Archive for September, 2017


Shuttered Cambodia Daily Editor Jodie DeJong on Leader’s Promise to “Smash Teeth”

A government crackdown on the media and nonprofit groups in Cambodia has led to the demise of the 24-year-old Cambodia Daily, which was forced to cease operations on Sunday, Sept. 3. The paper’s staff, a mix of foreign and Cambodian journalists, worked on through to the end, reporting on the looming arrest of opposition leader Kem Sokha, accused of collusion with the United States. His arrest came the same day the Daily shut its doors.

The Phnom Penh-based paper, founded by American journalist Bernard Krisher in 1993, aimed to deliver independent news while training Cambodian journalists, and carried the motto “All the news without fear or favor.”

“I feel bad because, after the Daily is closed, we won’t have independent news to read anymore,” award-winning Cambodian reporter Aun Pheap told the New York Times in September. “After they close down all the independent newspapers and radio stations, no one will be able to print true information for the upcoming election.”

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s administration levied a $6.3 million bill against the paper for what it claimed was back taxes. Sen, a former Khmer Rouge officer during that group’s brutal reign over the nation in the 1970s, has been in his position for 30 years, making him one of the world’s current longest-serving leaders. Sen labeled the paper as the nation’s “chief thief,” and said that it should “pack up and go” if it doesn’t want to pay the tax bill. The paper claimed it had been operating at a loss since 2008.

At least 15 radio stations have been either forced to close or stop broadcasting content by outlets including Voice of America and Radio Free Asia. The pro-democracy nonprofit National Democratic Institute, which had ties to the Democratic Party of the United States, was expelled from the nation.

Jodie DeJong was the editor of the Daily for less than six months before the shutdown. She worked for the Associated Press for 20 years as a reporter, news editor and bureau chief. She went on to the China Daily in Beijing for a year before joining the Cambodia Daily as managing editor in 2016, and became editor in April 2017. She spoke with SPJ from a beach in southern Thailand.

Photo by freelancer Omar Havana.

SPJ: How long have you worked at Cambodia Daily and how did you get started there?

J.D.: Just over a year. It was a long, circuitous route. Most foreigners who work at the Daily are in their 20s or early 30s. But I spent more than 20 years at the AP, as reporter, news editor and bureau chief, then a year in Beijing for China Daily before the Daily’s editor in chief hired me after a Skype interview while I was on vacation in Chengdu. I spent nine months as ME, then took over as editor in April.

What was it like being an outsider doing journalism in a third world country?

The wonderful thing about the Daily is that collaboration was at the heart of the newsroom. The Cambodian reporters are an impressive bunch, doing challenging work in difficult conditions, and for the paper’s 24 years, they patiently trained scores of foreign journalists in how the country works, the geography of the place, its people, its complex history. Phnom Penh is an easy, beguiling place to live, and the Daily was such an interesting place to work that it never felt like a hardship. It was fun and invigorating.

What’s next for you and other staff?

Do you know, not one of the foreign reporters and editors have left the country since the paper closed on September 4th? They still want to report about Cambodia, even though these are troubling and dangerous times. The Cambodian reporters also are eager to stay in journalism, but it could be more difficult for them to find jobs. The prime minister has come out against the Daily numerous times in the past year, and went so far as to describe the Khmer reporters as “servants of the foreigners,” so I worry about their prospects. As for me? I hope something interesting will come my way.

Why did the government shut you down? Was there a particular story that may have been the final straw?

The Daily was known for its fearless independent reporting, which included stories about corruption, human rights abuses, forced evictions, pervasive illegal logging, deforestation, patronage, fraud, abuse. So no, I don’t think there was one story that pushed the government into taking this action. Instead, there were several reasons, most importantly a critical election year and a pivot away from the West and to China, and all that entails, and of course the tax issue, that allowed the government to put a target on the paper.

Were you or other staff ever worried for their safety? Were you worried about being arrested? What protections did you have?

