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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 commentary appeared June 7, 2012, in The Global Post. For my earlier election coverage and photos, click here and here.]

A tiny mountain nation’s peaceful election and transfer of power is a lesson for all of southern Africa.

Rosina Moiloa, who had warned, “No change, no peace,” got what she wanted this week. (Photo: mjj)

THABA BOSIU, Lesotho — It was election day in Lesotho, and after almost three hours of standing in line, Rosina Moiloa had nearly reached the doorway of the threadbare school that doubled as the polling station in this village. But Rosina, a first-time voter, wasn’t griping about the wait.

The textile worker earns $140 per month, but spends nearly half that on the 30-minute taxi commute to her T-shirt factory in the capital, Maseru. In a country of 1.8 million, where half live in poverty and three-quarters lack electricity, she craves affordable educational opportunities for her two children.

So in the latest test of democracy in Africa, Rosina, 42, withstood the early-winter chill in the “Mountain Kingdom” of Lesotho, to reject the 14-year reign of Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili.

“We’ve been told that one vote can change a nation,” she proclaimed, with hands stuffed in her coat pockets for warmth, as other queuing villagers nodded. “I want to see if this is true.”

The May 26 balloting was hailed by political observers as one of the most transparent elections southern Africa has ever seen. Moreover Lesotho appears to have achieved a relatively smooth power transfer. The election resulted in the country’s first opposition victory and the formation of a coalition government. There were no accusations of vote-tampering. There was calm in the streets. And it appears that Mosisili will step down peacefully this week.

In a corner of the globe with little tradition of compromise and power-sharing, the election challenges notions about the dire fate of democracy in Africa and reminds me that many of the oft-derided “Western values” are in fact universal values. What society wouldn’t want to hold its leaders accountable for their words and deeds?

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[The following article was published June 1, 2012, in The Christian Science Monitor, then republished on Yahoo News.]

After a number of setbacks, with disputed elections leading to civil war, the African kingdom of Lesotho holds an election that boots the incumbent. A coalition government is in the works.

By Michael J. Jordan, Correspondent / June 1, 2012

Some Basotho outside Maseru say they waited up to three hours to vote. (Photo: mjj)

MASERU, Lesotho – Lesotho – the tiny mountain kingdom surrounded by South Africa, with the best (ok, only) skiing in Africa, and one of the world’s highest HIV infection rates – is getting recognition for something else: carrying out a peaceful election with a likely transfer of power.

After elections held this week, a majority of Basotho voters turned against the 14-year rule of Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili, expressing frustration with empty promises. With no party enjoying a convincing majority, five opposition parties this week cobbled together Lesotho’s first-ever coalition government and claim at least 61 seats of the 120-member parliament – with an ex-foreign minister, Tom Thabane, tabbed as the new premier.

With its straightforward process and absence of violence thus far, Lesotho gives a lesson in democracy that many other African countries — such as Mali, Guinea-Bissau, Cote D’Ivoire, Kenya, and even nearby Madagascar, Zimbabwe, and South Africa could learn to emulate, political observers say.

“If a sitting government actually leaves office gracefully, this will be a first for southern Africa,” says Nqosa Mahao, a coalition-government expert at South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand, who advised the major parties here prior to the May 26 elections. “It will put Lesotho on the map for its democratic credentials – and set a tone for the rest of the region.”

Setbacks in African elections — notably the four-month civil war in Cote D’Ivoire in 2010, after the losing President Laurent Gbagbo refused to step down — have recently raised questions about whether democratic culture is actually taking root on the continent. Far too many elections feature heavy vote-rigging, intimidation, and sporadic bouts of violence, rendering the final vote count questionable in the eyes of election observers. Yet the election results in Lesotho shows that some African countries can hold world-class elections, even in a country with plenty of excuses for failure, including poverty and rugged terrain.

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[The following article appeared April 30, 2012, in The Christian Science Monitor. It was republished on Yahoo News, and posted May 22 on The Mantle.]

Political violence has flared ahead of May 26 Lesotho elections, but Archbishop Desmond Tutu urges candidates to keep the peace and respect election results.

By Michael J. Jordan, Correspondent, Christian Science Monitor

Bishop Tutu exhorts Basotho politicians to keep the peace. But will they listen? (Photo: mjj)

MASERU, LesothoArchbishop Desmond Tutu, the legendary anti-Apartheid activist and Nobel laureate, is officially retired from public life.

But he made an exception Friday for the tiny mountain kingdom of Lesotho.

Political violence in the enclave encircled by South Africa has flared up ahead of May 26 elections – an ominous sign in what one analyst calls the latest “stress test” for democracy in sub-Saharan Africa. Cracks have emerged here with high-profile assassinations, rumors of a “hit squad,” and clashes at campaign rallies.

So the United Nations invited Archbishop Tutu to bolster democracy in the land, where, before launching his crusade against Apartheid next door, he served his first bishopric from 1976-78. On Friday, his “prayer meeting” extracted a pledge among political rivals to keep the peace and respect election results.

Citing the past political violence of South Africa, Tutu urged an audience that included the prime minister of Lesotho, “Please, please, please, please do not let the same happen to this stunningly beautiful land. Nothing can be so precious that it can be bought with innocent lives.”

Lesotho’s election is more than a contested vote in a remote country rarely heard from. It comes on the heels of successful elections across the continent: Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Niger, Nigeria, and Zambia have recently all experienced peaceful elections. There have been a few notable blemishes: a couple of coups des états in Mali and Guinea-Bissau, and a contested election in Cote D’Ivoire in late 2010 that briefly turned into a civil war.

