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Archive for the ‘“From East to East”’ Category

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

MASERU, Lesotho – The passport is stamped U.S., but I’m unabashedly a citizen of the world, with a toehold on four continents: from New York to Hong Kong, Prague to Lesotho. As a foreign correspondent, journalism educator, Health and Development communications consultant, and father of three, I’m based in Lesotho, high in the mountains of southern Africa. As the lone Western correspondent here, I’ve covered the tiny Mountain Kingdom‘s unique political crisis for Foreign Policy, AFP, South Africa’s Mail & Guardian, and others. Meanwhile, I’m also teaching Health Journalism and storytelling in one of the world’s sickliest societies. And from next-door South Africa, I’m co-producing a documentary film – The Clubhouse: A Post-Apartheid Story – which explores racial healing and equal opportunity in The Rainbow Nation, twenty years later. At the same time, in Hong Kong, I’m a six-time Visiting Scholar teaching International Journalism, mostly to bright, young mainland Chinese; and in Prague, I’m Senior Trainer of a biannual course in storytelling from around the world. In fact, post-Communist Central Europe flows through my veins; that’s where I launched my own foreign-correspondent career two decades ago. Thank you for visiting my website – and for reading … Michael

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(This Op-Ed appeared July 3 on the South African website, The Daily Maverick.)

The real story moving forward in a tiny kingdom afflicted by HIV and malnutrition – and utterly dependent on foreigners for free HIV anti-retrovirals and extra food – is if the most influential of donors, the United States, sticks to its demand for accountability for those responsible for the events last 30 August. But responsibility is a complex beast. By MICHAEL J. JORDAN

Cyril Ramaphosa, with Lt. Gen. Kamoli and Brigadier Mahao, as the SADC mediator answered a question at the Oct. 23, 2014, signing of the SADC security deal. (Photo by Michael J. Jordan)

Cyril Ramaphosa, with Lt. Gen. Kamoli and Brigadier Mahao, as the SADC mediator answered a question at the Oct. 23, 2014, signing of the SADC security deal. (Photo by Michael J. Jordan)

JOHANNESBURG – In Southern Africa, ‘tis the season to celebrate the culture of impunity. To laugh in the face of accountability. To spit in the eye of the rule of law.

At the recent African Union summit, headlines were dominated by South Africa’s refusal to detain the accused war criminal, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, on behalf of the International Criminal Court.

The ANC – which under Nelson Mandela triumphed against one of the world’s most notorious regimes, yet today is led by a Jacob Zuma whose countless corruption charges have made him a laughing stock – was joined by the legendary strongman and noxious nonagenarian, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, in declaring the ICC persona non grata in Africa.

Farther from the limelight, Lesotho Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili must have cracked a grin at all the hijinks. With his nation again swirling in crisis over the past month, how could he not interpret the AU anti-accountability spectacle as one more green-light for his new government to crack down? This one on top of the quiet consent of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), also led by Zuma and Mugabe.

Last week, a top military leader paid the price: with his assassination.

Maaparankoe Mahao, the Lesotho Defence Force Brigadier appointed last year to replace the intransigent Lieutenant General Tlali Kamoli as LDF commander – then, after Kamoli responded with a bloody coup-attempt last Aug. 30, became a central figure in SADC’s crisis-resolution efforts – was shot and killed in broad daylight, while driving his family. As two of his nephews watched.

SADC is now mouthing more empty words of “concern” for a Lesotho upon which South Africa has grown dependent for the vital water it pumps into Johannesburg: Zuma sent a fact-finding mission this weekend, followed Tuesday by a visit from the lead SADC mediator to Lesotho, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa. Lesotho is suddenly, even embarrassingly, back atop the SADC agenda.

Yet the real story moving forward in a tiny kingdom afflicted by HIV and malnutrition – and utterly dependent on foreigners for free HIV anti-retrovirals and extra food – is if the most influential of donors, the United States, sticks to its demand for accountability for those responsible for the 30 August events. Or else.

In the process, this dramatic showdown has suddenly turned Lesotho into an illuminating case-study on the limits of international-development assistance.

(more…)

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(For more of my reporting on the “criminal cover-up” in Lesotho, read this March 24 piece South Africa’s Daily Maverick. For a more sweeping piece on Lesotho’s post-Aug. 30 crisis, read my Feb. 27 piece for Foreign Policy.)

One face of Lesotho democracy today. (Photo credit: Unknown)

One face of Lesotho democracy today. (Photo credit: Unknown)

MASERU, Lesotho – With Lesotho swirling in crisis once more, a symbolic anniversary almost slipped by without me noticing.

Seems hard to believe now, but just three years ago, Lesotho was hailed as a democratic trailblazer, setting a new standard for all of southern Africa.

High in the pristine Maloti mountains, this tiny African kingdom – its half-a-century of independence scarred by military coups, political violence and blood-stained elections – pulled off a national election that saw a peaceful handover of power, followed by creation of one of Africa’s rare coalition governments.

I was still new to Lesotho, wet behind the ears after living in Africa only six months. Nevertheless, from that election, I produced my first foreign reporting from Lesotho. For The Christian Science Monitor, Democracy 101: Tiny Lesotho Holds Peaceful Elections. For The Global Post, Lesotho Leads Southern Africa in Democracy.

Amid so much gloom about the health crisis gripping the entire Basotho nation, this political achievement provided a ray of hope. Three years later, then … Happy Anniversary, Lesotho Democracy!

Right? No, nothing to celebrate in The Mountain Kingdom. Here are the headlines of three leading weeklies, over the past few days:

*From The Post, Kamoli Cracks the Whip: As in Lt. Gen. Tlali Kamoli, the “renegade” commander of the Lesotho Defence Force who reportedly led the Aug. 30 coup-attempt. Now reinstated with nary an inquiry clearing him of treason-and-murder charges. Army-linked mayhem of recent days moved US Ambassador Matthew Harrington to wonder aloud if “the LDF is doing as it pleases.”

(more…)

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(For more of my reporting on the “criminal cover-up” in Lesotho, read this March 24 piece South Africa’s Daily Maverick. For a more sweeping piece on Lesotho’s post-Aug. 30 crisis, read my Feb. 27 piece for Foreign Policy.)

U.S. Ambassador to Lesotho Matthew T. Harrington (Credit: U.S. Embassy in Maseru)

U.S. Ambassador to Lesotho Matthew T. Harrington (Credit: U.S. Embassy in Maseru)

MASERU – In Lesotho – a country marked by high-level lawlessness over the past year – one heavyweight has finally demanded “accountability” … or else.

On Wednesday, U.S. Ambassador to Lesotho Matthew Harrington clarified that Washington hasn’t “threatened” to cut aid or freeze programs over troubling steps the new government has taken since snap Feb. 28 elections.

However, Harrington didn’t rule out the possibility that the Millennium Challenge Corporation may deny Lesotho a second massive “compact” this December.

From 2008-2013, the MCC gave Lesotho a whopping $362.55 million for health, water and private-sector projects, including 138 new or renovated health clinics — in a country that according to all major health indicators, is one of the sickliest in the world. (This on top of the $225 million the US has given here since 2007, through PEPFAR, to combat HIV/AIDS in Lesotho, which suffers the world’s second-highest rate of infection. For those keeping score, that’s nearly $600 million for a tiny African kingdom few Americans have even heard of.)

Yet a key MCC provision is “accountability,” which in Lesotho includes “accountability for the events of Aug. 30,” Harrington said. “The MCC has made very clear that accountability will be taken into consideration – and we’ll be watching very carefully if anyone will be held accountable for the actions of that day.”

The US has been largely silent during the months of crisis-resolution efforts, deferring to Lesotho’s neighbors and the regional powerhouse: the Southern African Development Community, led by South Africa. Yet not once during months of mediation did SADC seek “accountability” for Aug. 30 — or try to tackle Lesotho political-violence itself.

Today, though, more Basotho, especially within the suddenly emboldened, vocal civil-society circles, are looking to the two leading “beacons of democracy” in Maseru — the US Embassy and European Union Delegation — to help them defend the rule of law. (The EU has yet to speak up, as the US now has.)

Harrington, who, to be fair, only arrived on the job weeks after the Lesotho crisis erupted, on Wednesday made his strongest comment to date about the whole affair. (more…)

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MASERU – With Lesotho civil-society now finding its voice, below are a series of short dispatches I posted to my Facebook account.

MAY 26, 2015: In Lesotho, is something brewing at the grassroots – finally? After the Lesotho Council of NGOs rallying cry on May 21 for “rule of law” [SEE DISPATCH BELOW], yesterday, the other leading voice of Lesotho civil society, the Transformation Resource Centre, went one step further: pointing fingers.

The TRC press-release: “Condemnation of abductions, assassination plots and threats against courts of law by elements of the Lesotho Defence Force.” Moreover, the TRC states that it now has the ear of the International Criminal Court, but is calling on victims to produce concrete “evidence” in order to stop “these acts of terror, perpetrated by elements of the state.”

One Basotho analyst today helps me connect the dots: “Basotho are a patient nation, sometimes too patient.” But, “are slowly waking up to their rights.” Still no Lesotho government reaction, it seems. Meanwhile, will the Lesotho media now bravely turn watchdog, to dig deep and separate fact from fiction?

MAY 25, 2015: Just read a remarkable – and very BRAVE – May 21 statement from the Lesotho Council of NGOs “Democracy and Human Rights Commission.” At a time when some suggest it’s only a boy-who-cried-wolf opposition howling about threats of political-violence, the LCN speaks out about the “feeling of insecurity” in Lesotho, the lack of “rule of law”, the handling of LDF that jeopardizes “peace and security”, etc. LCN calls on all African, Western, international partners to “condemn any action” harming Lesotho’s “democracy and human-rights culture.” So, the question is: who will have the LCN’s back? Who – if anyone – will join their brave stance? Even defend Lesotho civil society, if needed, after sticking its neck out like this? Bravo, LCN.

(more…)

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MASERU, Lesotho — Is ‪‎Lesotho‬ starting to unravel … again? Clues abound.

First, the shooting death of a Basotho businessman close to the ousted ex-Premier Thabane and his ABC party – with whispers of army involvement. Then, the alleged “kidnappings” of Lesotho Defence Force soldiers by fellow army comrades.

And now this, yesterday: Thabane, the new opposition leader, flees back to South Africa for a second time — claiming an assassination plot against him.

In November, I reported for AFP about another alleged plot to kill Thabane — but that was never substantiated. (And forced me to realize how much misinformation and disinformation permeated the otherwise fresh air of Lesotho.)

Nevertheless, is it time yet for more ‪Cyrial Ramaphosa‬ mediation — on behalf of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) — which ignored Political Violence in Lesotho, the first time around?

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MASERU, Lesotho Dear friends! I’m pleased to announce a “status” update.

I returned to post-crisis ‪#‎Lesotho‬ last month, after another memorable stint with my student-journalists in Hong Kong. Back in Lesotho, I’ve shifted away from the “Corruption and Political Violence” beat I made my own since September. Instead, today I wear a different hat: as a Health Communications Consultant.

In the country that suffers the world’s second-highest rate of HIV infection (a mind-boggling 23%!) – where UNICEF figures suggest that more than 10 percent of the entire populace has been orphaned by one or both parents – I’m proud to lead a storytelling project about the most innocent victims of the HIV epidemic: the Basotho children categorized as “Orphans and Vulnerable Children.”

I’m particularly pleased to be doing this project for one US NGO on the frontlines of this great national tragedy, Management Sciences for Health. MSH, with financial support from USAID, has nurtured a small army of grassroots Lesotho NGOs, all of them scattered among the rugged Maluti mountains.

Since that 23%-figure hasn’t budged in more than a decade (!), from my perch here in the capital — and from the perspective of an international community largely focused on the HIV epidemic — it’s easy to conclude that “nothing” is being done to fight HIV in Lesotho. Now I know better.

Last week I visited the first handful of Lesotho NGOs, who raise awareness of HIV, malnutrition, abuse of children, and other topics among the peaks and valleys around Qacha’s Nek and Mohale’s Hoek. If it weren’t for these social workers and community activists – and their battalions of primary and secondary caregivers in virtually every embattled village – I’d be more pessimistic about HIV in Lesotho.

More on that soon! Updates to come. One objective of mine is to raise awareness about this entire OVC calamity, as it also opens a window onto all the health and development challenges that confront Lesotho – and southern Africa itself.

Thank you for reading!

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(The following commentary was published March 24 by South Africa’s Daily Maverick. For more on Lesotho’s crisis, read my recent piece for Foreign Policy.)

For better or worse, Lesotho has moved on from last year’s constitutional crisis. But how much do we really know about the attempted coup (or was it?) that sparked all the troubles on that fateful August day?

Will the family of Mokheseng Ramahloko -- the lone man killed Aug. 30 -- receive justice? (Photo: mjj)

Will the family of Mokheseng Ramahloko — the lone man killed Aug. 30 — receive justice? (Photo: mjj)

By MICHAEL J. JORDAN

In crisis-struck Lesotho, democracy has prevailed – and a criminal cover-up continues.

Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili, who served as premier from 1998 to 2012, was sworn in last week for his second stint in power: the inauguration cemented Lesotho’s second straight peaceful handover of power, while ushering in its second straight coalition government – both rare achievements in sub-Saharan Africa.

Yet, with the snap February elections coming six months after a coup attempt that rocked the tiny African kingdom, this is a hollow victory for democracy – even with the imprimatur of well-meaning outsiders. As the Daily Maverick’s Simon Allison astutely observed, Lesotho has experienced a bloodless “democratic coup.”

Indeed, nothing exposes this sham – perpetrated by the new leadership, with the ongoing complicity of their foreign enablers – more than the whitewashing of the putsch that sparked Lesotho’s political-security crisis in the first place.

The enduring mystery of what exactly happened that day – who did what and why – would, if exposed, likely destabilise Lesotho once more. It would also rattle surrounding South Africa, which relies heavily on Lesotho’s water. And it’d unravel the desperate, quick-fix efforts by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) – the region’s diplomatic bloc, led by South Africa itself – to restore “peace and security” to Lesotho. In other words, it’s in no one’s interest to unlock the truth.

