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July 14 2010


An update on Colombian journalist Hollman Morris

I want to give you a quick update on the case of Hollman Morris, the Colombian journalist whose visa application has been rejected by the U.S. government. Hollman was set to come here to Harvard for the next year under a Nieman Fellowship. He has produced journalism critical of the Colombian government, and that appears to have been a factor in why the State Department took the extraordinary step of preventing an honored journalist from entering the country.

My boss, Nieman Foundation curator Bob Giles, wrote an op-ed in The Los Angeles Times explaining why the State Department should reverse its decision. Read the whole thing, but here are a couple excerpts:

In the 60 years that foreign journalists have participated in the Nieman program, they have sometimes had trouble getting their own countries to allow them to come. The foundation’s first brush with the harsh reality of journalism under repressive regimes came in 1960, when Lewis Nkosi, a black South African and writer for Drum, a magazine for black South Africans, was awarded a fellowship. His application for a passport was denied by the country’s apartheid government. Angry and bitter, he applied for an exit visa. It enabled him to leave, but he was forbidden to ever return.

Morris, though, is the first person in Nieman history to be denied the right to participate not by his own country but by ours. The denial is alarming. It would represent a major recasting of press freedom doctrine if journalists, by establishing contacts with so-called terrorist organizations in the process of gathering news, open themselves to accusations of terrorist activities and the possibility of being barred from travel to the United States.


The Nieman Foundation invites foreign journalists to join its class of fellows, in part because it is good for the U.S. participants to gain an international perspective, but also as a way of rewarding and nurturing excellence in foreign journalism. During the struggle to remove racial barriers in South Africa, Nieman Fellowships were awarded annually to South African journalists, who carried democratic and journalistic values home with them. Many went on to brazenly employ their editorial leadership to challenge the government and help bring an end to apartheid.

Several endangered journalists have come to the Nieman program from Colombia, where 43 journalists have been killed since 1992. In 2000, Ignacio Gomez, a young investigative reporter, was forced to flee after his newspaper, El Espectador, published stories in which Colombian police and military were linked with violent right-wing paramilitaries. In one of the stories, a Colombian military colonel was said to have masterminded the 1997 massacre in Mapiripan, in which right-wing paramilitaries killed nearly 30 people for allegedly supporting left-wing guerrillas. Gomez received hundreds of death threats after that article was published.

The Nieman Foundation program has been a safe, if temporary, refuge for foreign journalists like Hollman Morris, who are targets because they have challenged dictators and privileged oligarchs. Their experiences inspire others in the fellowship and beyond, and contribute to a greater appreciation of our constitutional guarantees of press freedom. It makes no sense that the U.S. government would intervene to prevent a journalist access to learning about the freedoms we so cherish.

The effort to let Hollman come to this country has gained support from both the journalism and human rights communities. The Committee to Protect Journalists sent a letter to Secretary Hillary Clinton yesterday outlining its belief that the visa rejection “damages U.S. interests in Latin America and increases risks for Morris in Colombia.” They also point to their February report on attacks on the Colombian press, which highlighted Hollman’s case:

Hollman Morris, a reporter known for his critical coverage of the country’s civil conflict, came under fire from the government after he traveled to southwestern Colombia to interview guerrilla fighters for a documentary on kidnappings. On February 1, Morris said, members of the leftist guerrilla group Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) urged him to interview three police officers and a soldier who were being held hostage. The journalist told CPJ that once he realized the hostages’ answers had been coerced, he simply asked for their names and their time in captivity. The same day, FARC released the four hostages to a humanitarian mission led by the International Red Cross.

As news of Morris’ meeting with the hostages was reported, the government reacted in forceful, rapid-fire fashion. Vice President Francisco Santos Calderón said Morris had acted without “objectivity and impartiality.” Then-Minister of Defense Juan Manuel Santos called him “close to the guerrillas.” And Uribe accused the journalist of being an “accomplice to terror.”

Morris told CPJ that the accusations triggered a string of e-mail threats. On February 5, CPJ and Human Rights Watch sent Uribe a letter objecting to the loaded assertions and urging the president to put an end to comments tying journalists to any side in Colombia’s armed conflict. CPJ research has shown that such public assertions have endangered journalists. The government has often resorted to such politicized accusations, the New York-based group Human Rights First said at a March hearing of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. Colombian prosecutors, the group said, have brought dozens of unfounded and “specious” criminal investigations against Colombians, including journalists and human rights activists.

