St. Bride’s Church in London: a place to honor fallen journalists

St. Bride'sI am not a Christian. I have read the Bible twice and have attended the services of several denominations and remain unconvinced. Despite this, any time I’m in London I go to an old church off of Fleet Street to pay my respects.

Fleet Street used to be the center of London’s journalism industry and St. Bride’s was the journalists’ church. The newspapers have since moved away to less expensive neighborhoods but St. Bride’s still maintains its connections to the journalistic profession.

At this point I would usually launch into my historical song-and-dance and tell you how St. Bride’s was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, how its steeple may have inspired the shape of wedding cakes, and how there’s a Roman building in the crypt. None of that makes me go there. I go there because to the left of the altar is a memorial to journalists killed in the line of duty. A few candles illuminate photos and cards and a list of names. Yesterday two more names were added.

Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik were killed yesterday in the besieged city of Homs, Syria, when the house they were staying in got shelled. They were both seasoned war correspondents. Colvin had lost the use of an eye while covering the Sri Lankan civil war in 2001. Both knew the dangers and both went to Syria anyway.

I was familiar with their work because I’ve been watching the carnage in Syria closely. I spent a wonderful month there back in 1994 enjoying Arab hospitality and seeing the country’s many historic sights. I was there when the dictator’s heir apparent Bassel al-Assad died in a car crash and the nation pretended to mourn. His younger brother Bashar now rules Syria and is ruthlessly suppressing his local version of the Arab Spring.

When I visited Hama, I learned how the al-Assad family leveled the city to quash resistance there back in 1982. Once the fighting started in 2011, I feared Hama would be leveled again. I was right about the massacre and wrong about the city. It’s Homs this time, or at least it’s Homs for the moment. Syria’s dictatorship would level every city it owns in order to stay in power.I never had the honor to meet Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik. From their work I bet they were like the war correspondents I actually have met, with a deep love of humanity and a firm commitment to the truth. It would be presumptuous of me to put my job on a level with theirs, but it has taught me the same valuable lesson–that the majority of people around the world are good. Lots of folks believe that, but I know it to be true. I’ve had it proven to me over and over again in places my friends think I’m crazy to visit. Somaliland. Kurdistan. Palestine. Iran.

And Syria. The fighting and oppression and state-sponsored terrorism that Colvin and Ochlik gave their lives to reveal to the world do not diminish my estimation of the Syrian people one iota. The majority of Syrians are good, just as the majority of all people are good. And if you disagree don’t argue with me, argue with Anne Frank, who wrote the same thing in her diary while hiding out from the Nazis.

The news is so often negative that it’s easy for us to develop a negative view of the world and its many peoples. It’s important to remember, though, that those who travel the world for a living don’t share that view. Their travels have taught them better.

So when I’m back in London next month, this agnostic is going to St. Bride’s Church, not for a dogma I don’t believe in, but for an idea I do.

Photo courtesy St. Bride’s.

It’s time travel writers stopped stereotyping Africa

Africa, africaPop quiz: where was this photo taken?

OK, the title of this post kind of gives it away, but if I hadn’t written Africa, would you have guessed? It was taken in Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania. This isn’t the view of Africa you generally get from the news or travel publications–a modern city with high rises and new cars. A city that could be pretty much anywhere. That image doesn’t sell.

And that’s the problem.

An editorial by Munir Daya for the Tanzanian newspaper The Citizen recently criticized Western media coverage of Africa, saying it only concentrated on wars, AIDS, corruption, and poverty. Daya forgot to mention white people getting their land stolen. If black people get their land stolen, you won’t hear a peep from the New York Times or the Guardian. If rich white ranchers get their land stolen, well, that’s international news. And look how many more articles there are about the war in Somalia than the peace in Somaliland.

