‘Islamic State beheading of colleague Steven Sotloff hit me like a sucker punch’

SHAFAQNA – James Foley, Marie Colvin and now Steven Sotloff – the list of colleagues who have lost their lives over the past few years goes on and on. Each new death brings with it a fleeting glimpse of one’s own mortality, when you are making a living as a foreign correspondent. But then the pressures of the job kick in once again, and the media industry’s grand re-evaluation of foreign journalism’s new reality never materialises. The casualisation of labour is a condition of my millennial generation – it’s not confined to foreign reporting by any means, but the big difference in my field is that people get killed.

Jihadist claims to have beheaded US journalist Steven Sotloff” – this was the headline that struck out from my Facebook page like sucker punch only a few hours ago. Absorbing tragedy through such a mundane medium seemed perversely appropriate. After all, the war which ultimately claimed my colleague’s life, commands little attention these days.

To date, Syria’s interminable conflict has claimed the lives of at least 70 journalists. Foley and Sotloff were among a small band of brave foreign reporters who chose to enter Syria after many had decided the risk of kidnap, or death, was too great. It has taken the tragedy of their deaths to drag the spotlight back on to a conflict that many have forgotten and more have written off as too depressing, or too complicated, to pay attention to.

Ask an aspiring foreign correspondent why they want to enter the profession and you’ll get a host of different responses, but I’d bet the desire to ‘make a difference’ factors high up for many people. It certainly did for me. Watching the crises in Syria, Libya and Egypt slip from the front pages to the news round-up, and then into the abyss has proved a sobering experience.

The gambles are even greater today

Journalism from danger zones has always been a risky business, but the gambles today feel greater than ever before. As news organisations downsize, an increasing share of foreign news coverage is outsourced to freelancers with a support network that often extends no further than their own colleagues in the field.

As a young freelance reporter at the start of my career, I can vouch for the fact that the risks are significant. Working with a limited budget, there are a host of so-called luxuries that we journalists on-the-ground must work hard to afford, if they manage at all. This includes health insurance, an apartment in a safe part of town and an air ticket home when things get too much.

And then there’s the pressure of competition. The knowledge that if you don’t head out to the latest danger spot, the editor on the other end of your email can just open a new window and commission another freelancer in your place.

Then there are the added complications of being a female reporter in the Middle East. For instance, in Cairo, where I am based at the moment, female journalists are often wary at the prospect of covering large demonstrations, or gatherings in the city centre. Inside Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the symbolic heartland of the Egyptian revolution, an estimated 250 women have been assaulted, or raped, by crowds of men during gatherings since November 2012. Even edging around the outskirts of the pulsating square can spark pangs of fear, and I have often dreaded the moment an editor would ask for quotes from inside.

So why do it at all?

Understandably, I am a constant worry to my hugely supportive parents. They often read worrying headlines from Egypt long before they’ve been able to check up on me. The prospect of kidnapping, although unlikely in Egypt, is also something that plays on their minds.

All this begs the question of why anyone would start out as a freelance journalist in the Middle East these days – especially a young woman.

I was at university when the Arab Spring blossomed in 2011. As a student of Egyptian politics, I was gripped by the story of a popular uprising against a dictator whose methods of control had seemed unshakeable.

I wasn’t the only one. As the crowds in Tahrir Square held their ground for 18 days, young freelancers from across the world piled into the fray, beginning a journey that would later lead many to visit Libya and Syria for the first time. For the crowds and rebel brigades, this influx was a good thing. Coverage meant the world was watching. They believed the international gaze would prevent atrocities and hasten change. Of course, it didn’t work out like that.

On a personal level, the job still feels like a privilege. Working abroad at a time of historical change is the most challenging thing I’ve ever done, but also the most intellectually and personally rewarding. I do believe that journalists have a duty to make individual stories a matter of record in such troubling times, and I want to continue trying to do that, despite the growing and absolutely terrifying risks.

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