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Archive for the ‘“Transitions Online”’ Category

[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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[This article appeared Sept. 15, 2011, on Transitions Online in Prague. It was republished Sept. 16 on Roma Transitions, and republished Sept. 22 on The Mantle.]

After years of debate, the EU unveils its first high-level policy document on the Roma. Now it’s up to national governments to fill in the outline.

By Michael J. Jordan 15 September 2011

BUDAPEST | Angela Kocze has been a firsthand witness to all the calamities that have befallen her fellow Roma over the two decades since Central and Eastern Europe rid itself of communist rule.

Nevertheless, Kocze is the rare voice to somehow muster “cautious optimism” about the first unified European Union policy to target the plight of the Roma, Europe’s largest, most-despised and most-marginalized minority.

Angela Kocze (Photo: mjj)

She even swallows a grain of salt in that it’s Hungary, her homeland, that claims the new EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies as a crowning achievement of its just-concluded stint in the presidency of the European Union. Budapest can only hope Western partners will look more kindly upon its six-month reign, which was tainted from the outset by Hungary’s suffocating new media law.

Kocze, a research fellow in the Hungarian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for National and Ethnic Minorities, has for years heard empty – even insincere – promises from Budapest to do something about the subpar education, employment, health, and housing from which many Roma are unable to escape.

Meanwhile, the country has seen the dramatic rise of an openly racist, far-right party. In a not-entirely-unrelated development, nine Hungarian Roma have been murdered in suspected racist attacks, including a man and his 5-year-old son shot as they fled their fire-bombed home.

Yet the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban – despite a number of overtures to the far right over the years – seems to have adopted a new stance, promoting the idea that “Hungarians should not see Roma as a problem, but as an opportunity,” Kocze says. “Something new has started, and there’s an opportunity right now that can be exploited.”

(more…)

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[The following piece appeared July 22 in TOL/Transitions Online. (It was republished on The Mantle, then republished again on Roma Transitions.) This was the first of my three-part package to commemorate the "Red Sludge" tragedy, with Part II here and Part III here.]

Only a few condemned homes, stained red, have yet to be demolished. (Photo: mjj)

DEVECSER, Hungary – It was just past noon last Oct. 4, and Karoly Horvath had returned home from fishing a local lake, here in provincial western Hungary. His wife and 12-year-old daughter were home to greet him, too – just as the waves of red sludge crashed through the door and windows.

Within seconds, the toxic mud was above their waist, burning the skin. Unable to move, Karoly could only watch mother and child screaming in agony.

“It was the most awful thing,” says Karoly, 38. “As a husband and father, stuck in that red sludge, seeing that happen to them before my eyes, but being so helpless to do something about it.”

His wife, Eva, was hospitalized with burns across 70 percent of her body. At least she survived: ten were killed in what instantly became Hungary’s deadliest industrial accident ever. Greenpeace went so far as to call it one of Europe’s worst ecological disasters “in the past 20 or 30 years.”

For Hungary, the rupture of a Communist-era reservoir of aluminum waste was one part Chernobyl, one part Pompeii. In Devecser, it poured trauma upon trauma for a people already battered by years of economic hardship and political hatred. Today, though, amid the gloom is a glimmer of hope: scores of hapless victims have discovered a rare source of empowerment – the courts – to pursue compensation from the wealthy, well-connected owners of the aluminum company. This reveals a surprising appreciation for the rule of law in a country often painted as fed up with its harsh brand of democracy, two decades into the post-Communist transition.

On the flip side, though, a new strain of Hungarian resentment has recently bubbled up: at the Roma living among them, known more derogatorily here as ciganyok, or “gypsies.” The venom illuminates how embittered Hungarians have grown, especially toward Europe’s most marginalized minority.

Observers may view the Horvath family as victims. But because they’re Roma, some Hungarians harbor doubts. The mantra around Devecser is, “For many, this wasn’t a red sludge, but a golden sludge.”

(more…)

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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?

(more…)

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[The following post appeared May 10, 2011, on The Mantle. The post was republished May 11 on Roma Transitions.]

