Shedding light on Central and Eastern Europe
Archived article from Dec 11, 1998
By Douglas Frank
Remember the Cold War film image of the hammer and sickle gobbling up country after country and darkening the map of Europe?
Now consider an updated version with the initials JRI substituted for the Communist symbol. First Poland, then the Czech Republic, then Slovakia, Serbia, Bosnia ...
The difference is that instead of shrouding the map in darkness, the Journalism Resources Institute (JRI) of Rutgers is bringing light to these countries -- the light of freedom through an unfettered press, says Jerry Aumente, director of the JRI.
If this sounds a bit dramatic, it is intentional. What the JRI is doing in Central and Eastern Europe is no less than championing one of the basic freedoms that we take for granted here.
"Often when we talk about democracy or the first amendment, it is in the abstract," observes Aumente, professor of journalism and mass media. "But I meet with people who went to jail because they printed a certain story. Or had to go into hiding."
Aumente, a former reporter for the Newark Evening News, Detroit News and International Herald-Tribune, brought the notion of urban journalism to Rutgers in 1969, established the department of journalism and mass media in 1976, formed the JRI in 1979 and spent the next 10 years concentrating on programs for journalists in the tri-state region.
Since 1989 the JRI, a unit of the School of Communication, Information and Library Studies (SCILS), has also reached out to the world.
Aumente has directed over $2 million in new initiatives to assist universities and train journalists in formerly communist countries. He returned recently from his 56th trip to the region, during which he conducted broadcast training workshops in Serbia, one of several countries currently embroiled in civil strife.
His trips have not been without anxious moments. Last year, he rode in a bulletproof car and counted bullet holes on university walls in war-torn Bosnia-Herzegovina. This fall, in Serbia, he awoke to an early morning earthquake and escaped threats of NATO bombing and government detention.
But Aumente is undeterred. "'Why are you doing this?' I'm asked wherever I go in Europe," he says. "I tell them journalism is like a light. When you turn on the light, the cockroaches run away."
This can be a powerful message to a young journalist just emerging from the bonds of dictatorship in a country that is not yet accustomed to democratic institutions.
The JRI began its work in Poland after Solidarity was elected the first non-communist government since the end of World War II.
"I was in Washington for a meeting and someone said: 'We heard about the work you're doing at Rutgers. Can this be transferred overseas?' Suddenly, all these countries were going to be moving to democracy," Aumente recalls, "and the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) and the State Department wanted to develop a free press in them.
"Poland had an official, controlled government press, but underground you had something like a thousand publications run by people in opposition to the government. The problem was that they were very good at being revolutionaries, but they were not ready yet to become full-fledged journalists in terms of balanced reporting, giving all sides of the issues."
Among other activities in Poland, the JRI helped establish a journalism school at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, where Aumente is a visiting professor and chairs its international advisory committee.
John O'Brien, executive director of the New Jersey Press Association, which cooperates with the JRI in its domestic programs, remembers accompanying Aumente to Krakow in 1995 to conduct seminars about the business side of journalism. "It's a whole new world for them -- how to sell advertising and gain circulation. They never had to worry about it before as a state-run entity."
O'Brien thinks it is "amazing the way they have accepted Jerry over there. He doesn't come across as an American charlatan trying to espouse our way as the right way. Jerry is very sensitive to the fact that they don't want to hear stories about our great press and all the things we do right. They want to hear stories about how we could help make their press better," he says.
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