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[The following piece was published March 20, 2012, on The Mantle.]

MASERU, Lesotho – Last week was one filled with nostalgia and melancholy.

Li Yu survived the Wenzhou train crash. (Photo: mjj)

From my new base in Lesotho, three other adopted homes – Hungary, Slovakia and China, all dear to my heart – each resurfaced in the news with depressingly familiar story-lines. From thousands of miles away, they reminded me of past reporting – and how little changes.

First up, Slovakia, where I recently lived for five years. One of its historic, hilltop castles burns to the ground – apparently caused by two kids, 11 and 12, messing with cigarettes on a windy day. From an adjacent village, they accidentally set fire to some dry grass, whose embers floated upward, igniting the castle’s timber roof.

Poof! In minutes, a gothic, seven-century-old memento, gone.

The Slovak and Czech reaction? Gypsies! It must’ve been those damned Gypsies! More than a rush to judgment, it was a virtual blood-libel against Europe’s largest and most marginalized minority, known more respectfully as Roma. Over the years, I’ve chronicled countless times [like here, here and here] how post-Communist Central Europe always finds something to blame on the Roma. (Even if there’s no love lost in Slovakia for castles that are essentially relics of Hungarian overlordship, while Slovaks toiled as serfs.)

This fire came on the heels of public outrage over a galling corruption scandal, followed by an election that ousted the ruling coalition. If a beaten child has no recourse toward his parents, he turns to kick the dog. Especially in a region saddled by congenital resistance to introspection, which much prefers to point the finger of blame elsewhere.

Though in this case, soul-searching is well warranted, as a Slovakian art historian asserted. The brushfire threat around the castle always existed, he charged, and state authorities were negligent to protect and preserve it.

“It is forbidden to burn grass and it is certainly wrong to do so, but it is just as sick to put the blame on ‘unidentified perpetrators’ who are allegedly members of a minority in the interest of distracting attention from one’s own responsibility,” said the art-historian, Július Barczi.

Next in the news, China.

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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 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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[The following piece appeared Nov. 7, 2011, in Time Out Hong Kong. It was written by my former student -- and published with four of my photos.]

Three months after the Wenzhou train disaster shocked the Chinese nation, Shirley Zhao returns to the scene to speak with the survivors

WENZHOU, China – When a high-speed train crashed into the rear of another train on the evening of July 23 while crossing a viaduct in the suburbs of Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, China, Li Yu was in one of the carriages that plunged from the viaduct. It was the Mainland’s first fatal high-speed train collision, killing at least 40 passengers and injuring at least 191 people. But Li was lucky. The 43-year-old businessman escaped with a fractured right foot, several lacerations to his head and temporary amnesia.

A Chinese railway worker in Wenzhou describes the crash scene. (Photo: mjj)

As news of the tragedy spread throughout China, Li was rescued from the wreckage and taken to a Wenzhou hospital. With blood covering his face and most of his hair singed off, he was ushered into a lift with a doctor, his wife, who failed to recognise him. It was not until 24 hours later that she and his relatives found him through Weibo, where millions of netizens were microblogging about the disaster.

Immediately following the crash, rail officials hastily covered up rescue operations and the government clamped down on negative media coverage. These two incidents created a wave of criticism from both online communities and state-run newspapers, and confidence in both Beijing and the national rail system was severely rocked. It was a decisive moment in a socially troubled year for China.

Now, more than three months after the accident, Li is gradually completing his physical rehabilitation, but he is still putting the pieces together in his mind about what actually happened.

“It may be a good thing that I don’t clearly remember,” Li tells Time Out from the hospital’s rehabilitation room, “because it hasn’t been my worst nightmare every night. My physical wounds will recover, but it’s the psychological trauma that may never go away. Now I don’t dare to go anywhere. I’m afraid of taking planes or trains. Even when I’m sitting here, right now, I fear the walls will collapse. These things happen all too often in China.”

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[The following article appeared on Oct. 4, 2011, in The Christian Science Monitor. It's the third of my three-part package to commemorate the "Red Sludge" tragedy, with Part I here and Part II here.]

Since last year’s ‘Red Sludge’ disaster, Hungary’s worst environmental tragedy, Hungarians have used the tools of democracy to seek restitution – a rarity in this former Communist state.

By Michael J. Jordan, Correspondent

DEVECSER, Hungary – On Oct. 3, 2010, Jozsef Konkoly finished installing a new heating system in his home in the Hungarian town of Devescer, in advance of winter. Overall, he’d invested a small fortune on renovations.

Jozsef Konkoly, standing where his home once stood, has inspired hundreds of neighbors. (Photo: mjj)

The next day, red sludge cascaded through his windows.

Mr. Konkoly is just one face of Hungary’s deadliest ecological tragedy, the toxic “Red Sludge” calamity that struck this small Central European nation last October. But one year later, he’s also become a rare – and unlikely – symbol of Hungarian democracy-in-action.

Konkoly successfully sued the factory that was responsible for the disaster, becoming an inspiration for hundreds of other ordinary folks in Devecser and Kolontar to do the same. Victims include not only those who lost homes and are now moving into new, government-built homes, but the unscathed neighbors who saw their property value collapse overnight.

At the same time, Konkoly and fellow plaintiffs illuminate a stark truth about Hungary today, two decades into the transition from Communist dictatorship to capitalist democracy: despite growing disillusion and revisionist nostalgia for a ruthless ancien régime, democracy and rule of law are slowly taking root in these post-authoritarian lands.

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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.”

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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.”

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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 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.

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[The following post appeared  May 3, 2011, on The Mantle.]