Not once, during the six months of SADC “facilitation” efforts, up through today, have SADC officials – particularly its lead mediator in Lesotho, South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa – touched on the mutinous army revolt on 30 August last year.

(more…)

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(The following Dispatch was published Feb. 27 on ForeignPolicy.com. For more of my reportage on other root-causes of Lesotho’s crisis: high-level corruption, ongoing political violence, the untamed military.)

As southern Africa’s democratic success story Lesotho goes to the polls, the prime minister’s anti-corruption crackdown has brought a bitter power struggle into the streets.

By Michael J. Jordan

Party loyalists in Lesotho. (Photo: AFP)

Party loyalists in Lesotho. (Photo: AFP)

MASERU, Lesotho — On Feb. 1, just outside the gates of the Royal Palace in this tiny African kingdom, shots rang out, shattering the Sunday afternoon quiet.

Two bodyguards of Prime Minister Tom Thabane exchanged a hail of gunfire with soldiers from Lesotho’s defense force. When the shootout was over, both bodyguards and at least one soldier had been wounded. A bystander, reportedly hit by 23 bullets, was killed. It’s still unclear who fired first. The incident — sudden and bloody on the streets of the capital, Maseru — thrust a bitter power struggle between the ruling coalition government and its adversaries back into daylight.

It was only two years ago that Lesotho, a mountainous enclave of not quite 2 million people, fully encircled geographically by South Africa, appeared to be a new democratic success story in sub-Saharan Africa.

Despite having a past marred throughout its half-century of independence by military coups and post-election violence, the constitutional monarchy pulled off a stunning political achievement: Lesotho’s 2012 parliamentary elections produced a peaceful handover of power from longtime Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili to the feisty opposition (which had been persecuted after splitting from the ruling party in 2006). And the new leadership went on to create one of the continent’s rare coalition governments.

But now, only days away from the country’s critical parliamentary elections set for Feb. 28 — which are being overseen by a regional body, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), that has refused to publicly acknowledge the high-level corruption and political violence at the root of the unrest — that shootout may have been a harbinger of worse things to come.

With shared roots in the country’s first post-independence party, the factions are distinguished more by personality than politics, with little difference between their ideologies. But as one civil servant who requested anonymity said, “Whichever side doesn’t get to be a part of the next government, I’m afraid they will cause some troubles — I think they’ll fight.”

(more…)

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ClubhouseLogoJPEGMay2014Dear friends and supporters! My partner Danny and I are thrilled to unveil our new promo for our documentary film on racial healing in ‪‎The New South Africa‬, twenty years later – The Clubhouse: A Post-Apartheid Story.

Click here to view it. The top-notch cinematography is drawn from our last production trip to Ventersdorp, which many of you helped fund. We would’ve gotten this trailer out sooner, but Lesotho‬ erupted in crisis. And, well … duty called!

That said, we’d never forsake this film. Step by step, we’ll get there. Do let us know what you think of the promo.

Meanwhile, if you’d like to read my six-part travelogue on the making of this film, please click here. Thank you!

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(The following piece appeared Feb. 19 in South Africa’s Mail & Guardian. For more on another root-cause of Lesotho’s crisis – political violence – please click here. For more background on Lesotho’s security accord, click here.)

M&GlogoThe nerves of the coup-prone mountain kingdom are frayed as a SADC-monitored poll nears to return it to political stability.

Michael J. Jordan

Lesotho's "renegade" Lt. Gen. Tlali Kamoli, smiling after signing the Oct. 23 peace deal. (Photo: mjj)

Lesotho’s “renegade” commander, Lt. Gen. Tlali Kamoli. (Photo: mjj)

MASERU, Lesotho – In the first few months after Lesotho’s crisis erupted in August, much of the blame was pinned on the aggression of the country’s military commander, Lieutenant General Tlali Kamoli. But now, just days before the kingdom’s Feb. 28 election aimed at resolving the impasse, there are indications that Prime Minister Tom Thabane may have an entire rogue military on his hands.

The Aug. 30 coup attempt saw Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) soldiers chase Thabane from his official residence across the South African border. Simultaneously, troops attacked three police stations, killing one officer and injuring nine others.

For South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, the lead mediator in the crisis for the Southern African Development Community (SADC), a crowning achievement came in November when he exiled Kamoli from Lesotho. Cut off the snake’s head, went the rationale, and then nurture unity between the army and police, and between the army and a democratically elected civilian command.

Yet today, ahead of the poll SADC moved forward by two years, the LDF has made a move that shows just how big the problem is. On February 13, the military issued a one-page declaration stating that, “in its quest to fulfil its mandated duties to protect the Basotho nation”, it would immediately begin “patrols and vehicle checkpoints” in “various places” nationwide.

Ramaphosa scrambled to nip this exercise in the bud, producing an agreement in which the government, the LDF, the police and Lesotho’s Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) agreed that the army will “remain in barracks” and “only assist” if the IEC requests it. Nevertheless, this manoeuvring by the LDF has sparked fears that voters may be intimidated or that violence may break out.

“The saddest part is that the prime minister, as commander-in-chief, is helpless to do anything about the LDF,” said a Basotho businesswoman, who insisted on anonymity. “SADC and Ramaphosa must be very clear: if they’re truly for a lasting peace in Lesotho, they must bring the LDF to order and depoliticise them.”

(more…)

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(The following piece appeared Feb. 13 in South Africa’s Mail & Guardian. For more on another root-cause of Lesotho’s crisis – corruption – please click here.)

M&GlogoAfter a deadly shooting earlier this month, the SADC is being criticised for ignoring the cause of Lesotho’s crisis: political violence.

By Michael J Jordan

The Basotho bystander shot dead in the Feb. 1 political violence. (Photo: mjj)

The Basotho bystander shot dead in the Feb. 1 political violence. (Photo: mjj)

MASERU, Lesotho – It’s a season of denials in Lesotho. On Sunday, Feb. 1, the afternoon calm in the capital Maseru was shattered by the crackle of gunfire in the street just outside the gate of King Letsie III’s royal palace.

Two of Prime Minister Tom Thabane’s bodyguards, travelling alone, were shot and wounded. At least one Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) soldier was also shot and wounded. A private security guard, drawn by the din, was killed in the crossfire.

The government says troops fired first. The LDF deny this, saying Thabane’s men (soldiers themselves) fired first – at a checkpoint the LDF set up to protect the Maseru headquarters of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), here to “restore peace and security” after last August’s coup attempt in which soldiers raided Thabane’s official residence and the national police headquarters, killing one police officer and injuring nine.

But SADC says it did not invite LDF protection that day. Days later, Lesotho’s government says four LDF soldiers were arrested in South Africa on their way to “finish the job” – of killing Thabane’s two bodyguards as they recovered in a Bloemfontein hospital.

The South African Police Service denies this: “No one has been arrested.”

What no one denies, though, is that in a country plagued by a long history of political violence, especially around elections, the Feb. 1 shoot-out was yet another act of political violence. Coming just weeks before the critical February 28 elections – which SADC moved up two years earlier to restore “normalcy” to the mountain kingdom – it is causing concern.

“When we hear about soldiers shooting at each other, people dying, conflicting statements about why exactly soldiers were there, it causes confusion and fear for ordinary Basotho,” says Sofonea Shale, co-ordinator of Development for Peace Education, a leading voice of civil society.  “When a security guard is caught in the crossfire, don’t think violence is too far from you. Tomorrow, that could be you.”

(more…)

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(The following commentary was published Feb. 13 by South Africa’s Daily Maverick. It was also published a day earlier on The Mantle in New York.)

It’s not all doom and gloom in tiny Lesotho – although between the healthcare crisis, the spiralling unemployment and the dangerously messy political situation there is enough of that to go around too. MICHAEL J. JORDAN profiles the youth-driven peace concert that demands a brighter future.

By Michael J. Jordan

MASERU – In a sea of unrelenting bad news around the world, we in the media should sometimes look harder for good news. Especially for me today, an outsider up to my ears in a tiny African kingdom I’ve grown to care about deeply.

With Lesotho and its mind-boggling range of health, development and democratization challenges – and now mounting fear of imminent election-related violence – it’s simply too easy to write about the negatives.

That’s why I’m stunned to have stumbled across a genuinely positive story: a new Basotho-youth organization unveiled its plan to host a huge pro-peace concert, Stand United Music Festival -this Saturday, Feb. 14, two weeks before the vote.

At first I dismissed the concert as a cute idea, but not necessarily news-worthy. Now I see a greater symbolism, which even inspires me to write about it.

Let me explain. Though, first a disclaimer: I’m not writing this piece because my documentary-film partner is a co-organizer, or that my wife works for one of the sponsoring agencies. (Let them do their own damn PR! Or, check their poster.)

No, I write for two reasons. We journalists have an obligation to seek out “good news,” as well. Sure, bad news, especially scandalous stories, help “sell papers.” But we have a duty to our audience to be as fair and accurate as possible. Disproportionate focus on the negative – the low-hanging fruit – may present a distorted image of a society. Particularly, when reporting from faraway lands.

For example, I now live next door to South Africa, and all I hear about it is crime, corruption, cronyism and incompetence. Surely there are some positive trends to report about “The Rainbow Nation,” two decades after Apartheid?

Now the second reason: the media must also recognize the vital role we play in shaping and influencing a national psyche.

(more…)

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By Michael J. Jordan

The Basotho bystander shot dead in the Feb. 1 political violence. (Photo: mjj)

The Basotho bystander shot dead in the Feb. 1 political violence. (Photo: mjj)

MASERU, Lesotho – A top Lesotho official has distanced his government from a Minister’s assertion last week that four Lesotho soldiers were arrested in neighboring South Africa, while on their way to “finish off” two of Prime Minister Tom Thabane’s bodyguards – as they lay recovering from a recent shootout.

“At my disposal, I don’t have any concrete information to confirm or not to confirm these arrests,” Government Secretary Moahloli Mphaka said Wednesday.

Lesotho is two-plus weeks from Feb. 28 elections intended to restore peace and security, after a coup attempt convulsed the tiny African kingdom last August.

The Feb. 1 shootout in broad daylight between Lesotho soldiers and Thabane’s two bodyguards sparked fears in a country plagued by bouts of election-related violence during its half-century of independence. It also spurred greater criticism of mediation efforts by the regional peace-and-security bloc, the 15-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC).

Home Affairs Minister Joang Molapo then ratcheted tensions on Feb. 5, when he announced that four heavily armed Lesotho Defence Force soldiers were arrested on their way to the provincial South African hospital where the two bodyguards – soldiers themselves, who had reportedly tipped off Thabane about the Aug. 30 putsch and helped him escape into South Africa – lay wounded.

“We believe the four arrested intended to finish off the soldiers who they didn’t kill” earlier, Molapo told AFP. Molapo, though, declined to provide their names or location, for the claim to be verified. An LDF spokesman denied the arrests, saying all soldiers were accounted for in Lesotho.

Two days later, South African Police Service National Spokesman Solomon Makgale told AFP: “The SAPS has not arrested Lesotho soldiers.”

From the Lesotho government, this was the latest sensational claim of security threats, without providing evidence – in a political atmosphere filled with unsubstantiated accusations between the government and its opponents.

(more…)

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(The following article was published Feb. 6 by international news agency AFP.)

AFP

Maseru (Lesotho) (AFP) – Four Lesotho soldiers have been arrested in South Africa where they planned to kill two of the prime minister’s bodyguards recovering in hospital, Home Affairs Minister Joang Molapo said Friday.

The bodyguards were wounded in a shootout in Lesotho’s capital Maseru on Sunday, allegedly because they foiled an August 30 army coup attempt by tipping off Prime Minister Tom Thabane and helping him escape across the South African border.

With tensions mounting ahead of elections on February 28, the wounded bodyguards — who are also soldiers — are wanted dead, Molapo told AFP.

“We believe the four arrested intended to finish off the soldiers who they didn’t kill on Sunday,” he said.

Molapo added that the two bodyguards had been moved from hospital in Bloemfontein to a “more secure” medical facility in South Africa.

As of late Friday, South African police had yet to confirm the claim. “For now, we have no information about the alleged arrest,” SAPS National Spokesman Gen. Solomon Makgale told AFP.

A Lesotho Defence Force spokesman earlier this week denied that the bodyguards had been targeted, saying they had fired first after ignoring an army checkpoint. The spokesman could not be reached Friday to comment on the latest charge against his soldiers.

Molapo said he would join a Thabane-led delegation to Pretoria on Friday, to discuss the tiny African kingdom’s “deteriorating security situation” and other election-related issues with South African President Jacob Zuma.

(more…)

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(The following article was published Feb. 2 by international news agency AFP.)

AFP

Maseru (Lesotho) (AFP) – Lesotho’s military on Monday rejected government claims it was to blame for a shootout that killed a bystander and injured two of the prime minister’s bodyguards, as tensions in the tiny African kingdom remain high following a failed putsch.
The army instead accused the bodyguards of firing first in Sunday’s incident, which took place at a checkpoint in the capital Maseru and comes less than a month before national elections.
“The two refused to stop at the checkpoint and started shooting,” the Lesotho Defense Force spokesman, Major Ntlele Ntoi, said in a statement. “The LDF Command condemns this regrettable and provocative attack.”
A senior advisor to Prime Minister Tom Thabane told AFP on Sunday that Lesotho soldiers had deliberately targeted the two bodyguards -– soldiers themselves -– perhaps as revenge for tipping off Thabane last August and helping him escape before troops raided his residence in a botched coup attempt.
But on Monday, government secretary Moahloli Mphaka said the authorities were still trying to gather all the information.
“We are still busy consulting and getting the true story of what happened,” Mphaka told AFP. “We don’t want to make a statement that will confuse the nation, because we need the facts of what exactly transpired.”
The incident has sparked concern there could be more violence ahead Lesotho’s February 28 elections, which are being held more than two years early in order to restore stability in the impoverished country. The failed August 30 putsch exposed friction between the Lesotho military and the police and tensions remain.

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(The following article was published Feb. 1 by international news agency AFP.)

