From Russia to Cameroon, Worthington grad studies press freedom
YAOUNDE, Cameroon — A Worthington native studying international relations and Russian is spending his summer researching press freedom in the central African country of Cameroon.
Oliver Wolyniec, a 2015 Worthington High School graduate, is interning with the pro-democracy nongovernmental organization NewSETA (Network for Solidarity, Empowerment and Transformation for All) in Yaounde. In addition to examining press freedom, he is also exploring the challenges impeding the work of journalists in Cameroon and compiling a report on the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
He will present his research to a panel of Cameroonian journalists next month, as the country moves toward its presidential election in October.
Wolyniec said it was his eight-week educational study at Moscow State University in Russia earlier this year that solidified his interest in journalism and truth-seeking.
"Over the course of my time in Moscow and other parts of Russia, I consumed a lot of news from Russian outlets and was shocked by what they were saying," Wolyniec said. "The state controls most news outlets there, so propaganda is a huge problem."
Experiencing journalism in Russia, he said, has greatly shaped his work in Cameroon.
Wolyniec, who will begin his senior year this fall at Carleton College in Northfield, is a bit of a world traveler. His dad grew up in Poland, and much of the Wolyniec side of the family remains there, which has resulted in several family trips to the European country. Wolyniec has also traveled extensively in Germany, Italy, Croatia, Greece, Turkey, Estonia, London and Paris. He also spent time in Oaxaca, Mexico for a mission trip and has visited eastern Canada.
"There are tons of reasons why traveling abroad is important," he said. "For one, you get to see and experience remote, often beautiful parts of the world vastly different from what we're used to in the Midwest.
"It isn't just seeing monuments, landmarks, mountains or bodies of water, for example, that makes the experience worthwhile," he added. "It's diving into unique cultures, eating the food, getting to know the people, adhering temporarily to a different lifestyle. Of course, not everything is so easy and fun, especially if you're actually living in a new country, as opposed to just visiting for a few days."
Wolyniec said he adjusted to his stay in Russia rather quickly because he speaks the language (he's minoring in Russian at Carleton) and it's not so different from the West. In Cameroon, however, the adjustment is ongoing after being there a month.
"I've learned that I'm capable of adapting to a wide variety of circumstances and making a home for myself in foreign places," he shared. "There's a tremendous amount of personal growth to be found in the adjustment period. It toughens you up, and it opens your eyes to the beauty and opportunity the world has to offer. It teaches you what exactly you're capable of, and it shows you where there's room for improvement."
Wolyniec said he's met and come to know lots of incredible people this year in both Russia and Cameroon. While making new friends, he's also gained insight into how they live and how they see their society and culture.
"It's impossible to say just how much I've learned during my recent travels," he added.
Wolyniec learned of NewSETA's work in Cameroon while researching internship ideas over his six-week winter break from Carleton. At the time, he was doing an externship at Whittier City Hall in Los Angeles County, Calif., and had his evenings free to look for opportunities.
An international internship appealed to him.
"I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to temporarily follow a completely different way of life and experience another culture at a deeply intimate level," Wolyniec said. "Few Westerners really know what it's like living in a third-world country, and I was intrigued by the opportunity of getting way outside of my comfort zone and discovering how other people live their lives in some ostensibly very poor conditions."
Wolyniec said he knew it would be challenging, but he also knew he would benefit from the experience at NewSETA.
"It looked like they were doing really cool work; campaigning to lower the legal voting age in Cameroon from 20 to 18, for example, which would be a major step forward for the state of democracy in the country," he said.
Corresponding with Ateki Seta Caxton, NewSETA's executive director, Wolyniec wasn't deterred when he learned the agency was interested but had no funding for an internship. He turned to Carleton College's fellowship program, which offers funding for opportunities in international development. Following a lengthy application process, he received the funds he needed for airfare, food and housing.
After returning home from his studies in Russia in early June, Wolyniec had just one week to regroup before leaving for Cameroon. He arrived in Yaounde June 18, and will return to the U.S. Sept. 1.
While Russia and Cameroon are vastly different countries, both share a lack of press freedom. Wolyniec said it basically doesn't exist, with governments using the media to maintain support of the regime.
"The government likes to say (press freedom exists), but their actions prove otherwise," he said, speaking specifically of Cameroon. "Basically, if media outlets — radio, TV, print, web — say anything the government doesn't like, the outlets face defamation charges and are suspended."
Because of the crackdown on the press, Wolyniec said there's an atmosphere of fear and self-censorship.
"Outlets no longer ask tough questions or cover controversial topics to avoid backlash, and even violence, from the government," he said. "Also, the government withholds final certification from most outlets, which essentially gives them the power to shut down outlets whenever they want, for whatever reason."
In Russia, Wolyniec said without fail, the Russian press spins the words and actions of its president, Vladimir Putin, in a positive way so he never looks bad and always appears to be serving the interests of the people — even when he clearly isn't.
"Misinformation abounds," Wolyniec said. "People deserve to know the truth; that's a fundamental aspect of democracy. Journalism, when allowed to operate freely, informs the people and acts as an important check against corruption and general wrongdoing.
"Living in these places has opened my eyes to the extent to which people suffer when the press is stifled," he added. "They never truly know what's going on, and corrupt officials perpetually take advantage of them and their lack of knowledge. The rich get richer. Without a free press, the poverty I see every day in Cameroon will never go away."