I woke up yesterday to the news that Osama Bin Laden had finally been tracked and assassinated. My initial reaction: “Wow. Took ten years, but they got ‘im.” Then I read about the spontaneous celebrations that broke out on some of America’s streets – it didn’t sit well.

Celebrating outside the White House, May 2, 2011. (Photo: Robb Hill, http://www.robbhill.com)

From the hinterlands of Bratislava’s cafés, I needed to “chat.” So, I conducted a social-media experiment with my Facebook “friends.” The result is a fascinating mini-oral history of a milestone day: support, skepticism, ambivalence. Flowed below is my request and their comments, in the order of their arrival. Yet the comments are not closed! Want to add your two cents’ worth? Please do! …

Greetings, my fellow Americans! And anyone else living in the motherland!

I have a made-for-social-media kinda request. I, like you, have been captivated by the momentous kill of Osama bin Laden, ten years in the making. Seeing as I’m not among you, stateside, could you please report to me: a) where you are currently stationed in life; b) roughly how many people “celebrated with jubilation” on the streets of your town – according to your very own eyes, local media, and citizen journalists; and finally, c) any reaction or analysis of your own you might want to add.

To me, I find it curious to learn of crowds (disproportionately small – or large?) out “celebrating” a state execution. Even one as utterly justifiable as Osama’s. I wonder if it might have been more meaningful for society to seize upon this rare opportunity to remind ourselves – and the world watching us – of the three thousand people who Osama murdered on 9/11. What was lost. Instead, whooping it up like your town just won the college-basketball championship?

How isolated was this phenomenon? How should the world interpret such reaction? Bloodlust, perhaps? Please, tell me your thoughts. I’m all ears!

Wait. Come to think of it, I’d also like to ask my non-American friends living beyond our shores: how do you interpret the American response you’ve seen, heard and read? Why do you see it that way? Lastly, I shouldn’t ignore my compatriots in the American diaspora: Feel free to weigh in!

Sincerely, Michael

Donald Allport Bird (American): ‎”Greetings My Fellow Americans”!!!! Are you running for President, too?

Scott Goldman (American): My initial reaction to seeing those crowds in NYC and DC was the age of the participants. They were mostly college age people and it struck me that these were 9, 10 and 11 year olds on 9/11. Their joy came from a deep place on what must have been an extremely frightening day from a child’s perspective. Now grown up, those fears are exorcised to some extent. Very, very powerful.

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[The following appeared March 18, 2011, on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA The UN Security Council’s 11th-hour intervention to save Benghazi may have sparked a Libyan ceasefire – or brief respite – but one criticism caught my eye as Gaddafi loyalists tightened the noose around the rebel stronghold.

“There are 1 million people who believed the Western promises that said Gaddafi is no longer legitimate,” said the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, who had met with rebel leaders in Benghazi.

Memories of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution come flooding back. Not that I was there, mind you. But Hungarians have for years resented the West for “promised” assistance – via the U.S. Congress-funded Radio Free Europe, the UN, and others – should Magyars take up arms against a Soviet-backed Communist regime several years into its reign of terror.

Spurred on by those words of support, the Hungarians rose up, heroically, on October 23, 1956. Except, the West never came. In Budapest, street-by-street gun battles against Soviet tanks lasted less than two weeks, before being snuffed out. The Hungarian toll: more than 2,500 killed and 200,000 refugees – including my father and grandparents.

My question is not if the international community should’ve intervened in Hungary then, or in Libya today. (As my Mantle colleague Corrie Hulse has suggested.) Rather, if you encourage others to lay their lives on the line, what moral responsibility do you bear if you ultimately fail to back words with action?

For Libya, this depends on your definition of promise. I try to imagine myself in the shoes of an ordinary Libyan who over the past month has seen: the globe rejoice at revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt; world leaders, even Arab allies, brand Gaddafi as “illegitimate” for his ruthlessness against civilians; Libya suspended from the UN Human Rights Council; French President Nicolas Sarkozy shake hands with rebel leaders and call for air-strikes; and the Arab League agree to a no-fly zone against one of their own.

If I’m Libyan, it sure sounds like the world is telling me: Keep fighting. We won’t let the Colonel get away with this. Help is on the way. Yet each day, while Gaddafi’s forces pounded and demoralized the rebels, the international community dragged its feet.

The aftermath of Hungary 1956 was marked by mass arrests, show trials, executions and long prison terms. In Libya, there seems no option but fight to the death. Imagine what revenge awaits Benghazi, after Gaddafi vowed “no mercy, no compassion.” If the ceasefire collapses and the world fiddles while Benghazi burns – as it did for Budapest 55 years ago – the blood won’t only be on the hands of its executioners.

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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.

(more…)

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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.

(more…)

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[These photos appeared Jan. 7 on The Mantle with the post above.]

Armed with 300-mm lense, I planted myself on a street corner, shooting at waves of elderly coming at me from the left, the right, and from straight ahead. My Hungarian brother-in-law thought I might get punched for daring to shoot without first asking nicely. But I wanted these Hungarians au naturel. Sure, it was -6 Celsius, and we were all pretty miserable. (By the end, my hand was cryogenically petrified.) But I detected a deeper despair in these faces. [Special thanks to my Romanian colleague, Clara Stanescu, for co-editing. Mulţumesc!]

For more portraits … (more…)

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BRATISLAVA – The last time I saw the European Union this embarrassed by a new EU member, it was forced to freeze hundreds of millions in aid to sticky-fingered Bulgaria. (Which I covered extensively for the CSMonitor.)