AFP

The corpse of the dead man caught in the crossfire Sunday. (Photo: mjj)

The corpse of the dead man caught in the crossfire Sunday. (Photo: mjj)

Maseru (Lesotho) (AFP) – Two bodyguards tasked with protecting Lesotho’s Prime Minister Tom Thabane were shot and wounded on Sunday and a bystander killed in the crossfire, five months after a failed putsch in the tiny African kingdom, one of his senior advisers said.

Both the injured men were soldiers who had tipped off Thabane about the planned August 2014 coup when the military attacked several police installations and the prime minister’s residence, killing one police officer, the adviser said.

“The two guards went against their own men that day, absolutely,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, suggesting that Sunday’s assault could be linked to the failed coup.

The shootings outside the gates of the Royal Palace of Lesotho King Letsie III also come four weeks before national elections in the impoverished country of two million which is surrounded by South Africa.

The bodyguards were not accompanying the prime minister at the time.

“We’re still trying to figure out the motives. My gut-feeling is that what’s happening now is to frustrate the election process,” the adviser added.

Lesotho’s February 28 elections are being held more than two years early in order to restore stability following the August 30 coup attempt.

(more…)

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(The following Op-Ed was published Jan. 28 by South Africa’s Daily Maverick.)

Journalists are the primary watchdogs in any democracy, but what happens when those watchdogs lose their bite? In Lesotho, a pliant, uncritical media is failing to hold anyone to account in the run-up to the February elections. By MICHAEL J. JORDAN

Former Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili (right), and his #2, Monyane Moleleki, a former Minister of Natural Resources accused of fixing diamond contracts, aim to oust Thabane in Feb. 28 elections. Then, likely sweep away all related criminal cases. (Photo: mjj)

Former Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili (right), and his #2, Monyane Moleleki, a former Minister of Natural Resources accused of fixing diamond contracts, may be hoping to sweep away all corruption cases. (Photo: mjj)

Maseru, LESOTHO – For any democracy to thrive, its media must act as watchdog – holding leaders accountable for their words and deeds. And, yes, take a bite if they fail to deliver.

That’s why it’s so troubling to see how toothless my colleagues in the Lesotho media truly are, especially when their nation needs them most – one month away from the critical 28 February elections. Basotho voters must choose which leaders to entrust with guiding them out of months of political and security crisis, sparked by 30 August coup attempt.

There’s more at stake than the fate of a tiny mountain kingdom that just two years ago was touted as a democratic success in Africa for its peaceful handover of power – yet was derailed by its sixth putsch in half a century of independence, which laid bare endemic corruption and political violence.

More broadly, there may be repercussions for the regional power, the 15-nation Southern African Development Community. Lesotho is the latest test of SADC’s ability to resolve conflicts, yet its lead mediator, South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, hasn’t uttered a word in public about the root causes of corruption and political violence. If this election spawns bloodshed, would South Africa have to send in troops – as in 1998?

Then there’s the international community. It’s spent well over $1 billion in foreign aid over the past decade to help the Basotho tackle their severe health, development and economic challenges – yet has little to show for it. Just the opposite, in fact: the HIV rate refuses to budge from 23 percent, and Lesotho is sliding down the UN Human-Development Index. The prime culprits: corruption, cronyism, incompetence and pervasive apathy.

So, which Basotho politicians, parties and ministry officials would foreign donors prefer as their next set of partners, especially as some deepen their investment here? Or would it be time for the international community to consider whether to pull out of Lesotho – as the Irish Embassy did last year (though Irish Aid remains) – and devote their dollars elsewhere in sub-Sahara Africa?

Back to the Basotho journalists, then. With Lesotho facing this fork in the road, the burden of a noble mission falls to the media: to better inform and educate society, enabling voters to make wiser decisions about whom to elect. Who’s telling the truth? Who isn’t? Who’s delivered results? Who hasn’t? And why? (more…)

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(The following article was published Dec. 12 by South Africa’s Mail & Guardian.)

M&GlogoThe tiny country struggles to prosecute highly placed politicians accused of financial crimes.

By Michael J. Jordan

MASERU, Lesotho – Timothy Thahane, former Lesotho finance minister and a former deputy governor of the South African Reserve Bank, has been accused of defrauding a Lesotho farming project of R24-million.

Former Finance Minister Tim Thahane rejects the charges against him. "Don't put me in league with others accused," he told me. (Photo: mjj)

Ex-Finance Minister Thahane claims his innocence. “Don’t put me in league with others accused,” he told me. (Photo: mjj)

And he’s not alone, but just one of a handful of current and former Lesotho ministers who are accused of corruption. Yet none of them has been tried in court – let alone prosecuted.

Last month Thahane’s lawyer, Qhalehang Letsika, astonished the country’s high court with his reason for why the judge should once again postpone the trial of the 74-year-old. He admitted he had proposed the November court date in September, but the court hadn’t confirmed the date with him, so he wasn’t prepared to proceed.

High court Justice Tseliso Mona­phathi expressed his frustration: “It now seems to be the tradition to postpone these high-profile cases … this should not be tolerated. It affects the reputation of this court and all the courts in this country.”

Letsika told the Mail & Guardian this week: “The intention is not that my client shouldn’t have his day in court. We are ready to appear in court, defend his rights and prove that the charges are baseless.”

But this is more than a saga of how one tiny African country struggles to prosecute financial crimes perpetrated at the highest levels, which ultimately hinder its development. The ruling coalition also asserts that corruption is a root cause of Lesotho’s current crisis sparked by an August 30 coup attempt.

(more…)

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(For more on the initial accusation against SADC commanders, please click here.)

By Michael J. Jordan

MASERU, Lesotho – Three weeks later, it’s unclear if the Southern African Development Community has sent home two commanders assigned to protect top leaders in tiny, crisis-struck nation, but whom Lesotho’s government then accused of leaking information that jeopardized Prime Minister Tom Thabane’s security.

Neither government officials nor SADC officials want to discuss it – in a country still swirling with rumors and accusations since an Aug. 30 coup attempt.

“There is no further information to share, as this is a matter between the government and SADC,” Government Secretary Moahloli Mphaka said Friday.

Mphaka sent the letter to SADC on Nov. 17, on behalf of Thabane’s government, and said he expected rapid removal of two men they accused of detailing the premiere’s movements in secret meetings with opposition forces.

Lesotho is still unnerved by the putsch three months ago, in which soldiers reportedly raided Thabane’s official residence – forcing him to flee into South Africa – and a simultaneous assault on three police stations that killed one cop.

Heavily armed police protection for Thabane and other top officials has since been provided by SADC, the 15-nation bloc responsible for regional peace and security, and by its most influential member, South Africa.

Thabane spokesman Thabo Thakalekoala said SADC police told him the two commanders “have left the country for their country of origin,” however, SADC itself refused to confirm this.

(more…)

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(The following article was published Dec. 5 by international news agency AFP. For more about the SADC plan for “lasting peace” in Lesotho, please click here.)

AFP

King Letsie III, flanked by Queen 'Masenate, with Ramaphosa and Thabane behind then, at the Oct. 17 re-opening of Parliament. (Photo: mjj)

King Letsie III, who dissolved Parliament on Friday, here at its landmark re-opening on Oct. 17, flanked by Queen ‘Masenate, with Ramaphosa and Thabane behind them. (Photo: mjj)

Maseru (Lesotho) (AFP) — Lesotho’s King Letsie III dissolved parliament on Friday ahead of a February election designed to restore peace to the kingdom after an attempted coup.

The dissolution is part of a peace deal reached by a regional bloc, the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

“This shows that we are complying with the SADC roadmap to bring peace and security back to Lesotho,” Thabo Thakalekoala, spokesman for Prime Minister Tom Thabane, told AFP.

The tiny kingdom which is surrounded by South Africa, last held elections in 2012, which resulted in a shaky coalition government.

Matters came to a head with the August 30 putsch, when soldiers raided the official residence of Prime Minister Tom Thabane, causing him to flee into nearby South Africa. The attempted coup exposed friction between the Lesotho military and the police, pushing the country to the brink of a full-blown conflict.

Early last month, South Africa’s deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa helped broker a political agreement that re-opened parliament for the first time since June and pushed forward national elections by more than two years.

(more…)

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(The following article was published Dec. 4 by South Africa’s Mail & Guardian.)

M&GlogoThe mountain kingdom needs a robust, confident media to cover events without fear or favor. But it’s unlikely in this polarised society.

By Michael J. Jordan

MASERU, Lesotho – The barbs are flying at me faster, flung by a hostile crowd.

Here I am, the lone Western correspondent in this tiny African kingdom that still feels volatile since the August 30 attempted military coup that sent the nation’s prime minister scurrying next door into South Africa.

Ambushed on Nov. 25 to discredit my reporting, I resisted. Though, I apologized for its "unintended consequences." (Photo: Irene Seme/Public Eye)

Ambushed on Nov. 25 to discredit my reporting, I resisted. Though, I apologized for its “unintended consequences.” (Photo: Irene Seme/Public Eye)

I am suddenly on trial, as a kangaroo court deals me a harsh lesson – and reveals what a minefield Lesotho is for journalists covering this crisis. Specifically, I’m forced to defend my reporting on the latest, Hollywood-worthy claims: “Lesotho hunts foreign ‘mercenaries’, fears assassination plot”.

A top government official alleged that Nigerian and Ghanaian soldiers-for-hire had slipped into the country, armed to the teeth, to hatch a plot to assassinate Lesotho’s leaders – to throw the tiny nation into even deeper crisis and harpoon the February 2015 elections, already moved up two years early by South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, who is mediating to restore some semblance of “lasting peace” here.

For the “mercenaries” claim, I’d asked two people if there was any clue on the identity of these alleged assassins. Thesele Maseribane, the third leader of the ruling tripartite coalition (who’s also the minister of gender and youth, sports and recreation) floated two nationalities: Nigerians and Ghanaians. Then I spoke to the police’s assistant commissioner of police, Sello Mosili, who confirmed this. So that’s what I reported – their allegations.

Some online media – in Lesotho, too – focused on the nationalities. Even worse, one weekly here turned my story’s allegation into their story’s fact: “Police hunt Nigerian, Ghanaian mercenaries.”

That sensationalist twist unfortunately sparked anxiety among the hundreds of Nigerians and Ghanaians living in Lesotho. They say it’s led to unkind comments from Basotho and feeling threatened on the streets.

(more…)

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MASERU, Lesotho – Where are the Basotho voices?

It’s World AIDS Day in Lesotho – now the world’s second-most infected, with so many discouraging stats.

One thing I’ve learned after three years here, about the limits of international-development assistance: Lesotho needs Basotho champions.

Just as Magic Johnson did in the U.S. in 1991, brave Basotho in Lesotho must step up to say: “I’m the face of HIV; enough of this deadly stigma.”

Likewise, it’d really help if a brave Lesotho official were to step forward: “I’m the face of corruption; enough of the greed that stunts our growth.”

Though, I’d settle for one out of two …

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(The following article was published Nov. 19 by international news agency AFP. For more about the claims of foreign “mercenaries” in Lesotho, please click here.)

AFP

Maseru (Lesotho) (AFP) — Lesotho has demanded the expulsion of two senior officers from a SADC police mission, accusing them of sabotaging the security of Prime Minister Tom Thabane and other top officials.

In a confidential letter to the Southern African Development Community and its lead negotiator Cyril Ramaphosa on Monday, the government expressed “certain reservations” about a South African Lieutenant Colonel and Brigadier.

“Once we request that they be immediately released from their services, it’s effectively saying they are expected to be,” Government Secretary Moahloli Mphaka told AFP Wednesday.

“I believe quick action will be taken,” he added.

The southern African bloc deployed more than 100 police to protect Thabane and other government officials following an attempted coup on August 30, which forced the prime minister to briefly flee to neighbouring South Africa.

“The handling of this issue could be a recipe for disaster,” Mphaka said. “This is not meant to harm the integrity of those officers, but to protect the integrity of the SADC observer-mission.”

Mphaka refused to give details of the specific allegations against the two officers, but another senior government official said the two commanders were accused of conspiring with Thabane’s rivals to “sabotage the mission.”

(more…)

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(The following article was published Nov. 10 by international news agency AFP. For more about Lt. Gen. Kamoli’s alleged peace-deal breaches, please click here.)

AFP

Coalition partner Thesele Maseribane, speaking at the September memorial for the officer killed during the putsch, now accuses rivals of further destabilizing Lesotho. (Photo: mjj)

Coalition leader Thesele Maseribane, speaking at the September memorial for the officer killed during the putsch, now accuses rivals of further destabilizing Lesotho to undermine elections. (Photo: mjj)

Maseru (Lesotho) (AFP) – Lesotho police are investigating allegations that foreign “mercenaries” plan to kill Prime Minister Tom Thabane in a bid to further destabilise this crisis-hit nation still reeling from an attempted coup.

Senior police and government officials told AFP on Monday that government offices had been evacuated and the prime minister and King Letsie III cancelled public engagements Sunday amid intelligence suggesting a plot.

Assistant Police Commissioner Sello Mosili said a team of perhaps 14 Nigerian and Ghanaian soldiers-for-hire reportedly entered Lesotho through a rugged, mountainous southeastern border area with South Africa.

It is believed they have a stash of weapons.

“That’s information that we’ve heard from local people in the mountains,” Mosili said adding. “It’s still under investigation.”

Thesele Maseribane, a government minister and the third leader of the ruling tripartite coalition, said his armed South African guards evacuated from his office on Friday, ahead of intelligence that mercenaries were on their way to kill him.

“It’s not about security for me or for the prime minister, but about the security of the nation,” Maseribane told AFP Monday. “Are my people secured? My answer is, no.”

The assertion of mercenaries in this mountain enclave, which is encircled by South Africa, is just the latest chapter since an August 30 putsch that saw Lesotho Defence Force soldiers raid Thabane’s official residence, forcing him to flee into South Africa.

(more…)

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(The following article was published Nov. 6 by international news agency AFP. To read more about the security accord announced on Oct. 23, please click here.)

AFP

Lesotho's "renegade" Lt. Gen. Tlali Kamoli, smiling after signing the Oct. 23 peace deal, is now accused of breaching it. (Photo: mjj)

Lesotho’s “renegade” Lt. Gen. Tlali Kamoli, smiling after signing the Oct. 23 peace deal, is now accused of breaching it. (Photo: mjj)

Maseru (Lesotho) (AFP) — A top Lesotho defence official has urged regional powers to “remove” an influential military commander for flouting a peace deal meant to stabilise the tiny African country two months after an attempted coup.

