almost forced Ina herself to walk the plank in 2008. I’d met her in Prague in January 2007, when she participated in a foreign-correspondence training course that I help lead every six months.

The next year, with Ina stationed in pricey Brussels, Latvian Radio cut her salary by two-thirds, from 2,000 to 700 euros per month – barely enough to pay her rent. So she dug into her nest egg and plugged along, landing freelance gigs with Latvian Television and a leading daily newspaper.

“I had to make a decision,” Ina, 34, told The Times. “I decided that it is easy to destroy things but very difficult to build them up again. Maybe it was an altruistic decision, but I decided I can stay here for another year and try to work.” Her efforts were appreciated: Latvia last year named her its “European Person of the Year.”

Now, I’ve reported from this part of the world for 16 years, so I grasp the financial constraints that hamper media outlets region-wide. Also, how the meager monthly wages of most journalists tempt them to cut corners, accept “freebies” with implicit strings attached, or moonlight on the side in PR.

But the steady exodus from Brussels is more than economic, and more than simply part of the broader trend affecting foreign-news coverage around the world. Just as troubling is how the EU machinery has responded to – and further fuels – this departure.

Then there are the consequences for Eastern Europe itself. (more…)

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(The following piece appears in the Spring 2010 issue of Harvard’s Nieman Reports.)

A student from Shenzhen, an industrial Chinese city just across the border, explained why she’ll try to stay in Hong Kong: “Once I’ve discovered all the resources out there, I don’t want them taken away from me.”

Dozens of my Chinese students. (Photo: mjj)

By Michael J. Jordan

HONG KONG — Just about the first thing my graduate students did when they arrived in Hong Kong was to create a Facebook account. They had come from mainland China, so what might seem like an ordinary act of modern living laid bare the disparities in the “one country, two systems” arrangement between these two parts of China.

This newfound freedom to use Facebook also underscored the absence of free speech they experience back home, which limits their ability to surf the Internet. YouTube and Twitter are blocked from use, along with Facebook and passage to Web sites with information deemed critical of Chinese policy.

For the students I taught last fall in the international journalism program at Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU), the prospect of returning to a pre-Facebook era, as one young woman from China’s north told me, would be “like being a human, then going back to being a primate.”

If democracy is in China’s future, then a driving force will surely be younger Chinese who have tasted such freedoms. Indeed, early on in my journalism classes I sensed that by cajoling my 22- to 26-year-old students toward what Western journalists naturally do—challenge authority, probe deeply to find out why a situation is the way it is, and enable readers to make better-informed decisions—I was in my own modest way training China’s future democrats.

(more…)

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[The following appeared in the Dec. 9, 2009, edition of Harvard's Nieman Reports. It was accompanied by two related pieces on breaking into the business. To read them, click here and here.]

By Michael J. Jordan, On Foreign Reporting

LITVINOV, CZECH REPUBLIC – Miriam and Lisa have struck pay dirt. It’s a hot late-July day in the Czech mining town of Litvinov, in bucolic northern Bohemia. We’ve just driven into the Janov “estate”— or what the Czechs derogatively call a “ghetto.” Built into a hill on the eastern edge of town, the wall of whitewashed apartment buildings are mostly occupied by Roma, known less kindly here as “Gypsies.”

For young reporters Miriam Ostermann, a 22-year old freelancer for Deutsche Welle (DW) in Bonn, and Lisa Coghlan, a 21-year old Welshwoman who lives in the English midlands, this is the first time they’ve worked on a foreign news story. And a trickly one it is. In Central and Eastern Europe, eyes widen whenever you announce plans to visit to a Roma quarter. It’s the kind of place locals would never visit; they’d cross through only if they had to. Go there, and someone might beat you, folks will warn, or pinch your bag. Neither, it must be said, has ever happened to me in my journalistic forays into Roma neighborhoods.

In Litvinov, the fellows are out early, a lucky break for us. Shy of noon, the casino is closed, yet Stepan Chudik and his friends are hanging in front of the Vietnamese-owned grocery—with its large sign misspelled, Supermaket—nursing a round of cold beers. Stephan’s shirt is unbuttoned to his rotund belly, revealing a heavily tattooed torso with a dragon, a devil and what looks like Al Capone in white fedora. He’s a clear character, so Miriam, Lisa and I approach him.

In particular, we want to know what’s happened since last Nov. 17th, when some 700 weapon-wielding skinheads marched on Janov, where they clashed with about 1,000 Czech riot police. After 17 were injured, half of them police, some Czech observers wondered if Litvinov was on the brink of “ethnic war.” This was not the first time this question arose; a decade ago, some 20 Roma were murdered by Czech extremists, and as recently as April, three Molotov cocktails tossed into a Czech Roma home severely burned a two-year-old girl.