BRATISLAVA – The Romani people are Europe’s largest minority – and also its most marginalized. Much is written about their persecution, both historic and contemporary, especially in Central Europe today. Yet Jud Nirenberg trammels new terrain, as editor of the newly published book, “Gypsy Sexuality: Romani and Outsider Perspectives on Intimacy.” (I was delighted to contribute two chapters: one on the lack of sex education among Bulgarian Roma; the other, early-teen marriage among Kalderash Roma in Romania.)

Via email, I interviewed Nirenberg, 39, who managed to produce this book while also working as associate director of the U.S. Association for UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.

MJ: How did you first become interested in Roma issues?

JN: I’m an American of mixed Romani and Jewish descent, grew up in Massachusetts and had a fairly assimilated childhood, which isn’t really the norm for Romani Americans. There are, of course, Americans whose parents were Romani immigrants from Europe and whose lives resemble any other first-generation Americans. A lot of Roma came in the 50s from Hungary, for example. But there is a larger community of Romani Americans who are more often the subject of writing (and who are the focus of one part of this book), whose families came a long time ago and yet who live very much apart from mainstream America.

(more…)

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[Below is the blurb of a book to which I contributed two chapters. The first on the lack of sex education among Bulgarian Roma; the second about early-teen marriage among Kalderash Roma in Romania. This book may be purchased from Amazon.]

Gypsy Sexuality: Romani and Outsider Perspectives on Intimacy

Editor: Jud Nirenberg

Authors: Anne Marie Codur, Carol Miller, Jud Nirenberg, Claude Cahn, Maria Serban-Temisan, Bill Bila, Michael J. Jordan, Fernanda Amaral, Istvan Forgacs et al

Roma (Gypsy) communities are not all the same. Everywhere, however, Roma are the objects of some mixture of distrust and exoticism. This collection of essays offers rare and candid voices of Roma and non-Roma women and men on sexuality, gender and inter-racial relations. The collection explores the myths about the romantic and alluring Gypsies and some of the most controversial realities. From teen marriage to prostitution to some governments’ coercive sterilization of Romani women and with memoirs covering topics from inter-ethnic love affairs to rape, Gypsy Sexuality collects the words of poor Roma in slums alongside the writing of the community’s political and women’s rights leaders.  The reader will never think about Gypsies the same way.

Available now on Kindle. Coming in paperback in April 2011 to Amazon and selected independent booksellers in Europe and the United States.

“One needs to read this attentively…This book shows the reality of Romani life…I believe that more books like this are needed.”

Asmet Elezovski, Secretary General, European Roma and Travelers’ Forum

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[This piece appeared Sept. 2 on Transitions.]

Guards lead sick inmates in the hallway of the Jilava prison hospital. (Photo: mjj)

Romania’s prisons are slowly gaining ground on tuberculosis, but the prognosis on AIDS is less encouraging.

by Petru Zoltan and Michael J. Jordan

JILAVA, Romania | In 2007, Octavian Balescu was sentenced to seven years in jail for trying to sell less than half a gram of heroin.

He was thrown into Romania’s Jilava prison, just outside the capital, Bucharest. Jilava, once notorious for its inhumane treatment of prisoners, is where, in November 1940, Romania’s fascist leader Marshal Ion Antonescu and his Legionnaires executed 64 opponents. And it was where, during four decades of communism, the paranoid regime of Nicolae Ceausescu would send anyone it deemed a threat.

Today, Romanian prisoners are surely better off. With the country a new member of the EU, it has adopted Western-style prisoner rights, of which inmates are informed.

Still, prisoners have something to fear: Jilava could make them gravely ill, as it has done to Balescu. “My most basic right is to do my time without getting sick,” he said. But somewhere along the way, he contracted tuberculosis and landed in the Jilava prison hospital, the largest in the Romanian prison system.

His plight is hardly surprising in Romania, which has the highest TB rate among the 27 EU countries. Observers say the prison system is a primary source of infection, not only for the inmates, but for their visitors and their jailers as well.

There’s positive news, though. Romania’s TB rate is declining, and officials continue to reverse a Ceausescu policy built on lies. They are no longer denying the problem exists and are accepting Western assistance. (more…)

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[The following piece appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of Ms. Magazine. My longer piece on the early-marriage controversy, for Transitions Online, is here. For more of my photos of the Kalderash enclave in Targu Jiu, click here.]

Raluca Mihai, age 15. (Photo: mjj)

TARGU JIU, Romania – Her headscarf is vibrant purple – a symbol of mourning in Targu Jiu, Romania.

