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MEDIA: Farewell to Fitzroy Nation, a Fine Jamaican

Alejandro Kirk

SANTIAGO, Jun 2 2005 (IPS) - Fitzroy Nation, one of the finest Jamaican journalists, managed to handle many challenges and frustrations along his career and yet remain true to his ideals and principles. But he could not beat the liver cancer that stabbed him in the back. He died Tuesday in Amsterdam, at 52.

I last saw him in February in Rome, when he temporarily joined IPS again to produce a conference newspaper. He did it as a personal favour, and there he was, the same old elegant character who would not let long working hours and stress let him lose his temper and good manners, nor compromise his refined sense of humour.

Fitzroy Nation joined IPS in the late 70s as a young Jamaican reporter, noted in his native Kingston both for the quality of his copy and his commitment to good causes, among them the country’s journalists union. This commitment was the very reason he embraced the journalistic principles IPS stands by, and never abandoned them.

British journalist Peter Ford was an English language editor at the IPS central desk in Rome when Fitzroy showed up in the old palace of Via Panisperna.

“Editing with Fitzroy on the IPS desk in Rome (in 1981 if I remember correctly) was a joy,” recalls Ford, now the Paris-based European correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor. “His sense of commitment and professionalism at work was matched only by his sense of fun outside the office. He was the most reliable of colleagues and the best of friends.”

In the late 80s Nation became IPS editor for the Caribbean region, with the difficult task of building up a network of correspondents in the islands as IPS was then expanding quickly and its client base demanded more timely and conceptual coverage from around the world.

In 1990 Fitzroy was appointed deputy chief editor, in charge of the IPS English language world news service at the newly created central desk in Lisbon, Portugal, that was headed by Chilean journalist Mario Dujisin.

“He arrived in Lisbon on a fresh spring day of 1990, just to be told, that very evening, that he was supposed to move on to Amsterdam in a few months, because a new world desk would be established there. I asked my other deputy, Alejandro Kirk, to join us for dinner, to bring him the striking news that had taken us by surprise that day too,” says Dujisin.

“We were scared, but he was polite as usual. If he was disappointed, he didn’t betray it. He did not complain then, nor in the weeks he spent alone at the next-to-bare room we arranged for him at the IPS office in central Lisbon, a city he learned to love in no time,” adds Dujisin, who left the agency in 1993 and works now for ANSA.

“My professional relationship with Fitzroy then turned into solid friendship, dating from 1985 when I had the privilege of being his supervisor. When the desk moved from Rome to Lisbon, his name was a non-negotiable card for me.”

In Amsterdam Fitzroy had to face a difficult situation at a critical time in IPS history. His self-appointed role was that of maintaining the spirit of the South he was representing there, while some were turning their editorial eyes to the North.

“He was cool and calm under all circumstances, but also quick and clear in his editing,” Argentinian journalist Gustavo Capdevila, his fellow deputy editor at the time recalls. “In the midst of the Soviet collapse, he was not taken over by emotions.”

Fitzroy would focus on finding the angle that would expose global inequalities best, says Capdevila, now IPS correspondent in Geneva. That was an expression of his humane qualities. “He was a literary man, very cultured, but modest. He was a caring person in dealing with people.”

In his host country Fitzroy was critical of what he called the double standards of the Dutch, people who liked to regard themselves as free-minded and welcoming of Third World people, but “never take any of them home.”

At the same time, he valued the functioning democracy and open spirit of the Netherlands.

He had bought a house, “a real house, with backyard and red bricks”, and had not intended to leave Holland soon, in spite of the lousy weather. He kept – and was counting on keeping – his longing for his tropical island, its strong colours and the constantly renovating music he was so fond of and knowledgeable about.

Johanna Son, the IPS Asia-Pacific director worked with Nation first as IPS editor and later as co-editor of the World Social Forum TerraViva newspaper in Mumbai, India, in January 2004.

“Fitzroy was a genuinely nice guy, apart from being a first-rate editor. He had the ability to inject humour even at the wee hours of the morning when closing a conference newspaper, or when everybody was about to pull out each other’s hair from tension, the logistical difficulties and all the other things that go wrong when you work to put out a paper on-site and end up working without sleep,” she says.

“As managing editor, he took time to read stories, whether it was to suggest how you could have improved it, or to send an encouraging message if he liked a particular piece you did.”

Fitz left one big dream hanging, however, one shared by many in this trade: “let out the book I have inside.” He wanted, perhaps, to be the opposite of V.S. Naipaul, who turned his back on his Caribbean origins, something Nation was deeply critical of.

But this discreet guy would never allow himself such a vain statement, and we will never know what kind of great book was inside, awaiting better circumstances, more sun, grown-up kids, financial stability, an impossible quietness that for him never came.

Fitzroy leaves behind wife Cloetha and three children, all living in the Netherlands. His mother and the rest of the family in Jamaica.

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