The documentarian Alex Gibney wrote a post for The Atlantic about Hollman and included a video he had shot about Hollman for Human Rights Watch. I’ve embedded the video above.

The Boston Globe had a piece noting the National Association of Hispanic Journalists’ call for Hollman to be allowed into the country. Michele Salcedo, NAHJ’s president, told the Globe: “Our government in the past has seen fit to acknowledge his very strong journalistic work, but yet we have denied his visa.”

Colombia Reports notes that the Inter-American Press Association has also called for the visa decision to be reversed and points to an article in the Colombian daily El Espectador on the situation.

And finally, this Washington Post story from a few days ago, by Juan Forero in Bogotá:

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — In his work reporting on this country’s drug-fueled conflict, Colombian journalist Hollman Morris has met frequently with high-ranking American officials and been received at agencies from the State Department to the Pentagon.

In January, it was a lunch with State’s No. 2, James B. Steinberg, at the residence of the American ambassador in Bogota. A few months before that, he had met Daniel Restrepo, senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council, to discuss alleged abuses by Colombia’s secret police.

But when Morris sought a U.S. student visa so he could take a fellowship for journalists at Harvard University, his application was denied.

July 09 2010


Colombian journalist Hollman Morris denied U.S. visa to be a Nieman Fellow at Harvard

It’s the time of year when the new class of Nieman Fellows starts arriving here in Cambridge, but we thought you should know about an unprecedented situation currently keeping one of our colleagues away. Hollman Morris Rincón, an independent journalist in Colombia, won a Nieman Fellowship this spring to study conflict negotiation strategies, international criminal court procedures, and the Rome Statute. I’ll just quote the AP:

BOGOTA, Colombia — The U.S. government has denied a visa to a prominent Colombian journalist who specializes in conflict and human rights reporting to attend a prestigious fellowship at Harvard University.

Hollman Morris, who produces an independent TV news program called “Contravia,” has been highly critical of ties between illegal far-right militias and allies of outgoing President Alvaro Uribe, Washington’s closest ally in Latin America.

The curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard, which has offered the mid-career fellowships since 1938, said Thursday that a consular official at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota told him Morris was ruled permanently ineligible for a visa under the “Terrorist activities” section of the USA Patriot Act.

Here’s a video of Hollman talking about human rights abuses in Colombia; here’s an interview from the Center for Investigative Reporting with Hollman and his brother and colleague Juan Pablo Morris about their work:

The Morris brothers take their cameras deep into the Colombian countryside to probe into the disappearance of thousands of individuals kidnapped over the past decade, and track efforts to unearth their graves far from the cosmopolitan capital city of Bogotá or the eyes of the international or global press. “Our aim,” Juan Pablo told us, “is to reconstruct the memory of those atrocities….Many of the people who followed the paramilitaries in the 1980s and 90s are running the country today.”

Contravia has uncovered links between paramilitary leaders and high officials in Colombian politics and finance. Thirty senators and representatives in the Colombian Congress have been imprisoned because of their ties to the paramilitary death squads; another sixty have been investigated. That’s a third of Colombia’s 268 member Congress, giving rise to a new term — ‘para-politica’ — to describe the ongoing crisis as one top politician after another is accused of complicity with the para-military squads. Most of those accused represent political parties that are part of the governing coalition led by President Alvaro Uribe.

Hollman Morris was given the Human Rights Defender Award by Human Rights Watch in 2007. He’s been forced to leave Colombia several times for extended periods after the airing of Contravía revelations. The show does not receive commercial backing; subsidies come from the Open Society Institute, the European Union and other international sources.

In February 2009, Contravía’s reporting prompted a denunciation by the government: Colombia’s Minister of Defense, Juan Manuel Santos, accused Hollman Morris on national radio of being “close to the guerillas,” after he conducted several interviews with FARC hostages who were later released. Uribe himself denounced Morris to the national press, and implied he was a member of the “intellectual bloc” of the FARC.

Santos is now the president-elect of Colombia and, ironically enough, was a Nieman Fellow himself while a newspaperman in the 1980s.