But 15-year-old Raluca Mihai’s husband isn’t dead. Rather, her headscarf marks a personal tragedy that has rekindled controversy among the deeply traditional Kalderash Roma, a branch of the ethnic minority known pejoratively across Eastern Europe as “Gypsies.”

For the estimated 200,000 Kalderash in Romania, parents’ paramount duty is to preserve their daughter’s virginity until marriage.

Two years ago, however, when Mihai was 13 and engaged, her 15-year-old fiancé raped her, knowing it committed her to the nuptials. He grew so violent during their two-month marriage that she escaped to her parents. The scarf not only mourns her stolen virginity and failed matrimony, but also the unlikelihood that she’ll ever remarry.

“He ruined everything for me,” says the young woman, who had dropped out of school to wed.

In a community where virginity or its loss can mean pride or dishonor for a whole clan, Mihai’s situation is making waves. (more…)

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[This piece appeared Aug. 13, 2010, on The Mantle.]

 

PRAGUE – I’m no war correspondent. (Though, rubber bullets whizzing overhead, in a night-time street battle during Albania’s 1997 civil unrest, wasn’t exactly fluffy feature-writing. Read here, here and here.)

A Romani man in the Hungarian town of Heves describes the widespread unemployment his community faces. (Photo: mjj)

In fact, in recent years the only time my reporting from Central and Eastern Europe turns “dangerous” is when I enter Roma neighborhoods. At least, that’s what everyone seems to tell me: “Don’t go in that Gypsy ghetto – you won’t get out alive!”

It’s one of the ugliest stereotypes of a heavily stereotyped minority: the Roma are so savage, the mere sight of an outsider gadjo on their street will unleash the beast within. Yet here I am, unscathed, after exploring Roma quarters in Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Kosovo, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

I don’t doubt isolated incidence of violence, where, say, local police or media perhaps went in provocatively, were surrounded and attacked. Centuries of victimization make Roma understandably suspicious of the majority population’s intentions.

Or, an ordinary person may wind up in the wrong place, wrong time. The most tragic example: in October 2006, a Hungarian teacher driving through the northeast village of Olaszliszka struck a Romani girl with his car. Some say she wasn’t hit, let alone injured. Who knows? Nevertheless, the incensed crowd of Roma beat the motorist to death – while his two daughters watched.

As journalists, we have a simple but ethical duty: if one source bad-mouths, or even demonizes, another, we must give the second side a chance to defend itself. Even if that means overcoming our own fears, implanted and fanned by others. With that in mind, I’ve devised a strategy for reporters to enter Roma neighborhoods – and win over their denizens. I shared this with two participants from my latest journalism training in Prague. (more…)

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PRAGUE – When teaching, I often brandish the phrase “serious, responsible journalism.”

This to me means many things. But when it comes to foreign correspondence specifically, it’s the demand for context. For an audience back home, it would be un-serious to portray any situation – whether economic, political, social or otherwise – as if it happened overnight, in a vacuum. It didn’t, of course. And it may not have happened only here.

That’s why we have an obligation to broaden and deepen.

By broaden, I mean: Is this situation in Central European Country X unique, or actually part of a trend across post-Communist Central and Eastern Europe? Or even part of a wider trend among all 27 members of the European Union? In what way is it similar or different? And why exactly?

Clearly explaining this, somewhere up high, also provides the reader even greater incentive for why they should keep reading: either the situation describes is unique, or it’s a microcosm of a broader pattern.

This rule applies to virtually every story. We just had 15 participants for Transition Online’s latest foreign-correspondence training course, and they all chased topics that needed such context.

A Bosnian-born Australian and her Canadian reporting partner probed relations among the post-war Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian communities in Prague. Yet is this relationship unique to Prague, or similar elsewhere in the world, like Australia or Canada? Find an expert on the ex-Yugoslav diaspora, I recommended to them. (more…)

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[This piece appeared July 6 in TOL.]

Adolescent mothers and bleak lives are the toll of one Bulgarian Romani community’s taboo against sex education.

by Michael J. Jordan and Ognyan Isaev

Daniela Metodieva, in her mahala. (Photo: mjj)

SHUMEN, Bulgaria | In this small Bulgarian city, the Roma mostly keep to their own quarter, known locally as the mahala. Among women in the neighborhood, many married in their mid-teens and bore their first child within a year. Then came several more children in quick succession.