So, what will Brussels now do about Hungary? On Jan. 1, it became the third ex-Communist country to assume the EU’s rotating presidency. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his party, Fidesz, won elections last spring in such overwhelming fashion, their two-thirds majority has set out to re-write the country’s constitution and commandeer every nominally independent institutions, from the largely ceremonial post of president, to the Supreme Court, state audit office and Central Bank.

Then, just before Christmas – and days away from stepping into the EU spotlight – Fidesz lawmakers passed a media law that shocked fellow EU members in its brazen bid to muzzle mainstream media. A new “Media Council” – coincidentally, with all five members appointed by Fidesz – may slap crippling fines on any newspaper, TV, radio or Internet outlet that produces a report deemed “unbalanced” or offensive to “human dignity.” Oh, and the Council can also force any journalist to reveal their sources.

Reaction was immediate. (more…)

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[The following piece appeared Jan. 3, 2011, on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA – For years, foreign observers of Slovakia – like me, guilty as charged – have put the puny, post-Communist country on the couch.

The diagnosis: suffers an inferiority complex. Never before independent. Bullied for centuries by the Hungarians. Little peasant brother of the Czechs.

What a difference a decade makes. The new Slovak government is flexing its muscles, as brawny Slovak men tend to do. Except in this case, the face of forcefulness is a woman. Iveta Radičová, the first female prime minister to wield power in Communist-turned-EU-member Central Europe.

The significance here is only partly that a woman has smashed the ceiling to the highest office. (Though, some women in the region are content with proving that sex still sells: during a Czech election campaign this year, six female candidates for Parliament posed skimpily for a calendar. And won.)

Instead, the story is that Radičová leads Slovakia’s one-man rebellion over the pricey EU bailout of Greece, revealing just how influential – or disruptive – the new eastern members can be.

No sooner was Radičová sworn in July 8 to lead a center-right, four-party coalition, than she swung a right-hook at Brussels. She denied the 27-state union a final “yea” unless her new government could renegotiate Slovakia’s staggering contribution: 4.4 billion of the 110 billion euros ($148 billion).

(It didn’t help matters when the public here caught wind of the inconvenient fact that Greek pensioners live much more comfortably than their Slovak peers.)

Radičová also continues to defend Slovakia’s pro-Serbia stance on Kosovo, bucking Brussels in its recognition of Kosovo statehood. (The bogeyman brandished by Slovak hard-liners is less Slavic solidarity than the threat that the heavily ethnic-Hungarian south of Slovakia one day breaks away.)

In December, the spotlight was again on the new premier. But this time, to be a calming voice for markets rattled by the Slovak parliamentary speaker’s call for a “Plan B”: withdraw Slovakia from the troubled, 16-member Eurozone; return Slovaks to their beloved koruny, or “crowns.”

Slovakia had achieved another milestone in January 2009, when it leapfrogged neighboring Czechs, Hungarians and Poles to become the first in Central Europe to jettison its national currency for the Euro. Today, though, Western media is awash with speculation about Slovakia: “Last in, first out?”

Slovakia “hasn’t for one second” considered defecting, Radičová told media. “Our task is to stabilize the euro. Any thoughts about alternatives are weakening the stabilization mechanism and I consider them extremely risky.”

Scrappy Slovakia, with Radičová leading the charge, is worth watching in 2011.

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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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Szabolcs Szedlak’s bitter disenchantment led him to Hungary’s far-right Jobbik party. (Photo: mjj)

[This piece appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of the World Policy Journal.]

HEVES, Hungary — The past few years have been turbulent for Szabolcs Szedlak, far worse than most Hungarians could have imagined two decades ago, when they tore a hole in the Iron Curtain and changed their world.

Szedlak, 34, came of age during the tumult of the post-communist transition from dictatorship to democracy. Back then Hungarians were told, and many believed, they’d become like neighboring Austrians—a BMW in every driveway. Just don’t remind folks of those daydreams in this bleak corner of northeastern Hungary.

Szedlak and his family live in Heves, a small, quiet town of 11,000 on the great Hungarian plains. Szedlak was born here, in the heart of the country’s most depressed region. Twenty years ago, the sudden and unexpected exposure to free markets ravaged the state-controlled mines, industries and agriculture that were staples of the communist system—especially in this region. Successive governments have failed to fill the void with new jobs or re-training.

Unemployment in the region now approaches 50 percent among those aged 25 to 40, feeding widespread anger and disillusionment with Hungary’s brand of “democracy.” As joblessness soars, so has support for a new style of politics that harkens back to a bygone era, snuffed out by communism: Right-wing extremism is on the rise. According to one survey, it has doubled here since 2003. Hungary, once dubbed the “happiest barrack in the Soviet camp,” is arguably the unhappiest of the 10 ex-communist members who have since joined the European Union.

Count Szabolcs Szedlak among the disgruntled. (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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[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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[This piece appeared Sept. 2 on TOL's Roma Blogs.]

The Slovak flag at half-mast today on a Bratislava street. (Photo: mjj)

BRATISLAVA – In April 1999, when two American teens mowed down 12 classmates and a teacher at Columbine High School, it was a watershed moment for the country. It spawned all sorts of soul-searching and debate, on everything from gun-control laws and teen bullying to vicious video games and use of anti-depressants. It also inspired Michael Moore’s Oscar-winning documentary on gun violence in the U.S.

In other words, a healthy response to trauma may be to look in the mirror and ask: “Does this say something about our society? Does it say something about us? Does it say something about me?”

Yet most Slovaks, it seems, want no such introspection.