The independent website Colombia Reports reports on documents from April, allegedly from the Colombian security agency, that appear to call for surveillance and harassment of Hollman, including requesting “the suspension of visa.”

Obviously, we’re hoping this can be resolved. For decades, the Nieman Fellowships have brought journalists from around the world to Harvard to study and learn from one another in an atmosphere of open exchange. My boss, curator Bob Giles, has written to the State Department asking it to change its decision, and other forces are rallying in his support. I don’t know that we have many readers in Foggy Bottom, but if we do, we sincerely hope this won’t be the first time an American political decision has prevented a foreign journalist from studying with us.

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December 29 2009


Hip-Hop as Cosmpolitan Citizen Media

Seeking greater social inclusion through new communication technologies is a strategy with a long and accomplished history that has persisted through waves of new inventions including the telegraph, radio, television, satellite, and of course, the Internet. Many such projects are highlighted in Alfonso Gumucio's Making Waves: Stories of Participatory Communication for Social Change, which was published in 2001 and features more than 20 case studies of participatory communication projects that use video, radio, theater, and the Internet. Similar projects are featured every week on the websites of the Communication for Social Change Consortium, Internews, The Communication Initiative Network, Panos, and Rising Voices.

But perhaps the most successful experiment in bringing so-called marginalized communities to the attention of the mainstream came not with community radio or the Internet, but rather the cassette tape and the boombox. With roots in the traditions of griots in West Africa, work songs from the Mississippi Delta, and dancehalls from the Caribbean, the birth of Hip-Hop as we know it today is generally credited to the Jamaican-born DJ Kool Herc (Clive Campbell) who organized parties at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx, New York where he joined two turntables to mix rhythmic beats with funk music. Partygoers were invited to grab the microphone and rap on top of the music as a way to creatively express themselves and show off their verbal dexterity. Those early parties on Sedgwick Avenue helped form the sound and community that would influence what are now seen as the pioneers of hip-hop: Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, and The Sugarhill Gang.

In the early 1990's hip-hop's center of gravity migrated from New York City to Los Angeles, where N.W.A., Ice T, and others popularized gangsta rap as a genre of hip-hop that focused on the violence, partying, and hustling on the rough streets of Compton, California. It was only with the release of "Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)" in 1993 that New York City was once again nationally recognized among hip-hop fans.

From Hong Kong to Staten Island to Liberia

Global Voices co-founder Ethan Zuckerman recently caught an interview on Tom Ashbrook's public radio program, On Point with Wu Tang Clan leader Robert Diggs, also known as "the RZA." During the interview we discover an unlikely intersection in the 1980's between the lives of Ashbrook, a Yale graduate and career journalist, and Diggs, a poor, aspiring rapper in Staten Island who sought shelter in a seedy movie theater that specialized in pornography and kung fu flicks. Ashbrook, it turns out, was a foreign correspondent at the time based in Hong Kong where he supplemented his income as a journalist by dubbing kung fu movies into English. It is entirely likely that one of the many kung fu films that influenced the Wu Tang Clan's unique style of hip-hop featured the voice of public radio's effusive Tom Ashbrook.

New York City's outer boroughs today are barely recognizable yuppie incarnations of their former selves. Gentrification has taken over Brooklyn and is increasingly creeping into the Bronx. In fact, a long and costly protest campaign has sought to protect 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, the birthplace of hip-hop, from being converted into a new development. But Park Hill, the home community of the Wu Tang Clan, has changed far less than neighboring Brooklyn across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. While tourists often take the free Staten Island Ferry from Manhattan for its uninterrupted views of the Statue of Liberty, rarely do they spend anytime exploring Staten Island itself.

One of the most sudden changes to the island's demographics came in the late 1980's and early 1990's when civil war broke out in Liberia, a West African country that was founded by freed American slaves. Liberian refugees fled violence that was stirred up by the American-educated warlord, Charles Taylor, and arrived to Staten Island by the thousands. They now make up the largest community of Liberians living outside of Liberia and their troubles in assimilating to a New York state of mind have been featured in Mother Jones, The Village Voice, WNET, and twice in the New York Times.