Daniela Metodieva, though, says she bucked expectations. She held off on marriage until 17, then gave birth to a girl the next year. She stopped there, at one child.

She’s exceptional in other ways as well: while raising her daughter, now 17, Metodieva waitresses in a bar. Other women in the mahala are either unemployed or sweep the streets of downtown Shumen.

Metodieva wants better things for her daughter, but worries the teen will follow in her footsteps. “I’m only 35 – I don’t want to be a grandmother yet,” says Metodieva, who’s standing, arms folded, in the middle of the road. Her neighbors gather around, listening in curiously.

“Some guy may lie to my daughter,” Metodieva continues. “She may get married and have her own family soon. But what will she understand about life? … For sure, if I could turn back the clock, I wouldn’t marry so young. It’s only when you’re older that you see what life is really like.”

Metodieva and other Bulgarian Roma say the community needs a dose of sex education, to fully grasp the consequences of teen pregnancy. They partly blame the state, which doesn’t mandate the subject in the school curriculum. Romani parents then amplify the silence: sex is as taboo a topic as there is.

As a result, the community doesn’t connect the dots of how teen pregnancy perpetuates the cycle of poverty. (more…)

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Expressions on their faces indicate that Raluca's wedding was not the family's happiest day.

[This piece appeared June 30 in TOL.]

One family of Kalderash Roma speaks out against the custom of early marriage.

by Petru Zoltan and Michael J. Jordan

TARGU JIU, Romania | Raluca Larisa Mihai got married two years ago. As a seventh-grader. She was just 13 years old.

But it was no fairy tale for Raluca, a tradition-minded Kalderash Rom. Here in provincial Romania, hers is one of the most respected families in the Kalderash enclave of Meteor, a neighborhood on the edge of Targu Jiu.

Which is why the tragedy that’s engulfed her family reverberates across Romania – even to Brussels. Raluca today wears the headscarf of a widow; on this day, a vibrant purple. 

‘VICTIMS OF TRADITION’

Her ex-husband isn’t dead, though. Raluca accuses the boy she wed in a Pentecostal ceremony of raping her during their 2008 engagement. He was only 15 at the time. According to her family, he’d learned of another Romani tradition: if he stole her virginity, Raluca would be duty-bound to follow through with the marriage. Two girls had already broken it off with the boy – allegedly because of his violence.

He calculated wisely, then. Despite the rape of their daughter, her parents went ahead with the wedding. If they had backed out, they say they would have been “dishonored” before all of Meteor. After all, Raluca was deflowered.

“From the very first moment that he took advantage of her, I knew I would have rather seen my house set on fire,” says her mother, Bianca.

There is no greater badge of honor for Kalderash parents like these than to deliver their daughter to marriage – as a virtuous virgin. This pressure, though, has consequences. It helps drive the centuries-old tradition of early-teen marriage, a ritual that Brussels criticized well before Romania joined the European Union in 2007. Parents simply want to rid themselves of this burden as soon as possible.

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[The following appeared June 4 in Transitions Online (TOL).]

Ali Berat is a role model for many in his community, but others criticize him for exhorting Roma to abandon their traditions.

by Michael J. Jordan and Shejla Fidani 4 June 2010

SUTO ORIZARI, Macedonia | Ali Berat is a rarity in the Balkans. A rarity even among his people: not only is he a Romani imam, but he also hails from a devout Muslim family, within a vast Roma diaspora known for its mild religiosity.

Imam Ali Berat. (Photo: mjj)

Berat, however, studied for six years in the Islamic holy city of Medina, then returned to his Macedonian hometown on a mission to preach to his people. In his crosshairs are Romani traditions he says help stunt their development.

“I would like to ask one question about all these traditions,” says the bearded Berat, 36, while seated in his elegantly upholstered living room. “Have they changed the education levels of our people? Have they lifted us from poverty? … When we say we are Muslims, that is not saying we are not also Roma. But all these traditions are taking us one step back.”

