Four former residents of Southeast Alaska are working to establish free and independent news media in the Balkans.
The quartet includes a husband and wife team, Suzi and Richard McClear (formerly of Sitka public radio); Jon Newstrom (formerly of Juneau, Kodiak, Petersburg and Sitka); and Charles Northrip of Juneau.
Northrip, 60, was first approached about working for ProMedia four years ago, but the youngest of his three daughters was still in high school. "It didn't seem the right time," he said Friday. His wife Pamela remains in Juneau, visiting him abroad four or five times a year.
In the fall of 1999, the time was right for Northrip, former executive director of the Juneau Economic Development Council. He arrived in Zagreb as network operations advisor to the new independent television network CCN (Croatian Commercial Network). And the best feedback is that Croats tend to accept what they see on CCN.
"What came over the government channel in the past was viewed with skepticism; people knew they were getting the varnished truth," said Northrip, who spent the holidays in Juneau and leaves Tuesday to return to his post in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia.
Coverage of the 1990-92 war between Serbs and Croats was selective, and sometimes without basis in fact, he said. A co-worker told him the government channel, for example, once told of Croats being hanged in one village when nothing was happening there, Northrip said.
Some network producers could be indicted by the Hague Tribunal because of the misinformation they disseminated during the disintegration of various Yugoslavian republics, he said. Although the war ended in '92, a cease fire was not declared until '95, and the United Nations was still present until recently.
Northrip's training is in both radio and television. His first job in the state was manager of KUAC-FM in 1963 at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. KUAC eventually expanded into television, and Northrip taught courses in broadcasting. He also ran KTOO-FM and TV in Juneau and the Alaska Public Broadcasting Commission.
Both Northrip and Newstrom work under the auspices of the International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX) which manages ProMedia (a professional media program) for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). They are funded under USAID's democracy and governance program.
"In essence," Newstrom said, "USAID asked for nonprofits to bid on the ProMedia contract, and IREX won the bid for Croatia and a whole bunch of other places." USAID has given $5 million for the five-year contract through fiscal year 2004. The program must raise $717,000 in funds from other sources; Northrip writes grant applications to generate those funds.
Newstrom, 43, worked as news director for more than 10 years with KFSK Petersburg, KMXT Kodiak and KCAW Sitka as well as system coordinator for CoastAlaska, the consortium of the Southeast public radio stations. He began working as an advisor to IREX in May 1998 and was promoted to "resident advisor" in February 1999. This means he is responsible for all IREX ProMedia activity in Croatia.
Living in a former dictatorship where news media was controlled by the government and ethnic violence was deadly is not exactly dangerous, Newstrom said, but there were incidents last year of what he calls "harassment."
"For example, one USAID worker had her house broken into and her home office trashed. Another contractor like us found a bug in their office. ... Now the situation is much improved and quite safe," he said.
Much of Newstrom's time is spent writing reports. He is in charge of all accounting, and in addition to financial reports, needs to "keep donors and agencies informed." He writes an activity report for the American Embassy in Zagreb and meets monthly with the ambassador.
Newstrom is the office's radio expert, Northrip the television expert and Glavas the print expert. "But we all work on everything together," Newstrom said.
The McClears were in Washington on Friday and traveled back to Serbia on Saturday. Suzi and Rich, both 54, have been in the field since 1993, starting in Albania. They were home in Sitka for the 94-95 school year so one of their sons could graduate from Sitka High. They began work in Serbia in January 1997, Rich said.
"Throughout the year (2000) we traveled in a ring around Serbia to Croatia, Bosnia, Hungary, Romania, Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro, meeting Serb journalists, training and consulting and recruiting local stations to carry programs of independent radio stations banned by Milosevic," a recent letter from the McClears said.
Despite land mines here and there, Northrip and Newstrom feel fairly safe, but conditions are different for the McClears.
"One of the ethnic Serb journalists we trained in Kosovo has disappeared and we fear the worst, another (a woman) was shot and a third so threatened that the U.N. evacuated her. One station owner, who runs Prishtina's only private multi-ethnic station, had his apartment hit with a rocket-propelled grenade and three stations we work with had fires, two suspicious," they said.
Overall, however, the Alaskans are upbeat.
"The chief reward is how quickly we got results. I got there in November (1999), and we had a newscast on the air in early December, and had stations interconnected by February. And by April polls told us that 60 percent of the residents that could get these signals were watching the evening news," Northrip said.
"I did not expect that much this fast," he said.
Another Juneau resident, Larry Persily, helped start a weekly paper in Dubrovnik, the "Dubrovacki List," over the 1999 holidays.
Newstrom said Alaskans from small town papers or stations go over smoothly in the Balkans.
"I didn't need an expert from the New York Times, but the Wrangell Sentinel," he said of Persily, a former Juneau Empire managing editor who ran the Sentinel before moving to Juneau.