Daya was objecting to an in-flight magazine article about Dar es Salaam that gave only superficial coverage of what the city has to offer and was peppered with statements such as, “Dar es Salaam’s busy streets are bustling with goats, chickens, dust-shrouded safari cars, suit-clad office workers and traders in colourful traditional dress.”

Daya actually lives in the city and says you won’t find many goats and chickens on the streets. But that wouldn’t make good copy, would it?

Travel writing has an inherent bias in favor of the unfamiliar, the dangerous. Some travel writers emphasize the hazards of their journey in order to make themselves look cool, or focus on the traditional and leave out the modern. Lonely Planet Magazine last year did a feature on Mali and talked about the city of Bamako, saying, “Though it is the fastest-growing city in Africa, Bamako seems a sleepy sort of place, lost in a time warp.” On the opposite page was a photo of a street clogged with motorcycle traffic. If Bamako is in a sleepy time warp, where did the motorcycles come from?

I’m not just picking on Lonely Planet; this is a persistant and widespread problem in travel writing and journalism. Writers, and readers, are more interested in guns than concerts, slums rather than classrooms, and huts rather than skyscrapers. In most travel writing, the coverage is simply incomplete. In its worst extremes, it’s a form of racism. Africa’s problems need to be covered, but not to the exclusion of its successes.

As Daya says, “there is more to Africa than famine and genocide.” There are universities, scientific institutes, music, fine cuisine, economic development, and, yes, skyscrapers.

And if you think Dar es Salaam is the exception rather than the rule, check out Skyscrapercity.com’s gallery of African skyscrapers.

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Hang with Hardy at writers’ workshop weekend in Britain


If you’re a big fan of Return of the Native or Jude the Obscure, there’s a travel package that’s perfect for you. Built around the chance to hang with Thomas Hardy’s ghost – or, should we say, Thomas Hardy in ghost form? – Summer Lodge Country House Hotel is bringing four writers under its roof for a unique weekend of literary bliss. Guests will be able to learn how to make it as a writer from some heavy hitters, specifically Roger Collins, Marcelle Bernstein, Eric Clark and Jim O’Connor. Of course, there’s always the possibility that Hardy himself will weigh in with a few tips.

Roger Collins is an actor, broadcaster and writer, who counts his weekly International Herald Tribune column “The Frequent Traveler” among his claims to fame. Marcelle Bernstein is a novelist, nonfiction writer and journalist and has written Body & Soul and Sacred & Profane, both best sellers that later became feature films and television dramas. Eric Clark is an investigative journalist, and Jim O’Connor is an advertising copywriter who has pushed everything from forklifts to Australian rum.If you want to get in on the action, Summer Lodge’s Writers’ Weekend package includes two nights in a classic double room, a full English breakfast every day, champagne and canapés upon arrival and a three-course dinner Saturday evening. You’ll also be able to attend three writer workshop sessions over two days, sip tea and coffee during the events and receive a signed book by either Eric Clark or Marcelle Bernstein.

“Summer Lodge has close associations with Thomas Hardy,” says General Manager Charles Lötter. “He lived nearby and the hotel is at the very heart of the Wessex landscape he immortalized. The village pub, the Acorn Inn is featured in his novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles as The Sow & Acorn. What’s more, in his capacity as an architect, Hardy was asked to design the upper floor and the drawing room of Summer Lodge by the 6th Earl of Ilchester in 1893. So you could say the house is haunted by him – although I’ve yet to bump into him myself.”

American journalists get the max in North Korean court

Laura Ling and Euna Lee, reporters with Current TV, were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor this morning – the maximum sentence under law. The five-day trial yielded a verdict of guilt for the “grave crime” of illegally crossing into North Korea, the Korea Central News Agency reported, according to MSNBC. The English version of the story, at least, has not yet made it to the KCNA’s website, where the lead story involves Kim Jong Il’s visit to Kosan Fruit Farm.