It’s not unusual for a charismatic Romani leader to offer religion as a salve for suffering: researchers track a pattern across Europe dating back 60 years, particularly among Evangelical and Pentecostal Roma. What’s interesting today is how this is happening to the Roma of Macedonia – a country polarized by inter-ethnic, inter-religious tensions between the majority Macedonian Orthodox and minority Albanian Muslims. The dominoes have also tipped toward local Roma. Which is also cause for concern among some observers, who suggest Roma identity is at risk.

“Islam in Suto Orizari does not show respect toward Roma culture,” says Romani activist Enisa Eminovska. “Increased religiosity among the Roma concerns me because the price of being ‘real Muslim’ is abandoning Roma culture.” [For more text and photos ...] (more…)

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Inciting hatred via campaign billboard. (Credit: TASR)

[This post appeared May 25 on TOL's "Roma Blog"]

BRATISLAVA – It started out this morning as a café breakfast with the press, for the European Roma Rights Center to introduce its range of litigation, advocacy and research to the handful of Slovak media even interested in Roma issues.

The chat, though, led inexorably to the role these reporters themselves – and especially, their less-empathetic colleagues – play in shaping harsh Slovak attitudes toward Roma, a.k.a. “the Gypsies.” For me, it also revealed the need here for what some call “human rights-based journalism.”

One reporter opened eyes with his calculation that of the 15 journalists in his office, “thirteen are racist.” Another admitted, “We live in a racist world, and my company is absolutely racist.”

This is no surprise to anyone living in Eastern Europe, where you’re hard-pressed to find any minority on the entire continent more harassed than the estimated 8 million to 12 million Roma.

Yet this is relevant today in Slovakia, on the eve of June 12 elections. Following in the footsteps of neighboring Hungary and its elections last month, the Roma question is once again an irresistible platform for parties pandering to a public ready to scapegoat minorities for their frustrations with the whole post-Communist transition. And oh, by the way, both countries are now members of the European Union — an exclusive club of European democracies.

Several Slovak parties, for example, are advocating the “voluntary” placement of Roma schoolchildren into new boarding schools – which smacks some as ethnic segregation.

More notoriously, the ruling coalition’s far-right partner, the Slovak National Party, produced billboards featuring a bare-chested, obviously Romani man, heavily tattooed and gold chain draped around his neck. Beneath, the slogan: “So that we don’t feed those who don’t want to work.” (It’s since been revealed that the photo was, in face, digitally altered for dramatic effect.)

Defending the billboard, one SNP official creatively – but unconvincingly – accused critics of being the real racists: after all, they were the ones who assumed the man was a Gypsy. (more…)

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PRAGUE – When I told family eight years ago that I’d also start teaching journalism, my sister innocently asked, “Really? What’s there to teach?”

The perception, I suppose, is understandable. Grab pen and pad, ask questions, gather information. That’s worth a semester of university?

Last week in Prague, a shoulder-to-shoulder training reminded me how much there is to share about journalism techniques and strategies. In this case, the lessons learned were specific to how to “parachute” into a foreign country and – with time limited – capture enough of the necessary reportage and multimedia elements to produce a meaningful exploration of Czech education.

The key, as always, lies in the advanced preparation: from back home, before your journey even begins. I’ve written about this before, most recently for Harvard’s Nieman Reports. So I won’t rehash here the imperative to “hit the ground running.”

Instead, in Prague I found myself repeating a mantra I’ve adopted over the years: push, push, push – politely but persistently – to get what you need.

My training partner, Andy, and I were working with eight participants, whom we divided into three teams. For more on the substance of what they reported, read my piece in The Mantle.

After lectures on Monday, reporting was to fill the next three days. That’s it. Three days. But one thing soon became apparent: the teams, all of them new to this kind of international reporting, hadn’t lined up enough meetings – especially with the right kind of sources.

On Tuesday morning, I joined the team exploring the IT gender gap, on their visit to a Czech company manufacturing anti-virus software. The plan was to speak with a woman or two working in IT there. Except, as the spokesman then told us, the company has no women in IT, just sales and marketing. Sure, we got some material. But it was no bull’s eye. (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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Nedzmije Selimi (Photo: mjj)

[The following piece appeared in the April 29 edition of Transitions. For more photos, see the post below.]

After 10 years, many Romani refugees from the Kosovo conflict can neither return to their old homes nor build new ones abroad.

