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Keeping it grounded and real

Singapore Writers Festival 2016 - the 19th edition - sees a significant representation of journalists whose works deal with the year's hottest and most pressing topics. BT Lifestyle finds out how these authors and their books, both fiction and non-fiction, are influencing the literary landscape.
Nov 4, 2016 5:50 AM

Making journalism relevant to the masses

FREDERIK OBERMAIER
SWF Lecture: Privacy Versus Surveillance: What The Panama Papers Mean for Everyone in the 21st Century, Nov 12
SWF Panel: The World in the Age of Digital Journalism, Nov 12

PEOPLE will only pay for media-consumption if they were offered something that other media cannot offer. One way of gaining such exclusivity is investigations, points out Frederik Obermaier, author and investigative reporter at Germany's leading daily, the Munich-based Süddeutsche Zeitung.

One of the lead reporters of The Panama Papers news which broke earlier this year and which exposed the true identities of who owned offshore companies, Mr Obermaier notes that while traditional newspapers all around the world are losing readers, online media cannot completely balance these losses either.

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"I do see that in times of accelerating news output and accelerating media-consumption habits, there is also a wish for thoroughly and in-depth investigated reports that uncover wrongdoings and that do not back down until they have uncovered the truth," he says, to a question of how traditional media and print journalism can continue to make journalism relevant to the masses.

Mr Obermaier studied political sciences, sociology, cultural geography and journalism and his work focuses largely on Middle East politics, terrorism and intelligence issues. In 2010, he published the definitive book Land am Abgrund: Staatszerfall und Kriegsgefahr in der Republik Jemen (Country on the Brink: State failure and the Threat of War in the Republic of Yemen).

The Panama Papers - besides its significant revelations - were also a milestone for the traditional world of journalism as it did away with traditional competition among media groups. For about a year, around 400 journalists from more than 100 media organisations in over 80 countries have taken part in researching the documents. This seems to be Mr Obermaier's biggest takeaway from the project - that together, journalists are more effective than going solo.

Personally, he learnt to share and to trust. "When I took part in my first project of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) some years ago, it was a completely new experience to work with dozens of journalists from all around the world, with different backgrounds and from different media. It took me some time to learn that these projects can only work if you share all your findings, if you communicate openly to your colleagues what you have and what you need and where you would need a helping hand. The Panama Papers have shown that it makes sense to cooperate with journalists of other media outlets, when it comes to international investigative projects. Such cooperations can only work if there is mutual trust and the will to share radically," he adds.

As a precursor to The Panama Papers, Mr Obermaier was part of the ICIJ team that investigated the Offshore Leaks document - which revealed the secret companies of billionaire and playboy Gunter Sachs in tax havens such as the Cook Islands - and his articles led to some high-profile resignations.

On the future of investigative journalism, Mr Obermaier points out how it's facing powerful adversaries: governments, politicians and spin doctors who want to suppress critical reporting, and enterprises that do hire a whole armada of lawyers and public relations firms to prevent critical reports. "Their aim is to keep scandals under the carpet, and our duty as journalists is to let this not happen."


Cutting to the bone of terrorism

NISID HAJARI
SWF Panel: India Unbound, Nov 5 
SWF Panel: Americans in the Pacific, Nov 6
SWF Panel: The World in the Age of Digital Journalism, Nov 12

JOURNALIST Nisid Hajari might not have been reporting daily from the frontlines of the war in Afghanistan as well as the rising terrorist threat emanating from Pakistan, but overseeing the coverage gave him the idea for his book, the prize-winning Midnight's Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India's Partition.

It won the 2016 Colby Award for military and international affairs, and was named one of the best books of the year by The Seattle Times, NPR, Amazon, Quartz and The Daily Beast. The idea for the book sprung from the journalist's work at Newsweek, where he was managing editor and foreign editor from 2001-2011. "One of our more notorious cover stories dubbed Pakistan the 'most dangerous nation on earth' - not because of violence on the streets, but because the chances of a nuclear weapon falling into the hands of a terrorist group were higher there than anywhere else in the world," shares the Singapore-based Asia editor for Bloomberg View, the editorial board of Bloomberg News. He writes columns on Asian politics, history and economics, and edits Bloomberg's commentary from the region.

Born in Mumbai and raised in the US, Mr Hajari believes that the unresolved rivalry born out of the crucible of Partition and the strategic mindset Pakistan developed in 1947 - in which India looms as an existential threat that needs to be fought by any means possible - has created a dangerous cocktail. The Pakistani military is simultaneously building up the world's fastest-growing nuclear arsenal even as it lends support to the Taleban and terror groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba.

"That makes understanding the Indo-Pak rivalry and its roots important to a much wider swathe of the world than has traditionally been the case," he says.

Mr Hajari was in New York City when 9/11 happened - and he watched the second plane hit the World Trade Center from the streets of the West Village where he was living at the time.

"The threat of terrorism has dominated the journalism I've participated in, and obviously informed the writing of this book. It's certainly driven me to learn far more than I might have otherwise about the histories and pathologies of specific parts of the world; it's also reminded me constantly of just how poorly we understand the mindset that might drive someone to strap a bomb to his chest and try to blow up a crowd of innocent civilians."

