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  • Writer's pictureJonny Ainslie

Nima Elbagir - The Arc of History, it turns

Updated: Jan 14, 2019

I talk to CNN's Senior International Correspondent Nima Elbagir about trust, the erosion of international consequence for crime, and the importance of visibility.

In 2016 you reported directly from the scenes of two attacks on airports, one an ISIS affiliated bombing in Istanbul’s Ataturk, the other a suicide attack at Brussels’ Zaventem. Having charted the similarities of these attacks, do you think the impact of terror in foreign or more distant nations is downplayed by our media outlets?

I think the challenge journalistically is always to remove the other, to attempt to get people to see themselves, their friends, their neighbours in another person. Chibok for me was incredibly eye-opening because I didn’t imagine that the abduction of African village girls would have the resonance it did. And I think it was the use of the word schoolgirls; when you talk about schoolgirls you talk about your children, your neighbour’s children – you see yourself.

Hopefully if we’re doing our jobs right then people will see the humanity in others. At the same time, you can’t deny that when some place is supposed to be a safe haven, it is always more traumatic. An attack in London or Brussels or Paris is always going to hit harder. That’s just a reality, even for myself. I was living in Nairobi when the Westgate attack happened, and that shook me in a way that I hadn’t been shaken going to warzones, going to frontlines. Even just when I was in Sudan, the difference between being at home in Khartoum and being out in Darfur, the distance was enough of a safe space that you psychologically lower your guard. So I don’t think we can judge the audience for it resonating more with them – the unexpected always resonates more.

Do you think that sometimes disconnection is not an issue of audience reception, but rather of how news is broadcast, how a story is told?

Yes, I think you’re completely right. And that goes back to doing our jobs right. If you other them, and talk as if they are an alien and that their life in this village is a million miles away from the life of a viewer back home – then of course it’s not going to resonate. I remember the first interview we did in Chibok; there were two mothers whose daughters were best friends, and both wanted to be doctors. These were very simple facts. And I was surprised, genuinely. I’m from Sudan and I was surprised. We had come with the bias that girls weren’t encouraged to take up these opportunities there; but actually out of these 276 girls this was the tragedy – they were the brightest and the best.

I think the small things tell you a lot. What do you want to be, what songs do you listen to? It might not end up in your reporting, but suddenly she ends up not as the cliché of the girl who walks 5 miles for water, but as someone who dances to Justin Bieber.

They’d send you to the person who’s just lost everything. And you’re a kid.

How do you begin to approach the victims and survivors the world’s most harrowing events, such as the girl you interviewed who had escaped kidnapping from Boko Haram in Nigeria?

I remember when I first started at Reuters, I did the graduate training program and you had to rotate through all the desks. Everybody hated the cold-calling, the stock market plummets and suddenly you’re the really unwanted phone call going “can you explain why?” But the ones I hated were the general news desks, because – god forbid – some horrible accident has happened, and because it’s the thing you need to learn to do, they’d send you to the person who’s just lost everything. And you’re a kid. I really hated it. I still cringe at the thought of knocking at someone’s door and asking, “your son just died?” But I remember how much unexpected respite there was for people in talking about their loved ones. I was coming in with a presumption about what they could or couldn’t handle, often they were braver and stronger than I could ever aspire to be. Maybe there is healing in talking about it. But it is very difficult not to walk in and feel like a thief. Like you’re stealing precious moments of their grieving. But people want to vent, and to feel heard.

You reported from Mecca in 2010 to describe the Hajj pilgrimage first hand. What is it like to report upon a religious festival of such scale and meaning to a widely Western audience?