The sentence is being called “reform through labor,” and no other details are provided. Under North Korean law, the two journalists will be moved to prison within 10 days of the verdict. Lee and Ling are unable to appeal, as they have already been convicted by the country’s highest court: the decisions are final. The trial was not open to the public, and representatives from the Swedish Embassy, which acts as a liaison for many western nations, was not permitted to observe.

Yet, this may not be the end of the road.

There are some analysts who believe that the conviction is part of a greater negotiating ploy in North Korea, which is effectively holding the journalists hostage in order to gain concessions, such as humanitarian aid. If the isolated nation gets what it wants, Lee and Ling would likely receive pardons. Of course, the “nuclear issue” remains in the background, as well.

Though little has been released about the circumstances of the journalists’ apprehension, it has been revealed that the two were investigating and reporting on human trafficking along the border. What is not clear, however, is whether they actually crossed into North Korea.

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A peek inside the North Korean courts

There’s something chilling about journalists being detained and tried in a foreign country … a prospect made all the more uncomfortable when you throw the “Dear Leader” into the mix. But, do we really know what’s about to happen? Well, aside from the fact that they’re going to be tried “according to the indictment of the competent organ“?

Frankly, there’s little information about what Laura Ling and Euna Lee are about to experience, unsurprising considering the state of information flow to and from the reclusive Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK – also known as North Korea). Based on the nuggets available, the DPRK has never held an official trial for a foreigner. Evan Hunziker, a missionary who swam from China to North Korea in 1996 – now that’s determination! – was detained for a few months and then released only to commit suicide a little later. Hunziker did not have the benefit of legal proceedings.

Here’s what is known:

Ling and Lee will be tried in the Central Court, the top court in the DPRK. Typically, this is an appellate court, but for cases considered to be extreme – and against the country itself – it has initial jurisdiction. In a sense, this would be like to alleged criminals being tried by the Supreme Court in the United States. So, it looks like the DPRK is trying to make a point.

The judges are elected by the Supreme People’s Assembly – the North Korea’s legislative body. The trial itself will have one judge and two “people’s assessors.” The latter are essentially “lay judges.” Appeals usually warrant a panel with three actual judges.

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Now, this next point is interesting. You do not have to have any legal education or experience to become a judge. Before going on a tirade about the injustice of it all, consider the requirements for becoming a Supreme Court justice. There is no education or experience requirement in the U.S. Constitution. And, the justice has to be confirmed by the legislative body – which sounds strangely like a legislative body’s voting to select judges. In some states, such as New York, the electorate votes for judges, many of whom not only have no legal education or experience but routinely screw up trials because their rulings are contrary to law.

On paper, at least, the two systems aren’t all that different.

The Central Court’s rulings can’t be appealed. If I remember correctly (and it’s been a while since high school civics class), you can’t appeal a Supreme Court ruling. To whom would you appeal it?

Here’s where it get’s a little creepy.

In North Korea, the accused does not have the right to defend herself (or, of course, himself) and does not have the right to be represented by a lawyer. A defense attorney can be selected, according to DPRK law, by the defendant, the defendant’s family or her “organizational representatives” – probably Current TV, in this case. Neither Ling nor Lee has had any legal access, so it seems unlikely that they’ll get to pick a lawyer. I doubt Current TV or the families will have much of a say.

Even if they could choose lawyers, pickings are slim. The U.S. State Department states that there is “no indication that independent, nongovernmental defense lawyers [are available].”

The trial will be conducted in Korean, but the defendants will be able to use their own languages during the trial – a trial that is open to the public, unless there is concern that state secrets may be exposed. Defector testimony suggests that trials are usually closed.

Depending on the exact nature of the charges, the two journalists could spend more than a decade each in a labor camp. Death is not on the table, as this punishment has been reserved for four crimes since 2004: trying to overthrow the government, terrorism (though I don’t think it counts if it’s terrorism against a capitalist devil), treason and “suppressing the people’s movement for national liberation [huh?].” Yep, nice and broad … and you don’t even need to go to court to be executed.