Media Missionary of Maseru

[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.

Here in “The Mountain Kingdom,” the media isn’t muzzled like tin-pot despots do elsewhere in Africa. In fact, the U.S. watchdog Freedom House rates Lesotho “partly free.” Yet there’s not one single daily newspaper, only several weeklies. The lone national television channel is in the hands of the ruling party, which has reigned for 15 years. Radio is a key source of information, especially in the remote mountains, but allied with political forces of one stripe or another.

With no genuine journalism education to be found, I’m told most journalists have no choice but to learn on the job. Their bosses, though, do little to guide or encourage independent-mindedness: they self-censor either to avoid offending the authorities, or to serve their own interest – not the public’s.

Reporters are poorly paid, untrained and lack prestige. The news reads to me as shallow and confusing, tending toward the gossipy or the sensational. In posters and placards I see around Maseru trumpeting the latest front-page of those weeklies, “monster” seems the most common adjective. As in, “Monster Dad Sent to Prison!” Wow, what did Monster Dad do to deserve it? I gotta buy that paper!

A Basotho activist who works closely with local journalists described for me this week how media shoddiness and misplaced priorities harm a society in desperate need of someone to better inform and educate voters – especially with once-every-five-years elections coming this spring.

“If the media are focused on issues other than what the people need to know,” said the activist, “then they’re undermining our democracy.”

All of which is a veritable field of dreams for journalism-training possibilities. Because I’m so optimistic about my prospects in lovable little Lesotho – beyond producing my own journalism – I hereby launch a new blog feature, The Media Missionary of Maseru, which I’ll devote to documenting all the various teachings and trainings I’ll conduct over the next three years, here and in the region.

The occasional installment won’t only recount my blather about the universal – not just Western – values of watchdog journalism, which holds leaders accountable for words and deeds, in order to apprise the public and enable it to make wiser decisions about the issues most critical to people’s lives.

This blog feature will also chronicle the concrete results: how the skills-building workshops and shoulder-to-shoulder trainings I devise are implemented by the participants themselves. What works – and why exactly it works. What fails – and why exactly it fails. (Surely it won’t be my fault?)

Now, since I’ve yet to actually lead a training, this first installment of “Media Missionary of Maseru” sets the scene: I came here with nothing – nothing but a track record of nine years of teaching. Oh, and a self-confidence borne of experience, from starting over in new locales … and surviving.

I broke in as a young foreign correspondent in Budapest back in 1994; moved to New York in 2000 to swim with the big fish, extending my journalism into teaching; in 2006 took my show back on the roads of Central Europe – generating teaching gigs from scratch – and now on to southern Africa.

So I know what it takes to set up shop. Just as I tell the young, aspiring foreign correspondents I teach in Prague, it starts with market research and networking. Ask around, figure out who the players are on the ground, send emails, make phone calls, knock on doors, hand out name-cards, treat people to coffee. The whole nine yards. No one’s come to me. I’ve got to go to them.

That’s how I’ve now come to know folks at the Lesotho Association of Journalists, the Media Institute of Southern Africa, the National University of Lesotho, the Transformation Resource Centre – a civil-society NGO that runs journalist trainings – and a handful of others. For weeks, I’ve been planting the seeds of teaching opportunities – and expect several of them to bear fruit in the near future.

This week, in fact, my first training gig materialized: for the noble outfit Kick4Life, which “tackles HIV through sports-based health education.” Later this month, I’ll steer their Writing Club through a three-session journalism workshop in which young Basotho will produce HIV-related reporting.

And that workshop will inspire the next installment of The Media Missionary of Maseru …

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