By Michael J. Jordan and Shejla Fidani, 29 April 2010

ŠUTO ORIZARI, Macedonia, and POMAZATIN, Kosovo | The anguish is etched on Nedzmije Selimi’s face even before she starts talking.

In a gray-and-white headscarf and threadbare vest, she lets loose with her lament. First, she lost her husband to a brain aneurysm, which left her to raise their son alone in Kosovo, a society on the brink of war. After NATO intervened with 78 days of air strikes, she grabbed her 8-year-old boy and fled a bloodthirsty climate, south to neighboring Macedonia.

Selimi and tens of thousands of other Kosovo Roma feared vengeance from ethnic Albanians returning after their own cleansing, at the hands of Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic. While the Albanians blamed Serbs for the campaign, they also accused the Roma of collaboration.

At 53, Selimi has been a refugee for 10 years. She lives on the edge of the Macedonian capital, Skopje – and on the edge of a country that has shown little hint of hospitality. She describes her struggle to raise a son, now 18, amid joblessness estimated at 80 percent for the Roma here. Since the NATO bombardment, her son suffers anxiety and nose bleeds. He hasn’t been to school in 10 years. So she goes job-hunting for him.

“It’s hard to keep a child on the right track, to teach him not to steal,” she says, on the verge of tears. “If there were jobs here, I’d gladly work myself.”

Selimi is one of the Kosovo conflict’s oft-forgotten refugees, the Roma.

Kosovo today is independent but fragile. And one of the most sensitive postwar issues is how to restore “multiethnicity,” to beat back the notion that ethnic cleansing ultimately triumphed. Most symbolically, the question is how to secure the return of Kosovo Serbs to their historic heartland while not triggering another round of revenge killings that strains regional stability.

But without the Kosovo Roma, who constituted a significant slice of the prewar population, any claim of a multiethnic Kosovo would ring hollow.

(more…)

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Hungarian Guardsman garb on Election Day. (Photo: AP)

[This piece appeared April 16 in Transitions Online.]

MOSONMAGYAROVAR, Hungary – It hasn’t gone unnoticed in Europe that the real story of Hungary’s April 11 elections wasn’t just that the right-wing Fidesz party ousted the tiresome Socialists to return to power amid economic hardship. It was that Jobbik, a self-described “radical” party, strategically and successfully scape-goated the country’s large Roma and Jewish minorities to win 17 percent of the vote.

Not only did the number soar past the 5 percent threshold to enter Parliament, it was triple the high-water mark achieved by an earlier Hungarian far-right party in 1998.

For the European Union, there ought to be concern that it also represents the greatest triumph of any openly anti-minority party among the 10 ex-Communist states who are its newest EU members.

Let me explain why this is bad for Hungary, which for years was a leading light amid the region’s entire post-1989 transition from dictatorship to democracy. I say this as a foreign correspondent sitting next door in Slovakia, but also lived it first-hand in Budapest, from the mid- to late-1990s.

First, the fact a whopping two-thirds of Hungarian voters thrust rightward – Fidesz secured 53 percent of the ballots; the Socialists, just 19 – does not threaten to upend a 20-year-old democracy.

However, the quality of Hungarian democracy is sickly indeed. The drumbeat of years of political incitement has imbedded a hatred that even drives apart some family and friends. Not to mention what it’s done to swathes of society.

Anti-minority barbs may lead elsewhere. The past two years have seen six Hungarian Roma murdered. On the flip side, in September 2006, several Roma beat to death a Hungarian motorist, while his children watched, after he hit and injured a Romani girl. Last February, in a pub fight, a Rom stabbed and killed a renowned Romanian handball player, competing in the Hungarian league.

Hungary is hardly unique. (more…)

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[NOTE: This was written by a former TOL foreign-correspondent trainee of mine in Prague. It appeared in the March 7 edition of The Arab News.]

By Hassna’a Mokhtar

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – The decision to leave my country came after I knocked on many doors of the Saudi bureaucracy, hoping in vain to obtain the God-given right to live with my Arab-Canadian husband in the country of my birth.

Instead of a residency permit, I was called names and degraded. Why? Because I, a Saudi, had chosen to marry a non-Saudi.