Yes, these were ongoing concerns. It’s been like that since the beginning of the Daily in 1993. During a recent beat meeting, the paper’s main political reporter told me, “I have story ideas that are dangerous to me.” And earlier this year, two of the Daily’s reporters were summoned to answer a complaint over reporting before the local elections in June. The questions they asked villagers in Pate commune were very basic, about why this commune was the only one to go to the opposition in Ratanakirri province in the previous local election, but the aftermath was anything but. Protections were few as the rule of law is not strong in Cambodia. But some groups had our backs in the lead-up to the Daily’s closure, including Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Project Journalists, rights group Licadho and the UNOHCHR, and I think that helped, psychologically, that people were paying attention and speaking out about what was happening.

What does this mean for other private companies and media companies in general in Cambodia?

Voice of Democracy, run by the Cambodia Center for Independent Media, was shut down. Numerous stations were barred from carrying VOA programming. U.S.-funded Radio Free Asia shut down, and the spokesman for the Information Ministry described its reporters as spies and threatened legal action if any continued to report in Cambodia. NDI was shut down and its foreign staff expelled. That the Daily could be forced to close over a bogus tax bill of 25 billion riel (about $6.3 million) after barely breaking even for the past 10 years has given companies pause. They are asking, “Is it safe to invest and do business in Cambodia?”

Do you expect civil unrest next year during the general elections?

Prime Minister Hun, already one of the longest-serving leaders in the world, said that 100 to 200 people might have to die in order for him to stay in power. The defense minister threatened to “smash the teeth” of political opponents. The government has arrested and jailed several ordinary people who criticized Hun Sen on Facebook. The crackdown on dissent has been severe and people are afraid. I’m not sure that democratic rollbacks will result in civil unrest under such conditions. 

How cautious should expats in Cambodia be as the nation heads into general elections in 2018?

The U.S. government issued a security warning for Cambodia last week, citing “rising tensions and anti-American rhetoric.” It urges U.S. citizens living or traveling in Cambodia to exercise caution, stay away from demonstrations and be vigilant about personal security. Seems like good advice for everyone.

What does press freedom mean in Cambodia, why does it matter, and what’s being done to protect journalists there?

There’s been a strong modern history of press freedom, which is why the Daily’s fate is such a cautionary tale. The Overseas Press Club of Cambodia is looking to provide hazardous environment training, for example. Still, there is not much anyone can do to protect journalists in such a climate. 

Do expat journalists in Cambodia have less to worry about than Cambodian journalists?

Yes, most certainly. Foreign journalists can be deported. Cambodian journalists, if arrested, have much less recourse.

The Khmer Rouge genocide of the 1970s has long drawn the interest of journalists. Was that something that drew you to Cambodia?

One of the Daily’s reporters was fascinated by the country’s history and came to Cambodia and covered the trials of Khmer Rouge leaders at the ECCC (Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia) for the Daily, but it’s not what drew me to Cambodia.  

What advice would you give to anyone interested in moving to Cambodia, especially journalists?

To borrow a line from Game of Thrones: “The night is dark and full of terrors.” It’s going to be a very challenging year in Cambodia. Make sure you know what you’re doing, join the press club so you have a community to alert you to risks, employ smart, capable fixers. Have your “go bag” ready.

Tom O’Connell worked as a copy editor and writer for magazines in New York City for a decade after college, and is now based in Albuquerque, N.M., where he is a member of the SPJ-Rio Grande Chapter. He left the USA in September 2017 to pursue his longtime dream of living in Southeast Asia, and filed this story from Bangkok, Thailand. His current plan is to settle long-term in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. His writing has appeared in Details, British Esquire, German GQ, and Entertainment Weekly. You can follow his work on Twitter.

If you or someone you know would like to contribute to the SPJ International Blog, contact spj.internationalcommunity@gmail.com

 

Self Confidence, Empathy and a Break

When asked about what is the biggest challenge of being a female photojournalist, people generally might expect me to talk about safety. It´s true that being a journalist or a photojournalist means many times being at risk, as our profession request to be in certain places at certain moments where probably most of the people would never be. And it’s even more true that, not just as journalists but also as women, we are more vulnerable to violence, as we live in a male dominated world.

But challenges come in a wider spectrum. This isn’t an easy job. It isn’t an easy life. It is complicated to get your work published, to build a network, to get assignments. Journalism is a very beautiful passion inside a very competitive industry, and it requires from the journalists, more often than not, a daily struggle to make it financially sustainable. And specially working in long-term projects, sometimes there is no other option than rely on self-funding.

