Episode 17 – Conflict Reporting in Iraq & Somalia

“Access is quite complicated. And there’s a huge financial component. And a lot of people, both the Americans and the Somalis, in this case, the Americans, a lot of people from all over the world benefit from that, from that lack of access.”

photo credit: manybits

In this episode, journalists Amanda Sperber and Jack Hewson compare notes on what it’s like to navigate the risks of reporting from Somalia and Iraq respectively, sketching a picture of some of the life of modern freelancing in a conflict.   Dealing with militias, learning where it’s safe to stay and finding ways to navigate access to sources and the economics of the job make up part of the difficult work of reporting from the ‘frontlines’ of the the US’ forever war.


Jack Hewson is an independent journalist and filmmaker based in Baghdad after six years years covering Indonesia and the Philippines. His writing has appeared in various international publications including The Guardian, The Times of London, The Independent, The Nikkei Asian Review, USA Today, Al Jazeera English, The Financial Times, and VICE News. Since 2016 Jack has worked primarily in video, directing and producing stories for France 24, PBS NewsHour, the South China Morning Post, AJ+ and Monocle.

Amanda Sperber is a freelance foreign correspondent who has covered East Africa for the past six years. From Somalia she has broken news on civilian casualties in US airstrikes and US ground-raids, the opening of the first US embassy in Mogadishu since “Black Hawk Down” and the plans for the development of a supply route project connecting the US bases from Djibouti to Somalia. Sperber won the Kurt Schork Memorial Award (Freelancer Category) for her investigations in Somalia. She won the One World Media Award (Popular Features Category) for her coverage of sexualized violence in South Sudan’s civil war.

Richard Stupart is a postdoctoral fellow  working on the practices and normative ethics of journalism of conflict. His current work explores the work of journalists reporting on conflict and its effects in Sudan, where he is interested in the role of affect/emotion and tactics of coping with risk by journalists working in conflict contexts, as well as practical ethical tensions that occur while reporting on the effects of the country’s war. Follow him on Twitter @wheretheroad

This episode was recorded by Amanda Sperber and Jack Hewson and edited by Richard Stupart. 


Richard Stupart: This is Media at Risk, a podcast from the Center for Media at Risk at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. My name is Richard Stupart, and I’m a postdoctoral fellow at the school. This episode of the podcast follows the conversation between two journalists reporting from Iraq and Somalia about the challenges of freelance reporting and two conflicts caught up in the dynamics of the U.S.’s forever war, and largely happening out of the view of U.S. audiences.

Amanda Sperber is a freelance foreign correspondent who has covered East Africa for the past six years. From Somalia she’s broken news on civilian casualties in U.S. airstrikes and U.S. ground raids, the opening of the first U.S. Embassy in Mogadishu since the Black Hawk Down helicopter crash and the plans for development of a supply route project connecting U.S. bases from Djibouti to Somalia. Sperber won the Kurt Schork Memorial Award for investigations in Somalia and the One World Media Award for her coverage of sexualized violence in South Sudan’s civil war.

Jack Hewson is an independent journalist and filmmaker based in Baghdad after six years covering Indonesia and the Philippines. His writing has appeared in various international publications, including The Guardian, The Times of London, The Independent, The Nikkei Asian Review, USA Today, Al Jazeera English, The Financial Times and Vice News. Since 2016 Jack has worked primarily in video directing and producing stories for France 24, PBS NewsHour, the South China Morning Post, AJ+ and Monocle.

A major challenge for reporting from Iraq has often been accessing information from many of the major players in the conflict. Even coalition forces are often unwilling to give up even basic details. This is Jack.

Jack Hewson: Really, they don’t give any access to their operations or embeds, the U.S. military, unless it’s in their interest. In the wake of Qasem Soleimani’s assassination and then the counter- strike by the Iranians, they were happy to let people come to the base and see the damage that was done and tell their story in which, you know, the United States appears to be a victim in a narrative.

But other than that, there’s been scant examples of people being given access to U.S. operations or even data on just basic, you know…I asked for … some kind of a database or on the number of rocket attacks on the U.S. Embassy over the course of the year, or numbers of ISIS attacks, which have been registered by coalition forces. I went through two weeks of WhatsApp messages with this guy and then after that, he said, “What’s your email address?” I gave him my email address and then a week later, I got an email from some guy in the Green Zone saying “Thank you for your inquiry into this information. This is not something that we officially share with journalists.” So, he probably could have WhatsApp [messaged] that on day one, but instead wasted three and a half weeks of my time. And you know, people are getting quite fed up with that, I think. I don’t think that’s going to change.