Bratislava was the scene Monday of the worst massacre in Slovakia’s 17-year history, in which a lone gunman killed seven people, including six members of the same family, and injured another 15. In a flash, tiny Slovakia made global headlines. Yet the bigger story here for me – journalistically speaking – is not the bloodbath itself, but overall reaction to it: blame the victim.

You see, the family hailed from the Roma minority – a.k.a. the reviled “Gypsies.” And from the look of media reports, the thinking is that this Roma family must’ve done something to push their 48-year-old neighbor, described as moody loner Ľubomír Harman, over the edge into a murderous frenzy. (more…)

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Embodiment of Mitteleuropa: strudel stuffed with sweet poppy seeds and sour cherries. (Photo: mjj)

HAINBURG, Austria – Lounging by the pool in this medieval Austrian town, overlooked by 17th century castle ruins on a hilltop nearby, you can enjoy a schnitzel, a schnapps or an eiskaffee mit schlag. But listen closely, and virtually all you hear on the blankets of fellow sun-bathers is the Slovak language. (Indeed, a sign jammed in the grass helpfully reminds guests, in both German and Slovak, to please urinate in the WC, not on the lawn.) After all, the Hainburg schwimm-ing pool is just a stone’s throw from the Slovak border.

The pattern repeats throughout our corner of Central Europe. Lake Balaton – the beloved “Hungarian Sea” – sees a sizable sprinkle of Austrian, Slovak, Czech and German license plates. The Hungarian thermal baths in Mosonmagyarovar, along Slovakia’s border, lure loads of Slovaks and Austrians. The nearest Alpine ski slopes in Austria, in Semmering, are a favorite among Czechs, Slovaks and Hungarians.

Ninety years after World War I broke up the old Habsburg Empire, and two decades after the collapse of Cold War divisions of the continent between “East” and “West,” there are subtle signs that the old notion of “Mitteleuropa” – the common culture of Middle Europe – is gradually re-emerging. Some dispute if that is actually reviving regional identity, as my colleague Colin Woodard explored last year for the Christian Science Monitor.

Yet from my vantage point in the Slovak capital, Bratislava – at the confluence of Slovakia, Hungary, Austria and Czech Republic – Mitteleuropa is more than a nostalgic state of mind. (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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[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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[This piece appeared July 13 on ForeignPolicy.com.]

With Web-savvy “radical nationalism” — and a dash of anti-Semitism and Roma-baiting — firebrand politician Gabor Vona has touched a chord among Hungary’s disaffected and disillusioned young voters.

BY MICHAEL J. JORDAN | JULY 13, 2010

Gyongyos, Hungary – While running for a parliamentary seat in Hungary’s April elections, far-right candidate Gabor Vona made one campaign promise that was controversial even by his standards: If voted into parliament, the 31-year-old extremist would report for duty wearing the insignia of his outlawed paramilitary organization, the “Hungarian Guard” — a taboo symbol that, with its ancient, red-and-white-striped emblem, bears a striking resemblance to the flag of Hungary’s Nazi-era fascist party, Arrow Cross.

The suggestion was intolerable to many Hungarians. Arrow Cross’s brief period of political dominance, during which the party murdered thousands of Hungarian Jews and shipped many tens of thousands more to concentration camps outside the country, is still a painful subject. More to the point, the insignia itself is illegal. Vona’s announcement directly flouted a court decision banning the Hungarian Guard, and it provoked the outgoing prime minister into asking the Justice Ministry to investigate.

But the controversy appeared only to reinforce the popularity of Vona’s far-right, Web-savvy Jobbik party, which went on to win a stunning 16.7 percent of the vote — the best performance of any hypernationalist party in post-communist Eastern Europe. And Vona kept his word: At the May 14 inauguration, he took off his suit jacket to reveal a black vest with the Hungarian Guard’s emblem.

Vona’s intransigence may have been shocking, but it wasn’t surprising. Central Europe may be two decades removed from communist dictatorship and ensconced in Western institutions such as the European Union and NATO — but few people are cheering. Promises of a glorious new post-communist life have resulted only in rising prices, growing unemployment, and endemic corruption. And resentment is fueling a greater appetite for right-wing extremism across the region, according to a new survey by the Budapest-based think tank Political Capital. In Hungary alone, right-wing attitudes have leapt from 10 to 20 percent since 2003.

“It’s been constant disillusionment that many people [in Hungary] are susceptible to. They’re bitter about the whole system,” says Alex Kuli, a Political Capital analyst. “That’s what Vona is responding to and manipulating — this deep-seated disillusionment.” (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.

(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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Bulgaria’s arrest today of an ex-minister accused of bribes, and recent jail sentences of two major figures for fraud and embezzlement, show that the government is finally cracking down on corruption.

Taglines along the bottom of political billboards, like this one in the Black Sea city of Varna, reminded voters during the July 2009 elections that “Buying and Selling Votes is a Crime.” (Photo: mjj)

By Michael J. Jordan Correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor / April 1, 2010

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia – Bulgaria has the European Union’s most government corruption, and is its most violent member state. But convictions there for high-level corruption are rare.

That’s why two court cases in the past fortnight are such a landmark, and a sign that steady European Union pressure on the small Balkan country is producing results.

On March 18, Asen Drumev, former head of the State Agricultural Fund, was sentenced to four years in prison for embezzling $34 million worth of EU assistance. Then on Monday, businessman Mario Nikolov received 10 years for defrauding Brussels of $8.3 million of agriculture and rural-development funds.

They were the first officials to be punished in an effort to placate an increasingly irate Brussels, which has for years criticized Bulgaria’s widespread vote-buying, shady financing of political parties, money laundering, and failure to seize financial assets of alleged gangsters. As many as 150 mafia-related murders have netted no convictions.