As if all these, let´s call them, “external obstacles” were not enough, sometimes one more is added into the equation: a lack of self-confidence. Having doubts about your abilities is a condition that can be experienced by both genders, but there is something I have recently observed.

In several occasions in conversation with my female friends – some working in the field of journalism and some with careers in a variety of sectors as well, a common concern always comes out in the talk: the feeling that, as women, we have to prove more than men that we are capable of the work we are doing.

And this starts from the hackneyed – but sadly still common — situation where a woman has to prove that she is not there because of a pretty face but because of her capacities, and lasts to the inner feeling that you have to demonstrate intensely, even to yourself, that you are good enough in what you are doing.

As the world has been dominated by men, women have been raised, even in most equal societies, with the inner feeling of self-questioning.

The time when women started getting out from the roles that society expected from them and adopting “typically men professions” are not so far ago. These brave women had to prove to the world that they were “as good as men” to do their jobs. This feeling still remains. And even if we are lucky enough to belong to societies where gender-equality laws are enforced, women have to live with the certainty that they will be questioned.

Self judgment has been imposed, making us believing that we are never skilled enough, qualified, experienced or legitimized to do what we are doing. And most of the times this feeling comes unconsciously. I have seen in several occasions female colleagues doubting if they are doing right in a way that I´ve never seen male colleagues.

And that is, after all, insecurity and self-distrust. So do not doubt yourself. Do not doubt what you are capable of. This profession has already enough to make it not easy, so do not be your own barrier. If you are where you are, it is because you are doing something right. Trust yourself, your capacities, your attributes and your virtues.

Journalism, and especially photojournalism, has always been considered a profession for men. What is needed to do this job has always been measured through the abilities typically attributed to men: strength, fortitude, courage…

The image of a lonely an adventurous guy has always been associated with a journalist, and was far away from what it was expected from a woman. But fortunately, these virtues are changing and other values, such as empathy or sensitivity, are starting to be considered as essential for being a journalist.

During my career as a freelance photojournalist, I have learned about how important sensitivity is. We have been taught that getting emotional during an interview is unprofessional. Yes, it might be considered that way for some. But when you are in front of a person who opens up a painful episode of his/her life, sharing their suffering with you, I find almost impossible not to get emotional.  

Empathy and sensitivity have been considered typically female attributes (what does not mean at all that men cannot feel empathy or been sensitive), and that’s probably the reason why both characteristics have been usually seen as a sign of weakness. They are not. They are actually a strength, a magnificent gift.

If you develop your journalistic work based on empathy and emotions, do not try to stop it, because it is a great virtue. Journalists should not be afraid of getting touched by the people they work with or to get involved into their lives.

Commitment is seen as a must to develop long-term projects, and in my opinion, commitment to a story cannot be separated from commitment to the people to whom that story belongs.

Don’t underestimate your feelings. Never. But as important as to let them out it is to let them go. And this is a lesson I am learning now: to take a break whenever your body asks for it. You cannot work 24/7, especially when you are working in high-dramatic stories.

The idea that as journalists we are mere observers of history and that we do not feel anything I think is simply not true, and again, is a consequence of seeing the profession from a macho-I-can-handle-everything point of view.

As witnesses of suffering, the suffering remains on us. So getting that break is not just necessary, but healthy. Sometimes it would be enough with a one-week holiday on the beach or a weekend in the mountains or in a spa, but other times you might need a disconnection: a physical and emotional disconnection.

It does not mean that you care less about the people your work is about. Listen to yourself, take care of yourself. Love yourself. And if you need to make some distance for a while, just do it, because only when you feel strong enough you would be able to do a useful work.

Elena del Estal is a Spanish freelance photographer and journalist based in India from 2013 to 2016 where she has worked in different stories about health care, the eradication of polio in India in 2014-2015, and women’s rights violations. Her photography work has been published in The Wall Street Journal, CNNPhotos, Narrative.ly, Revista 5W, El País and El Mundo among others. As a writer, she is a frequent contributor to El Confidencial and Público, Spanish Media. 

She was selected 30 Under 30: Women Photographers, Photo Boite in 2017. She attended the Eddie Adams Workshop XXVIII 2015 and was nominated for the Joop Swart Masterclass in 2015 and 2017.

