Without the platform of a free press, public debate died.”

In 1999 our local Abbotsford News had a small letter from a local activist, asking people to get involved before it was too late.  The problem, as he saw it, was that an American corporation wanted to build a second power generation plant in Sumas Washington,…one that would sit right at the edge of our border with the US.  It wanted to send it’s effluent up via expanded sewer into Canada.  It, being Sumas Energy 2, planned to drive transmission lines right through the heart of Abbotsford to link with the existing grid that would wheel their power across to Delta and back into the US, for their use.  Because of the prevailing south-westerly winds, and the configuration of the valley, most of the air pollution from SE2 would blow right into Abbotsford and on down into Chilliwack and Hope.

Well, John’s brief letter motivated me, and I spent the next two days trying to understand all this.  I phoned our local council, our provincial government, our federal government, BC Hydro, and finally found in Calgary a man at the National Energy Board who said “Yes, the buck stops with me.” and proceeded to explain the entire matter without hesitation.

That, for me was a journey that began with our local newspaper.  In those years the Abbotsford News had an editor who believed papers existed to report accurately and honestly on the news.  They had an investigative reporter, Trudy Beyak, who wrote with clarity and courage, and her editor allowed her a pretty free hand, even when politicians were edgy about real data.

Community involvement grew and people signed on to become intervenors at the NEB hearings.  For six years the community fought against the proposed SE2.  Of course Canadians could not stop such a building in the US, but they needed our permission to send effluent up into the Fraser River, and they wanted to punch new power lines through our city, so those permits had to be issued by the Canadian government and Canadians objected to this plant that offered a bit of money in exchange for serious degradation of our air, land and water.  (Of course the NEB was not thrilled with the robust involvement of our community and made some serious changes to their procedures after the battle of SE2 to ensure such opposition would never be possible again.)

None of that opposition would have been possible without the support of the Abbotsford News.  Things have changed a lot since then.  The News swallowed up the Times, and it felt like our paper was more of a mouthpiece for City Hall and a cheering team for established power, than a paper that cared to probe and provide analytical accurate information.

So it is not good news that the Nanaimo news is closing after 141 years.  They follow a long and growing list of community papers shuttered.

“The question now is, what happens when a newspaper shuts down and how much of an impact is there on the community?
It’s too early to say in some of the cities listed above, but in late 2013, the Abbotsford Times shut its doors, leaving the Fraser Valley city with one local paper, the Abbotsford News.
And for at least one person with close ties to the media and the community, the closure was a loss.
Const. Ian MacDonald is the spokesperson for the Abbotsford Police Department.
For those in the industry, the relationship between police and media, especially local media, while at times adversarial, is often very close.
Though MacDonald noted the department has a good working relationship with the Abbotsford News, he argued the loss of the other paper hurt the community.
He said the information provided through local papers is valuable, because they take more time with stories and give them the space needed.
He noted that’s not the case with larger dailies or other media.       
“You can compare any story in a local paper to the larger papers, the more regional papers, and there’s no comparison,” he said.
In some cases, for example, a pretty big story for Abbotsford doesn’t make the radar with the larger media organizations and is only covered by the local paper or radio station.
“Everybody comes to town on a slow news day, but what happens when there’s other news taking place?” he asked.
Taking off his police hat, MacDonald’s concerned about what he sees as an overall trend toward fewer options for people wanting to get into journalism, and less interest by the public in stories that affect them locally.
“I think we invest way too much time in reality television; we spend way too much time watching people whose lives don’t matter,” he said.
For anyone who values newspapers, or journalism, the loss of any publication touches a raw nerve. It also leads to renewed calls that newspapers themselves will go the way of the Dodo bird.”    –  http://www.tricitynews.com/news/what-s-next-for-local-papers-1.2073505

 

 

 

In Rwanda, Anjan Sundaram finds what happens to a nation when free press and dissent are crushed

(Bold emphasis is mine – Gerda)

TORONTO — Anjan Sundaram was at a football stadium in Kigali, waiting for President Paul Kagame to address a rally of supporters bused in by the hundreds, when a police officer approached and demanded to know why he was taking notes.

An Indian-born journalist who taught basic reporting skills to Rwandans through a European-funded aid program, he was only putting pen to paper as any member of his profession would have done, but the officer found it suspicious.