RS: In Somalia, difficulties in squeezing basic information from U.S. forces are compounded by the cost of accessing the frontlines and the unwillingness of many sources to cooperate without payment, creating an economic cycle that can frustrate access.

Amanda Sperber: So access in Somalia is super hard. I’ve been having a conversation with a Somali friend of mine, who I often work with, about how it’s kind of a chicken and egg thing because Somalis have been exceptionally good at keeping a financial lid on things. You could in theory, I’ve never done this, get to the front lines, certain front lines with al-Shabaab, but it’ll cost you 10 grand a day, so no one does it. And it’s one of those things that if it was cheaper The Times or something would do it. Or maybe not, but who’s to say.  I think if it was cheaper there would be more access, even if it was just a tiny bit cheaper. Simultaneously, because no news comes from out there, no one is interested in doing it. It kind of creates its own loop.

I was talking to a fixer and I wanted to do a much more mundane story just about some sources that would be sensitive. I wanted to do this story from here via WhatsApp. The fixer, who’s a friend of mine, was just saying that information costs money. And that’s more like intelligence not news. Though he kind of indicated that the intelligence is also news, and that he as a Somali civilian was, was not opposed to that kind of information getting out.

And I was sort of saying, if I can do one story where this, if someone is willing to give me this information, for free, I can then do one story. Then it’s possible to then say to a news outlet, you know, I need to pay this fixer of $500 a day, for two days to do this work. Obviously, there are journalists that have significantly more sway. But unfortunately, I’m not in a position where I can say to an editor, I promise, if you give me a grand, I’m going to come back with information. But if I’m able to tease a little bit, then I might be able to do that. I was sort of trying to explain to him, we were calling it the chicken and egg and seeing who would screech first, in terms of in terms of how that works.

I guess all this to say that access is quite complicated. And there’s a huge financial component. And a lot of people, both the Americans and the Somalis, in this case, the Americans, a lot of people from all over the world benefit from that, from that lack of access. Yeah, I’ve now recently developed a mission by which I want to try to talk some people into saying, or I’m wondering, I guess maybe I should say, I’m wondering how it would change the dynamic if some more stuff was able to get leaked to journalists for free, how that might create a situation where there might be more interest in the country.

JH: For the access that you got for the stuff that you got the award for, the Kurt Schork one? How did you secure all that kind of stuff? How did you get to those people?

AS: I mean, because Somalia is so expensive, I got a grant to do that through type investigations. But ultimately, that was based on two years of me kind of scrapping around Somalia and building relationships so that I could even make a super reasonable budget to apply for a grant.

I worked with some people that are generally get paid $800 a day to do translations. And every time that someone calls them, they charge them $50. I had a budget to pay translators something, but nowhere near even a smidgen of that. I think that access was sort of generated, in part by just being there and becoming friends with local journalists and getting an understanding of the situation and the dynamics and being based there. Then from there, I was able to apply for this grant for five grand, which is eminently doable to do this story. I didn’t go into it with that intention. But I think when I look back on it, the access was gleaned from just kind of being around, basically, for a long time.

RS: In both contexts, being a foreign reporter comes with very real risks to personal safety, that make even basic tasks like navigating the capital, something that may need to be carefully considered. While both Baghdad and Mogadishu have fortified Green Zone type areas for certain classes of international visitor, the day-to-day work involved in securing safe passage can differ in some very weird ways.

JH: If I go from Baghdad airport, then like, there’s a pretty much a five-kilometer exclusion zone around the actual airport port, you know, the where the planes take off. Then the perimeter, and then I could probably get a taxi from there and not get kidnapped. They have a version of Uber there, which is called Kareem. And I could probably get that because they’re quite, you know, efficient.