Bulgaria routinely vows to crack down, but has never done so.

“The EU was already fed up with Bulgaria for failing to deliver on its promises, so it couldn’t be delayed any longer,” says Ruslan Stefanov, of the Center for the Study of Democracy in Sofia, the capital. (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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(This post appears on my newest client, The Mantle.)

BRATISLAVA — A few years ago, I had a rare opportunity: to visit a real ghetto.

Located in eastern Slovakia, it was populated by minority Roma, known more pejoratively as “Gypsies” in Central and Eastern Europe. These Roma were booted from the downtown of a small city, shunted to its undeveloped outskirts. For me, entering their settlement was like walking into a National Geographic video. Except this wasn’t sub-Saharan Africa, or deep in the Amazon. This was the European Union.

Corrugated-metal and wood shacks. Mounds of stinking garbage. Leaking pipes that kept the place a muddy swamp. Hordes of disheveled (but playful) kids, dressed in rags.

“This, too, is Europe,” I muttered to myself.

I was reminded of that visit in recent days, following the troubling news about Slovakia and its half-million Roma. Last month, my Budapest colleague, Adam LeBor, reported for the Times of London about a new wall that separates Roma from Slovaks in the village of Ostrovany. Built by local authorities, with government funds.

Then, on March 8, Prime Minister Robert Fico floated the idea of taking Roma children from their homes – with parental consent, of course – and sending them to specially created boarding schools.

Slovakia is hardly the only ex-Communist country with a Roma problem. I’ve written about an anti-Roma climate in the Czech Republic so bad that scores have sought asylum in Canada, and a resurgent far-right in Hungary, including a uniformed militia, that rails against “Gypsy criminality.” (Coincidentally, a half-dozen Hungarian Roma have been killed in recent years.)

(more…)

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Romanian prison guards jockey for roles that put them into contact with TB-infected inmates to receive a 50 percent bump in pay. (Michael J. Jordan/GlobalPost)

Funding and democracy helped Romania improve conditions in prisons. But will the funds run out?

By Michael J. Jordan — Special to GlobalPost

Published: March 24, 2010

JILAVA, Romania — Communist Romania was a vast den of spies and paranoia, with thousands locked up inside one of Eastern Europe’s cruelest prison systems. Twenty years later, prisoners land behind bars for different reasons, but they still have much to fear.

Prisons are widely considered a leading source of HIV and tuberculosis (TB) infection. And Romania, which already claims the highest TB rate in the 27-member European Union, now worries that heroin injection with tainted needles is spurring an HIV crisis. (Overcrowding and lack of hygiene are leading causes of TB in the slums of Mumbai, as well.)

But thanks to the work of Veronica Broasca and others, as the world marks Tuberculosis Day today, Romania’s prisons can be held up as a success story.

Broasca, an activist with the Romanian Association Against AIDS, heads up the group’s prisons program. She and her colleagues are allowed into Romania’s prisons to provide drug-addiction services, offering inmates a chance to come forward for either clean needles or methadone treatment. Before she leaves, Broasca also unloads a batch of condoms, lubricants and HIV literature in the prison’s visitation room.

She credits prison officials for their progressive mindset, but said they’re also driven by fear of inmates’ ability to seek revenge through the courts. Recent lawsuits accuse prisons of denying them access to proper health care.

“Convicts know their rights,” said Broasca. Prison administrators “tell us they’ll be sued in one second if they don’t provide the treatment needed.”

This new respect for prisoner rights also reveals that in Romania two decades of post-communist democratization has grown roots. Romania’s campaign to join the EU obliged it to align its laws and values with club members. As further incentive, Europe dangled a carrot: cash to tackle problems such as the TB infection rate. (more…)

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BRATISLAVA — I’ve often described to family and friends the “healthy emotional distance” I enjoy from American politics, while living overseas: I follow it from afar, while thankfully not submerged in it.

Like, right now. With the ongoing battle over health-care reform, the escalating Obama-hatred definitely feels scarier than the Bush-hatred that preceded it.

So, what’s the difference? Could it really be Obama’s blackness has unleashed all sorts of latent and not-so-latent racism? That epithets like “radical Communist,” “Marxist” and “socialist” – which sound odd from real-McCoy, ex-Communist Eastern Europe – are coded substitutes for the suicidal “N”-word? Or that “white, Christian America” feels besieged, and won’t have their country “stolen” without a fight?

I just Skype-chatted with an American friend of mine in Vietnam, who thinks the culture of “victimization” has somehow seeped into the minds of many conservatives. I’d go further. My own take from thousands of miles away is this: incitement and hate-speech work. If circumstances are ripe for it.

An analogy: when Yugoslavia exploded into an inter-ethnic bloodbath the early 1990s, many in the West resisted intervention, rationalizing: “These ethnic groups have hated each other for centuries. What can we do about that?” Yet that ignored the fact it was charismatic leaders like Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic and Croatia’s Franjo Tudjman who pricked and provoked their people, hammering away at historic grievances that many folks had pushed to the shadows. Or, may have been unaware of altogether.

What Milosevic and Tudjman did, essentially, was convince people to hate “the other.” Just like, it seems, what agitators Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and others are doing right now. They feed their audience’s deepest fears – or even stoke fears they never had before. Then, watch the hatred flow.

I’m certainly not suggesting it will lead to Bosnian-style butchery in America’s streets. But I’m reminded once again what shrewd observers say about the Holocaust: it began with words, not bullets.