For me, there was an extra layer of difficulty because I’m a practising Muslim. So I was trying very hard not to get caught up in my own wonder. But it is such a spectacle, and there is nothing like it in the Western world. When you stand on the mountain of Arafat on the last day of Hajj, and there’s this window, this time-span before sunset in which your prayers are heard… I think the year I went there were five million people just spilling over. I don’t think we needed to do much, it was just so extraordinary. And we were there as a press trip so we were actually on the mountain, you’re hearing these prayers echoing off the slopes, and then in little corners people would start to repeat more conventional prayers in unison and it would just go up across these crowds. I still think that was one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen, I’m almost too afraid to go back. Because I really need to go back and do it properly. It was so overwhelming, I don’t want to go again until I’ve put things in the right boxes in my head. The emotional nakedness that surrounds you… I hope we showed a little bit of that.

Once people know what the system looks like – you can begin to affect change.

You’re set to be the keynote speaker at the African Women in the Media conference this year in June, hosted in Ibadan, Nigeria. What do you see as the most important element in fostering female journalists across so many African nations?

First and foremost, it’s visibility. It is literally visibility. Looking up onscreen and seeing someone who reminds you a little bit of yourself, who perhaps cracks your horizons open a little more. I am a direct result of Christiane Amanpour. Of looking up and seeing someone with a British accent and a funny last name on CNN, at a time when she was an anomaly. And to a certain extent there still aren’t many people who look like her or look like me anywhere. Especially on an American network. I know what that did for me when I was aspiring to be a journalist, it made me think ‘Ok, this is possible’.

But if you look at any study on female visibility in general, in India when they reinstated proportional representation levels all the way down to the state level, there was a huge backlash initially – and then it became normal to see women in positions in authority.

Well, you recently guest-hosted the segment ‘Amanpour’ interviewing Gloria Allred who represents an accuser of Harvey Weinstein. And all the way back in 2006 you were given the only interview with Jacob Zuma, deputy president of South Africa’s ruling ANC at the time, in the run up to his rape trial. He was acquitted. Do you think in the past decade that the world has changed?

That is probably your hardest question so far, and I don’t know. I think we’d all love to think it has changed. Everybody talks about the cultural moment and how empowering the cultural moment is, but cultural moments can dissipate. What you need is institutional, structural, legislative change – because that’s the only way that change sticks. Abuse of power is as old as time; male abuse of power is as old as time. So you’re talking not only about putting infrastructure in place that allows women to feel that they can come forward, but also that there would be no consequences (of doing so). How do you legislate for that?

There’s a parallel with women in the workplace. If you’re looking at a woman in her thirties who’s just got engaged, and a man in his thirties who’s just got engaged – who do you hire? You may not want to choose the man who’s just got engaged over the woman – and you can legislate against that, but the reality is that until men actually take up their half of paternity leave then I will be more of a liability than whoever the fictional ‘he’ is in this situation. How do you legislate against internal biases? It’s legislation, it’s cultural change, plus time, and really serious intent.

Would you implement quota systems or positive representation programs?

I read a really interesting social anthropology definition of privilege, which is that to the privileged – equality feels like oppression. This is obviously not a legal definition, but an interesting way to look at it. And often I think that’s what’s behind so many of these backlashes, people become very uncomfortable when “I don’t personally benefit”, and nobody wants to feel like they’re part of a quota system as well. So I’d go in much more at the bottom-level with scholarships, internships, socio-economic diversity as well as racial or gender diversity. If you look at big companies with international workforces, they do ok with racial diversity, but the issue becomes diversity throughout the infrastructure (right to the top). And even before you get to the paid internships, you should be going out into communities and schools for kids who wouldn’t even be thinking that they belong on television. Someone like Clive Myrie, who has a regional accent, is not just of Afro-Caribbean origin - he’s also a kid from the Midlands. The first step is transparency. Once people know what the system looks like – you can begin to affect change.

You’ve said that as an African, and as a female Muslim journalist – you were under no illusion of what the President of the United States thinks of you. After his tenure do you think his influence will linger on in the perception of individuals in the media?

