Angela Thomae reports on a project by a British university that aims to help would-be journalists in a former Soviet republic distinguish opinions from facts.
"Sorry, where did you say?" I asked my University of Westminster colleague, senior lecturer in photography Tom Ang. He was inviting me to join a small team travelling to Kyrgyzstan to conclude a three-year regional academic partnership on journalism training between the Kyrgyz Russian Slavonic University of Bishkek (KRSU) and Westminster. With 20 years' experience in international television news, this was the one Central Asian republic that had somehow slipped beneath my radar screen.
Kyrgyzstan's recent, if limited, appearance on the international news circuit can be assigned to the post-September 11 arrival of nearly 2,000 US-led allied forces. The US presence is the subject of considerable local debate. During the two-day conference held at the KRSU to mark the final phase of the partnership project, suspicions towards things American rose to the surface. One delegate was the journalism lecturer from the American University in Kyrgyzstan. "Are you training Americans?" she was asked.
The theme, "Improvement of Journalism Training and Continuous Journalism Education in Kyrgyzstan", was weighty but relevant, since the views emerging from some 20 academics and journalists from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan was fiercely critical. Misinformation, lack of investigation, opinions given for facts, bad training, lack of qualifications and lack of resources are difficulties compounded in Kyrgyzstan for a mass media that, though nominally independent, is closely monitored by the government.
For anyone living outside Bishkek, attendance at this first post-independence conference was made possible only through British Council funding. James Kennedy, British Council director for Kazakhstan-Kyrgyzstan, explained the project's background: "For the past three years, there has been a Department for International Development funding project, the regional academic partnership (about £4 million) committed to developing higher education institutions in the former Soviet Union through links with British universities. The idea is to contribute towards the eradication of poverty by providing trained people - trained to face the new economic and political environment - coming out of the universities and working closely with the universities."
In Central Asian universities, even the most basic resources, such as textbooks, are unavailable. But the debate about lack of funding and lack of basic teaching aids was coupled with criticism, particularly from professional journalists, about lack of professional standards and the need to improve not only the training of students but also of the trainers. These are areas that the three-year partnership between KRSU and Westminster has concentrated on and which have led to the publication, coinciding with the conference, of four textbooks in Russian by KRSU lecturers on radio and television reporting.
Ang has been the leading light of the project, which arose from his extensive travel in the region over the past ten years with his wife, Wendy Gray, the project administrator. "When the partnership started, the journalism curriculum was one sheet of paper with titles and the names of lecturers," he says. "There was no description of what the course would cover or what its aims were. The students themselves had no idea what to expect." But as the project reaches its final phase, Irina Chistiakova, KRSU lecturer and author of the radio journalism textbook, presented the Westminster team with a substantial curriculum document.
In a lecture I gave on television journalism - there are no television production facilities at KRSU- I asked the third-year international journalism students what they saw as the most tangible benefits of the partnership. "The textbooks," said student Alexandra Bagdazarova. Valerie Nikonova and Aigool Bakanova answered: "The radio equipment - because for the first time we've been able to put the theory we learn into practice."
Jim Latham, senior lecturer in radio journalism at Westminster, on his second visit to KRSU, was impressed by the students' developing skills as demonstrated in their radio report on the conference.
Practical training is the norm in British universities, but there is no such tradition at KRSU. Even deliverable exercises requiring nothing more technical than paper and pen - researching, planning, writing, scripting - play no part in television journalism training, students told me. Neither does practice coverage of real news events - an issue debated by delegates.
At Koort TV, a three-year-old independent station, its chief producer, Omburbek Sataev, highlighted some of the difficulties: "We have too many teachers who know the Soviet principles of broadcasting, but now we have other things to do here." While welcoming the intellectual standard of KRSU students, their complete lack of practical understanding of television production is a major drawback since Koort, along with other TV and radio stations, has no resources to train them.
Developing a dialogue between industry professionals and universities - an integral part of the UK university system - was recognised as important at the KRSU regional conference. Its implementation may prove trickier. Journalists with national and international experience, such as Sataev, can significantly assist in broadening the practical understanding of journalism training and are willing to do so. But as an experienced print journalist from southern Kyrgyzstan told me: "I wanted to be a university teacher in Bishkek when I came back from the US. I had many ideas about how to improve journalism training and was ready to teach foreign mass-media systems, but I faced a lot of difficulties. It depends on political thoughts."
With the three-year KRSU-Westminster project now concluded, the dissemination phase - how to build on developments - is beginning. The future, Ang believes, lies in the implementation of practical proposals - dialogue, feedback, regular discussion forums and workshops - benefiting practising journalists, trainers and students. Intelligent, well-educated, articulate and fluent in Russian, Kyrgyz, English and one other foreign language, the students I met could not fail to impress. As Alexander Katsev, chair of international journalism at KRSU, said: "Our students are our future."
Angela Thomae, a former visiting lecturer at Westminster, will become a senior lecturer in broadcast journalism at Sheffield University in the autumn.