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||Eau Claire, WI 54702-4004|
UW-Eau Claire Alumnus Helping|
MAILED: April 26, 1999|
Anyone organizing an event such as a televised debate knows he or she has reason to be nervous. A cranky candidate or a power failure could foil the best-made plans, leaving organizers scrambling to explain why they couldn't control the uncontrollable.
But for a 1978 University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire journalism graduate, much more than his reputation was on the line when he helped organize an "Election '98" debate the first live televised debate among parliamentary candidates in the Kyrghyz Republic, a former Soviet Republic.
"Everyone in that studio was part of a new chapter in this former Soviet Republic's transition to democracy, and it was going to be broadcast live," Jerry Huffman said of the experience. "The door to a new era in political participation was opening. The next hour would help determine if it would stay open or slam shut."
The candidates showed up and the hourlong debate proved a success, said Huffman, the Central Asia regional news adviser for Internews Network.
"For the first time live television had been used to introduce candidates to the voters in an unbiased format," Huffman said. "The most revealing remark I heard was the next day when one of our employees at the Internews office in Bishkek said she hadn't decided whom to vote for until she watched the debate. That one kept me smiling for a long time."
Founded in early 1980s, Internews' primary goal is to assist independent media in developing countries. It currently has operations in 19 countries, most in the former Soviet Union but others in Africa, the Middle East and Indonesia.
Based in Kazakhstan, Huffman assists private media in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and the Kyrghyz Republic. He also teaches journalism seminars for the private stations in his areas, and works as a consultant to improve the quality and the journalistic integrity of the news programs. Each Internews office produces one to five shows a month on and distributes those programs to private stations, Huffman said, noting that the organization also provides technical assistance as well as legal and legislative advice to private stations.
"One of the most important things we do is to provide moral support for the stations and journalists," Huffman said. "Having a 'free media' is a wonderful concept but the reality is that it can get you killed out here. Many of the governments profess being democrats but the mindset is still very old style Soviet. Anything or anyone that threatens the 'norm' is often looked upon as a threat. The government routinely closes stations, journalists are beaten, tax records audited, people followed, phones bugged and a million other things they can do to try and control the media."
Huffman joined Internews in 1998 after a 19-year career working as a reporter, anchor and producer at broadcast stations in the Midwest and in Europe. Huffman's wife, Carol Larson, who attended UW-Eau Claire for a year but graduated from UW-Madison, spent six months working with Huffman in Kazakhstan as an instructor and adviser. Larson, who works for Wisconsin Public Television, is a specialist in documentaries.
"The goal for both of us was to feel like we made a difference in the world," Huffman said of their efforts. "Carol and I have been very fortunate to spend our careers in journalism and this was a chance to help build an industry from the ground up. An aggressive media can be a good thing in a society. We've been asked to help others learn and that is very flattering. We feel very lucky to be doing this."
Huffman credits UW-Eau Claire's Henry Lippold, a professor of communication and journalism, with whetting his appetite for journalism.
"That man is an outstanding teacher," Huffman said. "He lit a fire in me to work in journalism that's still going strong."
Janice B. Wisner
UW-Eau Claire News Bureau
Updated: April 26, 1999