Not only was I humiliated, I was also approached for bribes of up to SR40,000 (about $10,600) by people claiming to know how to manipulate the system. My husband was kicked out of Saudi Arabia twice because his temporary status had lapsed. At one point in this ridiculous process, an immigration official lost my husband’s Canadian passport.

It was at the end of this long, fruitless and humiliating journey that I realized giving up and moving to Canada was the best decision to make.

Living constantly in distress because my country refuses to grant my beloved husband legal status is infuriating.

I tied the knot in June 2008, but only after a year of frustration in order to obtain the Interior Ministry’s permission.

At one point in that process my father-my legal guardian-escorted me to the ministry to obtain legal recognition of my marriage. At the marriage license office, I interrogated the woman behind the desk … (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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Laszlo Takacs serves up traditional langos to vacationers at Hungary’s Lake Balaton. (Photo: mjj)

Since 1989, post-communist choice and pre-communist tradition have changed the way Central and Eastern Europe eat. A Transitions Online special report.

by Michael J. Jordan
Dec. 8, 2009

LAKE BALATON AND PRAGUE | Laszlo Takacs sweats over a bubbling fryer, deftly wielding his tongs to pull out another Frisbee-shaped langos. One swimsuit-clad customer after another requests Takacs’ deep-fried dough disks, especially the classic: slathered with sour cream, sprinkled with grated Trappist cheese, and drizzled with garlic sauce for good measure.

“Hungarians have always loved langos, and they always will,” Takacs says. “It’s a national specialty, like goulash.”

This was Hungary’s communist-era version of fast food – oily, cheap, tasty, and reliably belly-filling. Today it’s a relative rarity, overwhelmed by Western staples like pizza, hamburgers, hotdogs, even shwarma and Chinese food. Langos now is mostly relegated to flea markets and Lake Balaton, Hungary’s favorite summer spot, just as zsiros kenyer – or “fatty bread,” smeared with lard and sliced onions and sprinkled with paprika – is now primarily a pub snack.

Much has changed in the former Warsaw Pact countries since the Iron Curtain parted 20 years ago, of course, but gastronomic culture in particular opens a fascinating window into how lifestyles here have become Westernized, from higher quality food and slick advertising to the rise of customer service and the onslaught of obesity.

It all began with open borders and open competition, says top Czech gourmet Pavel Maurer.

“We’re hungry for new things: hungry for freedom, hungry for travel, and hungry to try new foods,” says Maurer, who founded the annual Prague Food Festival and publishes the Grand Restaurant dining guide. “We’re hungry to try all the things that weren’t possible for so many years.” (more…)

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Topiary on Partizanske's main square pays homage to the product upon which the town was founded. (Photo: mjj)

In Partizanske, Slovakia, a mighty producer of shoes under socialism, the free-market transition remains a work in progress.

A TOL special report.

 

By Michael J. Jordan, 29 October 2009

Click here to see a slideshow about Partizanske. See more special coverage of the anniversary of the fall of the Iron Curtain at our 20 Years After website.

PARTIZANSKE, Slovakia | Julius Michnik speaks of two great loves in his life. One is his wife, Frantiska, with whom he’s spent the past 55 years. The other is the Bata shoe company, with whom he’s spent the last 66.

As a 15-year-old apprentice, Michnik recalls, he marveled at the rigorous quality control Czech shoe baron Tomas Bata’s disciples imposed in the Slovak town that bloomed around the company. This standard propelled “unbeatable, eternal Bata” upward in Czechoslovakia both before and during the communist period. At its peak the Partizanske plant employed nearly 16,000 people and turned out more than 30 million pairs of shoes a year, according to a history of the town published in 2000.

Today, that’s a distant memory. Most of the mile-long complex is a rusting hulk, with few signs of life on its vast grounds.

“I was very proud, and I’m still very proud, to have worked there,” says Michnik, president of the Bata “School of Work” Alumni Association. “But this would never have happened if Bata himself were here today. Or he would have shot himself.”

Twenty years after the collapse of communism, Partizanske is a microcosm of how classic one-company towns in Slovakia, and Eastern Europe itself, were devastated by the free-market transition. Blasted by Asian competitors, the city labors to recover and compete.

