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Pulitzer-Helium essay winners announced in media-focused round

Alex Amend, Pulitzer CenterHelium image

Round 5's Global Issues/Citizen Voice contest looked at a subject very dear to the Pulitzer Center in international crisis reporting while also examining US responsibility for settling refugees from Iraq. The work of Pulitzer Center journalists Jason Motlagh, Zygmunt Dzieciowski, Kira Kay, Jason Maloney, and Matthew Hay Brown guided this round, yielding some very impassioned and informed responses.

Two of the three prompts asked writers to look at the media's role during the recent conflicts in the Caucasus and Sri Lanka. The winning authors were as unsparing in their criticism as they were forewarning of the consequences of ineffectual, biased journalism and outright propaganda that is defining the coverage of these two conflicts.

Joe Horvath (pen name Jimmy Nightingale) responded to the question "Has the US media presented a fair and accurate portrayal of the Georgia/Russia conflict?" with a resounding "No. It failed to convey the complex geo-political make-up of this part of the world."

Horvath of Canberra, Australia based his argument in a studied application of the region's history. He considers himself "keenly interested in history," and says he used world history atlases in conjunction with Pulitzer Center reporting to prepare for his essay.

Horvath also has a personal connection to the region's history. His Hungarian grandfather was one of the few surviving non-officers of the German 6th army after the battle at Stalingrad in WWII. His grandfather spent 7 years in a Siberian internment camp and returned to Horvath's grandmother unexpectedly one day in 1952.

In his conclusion, Horvath points out the history lesson Georgia should have considered and the media refused to recognize:

"The media portrayal of the Russian action as an unprovoked attack on sovereign Georgia is in my view a sensationalist view ignoring the history of the region. While the Russian response was arguably excessive, Georgia was far from the innocent party portrayed by the media. President Saakashvili tried a bit of political sleight of hand, gambling on his country's pro-American stance to minimise repercussions. If Saakashvili had looked back to 1921-24, the lesson was there to be learned - anyone who treats Russia with contempt does so at their own peril."

Down to the Indian subcontinent, the island of Sri Lanka has known little else but civil war for the last 25 years. Over the years, many casualties have piled up and include the freedom of journalistic inquiry - that can be seen to affect all others.

Sarah Harrison of London, has visited Sri Lanka multiple times and knows what its like when the country ascends to an uneasy peace.

Harrison begins her essay to the prompt "What does media freedom mean in a place like Sri Lanka that is determined to stamp out a long-standing insurrection?" with an anecdote. She spoke with a Sri Lankan friend, who while happy to discuss the topic, requested that he not be quoted nor named. A climate of intimidation and suppression defines the media on the island, Harrison says.

"...they (Sri Lankans) are confused. I am too reading the online Sri Lankan newspapers (and I hear they are exactly the same on the street); not one paper tells the same story, or gives the same weight to each scoop...Many of the papers and radio stations are state owned and widely known to be full of propaganda. Local journalists are disappearing all the time. Everyone is suspicious of everyone."

Harrison points to the abduction and torture of journalist Keith Noyahr earlier this year as the time she discovered the Sri Lankan-based Free Media Movement, an organization dedicated to its titular cause.

She concludes her winning essay with these remarks:
"Media suppression and propaganda are making the people of the country confused and deceived. This leaves them scared and unable to act, allowing the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE to continue their prolonged war. The few lone pleas for help go unnoticed...Freedom of press provides information, it gives the people a voice and it allows them to unite. But, as Sri Lanka demonstrates, by guarding the press, governments are provided freedom of actions, allowing them to violate countless human rights in their determination to stamp out a long-standing insurrection."

The third prompt is on the much different topic and is really a moral question: What responsability does the US bear for helping to solve the Iraqi refugee crisis?

Shaheen Darr, also of London, said she wrote her essay to challenge a perception of immunity to the images of the war.

Darr's argument begins by framing the conflict and quantifying the refugee crisis:
"...2.7 million Iraqis have been displaced within Iraq since the invasion. There has been no Iraqi governmental assistance given to compensate or resettle these people in any way. In addition nearly 2 million more Iraqis have been displaced into neighboring countries like Syria, Jordan and Lebanon with Syria taking the brunt of this influx."

She continues by outlining actual measure that could help mitigate the crisis and draws attention to the plight of many overwhelmed aid agencies.
"It is imperative for the Iraqi government to assist its displaced population and to make the Western powers aware of the extent of the problem...A statement was made by US Senators Edward Kennedy and Gordon Smith in that year about helping in the resettlement of Iraqi refugees especially those whose lives were in danger in Iraq. Funds to the value of $18million and aid would be given to assist the UNCHR in its efforts in controlling the situation."

For Darr, the responsibility of resolving this crisis lays with the US the UK and the Iraqi government.
"When we look back at the colonial history of Western powers like Britain steps were always taken to ensure the well being of the citizens of the colonised countries they invaded and ruled. The US too has a responsibility to do the same in the name of humanitarianism.