Remembering Danny Schechter

Danny Schechter speaking at the 2009 Eurasian Media Forum in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Danny Schechter speaking at the 2009 Eurasian Media Forum in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

One of my proudest moments as a journalist took place in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in the spring of 2009, when Danny Schechter and I both spoke out on behalf of Yevgeniya Plakhina, a young reporter who was fighting for freedom of speech on the Internet.

Danny and I were in Almaty to speak at the Eurasian Media Forum, an annual gathering of journalists and academics that is essentially sponsored by the government of President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

When Plakhina disrupted a panel to protest the arrest of several of her fellow activists, Danny started demanding answers. Sadly, what he wrote at the time is no longer online. But I interviewed Plakhina and wrote an article about it for The Guardian. (And in case you’re wondering what happened to Plakhina, she is alive and well, according to her Facebook page.)

Danny died of pancreatic cancer in New York on Thursday at the age of 72. The news that Danny was gone hit me hard, as it did a lot of people I know. He was someone I had admired since I was a teenager and he was the “News Dissector” on WBCN Radio in Boston. Listening to Danny and reading alternative weeklies like The Boston Phoenix and The Real Paper were what led me to pursue a career in journalism.

We weren’t especially close, but I considered him a friend. I interviewed him on occasion and reviewed a few of his books. (Here is an index of the posts I wrote about him for this blog.) In reading some of the tributes to him on Facebook last night, he seemed David Carr-like in how many lives he touched. He was certainly Carr-like in his energy, fearlessness and kindness toward others.

You can read all about his career in this obituary by Don Hazen at AlterNet.

Schechter was, among many other things, perhaps the leading Western journalist in reporting on South Africa and Nelson Mandela. Which leads to another story about Danny.

A few years ago Danny and I were talking about “Sun City,” an anti-apartheid music video produced by Artists United Against Apartheid, founded by Steve Van Zandt and producer Arthur Baker. Schechter was deeply involved in the making of “Sun City.” Everyone wanted Miles Davis to be included, but no one wanted to contact the notoriously difficult musician. Schechter agreed to do it, though not, he told me, without a considerable amount of trepidation. As it turned out, Miles agreed immediately — and Danny was hugely relieved. (That and other stories about “Sun City” are told in this Wikipedia article. And if you’ve never seen “Sun City,” stop what you’re doing and click here. Link now fixed.)

Danny and I in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Danny (right) and I in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Back to Kazakhstan. It was because of Danny that I was invited to speak at the Eurasian Media Forum — he’d attended previous forums, and he recommended me to moderate one panel and participate in another. It was what you might call a semi-legitimate event, held, it seemed, to bolster the image of the president’s daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, who is in charge of the forum every year.

Some of the journalists who attended struck me as nauseatingly obsequious to their hosts, but not Danny. Taking his cheerful defiance as my inspiration, I left the hotel (something that was not encouraged by the organizers) to interview Adil Nurmakov, an editor for Global Voices Online and a member of the political opposition.

Danny was especially delighted at the outdoor party that ended the forum. As scantily clad young women danced to loud, vaguely Kazakh-sounding music, Danny yelled in my ear, “This is a nominally Muslim country!” He kept repeating something one of the Kazakh attendees told him about the display of female flesh: “Ach! This is nothing!

Danny’s father, Jerry, died just six years ago at the age of 90. Unlike Jerry Schechter, Danny was not granted the gift of longevity. But he packed a lot of living into his 72 years and touched many lives. Today my heart goes out to his family and friends, including his longtime business partner, Rory O’Connor.

Danny Schechter was a giant of journalism and of progressive politics, demonstrating that the two could be combined with passion and integrity. It’s hard to believe that he’s gone.

This article has been reposted at WGBHNews.org and Common Dreams.

Violence deepens in Kazakhstan

Unrest in western Kazakhstan has taken an ominous turn, as a video has emerged showing police shooting unarmed protesters. “The video was apparently taken by a witness from her apartment window and was posted on YouTube on December 20,” reports Radio Free Europe.

I’ve taken an interest in Kazakhstan, an important U.S. ally, since April 2009, when I attended the Eurasian Media Forum in the Central Asia nation’s largest city, Almaty.