I am torn. I have to remind myself that not everybody comes from the background I come from. I grew up with this. I trained in my father’s newsroom, where the security officer would sit in our newsroom, bastard that he was, and wait until you’ve written the story and filed it before removing it (as a state censor), so you had to go to print with a blank hole in your paper. Perhaps therefore I’m more aware about what it says about the power of the media. When you go after CNN, in the way that he has done, it is nothing more than a representation of CNN’s impact and influence. And perhaps a wish to be validated by that platform, for his views to be validated.

So perhaps this is an important moment for us – we can’t pretend that there haven’t been huge abuses of power by journalists, that at times we’ve gotten lost from the path. But it has been soul destroying when we’ve done something like the Libya slave trade story and the President’s words are echoed back by Libyans: “if this is what Donald Trump is saying, then why should we believe you?”

All paths lead to the negotiating table, because all paths lead to power

Ten years ago, you gained unprecedented access to Mohamed Hamdan, a commander of the paramilitary Janjaweed: a government-backed group involved in the slaughter of over 300,000 people in the Darfur conflict. As of April 2018, he remains a commanding General in a Janjaweed successor group, the RSF. Omar al-Bashir indicted for war crimes and genocide by the ICC, remains President of Sudan. What is it like when the criminal actors you expose or report on escape justice?

When I first started at Channel 4 news, Jon Snow said to me that you always have one that settles under your skin. I think for me it will always be Darfur, and it will always be home. It’s the stone in the bottom of your shoe. Every time I go home – you see them. Especially since he (Hamdan) gained ascendancy, the Rapid Response Force are very present in the streets of Khartoum. You see technicals, the pickups with the DShK machine guns fixed on the back. That expression of insolent power is pretty extraordinary to see. It’s a good reminder that you do the work, and we don’t have ownership of it. That’s not my job, I’m not an activist. That’s not the path that I chose.

You could describe your job as a mouthpiece, but ‘for what’ is a complex question.

It’s not a complex question – it’s actually the question I’ve asked myself so often. Darfur for me is the first story I did; I was just obsessed with the Darfur militias even though we couldn’t publish the things they were saying in the papers. And the editor in chief of my father’s newspaper Fadlallah Mohammed looked at me once and said, “your only responsibility is to the truth, getting that out there. And then it’s people who decide what is done with that. What you need to know, is that all paths lead to the negotiating table, because all paths lead to power.” And I just thought that he was the stereotype of the bitter, grizzled journalist. He himself had been jailed – he was a poet imprisoned for years, who started the newspaper with my father after a popular democratic uprising. And I thought he was burnt inside of himself, and I was young and fresh and stupid – and he was right. Of course he was right. The only thing you can take responsibility for is the truth and, God it all sounds so wanky to say it out loud, being cognisant of doing justice by the truth. And then people can choose to act on it. And who knows, the arc of history - it turns.

That’s the ideal – that the West wakes up to the opportunities in Africa, rather than Africans come to the West

It’s certainly turning now.

I did interview Nigel Farage the morning after Brexit. And he was giving one of the teams that came before us a really hard time, and then I walked in – and I wondered if they thought I was a prank, or a set up. And it was just really interesting. I was trying very hard not to be anything I wouldn’t be normally, I didn’t want to go in and personalise it – have a massive shouting match. But I was also doing what I would have done in any other situation, calling him out with the facts. And he said that because of the European Union we have passport free travel; and we don’t. He was talking about the security circumstances that led up to the attack in Paris and Brussels – and yes, they do have passport free travel. We in Britain do not. And it was reminiscent of training as a journalist in Sudan – people looking you in the eye and telling you untruths. He just kept repeating it, and I just kept batting it back.

Brexit is such an emotional issue for so many people it’s very difficult to unpick the layers. Is it our failing as journalists that we have allowed the moral high ground to be occupied by a type of journalism that’s played to the worst tendencies in people? It’s almost been like a sideshow, ratcheting up anti-migrant sentiment. We kind of stood by, almost smugly. And we probably need to self-interrogate about that.

