Jan 312014


As Burma transitions from dictatorship to democracy, hundreds of political prisoners have been freed after decades behind bars. Many former political prisoners suffer from PTSD from decades of torture, others have family and friends who refuse to speak with them, still fearing they will be arrested. In “Permission to Speak ” we travel through Burma and  meet former political prisoners who are trying to rebuild their lives, and build a democracy from the ground up.

The characters are both national heroes and broken people. We meet a former army captain who resigned from the military and was then arrested for pro-democracy activities,  a hip-hop artist, turned political prisoner who now represents the National League for Democracy in Burma’s new parliament and a Burmese rock star who was imprisoned for rewriting the words to Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall.” Some freed political prisoners are being denied access to university, passports and professional licenses.

Still, many of them continue to test the limits of the emerging democracy, and face profound consequences.  In the end we learn that many of these former political prisoners are still at risk of being re-imprisoned for peaceful activities, and we meet a new generation of pro-democracy activists, the children of former political prisoners, who themselves are on trial and facing ten years in prison.

Read Gianluca’s Corner

Podcast hosted by: Gianluca Tramontana

Produced by: Anna Sussman

Podcast edited by Sara Washington. This production is part of the Global Story Project, with support from the Open Society Foundations. Presented by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.

Podcast description from PRX. 

View original story on PRX.

Oct 142013

BiancaVazquezToness2In this journalist spotlight, Bianca Vázquez Toness talks frankly about how her life as an social outsider ultimately turned out to be a good thing, and perhaps is the key ingredient in her decision to become a journalist.

Though she also confides that Mumbai, India, where she is currently living, has been the ultimate test of her capacities to adapt. Though difficult it’s never boring, and she shares with us some of the interesting moments of creating the radio piece, “In India, Everyone Wants to be an Engineer”.


My husband is an engineer.  What’s so funny about that is that the track here now is to be an engineer and then go to business school. And that’s what he did, and so I get so much more street cred when I tell people that he’s an engineer AND he went to business school.

People can’t understand what I do but he does something that they get.

So [producing this piece] made more sense to me because I see alot of people who are on this track.

This piece was definitely one of the most fun pieces I’ve done while I was here in Mumbai. A couple of interesting things happened while I was making the piece.

I had contacted this Reuters journalist because she had reported on the engineering tutoring schools. I wrote her and said how to get access to these kids.

She wrote me back to tell me that there’s a mall where they hang out between classes.

So I went I went to this mall – I didn’t even have to take out my recorder and I was just mobbed by these kids. In India, girls hang out with girls, boys hang out with boys, and they’d wander the mall just like American kids do. So when I was there they would just walk up to me and say, what are you doing?

I would tell them and eventually I started asking them if I could interview them. They were so curious about me.  So it was not hard at all to meet kids. They all wanted to talk about who I was, where I was from, what it was like in the US, what the engineering schools are like there. So that part was really fun,

But that same Reuters journalist who told me about the kids hanging out in the mall had quoted a statistic in her article that said that 50 kids in the engineering tutoring schools had committed suicide the year before!  That seemed kind of high to me, but I thought, well, this is a Reuters story, written by a person from India, who speaks Hindi. And she was quoting the top guy who started the school that begat more schools – sort of the dean of all these tutoring places. So when I talked with him I asked him about that number. And he said no it’s not fifty suicides, it’s five probably.

And so I told him about the story, which he hadn’t seen  – and I went and found the mayor and the police and the reporters who follow and document this, and pretty much everyone agreed it’s three to five suicides. They called the reporter while I was there and confronted her, but she said she had it on tape. I don’t know if they ever resolved it.

I reached out to her after the story and she wouldn’t return my calls. But it was eye opening. Not that I haven’t seen that happen before, but it’s happened with alot of stories that I’ve tried to cover here – here I take someone else’s journalism as a starting point but I can’t take what they say as fact. Even sort of “brand name” outlets have been unreliable that way.


I feel like it’s beneficial to be an outsider as a journalist. It’s much easier for me to think critically about what I see around me.

In high school I lived in the panhandle of Florida. I was definitely an outsider there!  My dad moved there when I was nine, and my parents divorced, and I ended up living with my dad and my stepmom and my mom’s daughters, so if you really want to analyze it, that’s where the whole outsider thing started.

I started writing letters, chronicling my life in that house. I wrote letters to people on the outside about what it was like to be this – to live there.

I didn’t do journalism in the formal sense until college. That’s when I wrote some funny articles for the alternative weekly – there was this new crazy alternative to tampons thing that had come out on the market and I had this professor who had some involvement in it, and I wrote about the history of menstrual devices. And about this new thing that was supposed to double as an over the counter diaphragm which seemed kind of revolutionary to me at the time.

When I was in Boston I was always translating what was happening in neighborhoods of color, for the rest of Boston, or for my bosses, even though I wasn’t from that place.  Even if they weren’t Spanish speakers, I’d report on the black community in Boston. It was different from the black communities I’d report on the west coast.

I moved to Mexico with a fellowship to do more anthropological research in Veracruz, and it became clear to me, “You’re not going to be an anthropologist. Where you want to be is in Mexico City and working for a newspaper.”

So I moved to Mexico City and worked for the English language daily there. It was good timing because it was the leadup to the election where the leadership was ousted and there was tons of interest in Mexico at the time, until 9/11 happened. After 9/11 alot of the foreign outlets pulled their bureaus and it was hard to get people interested in stories form Mexico, so I decided to move back to the states. I wanted a newsroom experience, instead of just being a freelancer.

I then worked in Minnesota and in Washington state, and in all those places I took on the role of the person who did alot of stories about immigrants, and about Spanish speaking immigrants.