At certain times, say like, directly after the killing Qasem Soleimani, there was a heightened kidnapping risk. There were people who were kidnapped off my street. But I could most the time get a taxi to my street. And most of the time I can go out onto my street out even though I’m not you know, I can go ahead and walk into my area. I’ll do my grocery shopping with my crap Arabic, and then I’ll come back and then you know, I’m kind of okay. If there’s a diplomatic incident, if there’s some heightened tension, then we’re advised not to go outside. You know, there were moments when you know, people have been kidnapped literally off the street on which I live. But it’s like, oh, ultimately in Baghdad, at least I can go into Baghdad. And I can not be in the green zone and I can actually interact with the city to some degree. From what I’ve heard like Mogadishu is, by orders of magnitude, as I mentioned, far more dangerous like that. Apparently, you can’t really get from the airport to the center of town without a full Land Cruiser, bulletproof Land Cruiser convoy and like to have armed guards,

AS: That comes back to a relationship building. I’ve gone in the back of a car with tinted windows. And because I am friends with people, they will give me that ride for and move quickly. You go to a 30-minute meeting and then drive back and keep your head down, you can do it. I think most journalists are unable to do that, because I haven’t built those relationships. So I’ve done that a bunch. You can also I did some copywriting for a hotel at one point, and they in exchange gave me their private militia to use when the militia was not busy.

JH: Well, that’s an interesting payment. Did you stick that on the invoice?

AS: No. So the hotel would lend its militia to NGOs for $1,000 an hour, but they weren’t super busy. If I like I did a few stories from the government hospital, and I would just be me in a bulletproof car with a full convoy of uniformed soldiers. But they had nothing to do all day. And I just wrote some copy for the hotel website. And then I’d be like, you know, I really want to go to this hospital, do you think there’s a time that we could go in the next three days? I obviously had a little less control over the schedule because they would say, “Well, actually, we’re working for the UN on this day, so we can’t take you.” I think the power dynamic was slightly different because they would say okay, but we’re only going for an hour because we want to eat lunch. But given the given the deal I was getting it was it was completely fair. So that’s kind of the way that I’ve been able to put to move around is either being a little bit quick, or kind of cutting deals with security companies so that I can move grandly and safely.

There are some Americans, you know, some like quite well-paid Americans who are no longer in Mogadishu, who work for the government who actually do drive around Mogadishu in a soft skin car with a lot of dark windows, and they’ve let me sit in the backseat before and stuff like that. So that’s another way to go about it. And those guys are definitely people that I feel safe with. So yeah, that’s sort of how I’ve, I’ve done it.

I’m curious what other journalists who have been based in in Mogadishu have done because I’d be open to doing this but I don’t really know what the precedent is. I wouldn’t spend more than a few hours outside [Mogadishu] because I think at that point, you’ve attracted attention to yourself and then you need to leave. You do have to move quite quickly and certainly … going grocery shopping would be insane. Nothing like that. I think the kidnapping risk is pretty is pretty high, so you definitely are quickly moving. Unfortunately, there are so few international journalists, but the situation is so dynamic. I don’t know if my risk assessment is incorrect on that, but like I would never sleep outside of, not even [just] the green zone, but like outside of this very small area of Mogadishu that’s quite separate from the city. I wouldn’t spend a night in Mogadishu proper, not because I’d be worried about getting blown up, but because I’d be worried that someone would hear that there is an American there. But I could be off on that. But it’s kind of that it’s the kind of thing where you don’t want to find out

JH: No you don’t want to find out
[both laughing]

AS: Yeah, and honestly even more than my own safety, though I obviously I’m quite concerned with my own safety, I think there’s a certain level of selfishness at play if end up treating a place like like your playground. That’s something that keeps me grounded from doing that besides obviously my own security… you don’t want to be someone that’s treating a place like “Oh, let’s see what happens if I do this now,” because that has a huge impact on someone local.

There was one time I was in Baidoa, which is outside of Mogadishu. I was staying at a at a safe hotel where other foreigners stayed, but I was the only white person staying there. There were other NGOs there, but it was still, it wasn’t inside the wire. So it was like a little bit edgy. And I was the only white person there so I definitely stood out.

At one point, I went out to do a story and I had security with a big NGO, and the hotel was quite secure and blah, blah, blah. So I just went out for the day, came back, and [it was] just kind of a normal reporting day. I come back in and the owner of the hotel is like, literally sweating, freaking out. And he’s like, “Where did you go?” I was like, “Oh, I, you know, I went out with Save the Children. They came through the gate,” whatever. And he’s like, “I thought, you’d been…” He was obviously worried about my safety, but also, this is his business, his family. He was like, “You always have to tell me personally when you leave.”

