Suvendrini Kakuchi ’97

A native of Sri Lanka, Kakuchi returned to journalism and to Tokyo in 2010 after three years as director of the Sri Lankan office of Panos South Asia

Looking back now, more than 15 years later, the strongest experience I took away from my Nieman year is the confidence and pride the nine glorious months reinforced in me as a journalist. That wonderful experience of being a Nieman Fellow entitled me to learn from the stories of hundreds of brave and committed journalists who are part of the international Nieman family. Indeed, the Nieman program is one of the key reasons for not quitting or compromising my career.

Entering the profession of journalism in Sri Lanka, my birth country, and then later in Japan, with stints in various other parts of Asia, has been a daunting challenge. In most developing countries, in particular, the profession is poorly paid and largely viewed as a second-rate career, in comparison to entering the legal, medical or business sector. Moreover, the female journalist faces tougher odds. To survive she must remain a fighter in the murky media world and male-dominated societies. Perhaps an apt anecdote is one from the beginning of my own career, when, as is common practice even today, young female recruits are marched into the lifestyle or arts sections of daily newspapers. I stood my ground and took the unprecedented step of entering the tobacco smoke-filled newsrooms of the newspaper 30 years ago. In fact, male scribes were so titillated that it took a month before the editor in chief decided to talk seriously to the female newcomer who had dared to upset deep-rooted norms.

Still what remains at the top of the list of challenges that face the journalist in Sri Lanka is the authorities’ vise-like grip on free speech. Reporting the truth supported by hard facts—the basics of good reporting—represents backbreaking work accompanied by a heart of steel. The reward can even be death, never mind the tortuous intimidation aimed to frighten and silence.

The Nieman year was thus for me much more than a well-earned retreat for the exhausted mid-career journalist. The two academic terms packed with studies, events and intellectual discussions with the best minds gathered from across the world may have ended quickly, but when I said good-bye to Cambridge, I knew I had as a journalist been given a place forever. My time at Lippmann House has helped me reflect, learn and plan a future with the confidence that a journalist should be entitled to. This was something that I had despaired about till then.