Ruthie Ackerman is a freelance journalist who is currently writing a book about the social impact of the Liberian Civil War and the integration of Liberian refugees in the same Park Hill community that gave rise to the Wu Tang Clan so many years ago. But rather than merely speaking on behalf of Liberians Ackerman decided to launch Ceasefire Liberia, a citizen media project which teaches Liberians living in Monrovia and Park Hill how to use digital media to tell their own stories.

As the above video shows, Liberian refugees have had a difficult time assimilating to Park Hill's established community and culture. But music - especially hip-hop - has been an effective channel to help narrow the cultural divide. Genocide Records is a collective of Liberia-born rappers and MC's whose music is clearly influenced by New York's hip-hop legacy, but with lyrics that emphasize the struggle of West Africans living in the United States. They performed this past July at Park Hill Day:

From New York to Mongolia, Madagascar, Colombia, Bolivia, and the World

As noted above, those early hip-hop parties hosted by DJ Kool Herc at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue were most definitely influenced by his early years in Jamaica were DJs at dancehall parties would talk over the records they were playing. Hip-hop then evolved further in New York during the 1980's and it hasn't stopped evolving in its spread from New York to California to Mongolia and Madagascar. Zuckerman notes in his post that shortly after the release of Wu Tang Clan's "Enter The Wu Tang (36 Chambers)" he began seeing graffiti all over the world - including Mongolia - celebrating the hip-hop group.


Wu Tang graffiti in Ulaanbaatar.

Hip-hop's universal appeal has made itself apparent in countless blog posts across many of the Rising Voices citizen media projects. In Bolivia both Cristina Quisbert and La Mala Palabra of Voces Bolivianas honored the life of Aymara rapper and El Alto resident Abraham Bojorquez (the post has also been translated into Aymara).

In Madagascar Tahina, Joan, and Stéphane of Foko Madagascar have each highlighted some of the impressive Malagasy hip-hop acts, including Raboussa:

You can learn more about Malagasy hip-hop at the excellent blog HH Dago. Tahina also recommends "Zazavavin-drap" by Malagasy female rappers Nah and Bug:

The award-winning Colombian citizen media project HiperBarrio even has a rapper among its members. Last year Jorge Jurado used his rhyming skills to compose a song about citizen media and its link to his community's graffiti culture. Henry Barros from HiperBarrio also produced two short documentary videos about rappers in San Javier La Loma.

Finally, from the REPACTED project in Nakuru, Kenya blogger Eric Owanyama says that hip-hop is the "single biggest movement that allows youths to explore their creative minds independent of class rooms and allow them to learn from the society and speak philosophies that have proven to teach more than most educational systems and syllabus teach."

As awkward as it may be, even Vladimir Putin has recognized the importance of hip-hop as a medium of communication with young people around the world. Whether "hip-hop is dead" as some have argued of late remains to be seen, but its global domination over the past twenty years reveals just what can be accomplished when a culture of remix, creative expression, and technology collide.

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December 05 2009


Democratizing the Geography of Information

As little as a year ago Google Maps had no geographic information about San Javier La Loma, a small working class neighborhood on the outskirts of Medellín where the ConVerGentes group of the HiperBarrio citizen journalism project is based. Some progress has been made, but as you can see from the satellite imagery, most of the streets are still not mapped, much less the parks, buildings and footpaths.

Screen shot 2009-12-05 at 5.21.PM 1.jpg

Now, compare that to the map of San Javier La Loma created by HiperBarrio and freely available with nearly unrestricted use on Open Street Maps:

Screen shot 2009-12-05 at 5.24.PM.jpg

There is clearly an aspect of amateurism to the cartography, but anyone who has been to La Loma will tell you that the second map is a much more useful representation of the community. All of the roads are represented, as are the church, school, and the labyrinthine network of steep footpaths which carry constant pedestrian traffic.

la loma

A resident of La Loma carrying a washing machine down the road.

In fact, much of the world is still a blank void on Google Maps, especially slums and lower income communities. The majority of Rio de Janeiro is remarkably well-mapped, and even includes public transit information. But if you live in a favela like Santa Marta (where Michael Jackson shot the video to "They Don't Care About Us") there is no street information at all:

Screen shot 2009-12-05 at 5.40.PM.jpg

Access to geographic information is crucial to the development of any community. As Mikel Maron, an evangelist of Open Street Maps, puts it: "Without basic knowledge of the geography and resources of [a community] it is impossible to have an informed discussion on how to improve the lives of residents."

