Peninsula College Journalism Professor Rich Riski has a lot to share with his journalism students this year about the role of media in other parts of the world.
During November and December, 2012, Riski spent six weeks in Baku, Azerbaijan, as a Fulbright Senior Specialist in Communications and Journalism at the Caucus School of Journalism and Media Management. Azerbaijan is an oil-wealthy Muslim country located on the Caspian Sea and is bordered on the west by Armenia and Turkey, on the north by Georgia and on the south by ancient Persia, known today as Iran.
Riski’s assignment in Azerbaijan was to teach mass communications and advanced writing to students studying at the master’s degree level. All of them were experienced journalists and were or had been employed in state television jobs or by state-owned magazines and newspapers.
Riski’s task was to not only teach mass media and communications to his new students, but to get them out of the classroom and onto the street, so they could learn how to put theory into action by conducting spontaneous, onsite interviews with people. To accomplish this, Riski required each of his students to produce a weekly news story derived from on-street interviews, with a focus on Internet freedom and its impact on shared governance. His Baku students can be seen at: http://youtu.be/8Qo9BzRkeYY.
During his first week in Baku, Riski’s objective was tested by news of an unsanctioned protest that was scheduled to take place downtown. The protest was centered around opposition to President Ilham Aliyev’s new government measures to fine protesters and organizers who promote public protests. Beyond a general notice of the gathering, Riski said few details were known.
Led by his students to an opulent shopping district, Riski set out to discover what was really happening, hoping it would turn into a teaching and learning experience. He describes the scene:
“The group moved from an open-terraced restaurant overlooking the tree-lined plaza, where plainclothes officers and security videotaped the crowd below, to a corner where police and military gathered with beefed-up security busses to hold and remove those arrested. Shouts of protest at a distance triggered blue-helmeted soldiers to sweep across the plaza and grab individuals. Those who resisted were picked up by legs and arms. Another officer would put a gloved hand over the person’s mouth to prevent any shouts.”
An excerpt from Riski’s own journal recording the events of that day reads:
“Students said a FB page entitled ‘Resign or Resist’ had called for this unsanctioned protest. No state TV would report this, but an online TV channel may broadcast a piece of it. Text messages and calls were made with initial reports that 3-4 people were arrested and one TV cameraman was taken into custody, . . . I was told journalists can be kept a maximum of 3 hours before they must be released. We stayed at the corner for maybe 60-90 minutes before calls to leave. It ended with a sputter really. It seemed everyone knew this protest was on schedule, like it was a pre-ordained exercise of expression and suppression meant by each side to send a message.”
Now that he is back in Port Angeles, Riski has had time to reflect on the weeks he spent in Azerbaijan and on some of the most basic differences between journalism in the United States and elsewhere.
“We take everything for granted,” he says, citing the free and open expression that is the cornerstone of American media. “We’re fortunate,” he adds, and notes that from now on he will “focus my efforts with a little more passion.”
Riski has been a journalism associate professor at Peninsula College for five years and served as adjunct faculty for more than 10 years. He is on the editorial board of the Newspaper Research Journal and formerly worked as general assignment reporter and photographer for the Peninsula Daily News. For more than nine years he has advised The Buccaneer, the college’s award-winning student newspaper, and arranged for visits from three Pulitzer Prize winners, an Overseas Press Club publisher and multiple authors to the Peninsula College campus.
He was named “Outstanding Graduate Student 2004” in the Department of Journalism at the University of Memphis, where he completed his master’s degree.