behind the news

Reporting Lessons for the Next Revolution

Three ways that conflict-zone journalists can always be prepared
February 8, 2011

I’ve been freelancing in South Asia, the Middle East and Africa since 2003. When the Mubarak regime shut down Egypt’s Internet last week, I couldn’t help wincing for all the reporters, especially freelancers, who were caught unprepared. During the two years I lived in Cairo I kept a satellite phone for work in Darfur, southern Sudan, and other places where mobile networks didn’t exist or were unreliable. It never occurred to me a day would come when a journalist would require the use of a Thuraya in the middle of Egypt’s capital. In periods of intense breaking news, logistics can be as important as brains and courage.

* Don’t count on local networks: Reporting and blogging from Egypt took a giant hit when the government shut down the Internet and mobile phone networks. Freelancers in countries including Sudan, Yemen, and Algeria (not to mention Pakistan and Bangladesh), either individually or as a collective, should keep BGAN terminals on hand. These satellite Internet terminals are small, cost about $1000 and are fed by prepay scratch cards that you can top off via email. At the very least reporters should have a Thuraya or other pre-paid satphone on hand.

* Keep spares: Spare SIM cards and phones, cameras and memory cards, contact lists and cash. What happens when thugs seize your stuff? You become a frustrated bystander. In Sudan, a Zain SIM card costs just ten or fifteen Sudanese pounds (about $6), has a lifetime validity, and provides mobile Internet service for pennies pound a day. If I was based in Sudan, I’d buy three or four and keep them for a rainy (or sand-stormy) day.

* Seed your sources: Prepare for curfews and roadblocks. Provide your sources and collaborators in locations around the country with cameras and mobile scratch cards to ensure they can feed you information when you’re separated. If you’ve got the resources (and not many independents do), give a Thuraya–loaded with your spare numbers and the numbers of your clients–to your most trusted or most important source. (This last suggestion is a double-edged sword: It can pay big reporting dividends during a curfew or martial law. But if your source is part of a vulnerable population, they might risk charges of espionage if they’re caught with a satellite phone, which are banned in many countries.)

Dan Morrison is the author of The Black Nile.