Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Journeys In and Out of International Journalism - Chapter 8 - African Stories and the End of (my) Foreign Reporting

My most productive place and time as an international journalist was in Africa, from my first trip to Mali in 2002 covering Muslim rage, among other topics, to being sent by the Voice of America in 2011 to cover Michelle Obama's trip to South Africa. The links in blue are some of the very few still existing of my work, at a time when news websites were still rethinking themselves on a monthly basis and quickly making older material inexistent, while journalists, like myself, thought little of archiving everything they did as they do now. In those years though, I filed print, video and radio dispatches, accompanied by pictures, on thousands of stories for a dozen or so media organizations, from mostly West and Central Africa, from a drying Lake Chad to an oil-thirsty Sao Tome and Principe down into the always unsettled Democratic Republic of Congo.

I post the above process video, being in the hot zone at the right time, surviving a riot, because as I've written before, my overarching truths did not lie in edit-safe material whitewashed by too distant, too unfamiliar, too careful editors, but in my own blog postings, or videos I posted on my own YouTube channels, a necessary space of freedom I cultivated to temper with the frustrations of always feeding the media beast of expected material. Now the above video was also the result of a spectacle, meant for media, meant for desperate attention, meant for activists destined to electoral nadir, but still it was a real moment, a cry of reality both for the journalists running away from tear gas and certain to be arrested activists, all of them mired in a rigged, military dominated election, as was often the case during my years in Africa.

The strangely calm video above, from the same election cycle in the DRC in 2006, is unclear. As I wrote about this on this blog, I wasn't sure if I had been shown babies killed by European planes in a militia camp in the capital Kinshasa or staged victimization? The hyper-excited video below on an otherwise calm day shows victims of all sorts of violence, economic, social, geographic... on a doomed artisan fisherman's island in the Niger Delta in Nigeria. It shows some of the process of reporting. I am hot. I am working with a translator and have no idea if he is translating correctly. I have just spent some of Voice of America's money on gas, a boat and a boat driver for this? I get a short anecdote and quote for this story, and also insight for future stories. Hey, I'm not complaining, as I said this was a dream job. I was traveling to amazing places on someone else's dime, meeting amazing people, and paid to tell stories. It's just there was so much more to the stories I wanted to tell, and unfortunately I didn't have it in me to write books along the way, or the mental fortitude or discipline, or additional energy to start independent documentary films then and there.

As I worked on more and more news digestible stories for some unknown audience, I would try to do more and more behind the scenes videos to show some unfiltered truths of specific moments, like this protest in Senegal. Or this one, as I was trying to improve my video and editing skills, about proud artist slum dwellers dancing and living under a bridge in Nigeria. I wasn't surprised when some of these videos, even if crudely produced, got more hits on YouTube than many of my carefully crafted news packages. I also started writing about my own personal friends, such as a series on "Five Abidjan Friends Thinking of Getting Out", indicative of a never-ending economic refugee and social crisis, only now getting some due attention, and strangely involving Syrians, and not really including Africans. I also wanted to show the process of looking for stories, like in the video below from Port Harcourt, Nigeria, while talking to editors at the same time, in a sometime chaotic, but always story-rich environment.

In Abidjan, where I was based for three years, I got to experience often chaotic stories as a resident, while editors far away cared little. So again, I turned to my blog repeatedly to describe details important to me, such as this one about a crackdown in the tropics, or a shadowy military Ivorian figure my editors could care less about, and who may have ended up being killed by his own side, in relative international anonymity, even though he was decisive in bringing down, now ICC-tried former President Laurent Gbagbo. Having some issues with focus, the blog also waxed on Gbagbo's incredible mastery of propaganda, and its art form by demagogues across Africa. Any allusion to this was usually wiped out of my copy with the Voice of America, since wasn't that the main critique of my own organization, being master propagandists?

The above video shows a scrum to get shots of a swearing-in ceremony of a Nigerian president who would always be sick. Now the chaotic shots of dogs barking, journalists yelling, and soldiers pushing are confused and blurry but are these not more indicative of what's happening, rather than the stately performance with steady, tripod shots which were disseminated across the world and preferred by old media editors? Isn't that why curated citizen journalism is always of greater value than the packaging done by a team of somewhat competent, road weary but extremely formulaic and rule respecting hacks? It's a question that merits lots of scrutiny, with the very future of foreign reporting, in my estimation, now technologically in doubt, since cheap smart phones can do so much better than expensive cameras, recorders, reporters and their acolytes "reporting" the news.

If you enjoyed this posting, previous chapters of this series on my journey in and out of international reporting are the following:

Chapter 1 -- Wanting to Become an International Journalist

Chapter 2 -- Studies, Soccer and Internships

Chapter 3 -- Getting a First Job (with RFI in Paris)

Chapter 4 -- Getting to Indonesia

Chapter 5 -- Surviving a Revolution

Chapter 6 -- Fixers and Fixing

Chapter 7 -- Getting the Dream Job


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