Human Rights Journalism Focus of Annual Heritage Park Lecture

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By Alin K. Gregorian

Mirror-Spectator Staff

BOSTON — The fifth annual Armenian Heritage Park Foundation endowed lecture on Thursday, October 23, focused on journalists around the world who cover human rights issues, and who sometimes pay the ultimate price for their courage.

Three journalists, including veteran journalist Ray Suarez, Pulitzer Prize-winner Stephen Kurkjian, formerly of the Boston Globe, and Thomas Mucha of Global Post, shared their experiences at the K. George and Carolann Najarian MD Lecture on Human Rights called “Truth to Action: Media Freedom,” at Faneuil Hall.

One of the first speakers was Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who spoke not only about human rights, but also his ties to the Armenian community. He recalled serving in the State House with Rachel Kaprielian and Peter Koutoujian, both of whom eventually left the State House, as he did, one to head the Registry of Motor Vehicles first and now the Office of Labor and Workforce Development, and the other who is currently the sheriff of Middlesex County.

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He also recalled his visit to Jerusalem and its Armenian Quarter with Koutoujian, chuckling about the very tall Koutoujian trying to pass through a doorway that was half his height.

He praised the Armenian Heritage Park for presenting new possibilities in terms of public space. “It is one of the most thoughtfully-designed spaces in our city,” he said.

“I am so grateful to the Armenian-American community who use their background to shine the line on human rights,” he said. “The Armenian people experienced a massive loss of life,” he said, but the survivors of the Genocide “persevered and built communities all over the world.”

He paid tribute not only to the survivors of the Armenian Genocide, but to the people in Boston who a century back, at the very same location, in Faneuil Hall, raised the alarm about the Genocide and created mechanisms to help survivors.

“I am of Irish descent and there are a lot of similarities. So many Armenian people here are so proud of their heritage and don’t want to let it go,” he said.

Courtney Radsch, advocacy director for the Committee to Protect Journalists, introduced the speakers. She spoke about the role of journalists and presented figures that showed how risky their jobs were around the world. Intentional murder, she said, is “the number one reason” journalists die. “Of the 40 journalists killed this year,” she said, “83 percent covered human rights. It is an increasingly dangerous beat.”

Even worse, “the killers go free in 9 out of 10 cases,” she said.

In some countries, such as Turkey, “even reporting there was a genocide is punishable.”

“The role of journalists is providers of information and ideas, being engines of change” and those are areas that can boost the economy, she said.

She did not focus on the US or Europe but singled out Syria, China, Kirgizstan and the zealots in the Islamic State (IS), among others.

The first speaker, Ray Suarez, whose dulcet voice was a staple on public radio for years and who is now the host of “Inside Story” on Al Jazeera America and “America Abroad” on Public Radio International, forcefully spoke about the importance of journalists in open societies.

“Basic information about the whole messy, clanking enterprise of society” is “as vital as oxygen.”

“The craft of gathering information and telling them to audiences is under assault,” he said. “Ask yourself why a country would kick a journalist out. It is simple: It is easier to oppress an ignorant people. It is easier to keep people pacified. When people don’t know what their state is up to.”

He focused on the Internet both as a means for getting information out faster to more people, as well as a means for anyone with a bit of technological savvy to create and disseminate false information, such as those battling climate change or stirring up fears of epidemics. In addition, he said, technology now eats into the staffs of most newsrooms. The resulting disconnect shows an increasing distrust in the press.

“One person in the US has died of Ebola, yet millions of people are living in fear,” he said. “We need a press to gage the risk.”

“Junk info makes my job harder,” he added.

Speaking of other countries, he said, “My colleagues in Mexico, Russia, Venezuela, former Soviet states [among others] have a healthy distrust of institutions,” he said. One example validating that mistrust, he said, was in China in 2002, when SARS, the contagious and dangerous upper respiratory illness, was emerging. One reporter who knew of an outbreak did not report it because he heeded the government line that letting the people know would cause a panic.

Suarez also expressed his anger toward “data smog,” about the vast amounts of information, “bombarding” readers with “claims and counterclaims.”

He also railed against “false equivalency,” which ostensibly appears as unbiased journalism, giving equal time to two sides of an issue. “People are so afraid of being accused of biased that they are in danger of becoming irrelevant,” he said.

He closed with the following advice: “Read carefully, watch carefully and hope you got a good source.”

Stephen Kurkjian, the next speaker, took time to pay tribute to Ben Bradlee, the former executive editor of the Washington Post, who had died on October 21. He praised Bradlee for supporting his newspaper going after the Pentagon Papers and Watergate.

Kurkjian also paid tribute to the former mayor, Thomas Menino, for being “such an important part of the city and our Armenian community.” (See story on Menino on this page.)

He recalled the mayor’s answer, after the umpteenth call to his office on the Armenian Heritage Park, in the hopes of getting the process started: “You people just never give up,” Menino told him humorously, adding, “I can’t wait to break ground.”

He also paid tribute to Faneuil Hall itself, calling it a “hallowed place, the cradle of liberty,” recalling being in the hall for the swearing in of new US citizens.

Keeping in line with his tribute to Bradlee, he praised the role of the US press going back to the 19th century, when journalists took on slavery and the robber barons and later supported labor reforms and social welfare and on through to the 20th century and the coverage of the Vietnam war, women’s and civil rights as well as snooping out government secrets.

“I am the son of a survivor of the Armenian Genocide. I know full well what a free press can mean to an oppressed people,” he said.

He referred to the coverage in the New York Times of the Armenian Genocide. As a result, he said, the American people became aware of the plight of the American and raised millions to help them.

He called reporters in war zones “boots on the ground,” much like soldiers. He paid special tribute to the Boston Globe, his former home for decades, where his work as the head of the investigative Spotlight Team won him several Pulitzer Prizes.

“There is an incredible force for good government in this city,” he said, praising the Globe for exposing the alliance between the Federal Bureau of Investigations and gangsters including Whitey Bulger as well as the pedophilia scandal in the Boston Catholic Archdiocese.

Thomas Mucha, the editor of the GlobalPost, the Boston-based digital news organization, dwelt on the fate of one journalist from his organization who was beheaded by IS, James Foley.

“It is my strong contention that giving voice to the voiceless matters. Jim would have loved to be part of the conversation tonight,” he said.

He spoke at length about GlobalPost and the niche it serves, sending reporters to hot spots and “little visited corners of the planet” to get the story. He also addressed the volatility in much of the world, which his outfit focuses on, from corners of Brazil, to the Syrian civil war, where more than 190,000 have died and around 9 million have fled, as well as uprisings in Libya and South Sudan, the plight of the Yezidis in Syria and the rise of Boka Haram in Nigeria.

“There is a great need for this kind of reporting,” he said.

The opening speaker was Najarian, who paid tribute to her father, Avedis Abrahamian, a survivor of the Armenian Genocide, who inspired her desire to address injustices around the world and to sponsor the annual lecture series.

A reception followed at the Millennium Bostonian Hotel.

 

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