August 25, 2010

South Africa's "Protection of Information Bill" - A Fledgling Democracy's Struggle to Define the Role of Media?

“This is the threat of a return to the censorship under apartheid,” said Nadine Gordimer, a Nobel Laureate from South Africa whose books have been banned in the country, about the recently proposed Protection of Information Bill by the South African National Congress (ANC).

Sensationalism sells, and that is true in any part of the world. However, does that mean that information be withheld from the public simply because it does not do well for the image of the country; a reason cited by some ANC leaders in favor of the new Bill. The role of the media in a fledgling democracy is always under close scrutiny until such time that the public's need for transparency in government dealings is appeased, and it usually falls on the media to ensure that transparency. As a result, in a new democracy such as SA, the media often finds itself battling with the party in power who, even though they "fought for majority rule, morphed into a kleptocratic elite" within a short span of time in order to "hang onto power", as was the case even in Zimbabwe.

Here are the two sides to this issue in SA:
"The Protection of Information Bill seeks to establish a new regime for the classification of government documents and provides draconian prison terms for those who publish classified information, leading to the criticism that it will effectively shut down investigative journalism. "

The media in SA, with it's disclosures regarding paybacks to ministers for signing off on major business contracts and the lavish and often socially questionable lifestyles of those in power, has come under attack for churning out reams of sensational writings. South African Communist Party (SACP) secretary- general Blade Nzimande had this to say about the role of media in democracies. “While media can be a very important ally to democracy, it can be a severe obstacle to advancement.”

If this Bill were to be passed in SA it would allow the government to classify a large category of information under the umbrella of 'national interest', which is defined as " “all matters relating to the advancement of the public good” and “the survival and security of the state.” While the common man believes the bill will "gag the media on corruption" since it threatens imprisonment of anywhere between 3 to 25 years for journalists who are in violation of the ruling.

The questions many South Africans are grappling with at this time are perhaps:
  • Should media be penalized for releasing information on the corrupt dealings of people in power?
  • What information is to be designated as 'classified' and who defines and implements the 'classification'?
  • Must the media respect the code of silence regarding classified information, and what will be the penalty for a journalist if he releases classified information to the public?
  • How are other democracies dealing with this?
The "Protection of Information Bill" is moving through the South African Parliament as we speak, and what is worrisome is that the A.N.C. has a nearly two-thirds majority there.

August 23, 2010

Paulo Coelho's "The Alchemist" - Provides a Recipe for Cleansing the Soul.

I was impressed by "The Alchemist"s reputation as the 'most translated book by a living author'; one which has been translated into 56 languages since the time it was written in Portuguese by Paulo Coelho in 1988. "The Alchemist" is a fairly short, feel-good read, that I managed to start and finish on my return flight to the USA.

The novel is about the journey of young Santiago, searching for a treasure that is going to change his life. There is an aura of mysticism and traces of Sufi thought that Coelho often draws upon to explain some of the events that confront Santiago along the way. For Santiago, as for the reader, the plot of the novel provides for introspection, both of who delve into their inner being and question their actions and the outcomes thereof. Somehow, this reminded me of Richard Bach's allegorical novel, "Jonathan Livingston Seagull", though, unlike "The Alchemist", I really liked Bach's novel. Given the metaphorical and philosophical nature of Coelho's novel, the plot appears incidental at times. For me, this was a dampener. An engaging plot-line is, perhaps, the mainstay of any great fiction, and the plot of "The Alchemist" did come loose to accommodate certain profundities that Coelho wanted to include in his soup-for-the-soul writing.

Paul Coelho is a highly acclaimed writer, and my post does not mean to take away from that; I may not have enjoyed this book as much due to a timing issue: I may have read The Alchemist at a time when life felt fair, and my motivation levels were pretty high. The novel may be a perfect read for some,one who is at a low ebb and feels the need for a motivational booster. "The Alchemist" is about finding oneself, and, even though not a trend setter in any way, does provide manna for lost or demotivated souls.

August 15, 2010

Thomas C Foster's Road Map to Literature - "How to Read Literature Like a Professor."