I did that because I was always appalled by their previous coverage – or lack of coverage. So in some ways I made myself an outsider.

Its tough living in Mumbai. I had been here a few times but had never talked to people about living here. I think I made a misjudgement. I thought I had lived in Mexico City, an incredible mega-city, and I rocked that, so I thought Mumbai will be easier because of that. But that was a mistake because of two things – one, I’m older now, I have different expectations from life, and so I’m probably not as adjustable. And two, this place is so different from Mexico City. It’s just much more crowded, more dense, the infrastructure is worse.

And, I came here without Hindi or any other languages.

I think alot of American journalists here in Mumbai are totally fine without speaking Hindi, and with being complete outsiders, but the type of story they do is limited. The access, the ability to get in to things is harder. I’ve been learning Hindi but it’s a hard language to learn. Even doing internet research can be challenging at times when you don’t know exactly what to look for. There are so many strange turns of phrase – language from like Agatha Christie – terms that we just don’t use.

I hired a Hindi speaking assistant to help me. She’s a journalism major in college – not an engineering student!

It’s not clear how long I’ll be in Mumbai. I think at least another year, and then maybe longer, or maybe two years, or maybe we’ll adopt a life where we’ll spend six months back in Boston and six months here. My husband’sgoal is to get his company to the point where he can sell it.

It’s been an incredible eye opener. I sort of felt I was pretty worldly – before trying to live here. laughs. 

Listen to “In India, Everyone wants to be an Engineer”

Bianca Vázquez Toness is a journalist living in Mumbai. Before moving to India, Toness covered immigration and education for Boston’s NPR station. She started her career writing about Mexico.
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Sep 172013

During the leap year of 2012, Bernadette Russell embarked on a mission to complete 366 Days of Kindness. Her efforts were prompted by the riots that spread through her adopted home town of London and across English towns and cities, between 6th and 10th August 2011.

Bernadette has left sweets in phone boxes, books on trains, £5 notes on buses. She has given away balloons, cakes, flowers and lottery tickets, written letters to a soldier returned from Afghanistan and offered her socks to the homeless. She practiced ‘targeted’ rather than ‘random’ acts of kindness but she says she ‘expected nothing in return.’

Bernadette is now turning her 366 philanthropic experiences into a stage play, in collaboration with Jacksons Lane Theatre in London and with support from Birmingham Rep and Forkbeard Fantasy.

Podcast hosted by: Gianluca Tramontana

Produced by: Kirsty McQuire

The Kindness of Strangers is part of the Global Story Project, with support from the Open Society Foundations. Presented by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. The producer was Kirsty McQuire. You can keep up with Bernadette’s kindness revolution on Twitter by following @BetteRussell or using the hashtag #366DaysOfKindness.

View original story on PRX

 Posted by at 12:31 am
Aug 232013

widgetIn this podcast, Greg Warner takes us to Kabul, Afghanistan to learn about how plastic surgery is becoming much more common among women, in part because of the influence and pressure from television and advertising.

In Afghanistan, a man and woman may meet each other for the first time at the marriage altar. And when the groom pulls back the veil and does not like what he sees, he can send the woman back — shamed and tainted– back to her family. To avoid such a fate, more woman are considering plastic surgery in Kabul. This is an intimate look at the fear that prompts this. Reporter Greg Warner aand the courage of one woman who is accompanied by the reporter into the surgeon’s office.

  • Afghanistan is a landlocked country sharing borders with Iran, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and China.
  • Afghanistan has a population of 31,108,077. 80% of the population is Sunni Muslim and abouy 20% are Shia Muslim.
  • Just over a decade ago, women were largely confined to their homes and forbidden to work, even if they could find a job in the war-ravaged country. Cut off from the rest of the world under the Taliban’s rule, many had never heard of cosmetic surgery.
  • More women die in pregnancy and childbirth than almost anywhere else in the world. 1 in 50 women will die during pregnancy or childbirth—one every 2 hours.

Podcast hosted by: Gianluca Tramontana

Reporting by: Greg Warner

Post written by Kayle Schnell. Podcast edited by Sara Washington. This production is part of the Global Story Project, with support from the Open Society Foundations. Presented by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.

View original story on PRX

Jul 162013


Indians are obesessed with engineering. The profession is considered one of the most pragmatic options since it doesn’t require more than four years of college and job pays well, especially if you graduate from the top engineering schools. Problem is half a million students take the entrance exam each year for approximately 12,000 seats in those schools.

Indian students determined to crack the vaunted Indian Institute of Techology go to extremees. Some leave high school and seek special full time tutoring for math and science for two years. The students who don’t get in can be devastated, and many experts have called this system a waste of energy and talent.


  • Just one out of nine children finishing school joins a college. India has one of the lowest higher education enrollment ratio of 11 per cent. In the US it is 83 per cent.
  • There are seven IITs in India. They are located in Bombay, Delhi, Kanpur, Kharagpur, Madras, Guwahati & Roorkee.
  • Admission to Indian Students in undergraduate courses is through a rigorous examination process known as the Indian Institute of Technology- Joint Entrance Exam (IITJEE).
  • In 2012, a record 479,651 candidates appeared for the Joint Entrance Exam, or JEE, for 9,647 undergraduate seats.

Podcast hosted by: Gianluca Tramontana

Reporting by: Bianca Vazquez Toness

Read Bianca’s Journalist Spotlight

Bianca Vázquez Toness is a journalist living in Mumbai. Before moving to India, Toness covered immigration and education for Boston’s NPR station. She started her career writing about Mexico. 

Podcast edited by Sara Washington. Post written by Kayle Schnell. This production is part of the Global Story Project, with support from the Open Society Foundations. Presented by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.

 Posted by at 10:59 am
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