Wednesday, June 09, 2010

TOP STORY>>Delegation observing democracy

Leader senior staff writer

Six officials from Kazakhstan are in Little Rock this week to learn about U.S. elections, media and government.

Their probing questions when they visited The Leader on Tuesday bore no resemblance to the coarse, slapstick spoof Borat, in which a make-believe TV reporter from Kazakhstan — the ninth largest nation in the world in size — comes to the U.S. in search of truth.

Kazakhs found Borat highly insulting, by the way, when it was in theaters in 2006. The fledgling independent country was at the time out from under the boot of communism for 15 years, and they didn’t like being portrayed by actor Sasha Baron Cohen as crude, bumbling idiots.

Sponsored by the U.S. Library of Congress, the real Kazakhstan visitors from Central Asia yesterday asked insightful questions about newspapers, about elections and about freedom of speech and freedom of information.

From a nation of 16 million people, they are delegates to the Open World Program, sponsored by the Open World Leadership Center. Most are in their twenties.

“Who sponsors the newspaper?” asked Mirkhat Serikbayev.

“The paper is paid for by people buying ads and people buying newspapers,” he was told.

Members of the group asked such questions as—did candidates pay for articles in the paper? No, only for their advertisements, they were told.

“Do they pay for the endorsements and editorials?” they asked through their interpreter.

No, the publishers—owners—of The Leader and their editorial writers make those decisions, but no money changes hands.

They asked about libel and its punishments—what happens when you say bad things about a president?

Talent Silltanon wanted to know about Helen Thomas, the 89-year-old reporter who questioned 10 presidents, but who resigned Monday after saying in a televised interview that Jews should leave Palestine and go back to Poland, Germany and the United States.

Was she punished for speaking her mind, they wondered?
Perhaps, but more so for loudly violating the reporter’s creed of impartiality.

The objectives and interests of the Open World program include:

The openness of government and access to information, mass media and the role in politics, campaigns and elections, principles of constitutional government in the U.S., freedom of speech in a democratic society and utilization of information technology.

Youth participation in socio-political processes, immigration and problems of ethnic minorities, citizens’ role in local governance, the role of public opinion in politics and relationships among the various branches of the federal government.

The group visited the Wash-ington office of Sen. Mark Pryor and will stay with host families in Little Rock.

They visited Old Mill Park in North Little Rock, Stephens Nature Center, River Market District, Clinton Presidential Center and took a short hike at Pinnacle Mountain.

They met with Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola, visited the Central High Museum and toured the school, and learned about elections from Susan Inman, former director of the Pulaski County Election Commission and director of elections for the Arkansas secretary of state.

They will learn about blogging from Max Brantley at Arkansas Times and will discuss issues surrounding Arkansas Hispanics with Alan Leveritt, publisher of the Times and also El Latino.

Other stops on their one-week stay in Little Rock: They will meet with Frank Fellone from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette to discuss how the Freedom of Information Act is used and will meet with Grif Stockley to discuss human rights and citizen activism.

They are also slated to visit Cong. Vic Snyder’s office and Heifer Village.