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Censorship by any other name

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Students in Prague work on deadline for the publication. (photo by Candace Perkins Bowen)

Students in Prague work on deadline for the publication. (photo by Candace Perkins Bowen)

by Candace Bowen

The good vibes that come from creating a publication that’s yours know no language barriers. And when someone in power tells students what they can and cannot publish, it’s demoralizing and sucks the life-blood out of what could otherwise be a great product. Even talented writers and designers can’t overcome that, no matter how good the teaching is.

Time: Summer 1998

The Place: Prague and Bratislava

Instructors: Candace Perkins Bowen and Merle Dieleman, hired by the Open Society (Soros Foundation) to teach “fact-based American journalism” to teens in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

In Prague, our Center for Independent Journalism contact set us up in a nice facility for teaching, made sure we had good interpreters, gave us a lab for the last two days when the students were to produce a newsmagazine and then she left us alone.

Typical 16-year-olds, the 25 we worked with were passionate about the interviewing and writing. Some took on more than they could handle, and, with four hours left until deadline, mild panic ensued. But the sensible editors made the rounds of their staff, encouraged, coached and told some just to focus on one story and not try to finish three. They also made sure everyone would have something in their publication.

Even when we faced challenges like a PageMaker menu bar in Czech (How do you say, “Drop cap?”) and missing cutlines and cables, it was a crazy wonderful time. As we broke from a giant group hug when we met our deadline, one of the Charles University interpreters said excitedly, “I think I want to be a student media adviser!”

When we distributed the paper the next day, students were all thrilled. Sure, some of the photos were fuzzy, and no one knows where the last line of the street car story went, but they were excited and pleased. It was theirs.

Fast forward to Bratislava for the next two and a half weeks. Different center, different director. Much different philosophy. She wanted a PR piece to make her Center look good. She hired a designer and only one of the 25 students had any hands-on opportunity with actually putting the pieces together. All stories went through her, as she edited, changed, eliminated articles without any input from the 25 students, who shyly complained to us at first. Then, when we could do nothing either, finally they just did some articles, but without enthusiasm.

Teens in Bratislava, who had no real say in the content of their publication, as less enthused. (photo by Merle Dieleman)

Teens in Bratislava, who had no real say in the content of their publication, as less enthused. (photo by Merle Dieleman)

When their publication was distributed the last day of the workshop, the expressions on their faces told the story. The newsmagazine looked appealing and, I’m sure (though it was in Slovak and I couldn’t read it!) had articles with perfect spelling, punctuation and mechanics. But the students didn’t care. The publication had none of their voices, their passion. It wasn’t theirs.

What an opportunity she had denied them. They didn’t wrangle over what content to include like the kids in Prague. They didn’t have to decide what was most important or plan what got front page and what had to be buried inside. They didn’t spend time coaching each other or double checking source names. They didn’t try just one more time to reach that reluctant source. They didn’t learn to think. And they definitely didn’t meet their deadline with a group hug.

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