Since 9/11, the threat of terrorism has fundamentally changed the way citizens judge their leaders and relate to the state.

"I think you only need to listen to some of the rhetoric coming out of Europe and the US presidential campaign to know that. On the one hand, we've willingly surrendered a great deal of privacy, liberty and convenience in exchange for the promise of greater security.

"On the other hand, a continuing sense of insecurity - exacerbated by rise of lone-wolf terrorists whose attacks seem almost random in their timing and choice of targets - is fuelling some ugly, hateful phobias of outsiders, refugees, Muslims of any stripe."


Orange Prize-winner Shriver lets rip

LIONEL SHRIVER
SWF Masterclass: Melding Fact and Fiction, Nov 12
SWF Panel: An Unflinching Eye Into Truth, Nov 13

IN Lionel Shriver's latest and 12th novel, The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047, there are no more publishing companies and no more newspapers. "Of those two losses, the end of newspapers is the greater," says the American journalist/novelist who currently resides in London.

"I am very worried about the future of professional journalism, which cannot be done well if it is given away for free. The whole online model has to change, or we will be dependent on civilians with agendas and mobile phones for our news."

Straight reporting is important, and particularly the investigative kind is expensive, Ms Shriver notes. "I'm willing to pay for it, and I want all of us to realise the value of at least semi-reliable information, and be willing to pay for it, too."

She reads up on non-fiction books for her stories, but mainly relies on scouring the Internet for information these days, what everyone else is doing, she notes wryly.

Her 2005 Orange Prize-winning book We Need to Talk About Kevin was adapted into a feature film in 2011. It was about a school massacre, written from the first-person perspective of the killer's mother.

Ms Shriver recalls how she did a massive amount of research for it, particularly tracking down a stack of articles about real-life school massacres (this was the pre-Internet era). "But to a surprising degree, the research was useless. I had to start from scratch, and make up my characters in order to own it," she notes.

With traditional print media being in a precarious position now, Shriver points out how she gets asked to do much less journalism than before and also gets paid far less when she is commissioned. "Being a freelancer is a less viable occupation than it was a few years ago," she highlights.

Obviously, most people get their news for free online. "I know I'm old-fashioned. I watch scads of television news - long format, mostly. I read what used to be mainstream newspapers (though often on a tablet). I realise you can't fight 'progress'. But I worry not so much that younger people are getting their news online as that younger people aren't getting much news at all, aside from what Twitter or Facebook throws up. Maybe that's the wave of the future, but in my fusty, grumpy, old-lady way, I find that depressing," adds the 59-year-old.


Visceral insights out of Afghanistan

ATIA ABAWI
SWF Classroom Series: Europe's Migrant Crisis, Nov 5
SWF Panel: Americans in the Pacific, Nov 6
SWF Panel: On Privilege, Loss and Love through Teenage Eyes, Nov 6

BORN to Afghan parents in West Germany and raised in the United States, Atia Abawi started her journalism career at the frontlines of war, conflict and terror attacks around the world, including Kenya, Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel-Palestine.

That gave her the opportunity to speak to people directly. "I want to delve into the interviewee's mind and heart. I want to understand what it is like to live in their shoes if even for a moment, in hopes of transferring that to the viewer or reader," she says.

In her first novel, The Secret Sky: A Novel of Forbidden Love in Afghanistan, the characters are fictional but their stories are real.

Her job as a foreign correspondent stationed for almost five years in Kabul, Afghanistan, gave her a perspective for the book.

"The reason I wanted to write it was to give the reader a deeper glimpse into a country and culture that they only get in snippets, whether that is a two-minute television report or a 750-word article. The novel gave me the opportunity to share a more in-depth and fleshed-out view of Afghanistan's culture and how religious fundamentalism can spread in such volatile environments."

The world has lived with terrorists of all sorts for many centuries, but in recent years, politicians and others with agendas have exploited terrorism in ways that are more prevalent than before 2001. "The culture of fear that we currently live in is something that affects most of us," Ms Abawi points out.

Terrorism has had a tremendous effect on her both personally and professionally, she says. Although still in university when it happened, she had family members in both Washington DC and New York City. "I was terrified, I was scared. And after, I realised as soon as someone would figure out my background, I would be judged for something that hurt and scared me the same way it did them.

"Professionally, after covering the wars and speaking to civilians, soldiers, politicians, generals and even children - these stories have opened my eyes in ways that can only happen when you witness them in person."

She feels that her book, based on reader responses, has helped to humanise Afghans for Americans who live half the world away, which is gratifying especially at a time when hate crimes against Muslims in America are reaching record levels.

"I do feel like Islam has been hijacked by disgusting monsters, and because of them, peaceful Muslims have become targets of prejudice and hate as well - even though they do not identify with them in any way at all."

  • The Singapore Writers Festival (SWF), on Nov 4-13, is centred on the theme "Sayang" - a Malay term of endearment - and will feature over 300 international writers as well as writers from Singapore.
    Festival details and tickets at: https://www.singaporewritersfestival.com/