You can follow her work on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and her website elenadelestal.com

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The Art of Storytelling Helped Me Explore Life and Myself

I remember gazing from my bunk bed every night in our house in Athens at my dad’s black and white pictures hanging on the corridor wall. I would stare at them until I would fall asleep. They just seemed to me so alive and beautiful and for some reason I wanted to do the same. Take pictures, travel, explore life and become a creator. (Just to be clear my father is not a photographer, but an architect).

My background has been in fine arts, specifically in painting and photography.

Documentary photography for me has been really my life’s dream and I truly have been lucky enough not to have worked in any other industry. It has taken me into worlds that I never thought that I could actually be a part of. It has given me strength, has made me face my weaknesses and has given me a mission — a mission to communicate, understand and respect different cultures, share and give a voice to those who do not have any other ways to be heard.

My interest in documentary photography and filmmaking stems from my passion in discovering untold stories and relating them in a way that will engage audiences on an intellectual and emotional level. As a journalist and creator I have travelled to numerous under-reported parts of the world and have seen first-hand the power that stories can have.

Greece, Kos island 2015
An immigrant wondering about at dawn in front of the port in the island of Kos.

Facts are important, but often they are only as powerful as the narratives they serve. Telling stories has always been the way people make sense of the world, and I firmly believe that documentary photography and filmmaking is one of the most powerful ways to tell them.

My name is Amani el Mekhlef I am 29 years old and mother of five. When I was in Syria I was seven months pregnant and one day an air strike hit next to my house so I lost the baby. After that they took me to a place to take out the baby from my belly without any anesthetics. It took the doctors about six hours to take the baby out. After that we decided to leave while being pregnant again. We basically left when I was pregnant to my son because of the many bombings. The borders were closed so we waited for about one week to go to Turkey. After that we went to Turkey and we stayed in a camp (Tel Abyad).

All this may sound ideal, but the truth is that to enter into these “magic” microcosms I had to struggle and work often harder as a female photographer in a male dominated world.

I had to prove that I was capable enough to work in the business in a way that my male colleagues did not; to show again and again that I could work under difficult circumstances, on interesting assignments, turning my head away from sexist comments so I could get the job, fighting for equal pay, being taken seriously by my peers.

Athens, Greece 2013: Red heels.

Nevertheless these obstacles never stopped me from pursuing my dream to become a photographer and storyteller. Indeed, these obstacles became my tools to move forward and carve a path for myself and take on stories that I was not “supposed” to work on as a woman.

So if I had to suggest something to a young female who wants to become a photojournalist, documentary photographer or a journalist, it would be to not let these obstacles stand in your way of becoming who you want to become. Work on developing a thick skin and don’t live down to others’ expectations of you. It can be hard but believing in yourself opens up new worlds in unexpected ways.

Pamir mountains, Roshkala region Tajikistan 2014
A bride getting ready before the ceremony.
Tajiks living on the plateau have very unique wedding ceremonies. Most ethnic groups in Central Asia begin the wedding ceremony with the betrothal and arrangements made by the elders of the family, but a Tajik wedding is quite different. It lasts seven days. On the first day of the ceremony, the bride and the bridegroom proclaim their marriage and hold separate banquets with their own families, which continue for three days.

In 2010 my life brought me back to Greece from New York and Italy, and here I really had the opportunity to work with major international outlets covering a wide range of stories in relation to the financial crisis and its impact on Greek society, as well as the refugee crisis.

These years in Greece have transformed and matured me. I saw a country that I often didn’t recognize and I felt obliged to report on its changes as I felt I was living through historic moments. In particular I have reported on the rise of nationalist and xenophobic movements, on the financial boom in the sex trade and on issues of European integration, immigration and identity.

In a way returning to Greece as a photographer has been both a curse and a blessing at the same time. I learned to live with the ongoing recession and all of the austerity and reforms that were imposed in the country on the one hand, yet on the other hand as a creator, I really had the chance to delve into fascinating stories and find my voice at a time when the country was in the international spotlight.

Of course, being a documentary photographer or a journalist is a never-ending journey – especially in this age of globalization and I don’t claim that I have figured everything out. Cases of editors who do not understand the situations photographers or journalists face are also part of this business. They basically often just want ‘the story’ as quickly and as cheaply as possible. But being a reporter or a photographer is often about much more than that.