The defence ministry’s principal secretary accused Lieutenant General Tlali Kamoli of harassing rivals and marshalling forces, despite an agreement to relinquish his command.

Echoing a confidential letter to South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, Thato Mohasoa told AFP on Thursday that the Southern African Development Community should “remove” Kamoli, who is accused of being behind an August 30 coup attempt.

“SADC should use any means at their disposal — including persuasion,” he said.

Kamoli is accused of ordering a pre-dawn military raid on Prime Minister Tom Thabane’s residence and the national police headquarters.

On Oct. 23, Ramaphosa announced the "three chiefs" would be sent on a "wonderful leave of absence" - presumably, not together: Kamoli, Tsooana, Mahao. PM Thabane, to Ramaphosa's right, again looked like a man defeated. (Photo: mjj)

Ramaphosa, announcing the “wonderful leave of absence” for Kamoli, Tsooana, Mahao. PM Thabane, far left, looked like a man defeated. (Photo: mjj)

Under a deal inked last month Kamoli agreed to hand over control to his deputy commander and exercise no “authority or undue influence” over the army during an indefinite “leave of absence.”

In the letter, first obtained by the Lesotho Times, Kamoli is accused of holding multiple meetings with underlings, stating he was still “substantive commander” of the Lesotho Defence Forces.

(more…)

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(The following article was published Oct. 23 by international news agency AFP.)

AFP

A surreal scene in Maseru.

A surreal scene on Oct. 23, of alleged co-conspirators and their targets. From left: Maseribane, Metsing, Thabane, Ramaphosa, Kamoli, Tsooana, Mahao. Maseribane accuses Metsing and Kamoli of trying to abduct and kill him and Thabane. Tsooana’s home was reportedly attacked by grenade; Mahao’s by gunfire – killing his dog. (Photo: mjj)

Maseru (Lesotho) (AFP) – South Africa’s deputy president brokered a deal to end a destabilising post-coup standoff in Lesotho Thursday, with the head of the police and rival military commanders agreeing to step down.

Southern African mediators led by Cyril Ramaphosa said they had convinced renegade Lieutenant General Tlali Kamoli, who is accused of being behind an August 30 attempted coup, to take a leave of absence, along with two other top security officials.

Kamoli, rival military commander Maaparankoe Mahao and Lesotho police commissioner Khothatso Tsooana will hand over authority to their deputy commanders for an unspecified time.

Kamoli is suspected of leading the early morning raid on Prime Minister Tom Thabane’s residence and the national police headquarters, which killed one police officer and injured nine. He has since refused an order to relinquish command and has armed a small group of loyal fighters, prompting questions about stability in the small landlocked nation.

With Ramaphosa looking on, Kamoli signs his pledge to keep the peace - and head into de facto exile? (Photo: mjj)

With Ramaphosa as witness, Kamoli signs his vow to keep the peace – and head into de facto exile? (Photo: mjj)

“What’s important here is that they have agreed to do all of this, to set aside their own personal interests,” said Ramaphosa, in announcing the agreement. “What has surged forward are the interests of the nation. They’ve been promised nothing but a wonderful leave of absence and wonderful work-visits.”

Ramaphosa had earlier held secret talks with the group, despite Kamoli being investigated by Lesotho police for two crimes linked to the August 30 assault: high treason and murder.

(more…)

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(The following article was published Oct. 17 by international news agency AFP.)

AFP

Opposition MPs sing inside the Lesotho Parliament, after it re-opened Friday. (Photo: mjj)

Opposition MPs sing inside the Lesotho Parliament, after it re-opened Oct. 17. (Photo: mjj)

Maseru (Lesotho) (AFP) – Lesotho’s King Letsie III re-opened parliament Friday amid tight security, the first step in a peace deal aimed at ending a crisis sparked by an attempted military coup.

Opposition parliamentarians celebrated with song and dance on the floor of the legislature, as the chamber sat for the first time in four months.

Prime Minister Tom Thabane had suspended the body in June fearing a vote of no-confidence that could have booted him from power.

The re-opening of parliament is a key first step in a peace deal following an August 30 coup attempt and will lead to early elections in February 2015.

The king, who is constitutionally restricted to a ceremonial role, thanked the international community –- and particularly the 15-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC) — for helping to defuse the crisis.

“On behalf of the Basotho nation, I would like to express… our deep-rooted gratitude for expeditiously coming to our assistance at this critical moment in our political journey,” King Letsie told the 120-member chamber, as the SADC mediator, South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, looked on.

As the king filed out, followed by Thabane, his feisty opponents, led by former prime minister Pakalitha Mosisili, then filled the floor, singing and swaying.

“Democracy begins again,” said one MP, Kotiti Diholo of the Democratic Congress. “There was no longer democracy in this country, but now we can get back to representing our people.”

(more…)

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(The following article was published Oct. 16 by international news agency AFP.)

AFP

As mediator Ramaphosa outlined his "peace" plan for Lesotho, PM Thabane looked like a man defeated. (Photo: mjj)

When Ramaphosa outlined his “peace” plan on Oct. 2, PM Thabane looked like a man defeated. (Photo: mjj)

Maseru (Lesotho) (AFP) – Lesotho’s parliament is due to reconvene Friday, the first step of a peace deal aimed at resolving weeks of crisis sparked by an attempted military coup.

With security concerns on-going, the 120-member legislature will reconvene four months after Prime Minister Tom Thabane suspended it to dodge a no-confidence vote that would likely have seen him kicked out of power.

“It’s a milestone,” says Tumisang Mosotho, a senior advisor to Thabane. “We want to hope this is the first step in the right direction, in liberating our country from the danger that has surrounded us these past few months.

On August 30 Thabane fled the tiny kingdom, entirely surrounded by South Africa, hours before the military attacked police installations, in what was seen as part of an orchestrated putsch.

Just hours before he had fired Lesotho Defence Force commander, Lieutenant General Tlali Kamoli, who still refuses to relinquish his command.

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(The following article was published Oct. 2 by international news agency AFP.)

AFP

By Michael J. Jordan

Cyril Ramaphosa had reason to smile after brokering peace in Lesotho. But will the deal last? (Photo: mjj)

Cyril Ramaphosa had reason to smile after brokering peace deal in Lesotho. But will it last? (Photo: mjj)

Maseru (Lesotho) (AFP) – Lesotho’s feuding political parties have agreed to hold elections in February — more than two years early — in a bid to exit a crisis that has seen a coup attempt and running battles between the security forces.

“National general elections will be held towards the end of February 2015,” said mediator and South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa.

The exact date for the polls, originally set for 2017, will be set by King Letsie III, he added.

Just two years ago, Lesotho was hailed as a beacon of democracy in southern Africa, carrying out a peaceful handover of power, then forming one of Africa’s rare coalition governments.

But that disintegrated amid constant bickering, corruption allegations, political violence and an August 30 attempted coup.

Thursday’s agreement will also see parliament reconvene on October 17 after being shuttered by Prime Minister Tom Thabane in June as he looked poised to lose a no-confidence vote.

(more…)

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(The following article was published Oct. 1 by international news agency AFP.)

AFP

In highly polarized Lesotho, dueling narratives of what happened. SA forces investigating, too. (Photo: mjj)

In highly polarized Lesotho, dueling narratives of what happened. SA forces investigating, too. (Photo: mjj)

Maseru (Lesotho) (AFP) – Two policemen in Lesotho were wounded Tuesday night during a shootout between the force and the military, police said, in the latest fall-out from an attempted coup a month ago.Lesotho Mounted Police Service spokesman Lebona Mohloboli confirmed to AFP that “two police officers (were) shot and injured.”

The gunfire exchange took place on the outskirts of Maseru and outside the neighbouring houses of a senior government official and a military officer who is reportedly wanted in connection with the attempted coup.

Details were still sketchy on Wednesday.

“We’re still trying to figure out exactly what happened,” Tumisang Mosotho, a senior adviser to Prime Minister Tom Thabane told AFP.

Lesotho, which is surrounded by South Africa, was rocked by an attempted coup on August 30 that has left relations between police and the armed forces on a knife-edge.

Morning after the shootout, two weapons lay beside a bullet-riddled car. (Photo: mjj)

Morning after the shootout, two weapons lay beside a bullet-riddled car. (Photo: mjj)

Government secretary Moahloli Mphaka, claiming he was the target of Tuesday’s attack, told South Africa’s state broadcaster that he fled his home when soldiers exchanged shots with the police officers guarding his house.

“I was able to escape and hide,” he told SABC.

His neighbour is a military guard officer for deputy Prime Minister Mothetjoa Metsing, whom police are probing for “high treason” over his alleged role in the botched August 30 putsch.

(more…)

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(The following article was published Sept. 29 by international news agency AFP.)

AFP

Lesotho Deputy Police Commissioner Masupha Masupha, at the Sept. 18 memorial for the comrade killed during the failed coup. (Photo: mjj)

Lesotho Deputy Police Commissioner Masupha Masupha, at the Sept. 18 memorial for the comrade killed during the failed coup. (Photo: mjj)

Maseru (Lesotho) (AFP) – Lesotho’s police force is investigating some of its own officers for their possible role in an attempted military coup that left one policeman dead, senior commissioners have told AFP.

At least two officers are being investigated as part of a wider treason and murder inquiry, suggesting the putsch — which forced the prime minister to flee to South Africa — may be broader and more intricately planned than first thought.

In the early hours of August 30, soldiers moved on the homes of the prime minister, a minister, an army commander and the headquarters of the Lesotho Mounted Police Service, leaving one officer dead and nine injured. Prime Minster Tom Thabane escaped shortly beforehand, having received a tip-off.

“There are allegations that some police were working with (the) military on this, and we’re looking into it,” Deputy Police Commissioner Masupha Masupha told AFP. “Even I’ve been implicated. But investigating and charging are different things. If I find something, I won’t shy away from confronting anyone with their unlawful acts.”

Lehloka Maphatsoe — an assistant police commissioner who is also head of the Interpol national central bureau — told AFP on Monday that the cellphones of two police officers have been sent to neighbouring South Africa for analysis. Police in Bloemfontein are checking for “suspicious communications” prior to the attacks and whether there were attempts to delete that evidence.

He cautioned that the allegations against the police were unproven and could be part of a “propaganda strategy to cause panic or distrust among members of the police service.”

(more…)

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(The following piece was published Sept. 28 in Lesotho’s Sunday Express. A shorter version was first published Sept. 25 by international news agency AFP.)

By Michael J. Jordan

Prince Seeiso of Lesotho, in Maseru, Sept. 23. (Photo: mjj)

Prince Seeiso of Lesotho, in Maseru, Sept. 23. (Photo: mjj)

MASERU – Four weeks on, the crisis deepens. Day by day.

Political deadlock. A shootout between Lesotho police and military. Two Lesotho Times journalists arrested for “provoking the peace.” Threats of angry protest in the streets. And the “renegade” military commander still refuses to surrender.

Enter, the outsiders.

In the wake of South African President Jacob Zuma’s visit to Lesotho on Sept. 9, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa this week finished his second stint in shuttle-mediation between Pretoria and Maseru. He’s expected back soon for his third.

More dramatically, this week also saw the arrival of Namibian, Zimbabwean and other police officers from across the Southern African Development Community – to serve as “observers,” for at least three months.

For Basotho, the blow to national pride compounds the anxiety of insecurity. And after watching his people struggle to solve their own problems, one member of the Basotho royal family is now offering a solution: empower the King.

Remove the constitutional “straightjacket” that binds King Letsie III, says his younger brother, Prince Seeiso Bereng Seeiso.

“Where are we as a nation, that whenever we have a political fall-out, we always need foreign intervention,” Prince Seeiso said in an interview this week. “Let’s step back and ask: ‘Are there any internal mechanisms, or voices of reason, amongst us?’ Yes, there is someone among us who can step into that role to mediate: His Majesty.”

It’s a compelling notion in such a heavily politicized atmosphere. Factions all around seem to be hardening, not softening, their positions. Ordinary Basotho today are either impassioned party loyalists, or disappointed in all politicians.

So, to inject this idea of a more muscular constitutional Monarchy into this crisis – as opposed to the other kingdom in southern Africa, Swaziland, where King Mswati III rules as Africa’s last absolute monarch – would surely stir debate.

(more…)

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(The following piece appeared Sept. 25 on the international news agency, AFP. A much longer version was published Sept. 28 in Lesotho’s Sunday Express.)

AFP

Prince Seeiso of Lesotho during our interview. Sept. 23 in Maseru. (Photo: mjj)

Prince Seeiso of Lesotho, in Maseru, Sept. 23. (Photo: mjj)

Maseru (Lesotho) (AFP) – Amid a political crisis that has engulfed the tiny kingdom of Lesotho following last month’s attempted coup, a member of the royalty is calling for a more muscular monarch.

It’s nearly four weeks since Lesotho was thrust into political turmoil.

In recent days there has been a shootout between police and military, two leading journalists were arrested for “provoking the peace” and a “renegade” military commander still refuses to surrender.

The regional South African Development Community (SADC) bloc is involved in shuttle-mediation and has started deploying police “observers” from the various member countries.

For Basotho, as the people of the country are called, the blow to national pride compounds the anxiety of insecurity.

Watching the politicians struggle to solve their own differences, one member of the Basotho royal family is now offering a solution: empower the king.

Remove the constitutional “straightjacket” that binds King Letsie III, says his younger brother, Prince Seeiso Bereng Seeiso.

“Where are we as a nation, that whenever we have a political fall-out, we always need foreign intervention?” Prince Seeiso said in an interview with AFP in Maseru on Tuesday. “Let’s step back and ask: ‘Are there any internal mechanisms, or voices of reason, amongst us?’ Yes, there is someone among us who can step into that role to mediate, His Majesty.”

(more…)

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(The following piece was published Sept. 21 by AFP/Agence France-Presse.)

