Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Lest we forget

I saw this a couple of days ago. Due to being in the midst of the month from hell work-wise I haven't had a chance to get it up here, but thought it was important to post something before it slips my, and the rest of the world's, mind.

While it may seem every journalist and media outfit has been transfixed on the events in American and Washington, on Monday From the Frontline reported (on Twitter, obviously) the shocking statistic that in the first 20 days of 2009 more than 10 journalists have been killed around the globe. Although by no means a satisfactory figure, by way of comparison there were 41 confirmed industry deaths in the whole of 2008. The latest was a young Russian reporter, Anastasia Baburova, who worked for the same anti-Kremlin newspaper as Anna Politkovskaya (pictured).

I'm sure many blog posts could, and have, been filled with musings on the perils of working in Russia, and their government's apparent failure to react, but the other deaths in the list were just as shocking. The eerie case of Lasantha Wickrematunge, editor of Sri Lankan paper the Sunday Leader, who wrote an editorial in preparation for his own muder. Nepalese journalist Uma Singh, "hacked to death" by 15 men, as well as three journalists killed in the Gazan/Israeli fighting, and deaths in Pakistan and Somalia.

These journalists were all working in very dangerous parts of the world, many in countries known for this most extreme form of press restriction. But it reminded me of Rodney Pinder of the International News Safety Institute (INSI) when he said all journalists should take responsibility for their own safety seriously, no matter what part of the world they are in. In my blog post Crying lone wolf, I talked about how becoming multi-media journalists could be isolating us from our colleagues. I wonder whether there's a point at which this isolation could become dangeous. Being able to multi-task suddenly seems irrelevant when you're stuck in a situation you can't get out of. The case of the student journalist in Calais last year is a haunting case in point.

The INSI safety code should be essential reading for any trainee journalist, especially if, as Rory Cellan-Jones said, we are moving towards a more lonesome way of working. By keeping an eye on those reporters who have ended up dying for their story, perhaps something can be learned from their sacrifice. The counter on INSI's home page for "journalists and media staff killed in 2009" is a sad indication there will be more to come.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Capturing Cardiff: Finding comfort in the crunch

It is fair to say the credit crunch has produced a whole host of losers. But one surprising winner has risen out of the ashes of bad debt and sub-prime mortgages.

After years of declining attendance, people are returning to houses of worship throughout the UK. Church of England congregations are reporting a rise in numbers, and Christmas addresses from religious leaders claimed difficult times have caused people to turn to spiritual outlets to make sense of their morality-poor, debt-filled lives. In his seasonal speech the Bishop of Manchester Rt Rev Nigel McCulloch said: “We are being shocked into seeing that there are more important values to own and cherish”.

But in a quiet corner of Cardiff, just a stone’s throw from City Road, there is another religious group experiencing an influx of followers. Standing in the shadows of the sprawling St Peter’s Catholic Church is an altogether less assuming building. This is Cardiff Buddhist Centre, and although there are now others, 10 years ago this was the only place in the Welsh capital the Buddhist community, or sangha, had to practice.

Jenny Franks, 71, of Pentwyn, has been a volunteer at the centre for six-and-a-half years. She agreed the last 18 months have seen an increase in the number of people through their doors.

“If we go by the numbers on our books, we have seen an increase,” she said “But not all of those will stay. They might take something away and in a few months or years, they might come back.

“Right now people are scared, and I think they are looking for something spiritual to help them. Here we say nothing is permanent, and we have seen that in the world around us recently. It can be hard to come to terms with and our door is always open.”

This arms-open attitude and a rejection of the materialistic side of life may be what is causing Buddhism’s stock to rise as everything else crashes. As one blogger, a stockbroker-turned-Buddhist, said: “Buddhism tells us that we will suffer for our passions, our greed...and our ignorance”. Perhaps people want to suffer no more.

Although Buddhism has many different branches, broadly it teaches awareness and insight into the world around you to become a better person. It has no god or gods, with Buddha himself being held more as a role model than an idol, and Jenny suggests this can be an attraction for many who are turned off by traditional Western religions. Its focus is on practice through meditation.

The Cardiff centre was started in 1998 by two men, Pramudita and Surana (Buddhists do not take last names), who bought the building and transformed it into the centre which today houses an office, library, kitchen, shop, and two shrine rooms for meditation.

The centre is part of the Friends of the Western Order of Buddhists (FWOB), a branch of Buddhism designed to fit well with the trappings of Western life. This compromise between East and West sees more than 100 people coming through their doors for meditation, advice, or just a cup of tea, each week. The centre doesn’t charge for most of its classes but asks for a donation, or dana, meaning generosity. Where they do charge, there is a lower price option for those on income support or without work. With reports of new job losses every day, this could prove an important consideration for many people.

Nicola Paterson, 39, and a former journalist from Roath, first came to the centre seven years ago after she was diagnosed with MS. She now volunteers there two afternoons a week.

She said: “Generally what is admired is making lots of money, having a good job, going on nice holidays, having the perfect partner. But there is no perfect life, and if you’re relying on superficial, material things, you won’t feel nourished.

“People can come here to find out what a sangah is and how it works. Some people just come to meditate and don’t become Buddhists and that’s absolutely fine. Others become a mitra [a friend of the Buddhists] while some ask for ordination and become a Buddhist member. Whatever your choice, it is an oasis here.” This "pick’n’mix" philosophy can be appealing when compared to the more directive services and guidance provided by Christianity.

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At the Wednesday night meditation class, 25 people crowd into the front room of the centre with cups of tea and flapjack. Around half of them have never been before, such as 28-year-old PhD student Ross Wadey.

He said: “When I drove past the centre I was expecting something bigger, especially compared to the huge church directly opposite. They’re like two extremes of religious expression. Everyone here is friendly, and very relaxed. I can see the centre having a purpose, especially at times like these.”