“Here was ‘Strong Bata’ and ‘Strong Socialism.’ Families didn’t have to struggle for anything, because the boss provided for all their needs,” says Mayor Jan Podmanicky. “How do you teach people to be independent and take responsibility for themselves? People from the outside can give you advice, but you have to change yourself.” (more…)

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Election monitor Rayna Dzhipova explains to officials in an ethnic-Turkish village the potential violations she saw during the July 5 elections. (Photo: mjj)

[This piece appeared Oct. 13, 2009, in Transitions.]

Bulgarians know well that “Buying and Selling Votes is a Crime,” but views on who the main culprits are depend on social affinities.

by Michael J. Jordan and Ognyan Isaev

RAZGRAD, Bulgaria | The urgent call pipes into Rayna Dzhipova’s cell phone as she drives through the Bulgarian countryside. “They’re giving away cheese in Vladimirovtsi!” she exclaims, flooring the accelerator toward the remote village in the country’s northeast. Dashing across bumpy rural roads, past sunflower fields and donkey-drawn carts, she hopes to catch the vote-buyers red-handed.

During the 5 July parliamentary elections, Dzhipova has an unusual role: roving watchdog, patrolling the anticipated “hotspots” heavily populated by ethnic Turks and Roma – a favorite target of vote-buyers. While the vote-selling phenomenon cuts across ethnic and economic lines here, Turks are typically pressured by their community to vote for the ethnic-Turkish party, and the Roma – many of whom are destitute and hold few hopes that any party will improve their lot – are particularly vulnerable.

“I tell people, ‘You cannot blame anyone for your situation if you haven’t used your right and voted,’ ” says Dzhipova, 23, an ethnic Bulgarian who hails from the Turkish-majority city of Razgrad.

With the help of monitors like Dzhipova, the European Union’s poorest and reputedly most corrupt member has finally produced a rare bit of good news for both Bulgaria and Brussels. According to a newly released report by the Civil Society Coalition for a Free and Democratic Vote, public awareness and high turnout – some 60 percent – successfully diluted the corrosive effect of vote-buying this time around. (more…)

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[This piece appeared March 21, 2008, in Transitions Online.]

 

A Hungarian far-right party spins off a contingent of uniformed marchers and takes aim at “Gypsy criminality.”

 

by Michael J. Jordan

 

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY | Tamas Gyimesi has a style all his own, like a cross between a nightclub bouncer and Hungarian folkloric dancer.

 

 

 

Below his shaved head and gold loops that dangle from both ears, he’s wearing a striking floral, hand-woven vest over a billowing white shirt.

 

On marching days, though, Gyimesi breaks out a more ominous look. He and fellow members of the new, far-right Hungarian Guard don black boots, black caps and black vests stamped with ancient Hungarian stripes last embraced by the Nazi-allied Arrow Cross – a regime that killed tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust, dumping many of them in the icy Danube.

 

Members of the Guard, which claims at least 650 adherents, say their mission is to protect Hungarians, their culture, their traditions.

 

“Here, all the minorities have rights, but unfortunately, I don’t have rights,” Gyimesi explains from the outset. “We’re becoming a minority in our own country.” (more…)

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Governments and many Roma alike are reluctant to gather accurate information on Europe’s largest minority, but activists say a lack of data blocks progress.

 

By Michael J. Jordan

 

5 March 2008, Transitions Online/TOL

BRATISLAVA | Andrey Ivanov knows all about the Roma plight, as a former activist who ran a micro-lending program for Bulgarian Roma in the 1990s.

 

He saw then how difficult it was for both government agencies and non-governmental organizations to create truly effective policies and programs without official and reliable data on the scope of Romani poverty.

 

Today, as the human-development adviser to the U.N. Development Program regional office in Bratislava, Ivanov watches the curtain close on the third year of the vaunted Decade of Roma Inclusion. Questions loom about its prospects for success.

 

Accurate data is essential to establish benchmarks for measuring all efforts regarding Europe’s Roma, who number anywhere from 8 million to 15 million. This, observers say, also helps explain why most governments dodge the data: they shun the accountability.

 

“My favorite excuse from governments is, ‘I’m sorry, but the EU doesn’t allow us to collect data by ethnicity,’ ” says Ivanov, whose office shelves hold several files with precious ethnic data that UNDP itself has collected. “That’s not the point. The EU doesn’t forbid the collecting of data; it forbids abuse of that data – the tracking of individuals.” (more…)

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