AFP

Edgar Ramahloko, right, shovels dirt onto the grave of his uncle, Mokheseng Ramahloko, the lone man killed Aug. 30. (Photo: mjj)

On Sept. 21, Edgar Ramahloko, right, shovels dirt onto the grave of his uncle, Mokheseng Ramahloko, the lone man killed Aug. 30. (Photo: mjj)

Maseru (Lesotho) (AFP) – A police officer killed in Lesotho’s August 30 abortive coup was laid to rest Saturday.

The death of Lesotho police sub-inspector Mokheseng Ramahloko was the first and so far only fatality in the tiny African nation’s three-week crisis.

For the mountain kingdom, dealing with his killers has become a question of war and peace.

Working a night-shift, Ramahloko was guarding the force’s armoury when he heard soldiers burst in and bark their demands.

The 53-year-old immediately called the deputy police commissioner to warn him: the soldiers wanted access to the police commissioner, the armoury, and the files on the most sensitive of high profile anti-corruption investigations.

Within minutes, Ramahloko was shot dead. His violent end has taken on greater symbolism as Lesotho’s leaders search for ways to resolve the crisis peacefully.

“My uncle is gone and there’s no bringing him back,” said nephew Edgar Ramahloko, shortly after burying his relative Saturday afternoon. “They must arrest and punish whoever did this — and whoever commanded them to do this.”

But that is easier said than done in Lesotho.

Specifically, the question is what to do about the “renegade” defence force commander, Tlali Kamoli, who allegedly led the assault that killed Ramahloko and the bungled attempt to abduct Lesotho Prime Minister Tom Thabane.

Pursuing justice may lead to bloodshed; amnesty may bring impunity.

(more…)

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(The following piece was published Sept. 19 by AFP/Agence France-Presse.)

AFP

Lesotho Mounted Police Service Commissioner Khothatso Tšooana. His home compound was at the heart of today's shoot-out. (Photo: mjj)

Lesotho Mounted Police Service Commissioner Khothatso Tšooana. His home was at the heart of today’s shoot-out. (Photo: mjj)

Maseru (Lesotho) (AFP) – Police and the military exchanged gunfire in Lesotho’s capital Maseru in the early hours of Friday, as Africa’s tiny mountain kingdom continued to suffer the fall-out from last month’s coup attempt by a renegade army commander.

Police suspicions were raised early on Friday when a group of soldiers drove past the home of police commander Khothatso Tsooana, who has previously survived a grenade-attack on his home.

“If they were planning something, I’m not sure… Soldiers came close, and the police on guard followed them,” Maseru Police District Commissioner Mofokeng Kolo told AFP.

“I don’t know yet who fired first,” he said, adding that there were no injuries.

Lesotho, which is surrounded by South Africa, was rocked by an attempted coup on August 30 that has left relations between police and armed forces on a knife edge.

The attempted seizure of power was blamed on “renegade” Lesotho Defence Force commander Tlali Kamoli, who has refused to step down from the military and been blamed for a series of attacks on police and political rivals.

Prime Minister Tom Thabane shut down parliament and fled to South Africa following the violence. There were several attacks on police stations.

The police are seen as loyal to Thabane while the military are considered allied to his political opponents.

(more…)

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(The following photo-essay was published Sept. 18 in New York – on The Mantle.)

Photos and Text by Michael J. Jordan (Soon to be posted here!)

Lesotho Defence Force soldiers, now with eyes behind their heads. (Photo: mjj)

Lesotho Defence Force soldiers, now with eyes behind their heads. (Photo: mjj)

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(The following piece was published Sept. 16 by AFP, the French news agency.)

Lesotho may head to the polls soon in an attempt to restore political stability, as the country’s leadership crisis appears to be intensifying.

by Stephanie Findlay with Michael J. Jordan in Maseru

Hundreds cheer returning ‪Lesotho‬ PM Tom Thabane outside his official residence on Sept. 16. But what was there to cheer? Thabane looked glum. Didn't wave. (Photo: mjj)

Hundreds cheer returning ‪Lesotho‬ Prime Minister Tom Thabane outside his official residence on Sept. 16. But what was there to cheer? Thabane himself looked glum. No smile, no wave. (Photo: mjj)

PRETORIA, September 15, 2014 (AFP) – Lesotho’s leaders plan to head to the polls early to restore political order following stalled peace talks between deadlocked political parties.

As a result of the coalition government not being “fully functional”, Lesotho’s leaders are planning to “shorten the mandate of the coalition,”  said South Africa’s Minister of International Relations and Co-operation Maite Nkoana-Mashabane on Monday.

Lesotho is currently due to hold elections in 2017. The country should now focus on “free, fair and incident free democratic elections for a fresh mandate,” said Nkoana-Mashabane.

After weeks of failed talks, South Africa hosted an emergency meeting of regional leaders to negotiate a peace deal for Lesotho.

South African President Jacob Zuma and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, chairperson of the 15-member Southern African Development Community (SADC), sat down with Lesotho’s leaders to hash out a solution after rival party leaders failed to patch up their differences.

Along with the early election date – to be announced “as soon as possible,” according to Nkoana-Mashabane – SADC said it will send an observation mission, led by South Africa and including Zimbabwe, to Lesotho for three months to ensure peace and stability.

“Are we deploying soldiers to Lesotho or Kingdom of Lesotho as SADC? The answer is, ‘No’,” said Nkoana-Mashabane. “They need to go back to the electorate,” said the minister, “but they need to be assisted so that political challenges don’t get mixed up with the security challenges.”

(more…)

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(The following piece was published globally on Sept. 12 by Xinhua, the Chinese news agency. It appeared in Namibia, for example.)

News Analysis: Amid Lesotho’s political crisis, no easy solutions

By Michael J. Jordan

MASERU, Lesotho Sept. 12 (Xinhua) — Two weeks into a political crisis in Lesotho that threatens to erupt in civil strife between party supporters, observers agree that any resolution would have repercussions for this tiny African nation.

South African President Jacob Zuma, whose country fully encircles Lesotho, had visited the mountain enclave Tuesday, to mediate among political leaders and resolve what has become a parliamentary and military standoff.

On Friday, Zuma, representing both South Africa, the regional power, and the 15-member Southern African Development Community (SADC), for whom this is another test in conflict resolution – was expecting Lesotho’s tripartite coalition government to remove a key stumbling-block to peace: a concrete date to re-open Parliament, which Prime Minister Thomas Thabane suspended in June.

SADC leaders will meet Monday in Pretoria to discuss the Lesotho crisis.

For Thabane, though, re-opening Parliament may be political suicide. As he did in June, Thabane would likely face an immediate vote of no-confidence, and loss of his premiership. Or, he could call for new elections for the 1.8 million Basotho.

Meanwhile, a second issue, which rattles regional security, also remains unresolved: what to do about the “renegade” military commander, Lt. Gen. Tlali Kamoli. He is reportedly heavily armed, protected by loyalists, and refuses to accept his Aug. 29 firing by Thabane.

The country is at a historical turn which just two years ago was a beacon of democratic progress in southern Africa.

(more…)

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(The following piece was published globally Sept. 12 by Agence France-Presse.)

South Africa will convene regional leaders Monday after they failed to resolve a Lesotho crisis sparked two weeks ago by an aborted coup.

By Michael J. Jordan

MASERU (AFP) – Lesotho’s deadlocked political parties failed to meet a Friday deadline for a fresh peace deal, prompting South Africa to call an emergency meeting of regional leaders.

After promising President Jacob Zuma they would decide by Friday when to re-open Lesotho’s Parliament, rival leaders failed to resolve a crisis sparked two weeks ago by an aborted coup. Reopening the legislature – which was shuttered in June – is seen as a key step toward restoring normality in the tiny mountainous state.

On Aug. 30, an attempted coup by renegade general Tlali Kamoli saw the military assault several police stations prompting the prime minister to flee the country. One Lesotho police officer was killed, and nine others injured in the unrest.

Prime Minister Tom Thabane has since returned, protected by South African guards, but a Pretoria-brokered peace deal quickly disintegrated. On Friday rival party leaders failed to patch up their difference, instead calling for the 15-member Southern African Development Community (SADC) to step in.

“How can you open your own Parliament when you still have foreign troops here, protecting you?” asked Thesele Maseribane, one of those who fled and is now under foreign guard. “Everyone’s interested in Parliament, but what about what recently happened here? This is not a movie. This is reality. This was an attempted coup.”

Deputy Prime Minister Mothetjoa Metsing’s Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) party has been blamed along with Kamoli for the putsch. Kamoli has refused a prime ministerial order to resign and has apparently raided government armouries in preparation for a showdown.

His allies have warned of a “bloodbath” if he is forcibly removed.

(more…)

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(The following article appeared Sept. 10, 2014, in the French news agency, AFP.)

Jacob Zuma (right) arrives at the Lesotho airport and greets the man seen as main instigator of the country's crisis, Deputy Prime Minister Metsing. Prime Minister Thomas Thabane looks on, smiling from Zuma's right. (Photo: mjj)

Jacob Zuma (right) arrives at the Lesotho airport and greets the man seen as main instigator of the country’s crisis, Deputy Prime Minister Metsing. Prime Minister Thomas Thabane looks on, smiling from Zuma’s right. (Photo: mjj)

By Michael J. Jordan

Maseru, Lesotho (AFP) – Rival Lesotho leaders vowed to resolve an 11-day crisis that has spurred calls for regional military intervention in the tiny African nation, after South Africa brokered talks.

The sparring factions agreed to hold further negotiations and present a concrete date for reopening Lesotho’s parliament to South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma on Friday.

“We had very frank and good kind of discussions,” said Zuma Tuesday after the three-hour meeting, aimed at keeping a week-old peace deal alive.

“We’re just about to get there,” said Lesotho Prime Minister Thomas Thabane, who suspended parliament in June and has struggled to preserve his coalition government — a rarity in African politics.

But the parties remained silent on how to tackle the “renegade” Lesotho military commander Lieutenant General Tlali Kamoli, who is accused of triggering the crisis on August 30, one day after he was fired by Thabane.

(more…)

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(The following article appeared Sept. 2, 2014, in The Christian Science Monitor.)

Just two years ago Lesotho was referred to as a democratic success story in Africa. But its attempted coup presents a test for the Southern African Development Community, committed to peace in the region.

By Michael J. Jordan, Correspondent

Two years ago, this tiny nation high in the mountains of southern Africa earned acclaim for passing the latest test of African democracy: It pulled off the region’s first peaceful handover of power. Lesotho then went one step further, forming what some call the first and only coalition government in all of Africa.

This week, however, these claims to democratic fame have been put to the test. An attempted military coup early Saturday sent Prime Minister Thomas Thabane scampering into South Africa – and the entire police force into hiding. A power vacuum still persists after four days.

“It’s a test of one of Africa’s democratic ‘success stories,’” says the United Nations’ resident coordinator in Lesotho, Karla Hershey.

But the attempted coup goes beyond Lesotho, presenting a major challenge for the Southern African Development Community, the 15-member union committed to “peaceful settlement of disputes.” SADC has been burned by Lesotho before, and has been hesitant to take decisive action after this weekend’s attempted coup.

(more…)

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(The following commentary was published on July 24th in Lesotho, in The Lesotho Times. It was originally published in New York, on July 15th, on The Mantle.)

A Basotho nurse preps an infant for immunization in a rural health clinic. (Photo: mjj)

A Basotho nurse preps an infant for immunization in a rural health clinic. (Photo: mjj)

MASERU, Lesotho – Lesotho, a mini-model of African democracy!

That’s what I trumpeted two years ago, when reporting the great political achievement scored by the ethnic Basotho of Lesotho.

In the latest test of democracy in Africa, Basotho political elites produced their first elections without violence, then carried out a peaceful handover of power – a first for southern Africa.

Today, though, this beacon of democracy flickers dimly. Amid the jockeying for power, some whisper of a coup. Even South Africa – which surrounds “The Mountain Kingdom” and sent in soldiers before – warned Lesotho to cool tensions.

Yet all this gamesmanship obscures the real crisis: in Basotho health. Indeed, while the politicians fiddle, Rome burns. (Or in Lesotho, while Roma burns.)

The 1.8 million souls who dwell in Lesotho rank, by virtually every health indicator, among the sickliest on the entire planet. Moreover, Lesotho has become a case-study for the limits of international development assistance – and a cautionary tale for what happens when a nation is reluctant to tackle the real issues that plague ordinary people.

For starters, Lesotho suffers an HIV infection-rate of 23 percent, a tragedy that has touched and traumatized every Basotho family. I’ve seen this first-hand, while preaching the virtues of Health Journalism here for two years. All along, I’ve cited Lesotho as enduring “the world’s third-highest rate” of HIV infection – among those within the most sexually active ages: 15 to 49 years old.

But while Basotho lawmakers play politics, Lesotho quietly achieved a bit of notoriety: the UN agency, UNAIDS, elevated Lesotho from third to second place. (Behind only Swaziland, our neighborhood’s other mountain kingdom.)

Curiously, Lesotho’s new ranking is not because the infection rate has risen.

(more…)

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(The following text, trailer and photos will soon appear on the crowdfunding platform, Indiegogo, as my partner and I launch an online campaign to raise US$10,000 for our feature documentary, The Clubhouse. In post-Apartheid South Africa’s most racist town, our film explores how one Golf Club finally admitted a black man – and opened the door to racial healing.)

Our Project

We've been inspired by Samuel Phutigae's heroic journey -- and hope you will, too. (Photo: Justin Keane)

We’ve been inspired by Samuel’s heroic journey — and hope you will be, too. (Photo: Justin Keane)

April 27, 1994. A day that produced one of the seismic events of the 20th Century.

Nelson Mandela and the euphoric first democratic elections in South Africa – which snuffed out one of the world’s most racist and despised regimes: Apartheid. Overnight, voters handed power to the long-suffering black majority – and in a flash, reduced their white overlords to a vulnerable minority.

Today, exactly twenty years later, how can we gauge, and even illuminate, the depth of racial healing in The Rainbow Nation? This documentary provides compelling evidence. To tell the story, I went to South Africa’s most racist town, where I found one ordinary black man. Who’s done something extraordinary.

I’m an American foreign correspondent who has reported from 30 countries over the past 20 years, mostly across post-Communist East Europe and the former Soviet Union. I now live high in the mountains of Southern Africa, where I’ve teamed up with a South African filmmaker-activist, Danny Lurie, on a unique film project.