“I have seen you,” the policeman said. “Looking and writing, looking and writing.”

“Was it wrong to?”

“You can’t look and write,” he said. “It is not allowed.”

The uniformed cop said plainclothes officers had been observing him and he should stop, for his own good. His notes created a record. They were subversive because they might conflict with the official account the state would put forth.

 

“It was chilling,” Sundaram said in an interview this week during a stop in Toronto to promote his latest book, Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship, about the more than four years he spent teaching journalism to Rwandans as their government choked the life out of the press.

He had a similar experience following a grenade attack in the capital. Although he had heard it and went to the scene, the government would not confirm it and it went unreported. There were things you could not talk about because they were at odds with the official narrative of national unity and progress.

A Yale graduate raised in Dubai, Sundaram said he was only looking for a quiet place to write his first book, Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo, when he landed in Kigali in 2009. He took on the teaching job to get by. He was oblivious to what was going on around him until his students opened his eyes.

“Very quickly my students began to tell me that they weren’t free. They wanted to be free. They asked me how.” They told him about being beaten and imprisoned for reporting on taboo subjects. After one of his best students fled the country under threat, he began to explore the subtle repression at work.

 

The Kigali that Sundaram discovered had the appearance of an advancing nation, one that had moved past the ethnic bloodletting of 1994, when an estimated 800,000 Rwandans were killed. There were newspapers and radio stations, opposition politicians and business suits. Foreign donors lined up to write cheques.

“Kigali is clean, Kigali is quiet. There are hotels, nice hotels, fancy hotels. And I think this is many people’s experience of the place,” Sundaram said. But once his eyes adjusted, he began to see that “the quiet in the country is not because the country is calm and harmonious but because people aren’t speaking, because dissent has been crushed.”

With his students as his guides, Sundaram learned to find the truth in what he did not see, in what people did not say. A brightly lit road, for example, seemed a measure of progress — until he realized nobody used it. “We the poor, we are like the insects, scared of the lights,” a student told him. “We hide from the government, which wants to see us all the time.”

The quiet in the country is not because the country is calm and harmonious but because people aren’t speaking, because dissent has been crushed

One by one, he lost his students to threats, harassment, beatings and arrests for such crimes as “threatening state security.” Some were co-opted by the regime while others practiced self-censorship, fled into exile or committed journalistic suicide with over-the-top condemnations of the government. A mentor he recruited for his program was murdered.

Without the platform of a free press, public debate died. There was no way to air grievances about the government, challenge its dictates or bring issues to its attention. The people sunk into a state of compliance, knowing there was nothing they could say or do.

Sundaram writes about visiting a village where the people lived under trees, in simple shelters and among farm animals. The local authorities had told them the thatched-roof huts in which they had lived were too backwards for progressive Rwanda. The villagers had immediately destroyed their own homes.

“I wasn’t aware of the full impact of the destruction of a free press, of a silent media, until I saw things like that, when people were doing themselves harm on government orders because they knew it was futile to speak up. Who were they going to speak up to? There was no one to talk to. No one was going to report it even if people knew,” he said.

It’s no secret that press freedom is under attack in many places around the world. The Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index lists the worst offenders: Somalia, Iran, Sudan, Vietnam, China, Syria, Turkmenistan, North Korea and, scraping the bottom, Eritrea.

Rwanda ranked 161st out of 180 last year, the same position it held when Sundaram left in 2013. And it has continued. A 2014 BBC documentary that investigated allegations Kagame was involved in the incident that sparked the genocide was condemned by Rwanda for “inciting hatred and divisionism.” Rwanda responded by suspending the BBC radio service in that country.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Fred Muvunyi, the chair of the Rwanda Media Commission who had spoken against the government on the BBC dispute, fled the country in May after being warned of a plan to have him killed.

In Rwanda, Sundaram sees a universal question. Kagame, a former rebel commander who has effectively ruled since the genocide — first as vice president and defence minister and since 2000 as president — has leashed the press as a safeguard against ethnic violence, and foreign donors have largely supported him.

“I think so many people are oblivious to the role of a free press and to how their lives are shaped by the access to information and the freedom with which information circulates in places like Canada and America,” Sundaram said.

“I want to ask, are we willing to give up free speech or trade away free speech for a certain quantity of economic growth, for money? Because that’s what we’re doing in places like Rwanda.

 
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