Walking in the Footsteps of Murrow

Pictured from left to right: Nikhil Agarwal, Senior Correspondent at the Press Trust of India; Azizullah Soroush, Reporter at The Daily Afghanistan; Bibi Aisha Ilyad, Dari News Anchor at 1TV Media; Mir Salam Khan JOGEZAI, News Producer at PTV Corp LTD News Department; Bob Woodward, Associate Editor at The Washington Post; Rupak Dev Sharma, Chief of Business Bureau at The Himalayan Times; Smriti Dhungana, Correspondent for Nepal Republic Media, Nagarik and Republica; Ulugbek Akishev, Editor for the Journalistic Research and Special Reports Department at Kloop.kg news website; Tipu Sultan, Deputy Head of Reporting and Special Correspondent at Prothom Alo; Titokugan Ayakkannu, Assistant News Editor for the Tamil Thinakkural Asian Media Publications Ltd.; and Mohammed Syed, Principal Correspondent at The Times of India. Photo credit: Brittany Lynk

Visitors from South and Central Asia explore journalistic principles in the digital age.

Meridian International Center hosted the U.S. Department of State’s Edward R. Murrow Program for Journalists during its 10th anniversary in October 2015. Up-and-coming leaders from around the world came to the United States for a three-week professional exchange program examining journalistic practices. The group from South and Central Asia (SCA) represented seven different countries and was comprised of ten media professionals from a range of sectors, including television, radio, print, and new media.

Washington, DC

The dynamics of U.S. foreign policy and the political system were introduced to the participants during the first segment of the program in Washington, DC. Bob Woodward, world-renowned Associate Editor at The Washington Post and Katty Kay, journalist for BBC World News, discussed press freedom during a conversation. “If we don’t have an unfettered press, democracy is at risk,” said Mr. Woodward. For the SCA group, this session, and the subsequent meeting with Post veteran reporter Walter Pincus, was a “very good and different personal and professional experience.”

Walter Pincus, National Security Reporter at the Washington Post. Photo credit: Brittany Lynk

Mr. Pincus, who recently announced his departure from the Post after four decades as a national security reporter, impressed the visitors with his staunch journalistic values. Rupak Sharma commented that in Nepal “everyone just wants to be an editor and manage people.” The meeting with Mr. Pincus encouraged him to delve more into the field of investigative reporting instead of climbing the career ladder.

At Voice of America, service chiefs from the SCA region shared their work at the media outlet’s headquarters. Aziz Soroush said that it was “interesting to see how it works in the U.S.” and he enjoyed meeting fellow Afghan journalists. Later at the House of Representatives Press Gallery, Justin Supon, Deputy Superintendent, provided a glimpse of the inner workings of press relations on the Hill. Ulugbek Akishev noticed the high access for journalists and effort to “build connections” between members of congress and journalists. Perched in the press box, the group witnessed a debate and voice vote on the House floor. “A first-hand look at U.S. democracy in action,” said International Visitor Liaison, Marek Kuzma. “Something they will remember for a long time.”

Justin Supon, Deputy Superintendent at the House of Representatives Press Gallery. Photo credit: Brittany Lynk

Secretary John Kerry concluded the DC program by emphasizing the “absolutely invaluable role” of journalists. Secretary Kerry’s remarks to the program participants preceded his flight to Vienna, Austria for talks on the future of Syria. Responding to a question about the U.S. strategy to combat ISIL/Daesh, Secretary Kerry said, “it will not be done overnight; it will take some time… we’re working hard with our partners, because it’s vital that people on the ground be invested in this battle.”

Syracuse, NY

The program continued at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. Colonel Bill Smullen, former Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, coordinated the program and provided opportunities for the participants to share their experiences through intensive academic and professional seminars on journalistic principles in a democratic society, the practice of journalism, and current affairs.

Colonel Bill Smullen, Director of National Security Studies at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University; Former Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell. Photo credit: Brittany Lynk

A tour of the Daily Orange newsroom and the Dick Clark Studio offered a look at campus media. The visitors engaged with local resources and media outlets to gain an understanding of journalism American communities. At a spaghetti dinner served at Our Lady of Pompeii Church, the group observed local politicians as they were interviewed for print and broadcast media.