Documentary photography can have a massive impact in our society and it takes a significant level of responsibility from our part to represent someone else’s life, culture, and country.

To achieve this, we need to spend time to work and develop strong relationships, gaining the trust of the people we photograph and gaining a deep understanding of all the issues and representing them fairly. Balancing the need and desire to cultivate these relationships with the pressing demands of the industry is often a difficult line to walk.

While getting stories commissioned and making a living in this field remains a constant challenge, looking back on what I have achieved, the people I have met and learned from reminds me why I chose this career to begin with and makes me eager to get out there and see what else I can discover and share. It reminds me of the feelings I had as a child: of wanting to explore life and to understand and learn about myself and others through stories.

Myrto Papadopoulos finished her studies in 2003 after completing a five-year Fine Arts degree, majored in painting and photography. In 2006, she applied for a documentary photography degree at the ICP (International Centre of Photography) in New York, where she was granted a scholarship.

Her clients include TIME Magazine, Smithsonian Magazine, GEO International, Le Monde, The Guardian, nationalgeographic.com, WSJ, DIE ZEIT, WIRED, Lens New York Times, Time.com, ARTE TV, ZDF TV among others. Today she works as a freelance photographer and a documentary filmmaker and is represented by Redux Pictures in NY. You can follow her work at www.myrtopapadopoulos.com and on Instagram.

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Elevating the Status of Women in Journalism Through Mentorship

The last few years have been especially visible for the conversation around women in journalism, their presence in newsrooms and in the field is being noticed, the number of graduates from J-schools has risen as have women reporting from the ground as foreign correspondents and freelancers.

The value of organizations that supported women journalists, and have long been there, like the IWMF that was founded in 1990 (yes, they have been around that long) and Women Media Centre that was launched in 2005, saw new meaning, and only recently taken seriously. Women in journalism and those who supported them started getting wider cross generation recognition which was something incredibly new. Women initiated avenues to help each other through social media, the several Binders and other FB groups. More funding came in, scholarships and grants offered opportunities to women and newsrooms started reflecting over their age old discriminatory attitudes towards women colleagues.

In 2017, it seems a hopeful future for women in journalism, if the conversations and support continues. The hope is that perhaps women will be able to be treated equally in the mainstream. That perhaps women will be able to claim an equal ground with their male counterparts in the industry. That perhaps the noise we are making today, will work this time. 

This hope is not new. We have seen many such phases and made many such noises. Each time there is a new theme. In the last century, it was the new recognition for women who started covering male beats, then later it was the women journalists who started covering wars, the world war II coverage by female reporters was especially remarkable and recognized by some avenues. The first top editorial positions were given to women. Women, or at least some women, felt liberated. They felt they had a voice now and they were using it wildly. 

But when you look closely, today, still thousands of women journalists remain struggling; they are fighting different kinds of discriminations some systematic, some perceptive and some deliberate and designed. The opportunities that are available are tendered to the ones who already excel, grants and fellowship are offered to those women who fit one or the other profile. This makes them struggle to be in the right circles, show face at the right conferences, be friends with the right people. So much of their energy and wisdom that can be spent doing reporting, refining their skills, is instead spent trying to make their way up. It’s exhausting. 

I formed the Coalition for Women in Journalism, for the colleagues who often feel they are stuck mid career. The program, that came after years of reflection and inquiry, offers short and long term mentorships to women who have spent a few years working as freelancers or staff reporters and feel they could use an expert’s ear. Through mentorships we hope to offer an opportunity to women colleagues to refine their skills as reporters, to be able to discuss personal and intimate feelings about discrimination, or handle a situation where they feel trapped. We also try to offer support as much support as we can, to women who are stuck in crises situations, or are dealing with mild or severe trauma either on the job, or while balancing their work and personal lives. 

I believe that women could have made much more progress over the century and a half we have made our contributions to journalism, had we worked along male colleagues more efficiently. After all, many if not most women have only made progress, with the advice and support of male mentors and friends. Therefore, the coalition has a #HeForShe program in which we . Though majority of mentors with the coalition are still women, that is fulfill the need of the type of applications we get. But in certain arena where our male colleagues can help, we invite them to support us in the endeavor. 

