AsiaMedia Writer Wins South Asian Journalists Association Award
Rhodes won a SAJA award for his coverage of last year's presidential election in Sri Lanka. Here, a voter's finger is marked in permanent ink to prevent him from voting more than once. (Photo by Arthur Rhodes)

By Vincent Lim, AsiaMedia Contributing Writer

AsiaMedia Writer Wins South Asian Journalists Association Award

Arthur Rhodes takes top honors for his coverage of Sri Lanka elections in UCLA publication.

"My hope was to paint a picture of these people. Get into these people's minds," Rhodes says. "What was most important to me, was by and large, to give them a space and give them a voice."

Los Angeles --- Although he never envisioned himself as a journalist, Arthur Rhodes had the ability to become one, including what his editor at AsiaMedia calls "natural skills in talking to people and getting them to open up."

Last weekend in New York, Rhodes received first prize in the New Media category from the South Asian Journalists Association (SAJA) for a November 2005 article in AsiaMedia on that month's presidential election in Sri Lanka. The article, "Sri Lanka's Presidential Election: Tamils explain why they will not vote," examined how the country's ongoing civil war might affect the outcome of the contest -- with quotes from sources whom many veteran journalists would be hard-pressed to get to say a word. It was the second story in a series about the Sri Lankan vote filed by Rhodes for AsiaMedia, a daily online publication of the UCLA Asia Institute that covers all facets of the media in Asia.

"According to the judges, the series used strong reporting and vivid writing to examine an issue rarely covered elsewhere," says Sandeep Junnarkar, SAJA Awards Chair and Professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in New York.

The awards ceremony was part of the SAJA's annual international convention held July 13-16, 2006, at Columbia University. Some 1,000 journalists and guests from throughout the world attended. The awards, in eleven categories, recognized excellence in reporting about South Asia and by South Asian journalists in the United States and Canada. Brian Williams, anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News, was among those honored at the convention; he was the recipient of the SAJA Journalism Leader Award. Rhodes's honor came in the category of Outstanding Story about South Asia, or South Asians in North America: New Media.

"All categories are judged on depth of the reporting and the quality of the writing (or composition for photography)," Junnarkar says. "The new media category does take into account the quality of the presentation, but strong writing and reporting are paramount."

"The award is kind of shocking," says Rhodes, who earned a degree in International Development from UCLA. "It was not what I set out to do. I have, over the last year or so, become dedicated to becoming a journalist."

As co-director of the Reclaim Initiative, a research and communications project affiliated with UCLA, Rhodes originally traveled to Sri Lanka to research development and media issues with NGOs in the country following the 2004 Asian tsunami.

After a chance encounter with Rhodes at a UCLA event in the tsunami's aftermath, AsiaMedia Managing Editor Angilee Shah saw an opportunity for her publication to add a new contributing writer.

"He asked good questions and mentioned that he was going to Sri Lanka," Shah says. "I asked him if he was writing for anyone."

In his time in Sri Lanka, Rhodes came to understand the precarious status of the Tamil people within Sri Lankan society. Rhodes says the Tamils are one of the most marginalized groups in the conflict-riddled island nation. They feel threatened by the violent actions of the LTTE, yet the majority Sinhalese government is also repressing them.

He adds that the international media focuses most of its attention on the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government -- and rarely talks about the marginalized groups in the country.

Secrets and Ballots

For the prize-winning article, Rhodes managed to persuade some of the Tamil people to go on record with their political opinions. In a country where violence seems to lurk at people's doorsteps, getting everyday citizens to speak on record about politics was definitely not easy.

"My hope was to paint a picture of these people. Get into these people's minds," Rhodes says. "What was most important to me, was by and large, to give them a space and give them a voice."

"People honestly believe criticism will bring reprisals," he adds.

Yet Rhodes and Shah both understood how groundbreaking the story could be.

"It was really important to me and to Arthur to do this story because we both recognized that there was not much media coverage of the Tamil point of view," Shah says.

Still, Shah was uncomfortable with some of the anonymous sources used in an early draft of the story.

"The sources were so hard to come by," Shah says. "Those kinds of sources are really rare, and I knew that from reading other publications how hard it was to get these sources on record."

In the end, some of Rhodes's anonymous sources were cut out of the story.

In working for a non-profit publication, Rhodes and Shah did not enjoy the luxury of high-tech satellite communications for keeping in touch. They were resigned instead to use instant-messaging programs, e-mail, exchanging notes and article drafts at odds hours.

In part because of those obstacles, Shah is proud that AsiaMedia is being recognized with an award.

"If you look at the awards, they're going out to big outlets -- outlets that have resources and money," Shah says. "We're very small. We're a non-profit."

She says that Rhodes's diligence and determination have been rewarded.

"Arthur deserves [the award]," Shah says. "He works hard to get good stories -- good untold stories. He doesn't settle for the stories that are easy to get."

Published: Friday, July 21, 2006