Building a free press in world's hot spots

Not all journalists would respond to an ad asking for help training fledgling reporters in Afghanistan and Iraq. After all, the work is dangerous, demanding, and often full of limitations - like no working phones.

But the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, based in London, says it receives hundreds of applicants when it posts ads for such jobs. Only a few people are experienced - or sturdy - enough to handle such an assignment, though, and even those who are chosen take "hostile environment" training prior to a three- or six-month position.

The IWPR is one of many groups that form what Ann Cooper, head of the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York, calls "a growing industry" aimed at training journalists in other countries. Much of the training activity started with the fall of the Soviet Union more than a decade ago, and now it is not uncommon to have multiple groups go into the world's hot spots as they cool down.

"Not every effort is wildly successful," she says, but she notes that the goal behind each is usually good: "If you're going to build democracy, vote freely, have choice in elections, you've got to have free and independent media."

The IWPR and the Washington-based International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) are two veterans of the approach, started in 1991 and 1984 respectively. They tend to go into countries for longer periods of time - years or months, rather than weeks - to thoroughly teach others how to investigate a government, for example, or fund a newspaper using advertising.

Often stories produced by IWPR-trained journalists are subsequently syndicated throughout the country and the world. And particularly strong local reporters are trained to be trainers themselves. The ICFJ also has programs to bring international journalists to the US for training.

Potentially tricky for these groups is the perception that they have ulterior motives. Many trainers explain to their students that they are not pushing American or Western journalism, but are offering internationally accepted standards - fairness, accuracy, fact-based reporting - that can be adapted to a culture's own communication style.

That's the approach American Lisa Schnellinger takes as project director for IWPR in Afghanistan. She helped educate reporters in 13 countries, mostly emerging democracies or transitional states, before arriving in Afghanistan. In that still-turbulent nation, recruits occasionally ask if she's a spy. But more often, they quickly take to the teaching, she says in a telephone interview from Kabul.

"There is a physical hunger for knowledge and skills ... especially compared to post-Soviet countries I've been in where people were very cynical and sometimes arrogant," and less willing to part with the government-mouthpiece approach to journalism, she says.

The IWPR is hoping for a positive reception from Iraqis as it installs trainers in that country in the next few weeks. But they'll face certain obstacles, organizers say. With so many news outlets emerging there - and no clear sense of which ones will survive - trainers will have a hard time homing in on the most needy. Some publications also have agendas and have espoused anti-American sentiments.

Anti-Americanism has been felt by a few trainers for the ICFJ in the past six months, particularly in South America. Recent ethical problems in US media - New York Times writer Jayson Blair's transgressions, for example - may be partially to blame. But more likely, says Patrick Butler, an ICFJ vice president, is the impression left by US television coverage during the Iraq war, which in some cases appeared less objective and more patriotic. "What do American journalists have to teach us?" is the message from some skeptical in-country journalists, he says.

Ms. Schnellinger's job is made easier by what she perceives to be a keen sense of discernment among Afghans: "If your intentions are good, they'll see that."

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