For once I am glad I did not set aside this book because of its title! Thomas Foster's "How to Read literature Like a Professor" is a refreshing and engaging piece of non-fiction that every college bound student should read. In fact, I wish I had read this book in High School as it would have lessened my struggle in the English courses I took during the undergraduate years.

Foster with his catchy chapter titles and a seemingly chatty writing style guides the reader through the 'language of reading' that would facilitate any future reading task that the reader may undertake, be it a Hemingway, a Wordsworth, or even a Junot Diaz. Foster flags conventions that are embedded in Literature which if the reader is made aware of could serve as a key to better understanding of a literary piece; Foster goes as far as to call it the 'grammar' of Literature. It is familiarity with these conventions and the grammar that sets apart a literature professor from his freshmen students. A professor has the advantage of having extended exposure to and practice in the conventions of Literature: a literary memory which comprises of a repertoire of literary symbols which facilitates pattern recognition. Once the student is made cognizant of these symbols and the patterns that exist the reading of literature will cease to be a formidable task.

Foster divides his book into chapters that flag some universal conventions of Literature and points out how they have been used by various writers across cultures and during different time periods. The chapter headings not only make for interesting reading, but also add to the understanding of these conventions. For example, "If it's Square, it's a Sonnet", "When in Doubt it's from Shakespeare or the Bible". Foster ends the book with a test of sorts that allows the reader to practice some of what he has learned in the book; Foster provides a reading, "A Test Case" from Katherine Mansfield and has you use your understanding of patterns and symbols to analyze the text. He then gives you two student interpretations of the reading and points out how the students have used their knowledge of patterns and symbols to comprehend the piece.

Clearly. Foster has spent long hours, years in a Literature classroom and wants to bridge the reading gap between him and his students sooner than it's happening. However, it may be a very simplistic solution he's offered in the book because there will be many pieces that may fall outside of the road map he's provided in these pages. Having said that, as an educator I feel this Foster's book could be a great start to college reading as it makes the reader aware of how vast a gap there exists between his reading and a Professors, and that in itself could be a great incentive for an average reader.

Here are some quoted highlights from the book that may lure you into reading this interesting and informative piece of non-fiction:

In Literature-

"The real reason for a quest is always self knowledge". (be it in Sophocles' "Oedipus" or Edmund Spenser's "Faerie Queen" or Mark Twain's "Huck Finn")

"Whenever people eat or drink together, it's communion."

"There is no such thing as an original work of Literature.......there is only one story........intertextual dialogue deepens and enriches, bringing multiple layers of meaning to the text. "

"Myth is a body of story that matters........that is so deeply burrowed into our conciousness that readers may almost automatically consider it whenever 'flying' or 'falling' is invoked."

"It's never 'just' rain or snow...........if you want a character to be cleansed, symbolically, let him walk through the rain somewhere..........rain is also restorative....mysterious........snow is clean, stark, severe, inhospitable, inviting, playful, suffocating.......does well to remember, as one starts reading to check the weather."

"When writers send characters south, it is so they can run amok"

August 14, 2010

Visit to India........

T 3 Indira Gandhi Airport New Delhi

All's well that ends well, and so it was with my visit to India. The much talked about Terminal 3 at the Indira Gandhi International Airport lived up to its reputation. The road access was well marked and easy, the check in was professional and the waiting lounges were comfortable and well kept, as were the bathrooms. I took off from New Delhi very impressed with the new terminal and the staff managing it.

My trip to India was a bag of mixed emotions, but mostly positive ones. India and Indians have a way of growing on you, and it's a growing that completely out-shadows all the dysfunction, discomfort, and disparities that encompass New Delhi. In fact, New Delhi often reminded me of a panorama in fractal geometry, especially when negotiating the seemingly unruly traffic, or facing 'jhuggis' alongside the high rise 'towers' and 'malls'. The dichotomy and the disparity is all so well enmeshed in the mainstream that the overall picture exudes a harmony; truly a baffling phenomenon. The plethora of negatives that I had collected in a matter of a few weeks: the disregard for traffic rules and public hygiene, the flouting of human rights and apathy toward the planet, the suffocating lack of space and clean air, all of these ceased to matter by the end of my trip! I believe this equanimity I felt was not unique to me; most visitors leave India feeling this way because India happens to you, as it did to me!