Obviously, again, he doesn’t want anything to happen to me because he’s a nice person, but also the ramifications for his city would be insane. And I think, he hadn’t thought that I had gotten kidnapped, the hotel was way too secure for that. But I think he thought I’d kind of wandered around and had been a bit of an asshole. I was like, “No, no, no, I didn’t think to tell you that this whole security team came in, because obviously your hotel is so secure, that you wouldn’t think that I would do that.” But yeah, I think it would be selfish to do to do that even if I wanted to.

RS: In the case of Iraq, dangers to foreign reporters can often hinge more on the specifics of current politics than being a constant backdrop to the work. This is Jack on what the situation typically looks like.

JH: What can happen to you in Baghdad is that the militias would decide that they want to embarrass the government, and they’ll take somebody as a pawn. You would just be followed and taken like candy off the street and then you know, bargained with. Outside of Baghdad, your risks are very different. So you’re talking about, like, maybe if you go on an enbed, on a counter-ISIS operation, nearly always you’ll be driving around with maybe the federal police or whatever. And you’ve probably find nothing. On occasion, though, what can happen is that there might be there may be contact, but it’s extremely rare, because, you know, essentially, there’ll be hiding from the people who are looking for them. But in Diyala there was actually a journalist to ended up in a, you know, clash there. He survived that and so did most of the security forces he was with, but it’s those are sort of risks that you get out in the provinces. If you drive anywhere in the provinces, ones, which are likely to, you know, be more threatened by ISIS, you don’t want to be driving on the roads that aren’t major roads before about 9:30 in the morning, and in a convoy. Because they target the convoys, and they hit the first one they can see. So you’re actually better off with a small car, it’s anonymous, sitting in the back, and no one really knows who you are. See, you know, it’s kind of that sort of risk environment you’re looking at. There, it’s kind of different, it very much depends on the area that you’re in.

RS: In addition to security, money is also critical to being able to pursue certain kinds of stories, as funding for foreign correspondents has declined over the decades, it’s put pressure on journalists of all kinds, but perhaps freelancers, most of all.

JH: There are certain stories was just very expensive to do. I didn’t actually in terms of the security issues, not so bad, because nearly always you’re going to go with one of the security forces. them it’s more like the long-term investigations that you might do, which requires so much of your time, limited by money. For that sort of thing, people like the Pulitzer Foundation and type investigate need to be there for those sorts of, you know, filling out your expenses account. So yeah, they there are from like the point of view of longevity, not so much from the point of view security. Because then you were saying you could maybe go to the front line of some of these…

AS: Right, but it would just cost you so much money.

JH: Exactly, and ten grand a day is not something that even the Pulitzer foundation is gonna be shelling out for.

RS: Even well-funded news organizations, however, soon find the money alone can’t get you to access you need and can create a number of unintended consequences. This is Amanda on encountering this effect firsthand.

AS: This is decent media story. Two summers ago when I was in Somalia, there was a massive conglomeration of media there. It was a few indirect things, but it was in some way related to HBO. So they, they really had like they had millions. We were staying at the same hotel. I was, I was staying for free. The guys, they were there for two weeks, they had a fit, they had stuff that they wanted to do that was around Mogadishu they had specific access, and they wanted to do it. And that was that. They were just burning through money, because they were not getting the access and they were just getting charged for everything, because people like quickly realized that they could just charge them for stuff, and not actually do anything, and that the longer they drew this out, the more they would pay. But because they had like a proper movie budget, it got pretty serious.

Yeah, and something that happened, I was talking to those guys one night, and I sort of said, “the situation here is it’s really complicated. And I know, it’s complicated everywhere. But the complications here are unique to the complication in other places.” I mean, I think there are parallels, but every place is unique and some of the stuff that you want, you might need to figure out other ways to do it, or it might really not be doable. They sort of could not get their head around that. And, no offense, but they were middle aged white dudes who just worked in war zones.

One of them was like, “I was at the liberation of Mosul like, I don’t think you understand, I worked for 60 Minutes,” blah, blah. And I was like, “No, no, I do understand that you’re way more experienced and cooler than me. But this is a really specific context so it doesn’t have to do with all the cool stuff that you’ve done. Every situation is different. And, you’re getting manipulated in a way that you don’t seem to understand because though you do have a lot of understanding that I don’t have, I have understanding that you don’t have because I’m here all the time, and you’ve just flown in.

RS: This episode of Media at Risk was recorded by Amanda Sperber and Jack Hewson and edited by Richard Stupart. Barbie Zelizer is the director of the Center for Media at risk. Learn more at www.ascmediarisk.org


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