Is there an elitism in journalism?

Yes, of course there is. Of course there is. What do we say, “who watches the watchman?” We believe only we can police ourselves – and often, it is true. Not just us of course, aid workers – anyone who thinks they’re acting for the greater good, can become very self-righteous.

You’ve described Africa as a burgeoning middle-class market and said that the US is losing out to Eastern companies because of anti-African rhetoric. Do you hope to see African nations more Westernised?

No. One of the most incredible things about places like Kenya, while being an engine for growth, an anchor-state for the whole of Kenya, they are so inherently Kenyan. All of the amazing things that make them culturally Kenyan are still very much the foundation of their culture, and their sense of national self. And that’s the ideal – that the West wakes up to the opportunities in Africa, rather than Africans come to the West.

And I say this knowing that I am only able to be an African journalist because I have a British accent. Is the next level that you have someone on an international channel? And we (CNN) do; we have the amazing Farai Sevenzo in Nairobi and he’s black-Zimbabwean. He has the most gorgeous Zimbabwean accent. And I think that then becomes the norm, in the same way you wouldn’t blink if you heard an American accent or an Australian accent on British television.

Very much outside the norm, you’ve put yourself in harm’s way for your work, patrolling for pirates along the coast of Somalia, actually attempting to traffic yourself to better follow the journey of migrants from Nigeria, being told that if you were raped – not to struggle.

Patrolling for pirates was appalling. I can’t swim, and I get very seasick. Actually, I would add – that we charted a trading boat, one of the old wooden East-African trading boats from Djibouti to get to Aden during the Saudi embargo. So we went for four days during Monsoon season through the Gulf of Aden very aware that I couldn’t swim – the waves were like skyscrapers. It was no holds barred the stupidest thing. We had all the security, lifeboats, lifejackets, and… what are they called? I’ve blanked it out with trauma. Flares. So I was never in mortal danger – but I was so sick, you just can’t imagine.

The impact of video – nothing touches that

Is there any part of you that revels in the danger of your work?

There’s probably a wilful suspension of disbelief. I hope my mother never reads this, but in that moment you are most afraid of not getting the thing you came in to get. At that point you’re so in it. So many people have risked their lives, spoken to you, trusted you with their stories. But I think we do a very good job of managing risk.

There’s no thrill in the danger, but there’s an absolute thrill in the job. No matter how extraordinarily sick as a dog I was, there were moments when I looked around and thought “I’m floating in the Gulf of Aden – it’s extraordinary”. We get to see the most amazing things. And the friendships and the relationships – there’s a little part of you that never fully gets to grow up.

How did you navigate reporting on the Ebola outbreak from the ground in Liberia, where it was so hard to get close to people?

You couldn’t touch each other. You’re used to managing a certain kind of risk. But suddenly you have to manage your own headspace… people were losing loved ones, and they couldn’t comfort each other. I think that brings it home to you, we really got a sense… but of course, you get to go home. You never really understand – but we were in that situation. And my producer, Lillian Leposo, who volunteered for that gig. She actually called me, and said “Are you going? If you’re going I’m going with you.” She’s still one of my closest friends.

Professionally and personally, how do you think individual relationships like these shape stories?

The trust. The trust that you can maintain. That team ethos. In Libya our cameraman – I say cameraman as if he’s some kid, the amazing senior photojournalist Alex Platt who was with us, he was as editorially involved as the rest of us. It becomes like this hive-mind, the four of you, how are you going to maintain this respect.

You’ve chosen this world of cameramen and photojournalists, an edit suite to return to. Does that suit you best?

I always miss print. I will always miss print. I love all of it – going to the presses at night, I love the smell. I love that you can disappear as you can’t with a camera. But at the same time the impact of video – nothing touches that.

You won the RTS Specialist Journalist of the Year (2016) for your exposure of the “brazen” slave markets in Libya. Has global recognition of that story changed things?