The country, a former Soviet satellite, mixes authoritarianism with some elements of democracy. I interviewed critics of the government who seemed to have no fear of speaking (or writing) freely. Yet the president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, though thought to be popular, rules with an iron hand, and was in the midst of a campaign to censor the Internet during my brief time in Almaty. You can find my blog posts about Kazakhstan here.

From my very sketchy perspective as an outsider, it seemed to me that Kazakhstan’s troubles began earlier this year, when Nazarbayev, according to this New York Times account, almost certainly stole an election he probably would have won anyway, claiming 95.5 percent of the vote.

In November, the Peace Corps withdrew its 117 volunteers from Kazakhstan for reasons that were unclear. Though one of the reasons given was that the country had become too economically advanced to need the Peace Corps, there was also speculation — according to the Christian Science Monitor — that the move was related to attacks by Islamist terrorists. That’s an ominous development in a country with a reputation for being secular and Western in its aspirations.

The recent unrest is related to a strike by oil workers, which has been going on for some time but which has escalated recently, according to the BBC. Adil Nurmakov, Central Asia editor for the Harvard-affiliated blogging network Global Voices Online, wrote about the unrest on Dec. 19, offering what strikes me as a balanced approach between the government’s version of events and that of the protesters. (My video interview with Nurmakov is here.)

So I was struck by a post Nurmakov wrote on his Facebook page today. Nurmakov wrote in Russian, but according to Google Translator, he said:

This video has changed a great deal in my attitude to the events. Yes, by the time the meeting has ceased to be a rally, much has already been burned and looted the city, the situation became uncontrollable. However, in this video is not visible outside of police self-defense can not be seen as protecting the civilian population or any property. It is clear that the police used force disproportionately and arbitrarily and cruelly. And here it must be said directly — the state must recognize that the security forces crossed the line, then to not having sufficient grounds. The state should investigate all the facts of injury and homicide, identifying and publicizing their circumstances. The state must find the perpetrators of the facts of unjustified violence, and punish their police.

Nurmakov posted much the same thing on his blog, too.

Kazakhstan is largely off the Western media’s agenda, but this is important. On the one hand, an Arab Spring-like awakening would be welcome. On the other, a descent into violence and radicalism would be a tragedy for the Kazakh people — and incredibly dangerous, given that Kazakhstan is a rare oasis of stability and prosperity in that region.

Needed: A fuller report from Kazakhstan


My old Boston Phoenix colleague Ellen Barry, now the stellar Russia correspondent for the New York Times, weighs in with a surprisingly by-the-numbers report on the weekend election in Kazakhstan. The country’s authoritarian president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, was re-elected with 95.5 percent of the vote, according to the government.

For some perspective, I read Adil Nurmakov’s recent analysis at Global Voices Online. Nurmakov, who is Global Voices’ Central Asia editor, wrote on March 4 that the election campaign was something of a farce, explaining that the opposition was boycotting the proceedings (which Barry also acknowledges) and adding:

The process of candidates nomination was perceived by many as a circus — and it really resembled a carousel of comic characters, including pensioners, some small businessmen and the person, notoriously known for his startling behavior. Interestingly, an overwhelming majority of those 18 nominees were publicly voicing their “utter support” of the current head of the state.

Above is a video interview I conducted with Nurmakov in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in April 2009, when I was taking part in the Nazarbayev-sponsored Eurasian Media Forum.

Meanwhile, on Friday the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) issued an alert regarding the disappearance of Daniyar Moldashev, who is essentially the publisher of the Almaty-based opposition newspaper Respublika. Prior to his disappearance he was assaulted, according to CPJ.

“We are gravely concerned about the health and well-being of Daniyar Moldashev and call on Kazakh authorities to positively determine his whereabouts and ensure his safety,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia program coordinator Nina Ognianova said in a statement on the organization’s website.

Here is a Q&A I conducted with Respublika journalist Yevgeniya Plakhina last June. I met Plakhina at the Eurasian Media Forum, where she protested proposed restrictions on the Internet (those restrictions were later adopted). Several of her friends were arrested and released a short time later.

Because of its oil and gas reserves, Kazakhstan is an important country on the world scene. In reading Barry’s story, you can almost sense that she wrote parts of it with an arched eyebrow. I hope the Times will give her the time and space she needs to take a closer look at what’s really going on in Kazakhstan.

Monday night update: Barry already has a good follow-up. This story will bear watching.