Thursday, September 18, 2008

Understanding the system

So... I'm back in Khartoum, and trying to set myself up to become a daily news "stringer" or correspondent. This is much more intimidating than it sounds.

The news here is basically driven by Reuters news wire. The Reuters correspondent is a British woman who has been here 5 years, speaks fluent Arabic and has married a Sudanese man. She, understandably, has great contacts and is always the first to know everything. All the Darfurian rebels call her when something happens. Most other news agencies have to try to catch up after she's published something. Imagine coming into an environment like this. How should I know when a village has been bombed thousands of kilometres away or when the army makes an offensive or when a press conference is taking place or when a statement has been released? As you can imagine, I was/am a bit terrified of not being able to keep up.

But slowly, I'm starting to understand the system. Or trying to, at least.

Luckily, my life has been made much easier with my new Egyptian passport. (Yes, that's right, I now have an Egyptian passport!). It means I can enter Sudan without a visa (which I did successfully) and remain in the country as long as I want. (which means I never have to deal with the visa office again - WOO HOOO!!!! ) I do however need a work permit, which I have applied for. With that, I will be placed on the official list of reporters, who are informed of press conferences by the government's foreign journalists department.

The next job is to introduce myself to all the important people - the spokesman of the army, the spokesman of the foreign ministry, etc. etc. Then, they add me to their mailing lists and I call them daily to check if anything is happening. I have to start getting a hold of phone numbers for all the main rebel groups. This is just an administrative job basically. Calling one person to another until I get the right phone number. I was asking one journalist about how he had gotten contact information for them all (there are many different factions, each with its own leader, etc. etc.) He had worked in Eritrea for some time, where apparently maybe of the rebels were based at the time. "Oh, they used to be my drinking buddies," he told me casually. Wow.

The other foreign journalists here, once you've broken them in, are also quite co-operative. They check with each other that they haven't missed anything, often travel to press conferences together, and know each other well.

Then there's reading all the local newspapers, reading all the United Nations media briefings, reading all the articles everyone else is writing, the list goes on and on! There's this constant fear of missing something, of not knowing that something is happening, of not having the contacts to follow up on something, etc. etc. It's totally scary I'm telling you. In the end, everyone's work ends up on the internet so it is very transparent. Eveyone sees what you produce and can easily compare it to what the others produce.

So anyways, I'm working on building those contacts now. Once you get in the groove, I'm sure it all becomes much less intimidating. But then there's the issue of resources.

All the rebels, out in the bush in Darfur, have satellite phones. It's the only way of reaching them when they're in the middle of nowhere. It costs a fortune to call satellite phones. The journalists who are on staff for some of the big agencies have all their expenses paid. They have offices with satellite TV, phones, printers, a guy who delivers the newspaper, etc. Then there's Heba, living off a shoe-string budget in an old house without a generator... ie. when the power goes out, I sit in the heat and pitch black, unable to do anything except possibly read a book with the light from my cell phone, until the power comes back.

All this to say that I have quite a challenge ahead of me. It's exciting in some sense. And I hope in six months to be able to tell you that I've made it ... Although Stephane my roommate says it took him 18 months to really get in the groove and feel comfortable. Good heavens.

Here's a pic of Stephane in the front porch/garden of our home with the cleaning/guard staff. Back to work!

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