We are extremely thrilled to partner with the SPJ International Community, an institution that has for a long time, helped journalists network and find support. In that we both – the Coalition and the International Community hope to combine our efforts to make breakthroughs to elevate the status and experiences of women in journalism.

I formed the Coalition for Women in Journalism, for the colleagues who often feel they are stuck mid career. It was over a coffee with one of my mentors, whom I looked up to with awe. She told me that in over a two decade long career as a successful journalist that brought her several awards, she never had a mentor. She recalled how she made her way up in a male dominated newsroom. That women had been always doing it on their own was shocking, and it requires a lot to maneuver and I wanted to create a system where they could count on each other.

The program, that came after years of reflection and inquiry, offers short and long term mentorships to women who have spent a few years working as freelancers or staff reporters and feel they could use an expert’s ear. Through mentorships we hope to offer an opportunity to women colleagues to refine their skills as reporters, to be able to discuss personal and intimate feelings about discrimination, or handle a situation where they feel trapped. We also try to offer support as much support as we can, to women who are stuck in crises situations, or are dealing with mild or severe trauma either on the job, or while balancing their work and personal lives. 

I believe that women could have made much more progress over the century and a half we have made our contributions to journalism, had we worked along male colleagues more efficiently. After all, many if not most women have only made progress, with the advice and support of male mentors and friends. Therefore, the coalition has a #HeForShe program in which we let our male colleagues help us in the program, through mentorships and advice. Though majority of mentors with the coalition are still women, that is fulfill the need of the type of applications we get. But in certain arena where our male colleagues can help, we invite them to support us in the endeavor. 

Kiran Nazish is the co-founder and director of the Coalition for Women in Journalism. The Coalition will be contributing to the SPJ Blog every first Wednesday of the month discussing topic that involve women in journalism.

If you want to learn more about how you can be involved with the International Community, you can join SPJ International on Facebook. If you are a journalist that would like to connect with other members of the the SPJ International Community, join here.

Fixers: Who Are They and How Do They Work?

Even the most seasoned foreign correspondent will swear that their job is only possible because they’ve learned to rely on experienced, reliable local people to help them in the field. But these aren’t just ordinary people. As many of you know there is, spread across the globe a dynamic group of professionals who have dedicated their work to helping journalists and filmmakers tell their stories. They go under many monikers but are most commonly called, fixers.

As one producer recently put it, “Without fixers, we are basically just curious foreigners wandering around with expensive equipment”. It’s a sentiment that is key to accepting your limitations as an outsider and allowing local help to really get you under the skin of a subject. You can go into an area, you can know the story that you’re going to do, you may know roughly how to get it, but you’ll never be able to fully get the nuances without help. If you take the basic knowledge of the operation aside, you still need to understand the current situation, and you also need to be understood – you need to be trusted, and fixers can help with that.

“I could not do my job without the work of the local fixers I hook up with wherever I go. They are my eyes and ears. I have worked with some of the finest in the business – and to me they have as important a role in the making of our reports as I do, as the correspondent, or as the camera person or producer.” Jonathan Miller, Foreign Affairs Correspondent for the UK’s Channel 4 News.

So who are these people and what are their qualifications? There is no qualification you can do for this kind of work, no certificate or succinct career path. This disparate group of individuals will find you subjects to talk to, get them onside, apply for your permits, translate, book your cars, feed you, find you a hotel, fulfil whatever random necessities you throw at them, make sure you’re safe or get you out of trouble when you’re not. Theirs is essentially a job title with a thousand meanings whose only qualification is a singular desire to help produce stories and enough experience of your job to become one of the team.

However, the many who view them in terms of translators or guides would be interested to learn that on World Fixer we have a range of professionals from all spheres including researchers, ex-cops, tour operators, producers from the world of TV, ex-Government communications officers, academics and increasingly journalists, diversifying in the face of an industry on the squeeze. It is wise when hiring someone to consider what their strengths are in relation to your work and play to that. A tour operator for example may have excellent access to remote communities whilst an ex cop will bring a different level of insight. You’ll never know for sure though unless you talk to them. There is no online solution for the perfect hook up and whilst our site endeavours to introduce you to as many fixers as possible you can’t ‘Uber-ize’ a people business of this kind if you want the best experience.