Thank you for taking the time to visit our Indiegogo campaign, to learn about the feature documentary that we’re making down here: The Clubhouse: One Black Golfer’s Fight for Equality in South Africa’s Most Racist Town.

Please watch our trailer, as we chronicle the heroic journey of one black man, from one notorious farming town, as he chases a seemingly simple dream: to play golf. The only course in town, though, belongs to the stubbornly, whites-only Golf Club. And the Club’s decision to finally relent and allow him to play their course speaks volumes about how far the white minority has come along, too.

“It was the right thing to do,” explains Club President Jacques Viviers. “And many of us knew it.”

(more…)

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Members of our July 2013 TOL Foreign Correspondent Training Course (Photo: mjj)

Members of our July 2013 TOL Foreign Correspondent Training Course in Prague. (Photo: mjj)

BUDAPEST, Hungary – I’ll never forget my sister’s reaction, when I told her ten years ago of my plan to teach journalism, too. To paraphrase, she wondered: What’s to teach? All reporters need is a pen, pad – and write down what’s happening. Right?

She herself is a family doctor, who’d absorbed a mind-boggling amount of specific material to become one. She wasn’t trying to offend me, or denigrate my craft. Yet her words gave me a greater appreciation for all there is to teach about journalism.

I began to mull more deeply not only how I do what I do, but why exactly I do it this way: from philosophy and psychology to strategies and techniques, in my research, reporting, interviewing and writing. Or, when handling sources, editors and others.

On the flip side – now that I’ve taught students and trained journalists on four continents – I’ve also identified what I cannot teach about journalism. Just three things, really. But they’re biggies, of course: curiosity, empathy and life experience.

Fresh from leading my latest foreign-correspondence training in Prague, I’m reminded why each of the three is also essential to producing the most meaningful, most effective story-telling from faraway lands.

(more…)

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MASERU, Lesotho – A recent article appeared in the Lesotho media with little fanfare, like thousands of health-related articles before it. Yet it fueled my strategy to cultivate journalism education and professional training in Africa’s tiny “Mountain Kingdom.”

As the Lesotho Times article reported, the Ministry of Health unveiled shiny new dormitories for 120 local nurses, pharmacists and lab technicians. The Basotho reporter, presumably with head down, scribbling furiously, noted that speakers thanked the contractor, engineer and U.S. donors. Solar panels made the dorms energy-efficient, while the national water supplier “played a pivotal role … by building a sewer line.”

Nowhere, though, did the reporter illuminate the essential Why: “Why were these dorms built? Why are they so important? Why should readers even care?”

This example illuminates an ongoing pattern in one of Africa’s sickliest countries: the unserious state of media in a society that desperately needs serious and responsible health journalism.

(more…)

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

Mridu Khullar Relph (Courtesy MKR)

Q&A With Michael J. Jordan, International Journalist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(more…)

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MASERU, Lesotho – I’ve fallen for Lesotho, that part is obvious. But you know what a miserable day looks like around here?

It’s the last Friday of the month: payday in a country of 2 million where an estimated 40 percent live beneath the international poverty line. It’s also raining meerkats and jackals upon a drought-struck land where a survivalist mountain tribe – the Sesotho-speaking Basotho – claim as a national mantra, “Khotso, Pula, Nala.” A simple request for Peace, Rain, Prosperity.

Today, at least they’re getting the rain. But it’s so torrential, I’m sure some misfortunate families are eyewitness to their precious maize crops – the thrice-a-day staple of their diet – slowly washing away. (The World Food Program is already here, helping to feed tens of thousands of families.)

I just rolled into the Pioneer Mall – just about the only place in Maseru where you can seek refuge from the rain with hot coffee or tea. And a modicum of atmosphere. Yet there’s an enormous line of working stiffs, stretched out to the middle atrium, nice and orderly. They’re wet. And unlike their jolly selves.

These are the Basotho proletariat, waiting their turn to withdraw from the ATM. But this line seems much longer than normal. As I motor past, on my way to the loo, I ask the security guard what’s up. He produces one of those irresistible Basotho smiles, and without a trace of sympathy, declares, “The machine just ran out of money!”

So these poor shlubs sense no other alternative than to just stand there – for who knows how long. Now that is a lousy day.

(As I sit here, relaxed, sipping my hot espresso…)

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

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

Lesotho blends beauty with bleakness. (Photo: mjj)

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

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

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

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

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

“PROBLEMATIC PREGNANCY”

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

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

(more…)

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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.

(more…)

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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.

(more…)

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Frisky gemsbok, in the mood for love. (Photo: mjj)

BLOEMFONTEIN, South Africa — At the Bloemfontein Zoo, in the provincial capital of the Free State, we were disappointed to no longer have a chance to see Charlie, the nicotine-addicted chimp. But with a little patience, my 10-year-old and I waited and waited in the hot sun until we saw something even better: gemsbok, unique to southern Africa, in the heat of mating season.

A gibbon: just hangin' around. (Photo: mjj)

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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.

(more…)

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She has a head for business: peddling peaches among traffic. (Photo: mjj)

LADYBRAND, South Africa – An unexpected surprise about living here in Lesotho is that we’re also sampling small-town South Africa – within the agricultural “breadbasket” of Free State province. In particular, the farming town of Ladybrand is a scenic 10-minute drive from Maseru.

Historically, Ladybrand was a base first established in the 1860s by the Dutch-pioneer “Voortrekkers” while warring with the Basotho people – who now comprise Lesotho – and later used by the British against those same Dutch farmers during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902. Today, it’s perhaps best known to foreigners in Maseru as a pleasant place for weekend brunch. On this occasion, road work enabled us to stop and soak in the view.

If it weren't for road construction, no pause to enjoy Ladybrand below. (Photo: mjj)

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[The following post appeared Dec. 5, 2011, on The Mantle.]

MASERU, Lesotho – I’ve bemoaned my struggle to learn the language of countries where I’ve lived, be it my horrid Hungarian, survival Slovak or café Cantonese.

The Sesotho greeting of "Hello, brothers!" facilitated this photo of young Basotho cattle-herders at rest, minutes from our home in Maseru. (Photo: mjj)

But there’s no denying an irrefutable fact: mastering a few words in any country will garner you grins and goodwill. This is particularly crucial for a foreign correspondent like me.

For starters, Hello, Thank you, Goodbye. Or gimmicky responses like Delicious! (Even if the food is nothing to blog about.) Or Really? (To appear more engaged than you could possibly be.) Or No problem! (When things go awry, but eliciting a smile is the best response.) Or Cheers! (Which requires no explanation.)

So it is I’ve begun to study Sesotho: the language of 2 million Basotho, known individually as Mosotho, who live mostly in Lesotho, and just across the border in … South Africa. (The rhyming ends there.)

English is actually one of two national languages in this ex-British protectorate. But relying on my mother tongue wouldn’t be much fun, especially since we’ll be here three years. It’s a wise decision, says my Sesotho tutor, for learning some of the language is more than a question of being polite and respectful.

“It’s also important to know how to get yourself out of certain situations,” she tells me. Like, if I have to repel the advances of mooching cops, scheming prostitutes or superstitious witchdoctors.

Witchdoctors?! Missed that bit in my guidebook. The tutor now has my undivided attention.

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Young Basotho raising awareness of HIV prevention on Dec. 1, on the streets of Maseru. (Photo: mjj)

MASERU, Lesotho – For most of us, AIDS in an abstract affliction. In southern Africa, it’s an inescapable reality. In fact, the world’s top four infection rates are found down here: topping the list is Swaziland, followed by Botswana, Lesotho and South Africa. Lesotho, at 23 percent, is my home for the next three years.

So today when I happened upon a demonstration in downtown Maseru today to mark World AIDS Day, it resonated that much more. The young people out in force weren’t only chanting in support of their parents, siblings and friends struck down by the infection – they demanded vigilance by their peers. With good reason: their generation is disproportionately affected.

A young Mosotho spreads the word to a passer-by. (Photo: mjj)

[More photos posted inside.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thirteen more below …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bratislava by night. (Photo: mjj)

Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail. — Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

BRATISLAVA – This blog leaves a trail.

As a journalist with a long-time base in Central and Eastern Europe, then on to Hong Kong in the Far East, and now back and forth again.

The pendulum continues to swing. My dispatches and photos below aim to open a window onto these unique societies.

Many are third-person serious; some, first-person humorous. (At least they try to be.) When you invest nearly 18 years of your life in an exotic locale, you have to take a step back and appreciate what’s around you, in a more intimate way.

All are produced from the perspective of an American foreign correspondent, journalism teacher and freelancer raising kids overseas.

Spliced in are my recent articles. I’ve been a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor since 1995, and contributed more recently to Foreign Policy, Harvard’s Nieman Reports, Global Post, Ms. Magazine, The Mantle and other publications listed to the right. I also pitched in with two chapters to the newly published book on the Roma minority, “Gypsy Sexuality.”

Thank you for reading! … mjj

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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[The following post appeared May 20, 2011, on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA – At least, that’s the thank-you letter Finland should send Slovakia.

I’ve never been to a Helsinki block party. But earlier this month, for a solid fortnight of the World Hockey Championship, Bratislava sure felt like one. By the end of their two-week drinking binge, I wanted the pickled Finns to grab their gold medals and get the hell out.

Team Captain Mikko Koivu wasn’t the only Finn to raise a cup in Bratislava. (IIHF)

I wouldn’t describe myself as a “hockey fan,” as that requires a curious affection for gap-toothed smiles – particularly among those who had involuntarily eaten a puck traveling about as fast as my car. However, I sure do love a good story. Living in tiny Slovakia, I hoped to live one through their hockey.

Slovakia spared little expense to throw a memorable bash as host of the 16-nation tournament, held every year. Hockey is a passion for this nation of only five million, with toddlers barely beyond diapers carving figure-eights on rounded hockey skates. Slovakia won the world title in 2002, and finished an eye-opening fourth at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.

I cheered these underdogs every step of the way, as I did their thrilling World Cup run. Meanwhile, Slovak star Marian Hossa helped lead the Chicago Blackhawks to the NHL Stanley Cup last year; the towering Zdeno Chara may soon do the same for the Boston Bruins.

The 2011 world championship would mark the first time Slovakia, independent only since 1993, had hosted alone. Finally, a chance to distinguish Slovakia from Slovenia. Hype began months ago. The wolf mascot, “Goooly,” was stationed at area malls, digitally counting down the minutes and seconds. As full-blown hockey fever hit, the national flag of red, white and blue fluttered from many cars. I came this close to buying my sons foam fingers and Dr. Seuss top hats in Slovak tri-color. I’ll take four more dust-collectors, please.

All this while officialdom weathers the arrows of the latest in a never-ending drumbeat of corruption that mars the post-Communist era, not only in Slovakia, but across the entire region. This scandal, naturally, was over the massive facelift performed on its main hockey stadium, plus the gleaming new hotel built illegally next door.

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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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Behind the banner of The Slovak Brotherhood: "For God and Nation!" (Photo: mjj)

[The following post appeared March 14 on The Mantle. It was republished March 19 on “Roma Transitions.”]

BRATISLAVAOn the first sunny Saturday of spring, we stroll across downtown Bratislava to a friend’s afternoon party. Suddenly, the chanting of men echoes off the buildings. Several Slovak cops come into view, with arms crossed, eyeing the situation. The din grows louder, headed our way.

“Must be football fans,” I think. “Is there a World Cup qualifier?”

No, another kind of hooligan, as the sunlight shimmers off a couple hundred shaved heads. It’s the “Slovak Brotherhood” – or Slovenksa Pospolitost, also known as “Slovak Togetherness.” While the Brotherhood agitates against “parasites” — Gypsies, Hungarians, Jews, etc. — they don’t boast nearly the visibility of the Czech Republic’s “Workers’ Social Justice Party,” nor the appeal of extremist colleagues to the south, the “Hungarian Guard.” (That uniformed paramilitary is now menacing Roma villagers in Hungary’s Heves County, a region I profiled last year for its far-right support.)

As fish-out-of-water expats in Bratislava, this sort of happenstance sure keeps life interesting for us. Here we are, enjoying Slovakia’s pleasant capital on a sleepy weekend, as our two sons race and weave on their scooters, undisturbed. The next minute, we find ourselves anxiously wading through a skinhead demonstration. Ah, Central Europe.

On this day, we stumble upon the Brotherhood’s annual march to commemorate the 1939 creation of Slovakia’s Nazi puppet-state. Led by the Catholic priest, Jozef Tiso, Slovakia went along with Hitler’s plans and deported tens of thousands of Jews to Auschwitz. Tiso was hanged in 1947 for his collaboration.

These young fascists take “boneheadedness to new levels of delusion,” says David Keys, an English friend who teaches 20th-century history in Bratislava. “They have to create a reading of history in which the Thousand Year Nazi racial hierarchy would have allotted Slovakia a privileged position forever shoulder to shoulder with Nazi Germany as a nation of honorary Aryans, and disregard every utterance Hitler ever made about Slavs, and every action taken against Czechs, Poles, Russians, Yugoslavs and indeed Slovak resisters.”

So here’s the Brotherhood, chanting allegiance to Tiso, whose rehabilitation has been a cause célèbre for Slovakia’s far-right. Especially, Jan Slota and his Slovak National Party, which until 2010 was for four years part of the ruling coalition. I see no counter-protest, though I later learn that an anti-fascist event, “Enough of Silence,” was sponsored the night before.

Without a camera, I fumble for my IPhone. Emboldened by the proximity of police — I’m always at my bravest with cops around — I inch closer to snap a few shots. My wife scurries along with the kids. Once I catch up, I give my sons a brief lesson on World War II – and the right to free speech today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What nonsense.

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[This post appeared Jan. 7 on The Mantle with the photos posted beneath it.]

One face of Hungary. (Photo: mjj)

BUDAPEST – Remnants of the past. I always look for them, especially in Central Europe. How else to stay stimulated in the land I’ve called home for most of the past 17 years?

I discovered a different sort of relic over the holidays in Budapest. When an icy chill swept the region, it rendered most warm-blooded humans homebound. Or hop-scotching from family to friend’s flat. Or scurrying from mall to shiny mall.