Tampa/St. Petersburg, FL

The group departed for Florida to participate in a two-day professional development workshop on journalism in a digital era at the Poynter Institute. The sessions explored the modern problems journalists face, including fragmentation of the audience, threats to free speech, and the challenge of doing investigative work in difficult environments. With the knowledge she gained from the workshop, Smriti Dhungana from Nepal hopes to start a digital media training program for women journalists. Bibi Aisha Ilyad plans to update the curriculum at the Kabul University School of Journalism “in order to engage the students in practical exercises instead of just lectures.”

The participants also examined investigative journalism, covering vulnerable populations, the evolution of fact-checking. The entire group agreed that the Poynter sessions provided an “overwhelmingly positive experience.” Nikhil Agarwal from Kolkata said that he is motivated to start an independent website with the information he obtained. “As journalist we are always entrepreneurs… on our own. Now we have the knowledge and tools.”

Photo credit: Brittany Lynk

U.S. Special Operations Command officials described the coalition partnership that exists to counter global security threats, violent extremism, and promote the value of civil society-military communications. Samar Jarrah, host of the local public radio show True Talk, shared her experience on the all-volunteer radio broadcast focused on combating stereotypical portrayals of Islam and issues that Muslims face worldwide.

Samar Jarrah, Host of True Talk on 88.5 WMNF in Tampa, FL. Photo credit: Brittany Lynk

The visitors were surprised by Ms. Jarrah’s dedication, driving a long distance each day to broadcast the show and not receiving payment in return. Mr. Akishev said “no one [in Kyrgyzstan] would do that… [It was a] very big pleasure and honor to speak with her. She was very honest.” Later the group had an opportunity to participate in a volunteer activity of their own planting sea oats on Fort DeSoto Beach.

Photo credit: Brittany Lynk
New York, NY

At their final city stop the group met with Gio Benitez, correspondent for ABC News and former Emma L. Bowen Foundation Fellow, which provides media internships to students of color. Mr. Akishev said that the meeting with the Committee to Protect Journalists was “very interesting.” He hopes to share the idea of “benefit of the doubt” with his colleagues in Kyrgyzstan. Finally, Imam Shamsi Ali, Nusantara Foundation President, discussed efforts to foster interfaith dialogue and strengthen community ties.

Photo credit: Brittany Lynk

The program concluded with a plenary session with Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Richard Stengel. Panelists covered the responsibilities and challenges of the activist-journalist, and how to present complex and interconnected social problems as a means of addressing global issues. To ensure that no topic was left behind, Jeff Tollefson from the science journal Nature shared what every journalist needs to know about climate change.

Photo credit: Brittany Lynk

Among the many lessons learned over the course of program, the visitors gained a deeper sense of the power of reporting and their responsibility as journalists. Before he left the group for his flight to Vienna, Secretary Kerry urged the visitors be careful:

I urge all of you to use some measure of wisdom and caution and not be reckless in… exposing yourselves to danger, but all around the planet there are many reporters who have regrettably lost and given their lives in the effort to stand for principle and … tell the truth. It is absolutely essential ingredient of democracy, certainly, but more than that; it’s really an essential ingredient of human beings being able to live freely and be able to pursue their hopes and their aspirations.

There was time to reflect about their journey and the group had a lot to share about their experience. It was a unique opportunity for the visitors to grow concrete skills and return home with important lessons, however the personal connections they made with “regular” Americans and with each other as group members had a significant impact.

“It was an extensive and exhaustive trip,” said Mr. Agarwal. “India shares a common history and language with other countries… I had never met a person from Afghanistan or Pakistan before this trip,” referencing the visitors from Quetta, Balochistan and Kabul. Mohammed Syed from Hyderabad said he learned more about India’s foreign policy by talking with the visitors from Nepal and Sri Lanka. Several participants were surprised by the nature of the American people. “[What] I was fed about the U.S. as a child… most of it was uninformed,” said Mr. Agarwal. “The arrogance is not true. I never met one arrogant [American].” Mr. Syed added, “The Americans that we have met were affable, warm, and friendly.” The visitors have returned home to their work in television, radio, print, and new media, and will likely further their careers and communities with the knowledge they have gained. They are examples of how we can a promote press freedom and learn from one another through personal contact and dialogue. This notion is what Edward Murrow would have referred to as the “last three feet” of international exchange.