For many fixing is a logical extension of their exposure to the media industry but for some their work began through a chance meeting with a journalist, or a recommendation from a friend. The good ones have managed to turn it into a productive career.

Take Suliman Ali Zway and Osama Alfitory in Libya, for example. During the war in 2011, whilst many young men in their area headed off to join the rebels they decided that helping journalists was a better way to help the cause. As the foreign press congregated in Benghazi they made themselves available and quickly (with no formal media training of any kind) became the ‘go to guys’, earning themselves the title amongst international media as ‘The A Team’. They worked with everyone from top tier journalists like Leila Fadel at the Washington Post to small, independent reporters with equal fervour and those in the know fought over each other to book them. Eventually they were honoured with the prestigious Martin Adler prize and have now managed to forge a journalist career for themselves.

They became successful not simply because they spoke good English, or that they had great contacts but because they had a relentless work ethic and cared only about about getting the truth out – whatever that was. All the great fixers share this quality.

In the field, you are trusting a fixer with the success of your project and possibly your life, but it is probably the most unregulated aspect of the industry. You can literally pick someone up off the street and put them on the payroll – a situation that seems unthinkable in this modern world of risk assessment and ‘responsible’ practice. A site like World Fixer will introduce you to a range of people out there and we do strive for accountability but by working with someone in a foreign land for the first time there will always be uncertainties. Fortunately journalism has never been a business to shy away from leaps into the unknown so here’s a few tips to mitigate the chances of a bad encounter.

The first is vet. Don’t just take a name off the internet and assume it’ll go well. Check references, speak to them at length and use your instinct. This is obviously important in the case of hostile environment work but equally the success or failure of your trip will hinge to some degree on the information your local provides so it helps to know if it can be trusted.

Secondly, look for the skills he or she might need to assist you properly. Is it more important that they have an encyclopedic contacts book or that they would perform well interviewing contributors in sensitive situations? The right person for the job may not necessarily be the most connected and have a resume that reads like the Pulitzer back catalogue, you would learn more about their suitability by running the project by them and gauging their response. However, an important note here is that in order to understand the way you work and deliver properly it does help to have a decent amount of experience working with foreign journalists. At the least they should understand the importance of accuracy, unbiased reporting and responsible practice.

Thirdly, don’t forget the paperwork. We get numerous complaints from both sides of the fixer-employer equation about malpractice, empty promises and money disputes. Not always, but in many cases, this is due to a breakdown in communication — cultural differences that affect each side’s expectations or simply the fact that nothing ever gets written down. Be as clear and definitive as possible when working with fixers; don’t assume that they work the way you do or will pick up on things you have not clearly stated.

For example, ask up front if a price quoted for a job is all-in, or does it exclude extras like fuel, food, etc.? In many parts of the world this flexibility is normal, but Western employers in particular are accustomed to a quote meaning a final quote, not a flexible one. Get everything in black and white, especially when it comes to this, and confirm that it is understood. It is the quickest way to sour an otherwise great and fulfilling working relationship and is sadly extremely common.

Finally, respect your fixer as one of the team – like in any relationship the more you put in, the more you get out. Ask for their ideas, tell them yours – you never know when they are able to offer the missing link or a story dynamic you might not have thought of. They will have whatever professional knowledge you’ve selected them for but are also educated people with all the social awareness that comes with that.

Respect also means listening to them when it comes to cultural concerns, not only because failure to do so may affect your project without you even knowing but also because any social faux pas, however insignificant to you could land them in trouble when you leave. It is vital to remember that for those covering sensitive situations your presence as a journalist has repercussions – partly in the effects your report may have but also on a human level to the fixer and his association with you. For fixers, the story doesn’t just stop when you leave the country.

World Fixer is a database of media fixers and facilitators, with a membership of nearly 7000 globally they strive to make good fixers easier to find and improve working practices. They believe that giving these dynamic individuals a platform to connect with the industry we can raise standards and create transparency.

Mike Garrod previously worked for twenty years in documentary, current affairs and TV in the UK before setting up World Fixer. Ranging from hostile environment to factual entertainment he’s filmed in over 35 countries and worked with some of the best local professionals out there.
If you want to learn more about how you can be involved with the International Community, you can join SPJ International on Facebook. If you are a journalist or a fixer that would like to connect with other members of the the SPJ International Community, join here.

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