Last Saturday Fredy Rivera, a leading mapper of Open Street Maps based in Bogotá, organized a workshop at the small public library in La Loma to teach its young residents how to make a map of their own community.


Gabriel Vanegas, the librarian in La Loma whose dedication is responsible for much of HiperBarrio's success, explained the background that led to the workshop:

In March of this year, thanks to the free software community, I had the opportunity to meet Fredy Rivera, a master of Linux and cartography, who will be with us to help us better understand the collective creation of maps. It will be an excellent opportunity to continue recognizing the community from the public library and through exercises of citizen journalism, free culture, participative history, and citizenship.

The workshop was later covered and summarized on the website of Medellin's Network of Libraries, a recipient of the Gates Foundation's 2009 Access to Learning award. Fredy Rivera posted a very useful summary of the contents of the workshops (in Spanish) on his blog.


Mark Graham has mapped the total number of of geotagged Wikipedia articles per language, location, and population. He found a "highly uneven geography of information." An article in The Guardian notes:

Almost the entire continent of Africa is geographically poorly represented in Wikipedia. Remarkably, there are more Wikipedia articles written about Antarctica than all but one of the 53 countries in Africa (or perhaps more amazingly, there are more Wikipedia articles written about the fictional places of Middle Earth and Discworld than about many countries in Africa, Asia, and the Americas).

all countries.jpg

The article goes on to optimistically wonder if this imbalance of information presents a new opportunity for Wikipedia's declining number of active editors: to democratize not just access to information, but what kind of information is made freely available. At one point iCommons was involved in organizing Wikipedia Academies to encourage local experts to fill in Wikipedia's sizable information gaps. (Unfortunately iCommons now seems more interested in publishing research reviews.)

Like Wikipedia, Open Street Maps, has seen an almost unbelievable explosion of activity in the past few years. But unlike Wikipedia, contributions don't seem to be declining. There is a strong commitment from within the community to produce valuable information not just about North America and Western Europe, but all communities regardless of class or location. In fact, last month a group of Open Street Map activists headed to Kibera, Kenya, one of the world's largest slums, to produce a better map of the area. Already their information has been integrated into Ushahidi to provide a real-time interface to local news events:

Screen shot 2009-12-05 at 6.48.PM.jpg

A similar project in Rio de Janeiro led by Viva Favela is also trying to integrate local citizen media with community-produced maps of favelas (including Santa Marta).

It is too early to know whether this flurry of cartographic activism will lead to any sort of sustained social change, but Robert Neuwirth's Shadow Cities offers a clear example of how access to information can serve as a catalyst for improved livelihoods:

A few years ago, the Water and Sanitation Program, a nonprofit affiliated with the United Nations and the World Bank, became interested in the water supply question in Kibera. The group issued a report on Kibera's water kiosks. By reading the fine print, you can determine how much Kibera people -- and by extension, residents of all the mud hut communities of Nairobi -- are being ripped off by the kiosk system. At 3 shillings per jerry can, Kibera residents pay 10 times more for water than the average person in a wealthy neighborhood with municipally supplied, metered water service. And that's when water is plentiful. When there's a shortage, metered rates don't go up, but the prices in Kibera do. So at those times people in Kibera pay 30 or 40 times the official price of water.

The group published a brochure about the study. They presented it to local and national politicians. There was only one bunch of people who never saw the study: the residents of Kibera.

Japeth Mbuvi, Operations Analyst for the program, explained why. "Our audience for this was not the people of Kibera, but the political structure," he told me. Then he added, "Anyway, maybe it's better not to publicize this: there could be riots."

I applaud Mbuvi for his frankness. He is one of the few people I have met at any of the large nonprofit agencies who was willing to be candid about his agency's shortcomings as well as its achievements.

Still, there's something sad about his concern.

Perhaps it's true that people in Kibera could riot over water. After all, Kibera has been the scenes of riots in the past -- most of them involving landlord tenant issue -- and scores of people have been murdered in the melees. Still, Kibera's people deserve to know the facts about their lives. What's the point of studying the water kiosks of Kibera if, when the study is done, the information is not shared with the people who are most at stake?
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