While I’ve visited the Roma on other occasions to report on their lives and circumstances, this time I’m here as a teacher. (more…)

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By Michael J. Jordan, On Foreign Reporting

BRATISLAVA – Success in doing international reporting as a freelancer isn’t about what transpires in a foreign land; it lies in the thorough preparation done back home, well before your departure.

Why? Because the reporting trip will cost a bundle, and your time spent on the ground will be limited. So it’s essential that you can collect the story elements you need as efficiently as possible. With 15 years of experience behind me, I can now gather enough material so that I can work on up to six news features during an eight-day reporting trip.

The essential formula to make this work can be summed up this way: Start by producing a salable idea, then deliver what you’ve promised. There are two approaches to finding stories, after you’ve targeted a country or region in which to focus your reporting.

*Search the Web to learn about something interesting or important happening in that country or region.

*Pursue topics of interest to you, then find out if these issues are compelling in the country you’ve targeted.

The most promising approach, though, is a combination of the two, if you hope to convince editors to send you there.

Hints About Finding a Story

If, thanks to Genghis Khan, Mongolia fascinates you, then sit and think: “What exactly interests me about Mongolia today?” Business? Tourism? The environment? Human rights? Yak-herding? Let Google lead you to appropriate Web sites and start brainstorming ideas. Save relevant articles and reports in your file. And once you decide on a direction to take, you’ll want to strengthen your piece by citing any relevant research, history, or quotes from experts found in this file. (more…)

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By Michael J. Jordan, On Foreign Reporting

BRATISLAVA – For those who want to do real foreign reporting, the Transitions Online Foreign-Correspondence Training Course offers preparation through the biannual program it created in 2005. Attracting 15 to 25 participants each January and July, the class takes place in the historic, cobble-stoned city of Prague with lectures from journalists with The Economist, the BBC and other well-respected news organizations.

I often kick off our time together with a lecture about how to break into foreign correspondence. While my colleagues are primarily full-time staff, the 15 years I’ve spent traveling to 25 countries as a freelance foreign correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and others means that I bring a different perspective. In the digital age, this type of freelance reporting work is changing in important ways, though there is much about doing these stories that remains the same.

Here are a few pieces of advice I share with the participants, especially those interested in working as free-lance journalists:

Find a cheap place to live. At first, the assignments and revenue may not roll in. You won’t want a high cost of living as added pressure. So head south or east. When I lived in post-Communist Hungary in the 1990s, one story payment typically covered one month’s rent.

Invest in learning. Take a course in photography or camera work or film editing since demands for multimedia are far greater now. The ability to enhance your story-telling with a slideshow, streaming video or even a short film might be enough to turn a “maybe” from an editor into a “yes.” For the past two years, I have not travelled to an assignment without expecting to shoot photographs that will appear with what I write. [See my photo essay about the hundreds of Kosovo Roma who still live in a United Nations camp atop a toxic dump, 10 years after being displaced by war.]

Think of yourself as an entrepreneur. This means not shying away from the “start-up” costs of any business, such as setting up a home office, purchasing professional-quality technology and other investments of time and energy that may not pay immediate dividends. (more…)

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By Michael J. Jordan |

Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the May 15, 2007 edition

 

BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA – Two years ago this week, Uzbekistan’s security forces opened fire on antigovernment demonstrators in the city of Andijan, killing 187 people. That’s the official number. The actual figure was likely hundreds more, say most observers.

 

With the anniversary of the “Andijan massacre,” one would expect Western journalists to flood into this ex-Soviet republic. They would be expected to write stories about how a predominantly Muslim nation in Central Asia that Washington had enlisted in its “War on Terror” had since clamped down on dissent.

 

They would likely note that Freedom House, the pro-democracy watchdog based in Washington, now ranks Uzbekistan as among “the worst of the worst” abusers of human rights and civil liberties in the world.

 

Instead, Uzbek President Islam Karimov has effectively gagged the media. Besides persecuting independent local journalists and blocking critical news websites, Tashkent has barred entry to most foreign correspondents.

 

“It’s easily explained: [Mr.] Karimov doesn’t want any foreign witness to what’s going on,” says Elsa Vidal, head of the Europe desk for the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders.

 

Yet, Uzbeks are puzzled – and upset – by this lack of foreign coverage. Revealing the depth of their isolation, one Uzbek journalist asked me at a recent videoconference to mark World Press Freedom Day, “Why are no foreign journalists in Uzbekistan? Not interested?” (more…)

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