We haven’t been able to go back to Libya. The security risk is too high. But from when we went to Nigeria our understanding was that the numbers were still moving through. I don’t have any reason to believe Libya has changed. I think the reception centres were run down. But that scares me more. Because then, where are they? If people are still moving in the same numbers from the countries of origin, and reception centres are emptying out – where are these people?

I don’t see any democratic change, because there are no consequences.

What do you believe should be the status-quo for people trying to escape their country of origin?

There needs to be a system for safe and dignified passage to Europe. Everybody always sounds so blown away that people would take these risks to achieve their dreams, and you think, why? Wouldn’t you? If you couldn’t afford to feed your family, wouldn’t you take that risk?

Putting aside refugees from Syria or Eritrea. Which is a moral outrage, the fact that Eritreans should be smuggling themselves into Europe when they have such a clear-cut asylum case, and legally everyone is in agreement that Libya is not a safe refuge. Asylum is legally in Italy when they arrive. If we’re talking about people who are migrating to pursue their futures, some of them are middle class. But we have a need for teachers, nurses, doctors. So there has to be a way for overcoming the isolationist, the nationalist tendencies.

These are your personal opinions of course, so when you cover these stories and see the most visceral injustices first hand: how do you separate yourself and your beliefs from that, or do you?

Yes. It was really tough off the back of Libya. There’s a difference between providing editorial context, saying “safe passage has been discussed, and the French airlifted some refugees in December from Niger” – I think a dozen? It’s a start. There’s a difference between that and standing on television and saying “This is inhuman, you people are bastards. Fix this.” One is my job and one is not, but it’s difficult.

And (when separating yourself) this is where you get back to the relationships that you forge. You need people that are able to call you out on unhealthy behaviours. One of my closest friends, the producer that works with me, Raja (Razek), she at the start of the Syria conflict would spend all night on Facebook with these activists. Just being, by the end of it, a psychological refuge for them. And it wasn’t healthy. It wasn’t even doing her job anymore. And (the answer) was as simple as just taking away her Facebook password, making sure you look out for each other. When it comes to yourself, just avoiding self-indulgence. We’re not saving lives, we’re not. This isn’t brain surgery, we’re doing a job that we all genuinely love, that’s a privilege to do – and I don’t have the right to come home and be all weepy.

What can you tell me about your ongoing work in the DRC?

We are not the first to do this story. We’ve been here before with Coltan (a metallic ore, the mining of which has been fraught with human rights violations). We know there are children in the mines, so when we went it was more about how does this fit together? How much of this is our responsibility as consumers? You have this huge electric car boom, companies talking about phasing out diesel cars in the next 10 years; but what are we not being told? It all comes back to the lack of transparency, the abuse of power. And the OECD framework is set up so that you as a consumer can look at a company’s supply chain all the way to source, and yet there are literally only two companies that do that – BMW and Renault. Tesla doesn’t do that. Tesla, Daimler-Benz, because they deal with conflict minerals, they have to put out an SAC form and a disclaimer that says “because of the way our supply chain is set up, we cannot guarantee the source of all our minerals”. Why don’t I as a consumer know that?

In getting to the bottom of these nebulous stories, is your job becoming more difficult?

Yes. What blew me away about working in the DRC was how obstructive and harassing the officials were there. The same officials who are meant to be policing the system keeping child-labour out of it. From a story perspective, this is where the system is falling apart. But we filmed one ministry of mining official slapping a kid to get him away from our cameras. And that is because there is a sense that there are no longer consequences. Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, she went to the Congo last year to try and bring about democratic change. I don’t see any democratic change, because there are no consequences. Whatever the US says about not being the world’s policeman, fine – what are you? Either fully withdraw, or engage. Now, we have this limbo, so you can block teams of journalists, throw them in jail like the Reuters journalists in Myanmar, harass and intimidate them. Because you have, as they refer to him, the ‘leader of the free world’ waging his own campaign against journalists. So where are the consequences?

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