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BRATISLAVA — This weekend, Serbia followed through on its threat to boycott and torpedo a Balkans-European Union summit, over a simple but enormously symbolic issue: it rejected the attendance of “independent” Kosovo.

This interested me for two reasons. First, as a journalist who’s reported from Kosovo three times (including the aftermath of the 1999 NATO airstrikes), it underscores the continued fragility of the now-severed Serbian province. I’m now putting the finishing touches on an article that explains why Kosovo Roma refugees are reluctant to return home. Serbia’s stance adds to their anxiety.

Second, from my vantage point in Slovakia, I’m reminded the EU is hardly united on the issue of Kosovo statehood. Washington and most of Western Europe stand behind Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008. But Serbia has in its corner Orthodox-Slav big brother, Russia. As one of five veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council, Moscow blocks Kosovo’s UN integration.

More quietly, though, EU members Slovakia, Romania, Cyprus, Greece and Spain also oppose Kosovo statehood. Why? Because of the domino effect of Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence.

Greece and Cyprus fear the same for the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (recognized only by Turkey); for Spain, it’s the Basques; and for Slovakia and Romania, it’s their large ethnic-Hungarian minorities, who primarily populate lands that were once part of Hungary.

Spain’s position on Kosovo is most awkward, considering Madrid holds the EU’s rotating presidency. For me, the Slovakia-Hungary-Romania tension is most palpable. Anxiety over Hungarian “irredentism” – whether real or contrived – rears its head surprisingly often, as a weapon to whip up the masses.

In fact, there’ll be lots of noise on June 4th, when Hungary’s far-right marks the 90-year trauma of the Treaty of Trianon, which lopped off two-thirds of Hungary’s territory, and left one-third of its brethren inside new, alien borders.

I’ll surely have a few thoughts about that.

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BRATISLAVA — At last, Bulgaria seems to be doing something about its notorious corruption problem, a necessary step to appease the European Union and keep billions of aid flowing into the Balkan country.

On Thursday, Bulgaria – the EU’s poorest and most corrupt member – scored its first high-profile conviction of a government official, an ex-agriculture honcho sentenced to four years in prison for allegedly stealing millions of EU funds.

I’m sure ordinary Bulgarians are delighted. Many have told me how angry and embarrassed they are about Bulgaria’s image, and how they despair that anything will ever change.

In late 2008, I explored Bulgaria’s endemic graft in a series of articles for the Christian Science Monitor, highlighting how particularly widespread it is in agriculture and road construction.

As I wrote then, Brussels was fed up with Sofia’s empty promises to crack down on “a smorgasbord of sleaze, including alleged vote-buying … shady financing of political parties, money laundering, and the failure to seize financial assets of purported gangsters. The final straw was an investigation of 35 EU-funded projects in Bulgaria – it found financial irregularities in all but one.”

What made this situation unique was Bulgaria had already been admitted to the EU in early 2007, raising the question: Once a country is in the club, how to react when a new member behaves badly? Worried about how aspiring members might view inaction, Brussels made an example out of Sofia, smacking it with an unprecedented punishment: $315 million in aid was withdrawn.

Bulgaria’s attitude shifted with last July’s election of Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, a former bodyguard and karate coach who vowed to get tough on corruption. Brussels has wanted Bulgarian authorities to send a message throughout society that lawlessness won’t be tolerated, and will continue to push for more “results,” one analyst in the capital tells me.

“Brussels knows Sofia cannot do this quick and will probably muddle through, but wants to at least see some progress,” says Ruslan Stefanov, of the Center for Study of Democracy. “Brussels trusts Sofia is serious this time.”

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Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said the final document in Geneva "highlights the suffering of many groups." (Photo: mjj)

Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said the final document in Geneva "highlights the suffering of many groups." (Photo: mjj)

By Michael J. Jordan |

Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

April 22, 2009

 

GENEVA – After Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s barrage Monday against Israel threatened to derail the global antiracism conference, UN officials decided to act quickly.

 

The conference was teetering on the verge of collapse. By Sunday, nine Western member-states had announced a boycott. On Monday, 22 European countries walked out as Mr. Ahmadinejad launched a verbal attack on Israel as “cruel and racist.”

 

That’s why UN officials jumped right to the main event: the final declaration. It was adopted late Tuesday, three days earlier than scheduled.

 

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay called the document’s early adoption “great news,” saying it “reinvigorates the commitment” of governmental anti-racism efforts.

 

Typically, such documents are negotiated right into the 11th hour. That’s why it was supposed to be released April 24. The basic 16-page agreement had already been hammered out last Friday. Releasing it at the end of the five-day meeting was “just in case the main committee needed that much time – just in case various debates reopened or questions were raised,” Ms. Pillay told reporters. “None of that happened.”

 

The Ahmadinejad speech “set a very negative tone and created a very negative atmosphere,” says Slovak diplomat Drahoslav Stefanek, whose delegation was among those that walked out. “So there was a need to calm things down.” (more…)

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European diplomats walking out during President Ahmadinejad's fiery speech. (Photo: mjj)

European diplomats walking out during President Ahmadinejad's fiery speech. (Photo: mjj)

More than 40 European diplomats walked out to protest the Iranian leader’s speech, in which he called Israelis “the racist perpetrators of genocide.”

 

By Michael J. Jordan | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the April 20, 2009 edition

 

GENEVA – A major UN anti-racism conference already wounded by the boycott of nine Western countries, opened Monday with the buzz of anticipation for a speech by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – the only head of state who accepted an invitation to attend.

 

Mr. Ahmadinejad, who has referred to the Holocaust as a “myth” and called for Israel to be “wiped off the map,” assailed the West for supporting the creation of the Jewish state after the atrocities of World War II.