These mega-malls are a mecca of modern-day ostentation, just two decades after the era of Communist-imposed blandness. To me, they’re also a relatively new phenomenon. Heck, I just visited the Polus Center for the first time since its grand-opening in 1994 or 1995. (Back then, hovering above the bottom rung of foreign correspondence, I succumbed to writing about stuff like property deals.)

I remember Polus greeted with great fervor, especially its indoor ice-skating rink encircled by kitschy, ethnically diverse food court. What a revolutionary concept, imported from the West: Shopping as entertainment!

Today, though, Polus is itself a quaint artifact. Outstripped by hyper-modern malls that rival anything in the Western world, they’re the domain of an expanding middle class, the nouveaux riches, and blue-collar, wanna-be nouveaux riches who recklessly dispose of their not-so-disposable income.

However, given how many Central Europeans have since been pushed into poverty, these malls are surely a source of envy and resentment from the have-nots. Who are the have-nots, you ask?

During our rare stint in the frozen outdoors, abandoning the warmth of the mall cafe, bowling alley and multiplex cinema, I couldn’t ignore the striking contrast with the sad souls milling about.

The elderly. Themselves a relic of the past. (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 appeared Dec. 9 on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA – After a second sampling of Chinese culture, I’ve returned to Slovakia with a fancy for drinking tea. Straight. No honey or sugar. No lemon or milk. Just the tea, thanks.

In fact, that’s just the way I order it from Slovak waiters and waitresses: “Len a čaj.” Only the tea. Most nod and bring me two packets of sugar anyway.

Pure tea is the Chinese away, the original way. For five millennia. Savor the taste of the leaves. The medicinal benefits. Even the spiritual benefits. To Chinese, it ranks among the “seven necessities of life.”

Now, I’m not a spiritual kinda guy. Back in Budapest when I gave yoga a whirl, I was less interested in the chakra than the lycra – worn by the limber woman beside me. For me, tea is about flavor and authenticity. It’s like sipping nature.

Similarly, earlier this year, I drastically altered my drinking of espresso. No milk, no sugar. Cold turkey. Len a kava. I figure I ingest enough fats and sugars every day. (As we speak, a half-devoured bar of dark chocolate beckons from my coat pocket…)

In related news, I’m not getting any younger. So why not eliminate one tiny vice from my life?

While patting myself on the back, though, I concede an unseemly side-effect: without that milky filter, espresso has stained my teeth the color of ripe sunflower fields in Hungary. Say chee-ee-eese!

Wait a sec. I’ve been victimized by something called “Hong Kong Foot,” due to carelessness in the tropical clamminess. Why then, in the heart of café culture, can we not anoint another geographic-specific affliction: “Central European Teeth”? From what I see around here, I’m not the only sufferer.

I even have the makings of a definition: The unfortunate consequence of a daily addiction to espresso, consumed without the amelioration of dairy – or lactose-free dairy – products. (Note to self: first copyright “Central European Teeth,” then start a support group.)

(more…)

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[The following piece appeared Dec. 7 on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA – Sometimes, even a Slovak pissoir inspires me.

The old, no-frills Tesco building downtown was recently renovated into a shimmering shopping mall, with bright lights, sleek displays and basement supermarket with a hu-u-u-uge liquor section. (Not that I’m implying anything about my Slovak neighbors.) The twin cafés also got a lively makeover, the upstairs one modernized with cherry-red and mandarin-orange upholstery. As I’ve written, I like both for their fish-bowl perspective of daytime Bratislava.

One thing hasn’t changed, though: the old woman who is caretaker of the men’s WC. (If you’re in desperate need, it’s in back, on the second floor.)

Knowing that I’ll see her in a few minutes, I grow irritated. Not about her, personally. It’s more the idea of her. Why does management need a woman to just sit there, collecting coins on a tray? Doesn’t this place generate enough income? What’s the Slovak verb for “to nickel and dime someone”? Or, is this a relic of Communist-era over-employment? (Which also would have seen someone seated at the base of the escalator, just keeping an eye on things.)

I catch myself. First, on humanitarian grounds: at least it keeps some poor schlub employed. Why begrudge someone just trying to eke out an existence during tough times? Second, it’s really more of a public toilet. Plenty of people come to the shopping center only to browse, wet their whistle, or, depending on the season, to warm up or to cool down. Why not extract a measly 20 euro cents from their visit? (For fellow Americans, that’s little more than a quarter.)

These are the things I think about when walking around Bratislava, instead of wearing earphones to pipe in musical distraction. Important things, like Slovak toilets. Is it really more cost-efficient for management to assign janitors exclusive to the men’s and women’s bathrooms, rather than have store custodial staff handle it? (But please, take your breaks elsewhere, out of sight.)

Or why, during the building-wide refurbishment, did they not install the automated, pay-as-you-pee system that I now see around Central Europe in some roadside, gas-station restaurants?

Then, I see her, virtually blocking the narrow corridor to the bathroom stalls, with her considerable frame resting against a wide table. The piss-and-run swindlers among us stand no chance against her. (more…)

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[The following piece appeared Nov. 30 on The Mantle.]

Scene of the Samaritan-sighting. (Photo: mjj)

BRATISLAVA – I didn’t want to blog today. I need to write more of the Double-Secret Probationary Project I started this month. Oops, I’ve already said too much.

But then I witness a great act of stranger-to-stranger kindness, the sort of thing that is so rare in post-Communist, every-man-for-himself Central Europe, I notice when it happens.

It’s always easier for foreign correspondents in remote, off-the-beaten-path locales to highlight the negatives about the host society. Lord knows, I’ve made a career out of it. Our breed tends to have an over-inflated sense of purpose: afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted. Or maybe it’s just me.

Now, imagine you read that trickle of distasteful stories: inter-ethnic conflict, government corruption, etc. Couple that with the occasional natural or man-made disaster. (See: Hungary, toxic red sludge.) What impression does the international community form about these pipsqueak tribes in the hinterlands?

Nothing too flattering. That’s why I feel the tug to occasionally recognize, and publicize, the brighter side of life out here. It’s also the first prong of my formula for good-bad-and-ugly reportage. Or is a better word “bloggage”? Maybe that’s too disparaging. Man, that Jordan sure has a lot of bloggage on his site.

Bloggage be damned, I must report what just happened in the cold, drizzly streets of Bratislava. First, let me set the scene …

(more…)

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[The following piece appeared Nov. 16 on The Mantle.]

Homelessness and street-begging have become a daily sight in Bratislava. (Photo: mjj)

BRATISLAVA – I’ve been meaning to write. Really, I have.

Maybe my sluggishness is because it’s so tough to re-acclimate to colder, wetter weather. Or perhaps the re-immersion in parenting. Three times a week, I ferry my boys to football training – or what we Yanks call soccer practice. Not only do I don the chauffer’s cap, but haul their gear and scramble for snacks. When they demand a masseuse, that’s where I draw the line.

Suddenly today, exactly two weeks after my return from Hong Kong to Bratislava, I feel inspired to paint a portrait of the city that has been my home-base for the past four years. What greater compliment than to show you, not tell you, what an interesting place it is to live.

As I did once before, I’ll do this with a snapshot of daily life. In this case, what’s transpired over the past half-hour: the good, the bad, the ugly.

First, I park near the downtown, in the reserve spot for which we delightedly pay a king’s ransom. I can imagine that it’s difficult for some Slovaks, as mere sentient beings, to recognize that a corner-to-corner X would indicate that spot is off-limits. (If the public has learned one thing from the Wild West capitalism of the post-Communist era, it’s that the rules don’t apply to everyone.)

Hey, even I’ve made that mistake once or twice. But since I’m always rushing somewhere, it sure does piss me off when I routinely get X-ed out of my own spot. No mercy: it’s time to call the tow-truck.

Just Tuesday, I let loose on a woman who evidently felt her visit to the butcher was so urgent, she had to snatch my space. Rather than take a few extra minutes to circle the block and hunt for a public space. Far worse than choose the illicit way, she flaunted her arrogance by parking at a 45-degree angle.

She emerged from the shop, toting her purchase: spicy sausages, probably. I lurched forward, practically tearing a hamstring. (more…)

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English girls in Slovakia: Madeleine, 6; Charlotte, 4.

No, I’m not father to these two. But with such young subjects, this is a portrait that would please any hobbyist. The fact it was shot by my 8-year-old son, makes me even prouder. As does the poem he crafted earlier this week:

Trees were like matchsticks in the stormy night

Tumbling in the morning light

The moon cried sounding like the rain

Rain pitter pattering down the drain

Lightning cracking the sky

The wind is a whip swooping by

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[The following post appeared Nov. 8 on The Mantle.]

Thrill of the Hong Kong hunt: the shop where I bagged my trophies. (Photo: mjj)

HONG KONG – A big fat discount. That’s what I wanted on my last day in Hong Kong – a reasonably priced memento of my seven weeks here.

So, I stalked my prey: an antique store in the heavily Chinese neighborhood of Yau Ma Tei. I’d already visited twice and was sufficiently impressed by the layer of dust on their paintings, carvings, calligraphy sets and other crafts.

Maybe these things are truly old … not just scuffed to look that way?

I spotted two small pictures in my modest price range. The larger, an elaborate peacock painted on porcelain (for my burgeoning peacock-themed collection, naturally), had a sticker price of 1,800 Hong Kong dollars (US$232). The second, a father and two children painted on glass, was HK$650 (US$84).

I wanted both. Life’s too short to choose between tchotchke. Better to snag both. Yet, not at these prices. Which is why I needed a strategy. Since everything in such places is marked up exponentially – as if shopkeepers are giggling at the thought of gouging suckers like me – each price-tag is negotiable. Despite any Oscar-worthy protest by the proprietor.

Worse, though, is the nagging fear I’ll be ripped off. Or in China’s case, it’s the inevitability of being ripped off. After all, the Chinese are world-class forgerers of purported “antiques.” According to some estimates, as much as 95 percent of the antiques peddled are fakes.

And it’s not just the antiques, of course. (more…)

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A serene oasis amid Hong Kong's hustle.

Hong Kong Island has its mountains and beaches, while across Victoria Harbor, the Kowloon Peninsula counters with crowds and neon. I’ve now lived twice in Kowloon, short-term, and the only trees you see is the forest of high-rises. That is, until I discovered Kowloon Park – the “green lung” of the peninsula.

A friendly game of Chinese checkers.

For more photos … (more…)

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HONG KONG – Last fall, I whined about how tough it was to deliver essentially the same lecture to four separate classes, over a two-day period.

Today, I scoff at 2009 me. Scoff!

I just staggered through a journalism-training equivalent of the hallowed 26.2, an Athenian marathon of teaching. Over six weeks, I cycled through 77 students, most of them mainland Chinese. Divided into 16 groups. Three times each. Forty-eight tutorials. One or two per day, every day. (Did I mention the six-weeks part?)

Not just to chew the fat about journalism. For four weeks solid, I’ve commented on their brand-new blogs. Two posts each, or close to 150. Only a wicked few plowed past the 400-word limit. Then, I critiqued each one, showing how to do it better.

That’s a lot of talking, even by my windy standards.

What made it particularly torturous – for them, too – is that I needed to cover the same journalistic points and principles for each round of tutorial. The same explanation of reporting strategy, interview technique or story structure. Accessorized with the same profound analogy or mirthful anecdote.

Sixteen times. I got sick of listening to myself. But I couldn’t shut up.

Whatever comment came to mind, tumbled out. When they had questions, even better. Tutorials are 90 minutes, but I consistently rambled on for two, two-and-a-half hours. I had the stamina of Hugo Chavez, with just as captive an audience.

If nothing else, I gained a whole new appreciation for Broadway. Evening performance every night, fine. But three matinees per week, as well? How to get the adrenaline going for each show?

Tricks of the trade, I’ve learned. There’s no business, like teaching business.

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[A Hungarian friend and journalist colleague, Gabor Miklos, responded to my Sept. 1 Mantle post “Mitteleuropa: Not Just a State of Mind,” with this Oct. 22 piece, “A Virtualis Retesbirodalom,” in the Hungarian daily Nepszabadsag.]

BUDAPEST — Mike amerikai, és Pozsonyban lakik, ott találkoztunk. Régi az ismeretség, hiszen vagy tizenöt éve még Pesten élt. Vannak ilyenek. Járják a világot, de a valódi otthonuk az óceán túlsó oldalán van. Azt fejtegeti, hogy most rájött, a régi Közép-Európa újra létezik. Azt tapasztalta, hogy a szlovákok szívesen vesznek házat Magyarországon, az osztrákok a magyar oldalon esznek, és mind a három nemzet együtt fürdőzik a határhoz közeli osztrák vagy magyar termálfürdőkben. És ehhez jön még a rétes.

Különösen a mákos. Mike ugyanis magáévá tette az elméletet, miszerint Közép-Európa ott van, ahol rétes van. És mák. Mert például mákos ételeket – bejgli, rétes, metélt, guba, nudli és társai – szerinte kizárólag az egykori Monarchia utódállamaiban fogyasztanak. És ő ezt most kiválóan tapasztalja, sőt megéli. Hiszen Pozsonyban lakik, s Szlovákia sokszorosan utódállam.

Pár évvel ezelőtt néhányan megpróbáltunk utánajárni ennek az ügynek. Létezik-e valóban a virtuális mákosrétes-birodalom? Szóval, hogy ahol kilencven-egynéhány éve még egyforma indóházak épültek, és Fellner és Helmer építette színházakban bécsi és pesti operetteket játszottak, ahol tükrös kávéházakban friss nyugat-európai újságok várták a feketére betérőket. A felfedezőút kiterjedt még némileg irodalomra, kultúrára, hangulatokra és nosztalgiára. Szép kalandozás volt, jó könyv született belőle.

(more…)

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[Part I of a four-part post. Part II, III and IV are below.]

HONG KONG – And now, some good news about China.

Why? Because, it’s too easy to blast a country with superpower aspirations that chases after its own citizens like naughty schoolchildren, to restrict them from learning about China’s first-ever Nobel.