 

“Under the pretext of Jewish suffering, they have helped bring to power the most oppressive, racist regime in Palestine,” he said, to loud applause from Iranian activists in the gallery and pockets of headscarved Muslim women on the floor. “They have always been silent about their crimes.”

 

With that, the 23 European Union countries who had not yet boycotted the conference abandoned their seats and streamed out of the hall, which was met by a smattering of more applause.

 

It had been hoped that this year’s UN Racism Conference would avoid the fate of its 2001 predecessor, which was nearly derailed by vituperative debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The event is intended to be a global forum for addressing racial intolerance and sharing how to combat it. But the Middle East conflict again threatens to dominate the agenda. (more…)

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Pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian activists debate outside UN-Geneva headquarters. (Photo: mjj)

Pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian activists debate outside UN-Geneva headquarters. (Photo: mjj)

A meeting to judge progress on racism is likely to be captive to Israeli-Palestinian and Islamic defamation issues.

By Michael J. Jordan | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the April 19, 2009 edition

BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA – The first World Conference Against Racism, held in 2001 in Durban, South Africa, was all but derailed when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict took center stage.

The second global meeting against racism, discrimination, and xenophobia, which starts Monday, is on shaky ground over the same question. Over the weekend, the United States and the Netherlands pulled their delegations. Australia, Israel, Canada, Sweden and Italy have said they also may boycott the UN forum in Geneva.

The week-long event is also in trouble over the issue of religious defamation, specifically the portrayal of Islam in Western nations. The 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) is expected to accuse the West of Islamophobia and press to restrict criticism of Islam. If this happens, it may upstage discussion of all other topics.

At the 2001 conference, the fight over whether the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was racist often drowned out grievances from minorities such as the Roma of Europe, the “untouchables” of India, and the indigenous tribes of South America.

Ayca Ariyoruk, a senior associate at the United Nations Association, a pro-UN think tank, says it will be up to the OIC to “resist the temptation to bring up issues that have proven to be very divisive.” A citizen of Turkey, as is the OIC secretary-general, she adds, “This conference needs to focus on what can unite countries, not divide them.” (more…)

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durbanlogo1

 

 

A crash course in eight years of the Durban process. 

 

BRATISLAVA – It’s rare for me to have covered a single story over many years, but “Durban” is one such story.

 

In 2001 I traveled to that South African city for the original U.N. event, the ambitiously titled “World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.” Eight years later, I attended the follow-up “Durban Review Conference,” held in Geneva from April 20-24.

 

That’s why I devoted a special section to Durban. Like any major international issue, this one demands a grasp of the background and context, the origins and evolution. So I’ve posted links here to all the Durban-related articles I’ve written since 2001. (more…)

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The 2009 Durban Review Conference will be held on U.N. grounds in Geneva (above), where security will be far tighter than in 2001. (Photo: mjj)

The 2009 Durban Review Conference will be held on U.N. grounds in Geneva (above), where security will be far tighter than in 2001. (Photo: mjj)

 

By Michael J. Jordan · April 6, 2009

 BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA (JTA) – Eight years ago, at the first U.N. World Conference Against Racism, pro-Israel activists endured a week of hate-filled insults, pamphlets, posters and marches in the streets of Durban, South Africa.

 When they finally marched out of a forum that branded Israel genocidal and racist like Apartheid South Africa, keffiyah-clad antagonists serenaded them with chants of “Free, free, Palestine!”

 Overwhelmed, activists vowed to prepare better the next time. That chance comes later this month: the Durban Review Conference will be held April 20-24 in the Swiss city of Geneva.

Palestinian supporters will hold another large street demonstration and brainstorm ways to strengthen their Israel-is-apartheid movement. But this time around Jewish groups are, among other things, sponsoring a pro-Israel rally, co-sponsoring a human-rights event that will feature Martin Luther King III and others, and organizing a Holocaust commemoration just outside the gates of the bucolic U.N. compound in Geneva.

 

“Some have told me the reactions now are like post-traumatic stress syndrome, because the community was so traumatized by what happened in 2001,” says Felice Gaer, who attended Durban as director of the American Jewish Committee’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for Human Rights. “Jewish tradition teaches us to repair the world, not turn our back on the world. So why will Jewish groups be in Geneva? To bear witness, fight back and repair the world.” (more…)

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unrwalogoDuring the recent war in Gaza, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees repeated a pattern of bias that I documented three years ago in a five-part, award-winning series.

 

BRATISLAVA – Criticism is mounting that a UN probe of Israel’s attacks on its own facilities in Gaza is too limited, and should be widened to investigate attacks on both Israeli and Palestinian civilians.

 

The UN “Board of Inquiry” findings are expected any day, and pro-Israel advocates expect no surprises – especially since the key source is UNRWA, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees.

 

In February, Amnesty International, which pro-Israel advocates critics describe as no friend of the Jewish state, opened criticism of the narrow mandate. “What is needed,” said Amnesty’s Irene Khan, “is a comprehensive international investigation that looks at all alleged violations of international law – by Israel, by Hamas and by other Palestinian armed groups involved in the conflict.”

 

Then on March 16, 16 respected war-crimes investigators and judges sent an open letter to the U.N. Security Council and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, further chastising the world body – and added that a broadened investigation should recommend for prosecution “those responsible for gross violations.”

 

“It is not only the UN personnel that deserve truth and justice, but Palestinians and Israelis themselves,” wrote one signatory, Prof. William A. Schabas, former member of the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

 

Even if the investigation were expanded, Israel’s defenders would balk at the main witness: UNRWA. (more…)

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