Sure, it wasn’t the Nobel that China has wanted. But why should anyone in the international community lend prestige to a state that demands the world’s respect, yet cannot tolerate any serious internal criticism of its domestic or foreign policies?

That said, it’s time for a more nuanced assessment of China. By me, especially.

China is obviously a very, very complex society. From my limited vantage point in Hong Kong — albeit surrounded by mainland Chinese students — I wouldn’t want to caricaturize the country, painting too black and white a picture. Which is why I spent time last week trying to see more of the grey. Including a trip to the mainland.

For example, even as Beijing threw a tantrum over the Nobel peace prize for jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao reiterated the need for “political reform” to join the capitalist transformation that has catapulted China to the world’s second-largest economy.

There’s more. (more…)

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[Part II of a four-part post. Part I is above; III and IV, below.]

Mark O'Neill (Photo: mjj)

HONG KONG – In 1897, an Irish missionary named Frederick O’Neill set sail on a two-month journey to China to spread his Presbyterian gospel among Chinese countryfolk.

Reverend O’Neill remained in remote northeast China for 45 years. In fact, so devoted to his mission were he and his wife that they withstood the loss of two of their five children to childhood diseases – diseases they contracted from their living environment.

“Meaning, they wouldn’t have died if they’d been in Ireland,” says the reverend’s grandson, Mark O’Neill.

When Mark told me he was writing a book about his grandfather, I figured the man had inspired his grandson’s lifelong fascination with China. Wrong.

(See, dear students, this is why we journalists should never assume.)

In fact, Mark stumbled onto it in 1978, when an acquaintance in London suggested he try reporting from Hong Kong – a British colony where he’d have a leg-up getting hired. He eventually latched onto Reuters, then on to the South China Morning Post.

Thirty-two years later, Mark is best described by that charmingly antiquated term for veteran reporters, diplomats, scholars and spies with geographical expertise: “old hand.” Sounds so Cold War. “Old Soviet hand” … “Old Vietnam hand.” (How long before I graduate to “old Central Europe hand”?) (more…)

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[Part III of a four-part post. Part I and II are above; IV is below.]

It was so hot that day in Zhuhai, few UIC students ventured outside. (Photo: mjj)

ZHUHAI, China – It’s a hot and sunny Thursday, like so many others. I really should be tutoring my students in Hong Kong, in the same bloody café I’ve planted myself every day for the past five weeks.

Instead … Day-trip to China!

I’ve shelled out about $155 for a single-entry visa to the mainland. All for today.

By noon, Mark O’Neill and I are zipping across the southern Pearl River Delta, past dozens of rocky, uninhabited islands. It’s a brisk, 70-minute ferry ride to Zhuhai, a boomtown “Special Economic Zone” whose marketing department has exuberantly dubbed the coastal city “the Chinese Riviera.”

Maybe so, but I won’t see any of it. I’m here to give a talk to Mark’s 40 students, at a university where he’s lectured for three years – United International College. My topic: “Life as a Freelance Foreign Correspondent.” (Life is good. Any questions?)

By Chinese standards, UIC is a most unusual joint venture, between the prestigious Beijing Normal University and Hong Kong Baptist University, my employer. Apparently, all the Hong Kong universities have been trying to expand onto the mainland; only HKBU has succeeded. One reason, says Mark, is state control.

“If you want to set up a shoe factory on the mainland, you can do it tomorrow,” he says. “But universities are one of the most highly regulated sectors, because it deals with information, knowledge and ideology – and influences people’s minds.”

(more…)

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[Part IV of a four-part post. Part I, II and III are above.]

The American Slang Club in Zhuhai: Where do I sign up? (Photo: mjj)

ZHUHAI, China – The poster induces a double-take: “American Slang Club.”

Outside the door of a Chinese university classroom, across a hand-sketched map of America, is the decline of the English language. As plain as the pink, orange and blue marker in which it’s drawn.

How’s it hanging? … Lookin’ foxy! … Can you get me the hook-up? … Boozing. … Like OMG! … What a creep.

Is this what hundreds of millions of Chinese youth are learning? I can just imagine a young Chinese diplomat in New York, new to the United Nations, dropping those humdingers at the bar. I picture the next gathering of the school Slang Club, to watch an installment of The Wire.

“Now let’s pause it right there,” the Chinese slangster-in-chief might say. “Everyone repeat after me: ‘Most def!’ … Most def! … ‘You feelin’ me?’ … You feelin’ me?

Then I spot it on the poster: Shmoozing. Defined by Merriam-Webster as chatting in a “friendly and persuasive manner especially so as to gain favor, business, or connections.” More striking: Yiddish, uttered here on the Chinese Riviera. I kvell.

(more…)

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Until the late 1970s, Shenzhen was little more than a Chinese fishing village, and nearby Shajing Town was known for its shuckers of “Shajing Oysters.” Then, China anointed Shenzhen – strategically situated just north of Hong Kong – as its first “Special Economic Zone.” The population exploded, swamping Shajing.

The mass of humanity in Shajing, now one of 18 districts in Shenzhen, a city whose population is officially listed at 9 million. Shajing is considered a surburb -- but a one-hour drive from downtown.

Perched over freshly shucked Shajing oysters.

Three decades later, Shenzhen is a manufacturing powerhouse fueled by millions of migrant workers from across China, with a glitzy financial district that’s one part Las Vegas, one part Wall Street. Factory workers now dominate Shajing, as I saw one weekend, though remnants of the oyster-shucking tradition remain.

For more photos … (more…)

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[The following appeared Oct. 14 on The Mantle.]

HONG KONG – Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo – while the man languishes in prison – has inflicted humiliation of epic proportion upon the thin-skinned Communist leadership in Beijing.

So epic, it will surely enter the Party’s pantheon of taboos, up on its Mount Rushmore to censorship: Tiananmen Square, Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan and the Falun Gong. At least, that’s what my new sources in Chinese media lead me to believe, since it’s the state-controlled media that ruthlessly enforces Party diktat.

How could this event not join that fivesome?

Liu himself practically ensured it when he dedicated his Nobel to the most taboo of taboos: the “lost souls” of June 4, 1989. On that day, Chinese tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square, under the government’s nose, and mowed down hundreds of protesters. The exact number of dead remains unknown.

The Party has since forbade any public discussion of what it refers to as the “June Fourth Incident.” How could any casual future discussion of Liu’s Nobel not lead inevitably to Tiananmen? Leading this blackout will be foot-soldiers in the media.

A young Chinese woman now working as a cub reporter for a provincial city newspaper recently described for me her orientation, during which the chief editor addressed all new editorial staff. With a Party-appointed cadre in the newsroom, the editor referred obliquely to “five landmines” that cannot be touched.

Most revealing is that my young colleague wasn’t surprised. (more…)

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So cliché: a Jordan living in Jordan, eating at The Jordan. (Photo: mjj)

HONG KONG – I’ve picked up a couple of peculiar habits during the month I’ve been out here. For one, the dreaded “Hong Kong foot.”

Serves me right, for walking around the university pool and locker room barefoot. I’ll spare you the details of how it’s corroding my left toes. Once that thing starts to fester, hermetically sealed inside sock and shoe on another soupy day, it becomes like a tropical rain forest in there. Where all sorts of creatures thrive.

But that’s it for new physical afflictions. (Beyond the hyperhidrosis.)

Culinarily speaking, however, I’ve developed a more serious habit.

Curry. It surrounds me in Hong Kong. Mostly vegetable, some meat, some seafood, in all sizes and shapes. Not just Indian, but Malaysian. Indonesian. Vietnamese. Thai. You put me in any Asian restaurant out here, and my eyes are magnetically drawn to the curried offerings. Naturally, I had to try the “Jordan Curry House,” here in my eponymously named neighborhood.

What is it about this spice – in its milder form, thanks – that has me in its clutches? Maybe it’s as simple as yearning for forbidden fruit. But I’ve also come to see it as a metaphor for multi-cultural Hong Kong, then and now. (more…)

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HONG KONG – The barista greets me with a grin. He’s seen me in his café many times before. He knows my shtick. But his cheerful young colleague, it’s new to her.

“Mgoi, yat bui dung gafe. Mou naai, mou tong.”

Please, one glass cold coffee. No have milk, no have sugar.

With that, I’m just about smacking the ceiling of my Cantonese skills. Good enough for this young woman, who smiles wide. “You speak Cantonese very well,” she said. “We can understand you.”

Is there any greater sign of cultural respect than to try and speak someone else’s mother tongue? Even if it’s just a few words? I say no.

Hello … Thank you … Goodbye … That’s just courtesy. To elicit a laugh, take it to the next level: Delicious! … Cheers! … No problem!

With Cantonese, the southern Chinese language spoken by 60 million-plus people worldwide, I now know more than a few words. To put a number on it, I hover around 2 percent fluency. Is there a name for that? “Beginner” is too abstract, unsatisfying. So, I’ve just coined it: “Café Cantonese.”

This fulfills my curious need to alliterate when describing my linguistic limitations. “Survival Slovak” is what I speak around my beloved home-base, Slovakia.

(more…)

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HONG KONG – The five Chinese women stand on the sidewalk, smiling, chatting, primping their hair. Two are young and fresh-faced, reminding me of my students. The other three are pretty, but older, with a certain been-around-the-block look. All five flash more cleavage than your ordinary Hong Konger.

Suddenly, they scatter like startled geese, tottering in heels, click-clacking in the same direction. The spotter has signaled: cops coming. Seconds later, a patrolman in oxford blue strolls past, the bill of his black cap pulled down over the bridge of his nose.

He passes. The women quickly return, re-occupying their turf.

Working with our journalism students, it’s easy to lapse into thinking many of the mainlanders who migrate to Hong Kong are middle-class university graduates trying to broaden their horizons. And, to forget that hundreds of millions are desperate to escape the poverty of rural China.

As Ms. Magazine wrote three years ago, the 1997 handover from British to Chinese rule loosened border controls, attracting countless mainland women willing to prostitute themselves for quick cash. In 2006 alone, some 10,000 mainland women in Hong Kong were jailed for solicitation or violating visas.

According to the local advocacy group Zi Teng, most of their clients are older women – single mothers or married women – who find it more difficult to find work in China’s booming coastal cities. So, many try their luck in Hong Kong.

(more…)

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HONG KONG – Needless to say, Hong Kong has nothing of the café culture of Central Europe. Teahouses, not coffeehouses.

Last year, I succumbed for a solid month to the dull diet of Starbucks and the Starbucks-like Pacific Coffee, before one day I looked up at two high-rises in my Yau Ma Tei neighborhood and noticed neon signs for “Café” this and that.

Exploring them one by one, I found them refreshingly unique with their cozy, dimly lit interiors. The cafés drew lots of young locals, of varying degrees of hip-ness. And they always seemed to have friendly staff pleased to host a laptop-toting foreigner.

Tonight, I tried to remember which had no qualm about me plugging into an outlet. These cafés are so tough to spot from street level, some send young staff down to the sidewalk to hand out cards or leaflets, inviting passersby upstairs.

On this occasion, I come across a young guy with earring and black cap, joined by a pretty young companion, handing out cards for the “Bearz Café.” I ask if they have electricity, making that universal thrusting gesture for “plug my cord in.”

Yes indeed, he replies. “And free Wifi,” says his smiling partner. “Eleventh floor.”

Inside, “Bearz” are truly the theme. Not grizzlies mounted on the wall, mind you. Teddy bears. Dozens of them. All sizes, shapes and pigmentation, lining the shelves of a room illuminated by blinking Christmas lights. Some of the bears are in pajamas, some hold hearts, some look like Winnie-the-Pooh knock-offs.

It’s the most infantile décor I’ve ever seen in a “café.” (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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In one of the world's richest cities. (Photo: mjj)

HONG KONG – I’ve lived in the Jordan neighborhood only three nights so far, on the corner of busy, neon-lit Nathan Road. Yet I’ve seen this gentleman every night, curled up in the storefront just across the corner from my building. Since I had my camera on me, I couldn’t help but stop and shoot.

The Chinese are celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival, when families and friends gather to gaze at the harvest moon and eat “mooncakes” (a mealy, lotus-seed-paste treat — and an acquired taste). In that light, I thought about this fellow: someone’s father, or grandfather, or uncle. Living on the streets of HK.

No mooncakes for him.

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HONG KONG – My tutorial-chat today in the crowded campus cafe began innocently enough, with me asking one Chinese student from the mainland why she wanted to come study journalism in Hong Kong, and not stay back home.

After listing several reasons, she punctuated her response with: “My father says China is no good. He says the Communist Party will collapse.”

That set the other group members atwitter, in Mandarin. I asked what the buzz was about. “Oh, you can’t say that publicly in China,” one explained. Never know who may be listening.

These students have only been in Hong Kong three weeks, but quickly discover the essence of what makes this place, as I call it, “China with an asterisk.” This unique policy of “One Country, Two Systems” makes Hong Kong the one sanctuary for freedom of expression in all of China.

My student’s comment about the Party seemed to embolden her colleagues. The floodgates swung open.

A second young woman lamented that the central government “concentrates efforts on big projects, but nothing for the people at the bottom of society, who lag behind. They say all of China is in harmony, but there are so many voiceless people. I want to give them an opportunity to be heard.”

A young man who worked a short stint at China state television chimed in. “The problem is that they try to hide the reality,” he said. “One viewer criticized our station: ‘You tell us everything but the truth.’”

Then why return, asked the one Hong Konger in our group.

Hope. That’s why, explained the fourth mainlander.

“You have to believe it will get better and better,” he said, earnestly. “Even if you don’t believe it sometimes.”

From my front-row seat, I listened … in awe.

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HONG KONG – I arrived here having to wait one week before my short-term rental was ready. So I accepted a colleague’s generous offer to spend the week in her village, in her family’s empty apartment. Most interesting for me, it was located in a part of Hong Kong I’d never explored before: the “New Territories” region that borders mainland China, which Britain first acquired in 1898.

One hour northeast of downtown, the village of Yeung Uk Tsuen (pronounced just as it looks!) is hardly rural. The urban sprawl of Yuen Long encircles it. Yet the village retains an architectural style and layout I’ve not seen before in HK.

What may be Yeung Uk Tsuen's oldest home, located on its main square.

Doorways with character.

To view more photos … (more…)

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