As CNN finds itself, again and again, the target of President Trump, the network’s senior international correspondent, Nima Elbagir, continues to produce reporting that gives life to the president’s “fake news” attacks. Last fall, her investigation into human slavery in Libya produced international outrage, and her recent report from the Democratic Republic of Congo exposed child labor violations in the mining of cobalt, a mineral widely used in green energy products.
The Sudanese-born Elbagir won a Polk Award for the Libyan slave-trade story, and says she’s aware of her responsibility as a role model for both women journalists and reporters from the African continent. She sees her work as a threat to those in the US and abroad who embrace “fake news” attacks to discredit the media, telling CJR that those in power fear journalism because it is “capable of changing the climate and the culture, and opening people’s eyes in really powerful ways.”
Elbagir spoke with CJR on a recent episode of The Kicker and we followed up with her at her home in London after her story from the DRC published last week. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Your piece on the slave trade caused outrage around the globe, and you said you hoped this moment wouldn’t pass, that real change would come from the work you and your team produced. Has that happened?
The short answer is no. We have seen some movement in terms of the numbers of migrants that have been repatriated. It went from something appalling, like 1,000 a month, to 15,000 last December. But we’ve also seen three or four meetings at the UN Security Council that have resulted in nothing really practical, so there have been minimal changes. But the reality in this current political climate is almost insurmountable.
Do we want to be part of a world that allows for dignified safe passage, that allows for people to find a way to pursue their dreams in a meaningful way? Or do we want to continue to find ways to confine and contain the movement of people? Because the one thing that we have seen, that the whole world has seen, is that that movement of people is not stopping.
You mentioned the idea of moral complicity at every level, from governments to the people actually involved in trafficking. What can journalists do to avoid becoming complicit in that system?
What’s interesting to me is the level of self-interrogation I’ve been going through—the language around this, and the way in which the language is weaponized. So every time we talk about economic migrants, when actually we’re talking about someone from Eritrea who’s fleeing lifetime conscription into the army, they are by every measure a refugee. And every time we allow the UK prime minister or the European Union or the President of the United States of America to talk about people in that way, it’s very interesting how othering than that language is. When you talk about economic migrants, you imagine this plague of people coming to take from you and your family and make your life worse, when actually you are talking about people who are knowingly starting a journey that’s going to involve enslavement and rape and torture and possibly death. That is no longer an economic migrant.
What’s the emotional and psychological toll of reporting these stories? Are there strategies or coping mechanisms you’ve developed?
Anger. I think anger is a good one. We were just so shocked, and then we were so horrified by the ways in which something pretty clear-cut was being twisted. Very quickly after the piece came out—it was unfortunately during a surge of fake news rhetoric surrounding CNN—what was heartbreaking for me was seeing the risks people had taken to speak to us, and not just people you see on air, but our contacts on the ground in Libya, the risks that our managers and our team took, and then to have those risks possibly end up being meaningless because the climate is one in which people find it very easy to disbelieve. That was a moment that was quite difficult.
When you talk about economic migrants, you imagine this plague of people coming to take from you and your family and make your life worse, when actually you are talking about people who are knowingly starting a journey that’s going to involve enslavement and rape and torture and possibly death. That is no longer an economic migrant.
You mentioned the climate in which this report came out. And that climate hasn’t dissipated in terms of the fake news attacks, specifically from the president and specifically directed at CNN. What would you say to not just him, but to those who listen to him and share his beliefs about the reporting going on at CNN being “fake”?
In a way, the current climate has actually forced us to go back to basics and reminded us that the most important thing we can do is show rather than tell. I hope that’s why this piece had the impact that it did, because it’s very hard to argue with what you are seeing. You could decide it meant different things, and fine, let’s call it whatever you want to call it. Let’s say it’s indentured servitude; let’s say it’s people being exploited. Do you think that this is morally acceptable?
I come from a country where freedom of the press is not even a dream, it’s something so far out of what people can even conceptualize. But I grew up in an environment that constantly reminded me that is because journalists have so much power.
Your parents are journalists, right?
Yes, my father’s newspaper is confiscated—its printing license is still suspended in Sudan. Growing up, he was in-and-out of exile, in-and-out of jail, but for me that was a lesson in the power we wield. When people want to establish that we are not to be believed and we are not to be trusted, it’s because they know we are capable of changing the climate and the culture, and opening people’s eyes in really powerful ways.
In your reporting, that power comes from what you’re able to show. But getting those images means taking risks. How do you balance the risk–reward proposition that comes with the type of reporting you do?
We always make a point of checking in with each other. There’s never a point where you can’t turn back. Before we headed out to the auction [in Libya], Tony Maddox, the head of CNNi, said to us, “There is never a point of no return; you can always come back.” Of course, that only made us want to do it more.
It’s tough; I don’t think there are easy answers. I’m lucky in that most of the time I’m working with people I’m close to, so you get a feel for what everybody’s comfort zone is. That’s what saves you in these situations: The bonds you form are so close that you end up looking out for each other and reading each other.
We’re well past the Martha Gellhorn era in terms of women being in the field taking on dangerous assignments, but I wonder if you feel a responsibility, given your success, to advocate for and champion women who are interested in doing the sort of work you do.
Absolutely, and even more so being Sudanese. I also feel strongly about the fact that, a generation ago in journalism, someone like me would have been a fixer. They would not have been the person in front of the camera; they would have been behind the person behind the camera. I take that responsibility very seriously.
In this era, in which so much attention is given to stories tied to President Trump, have you found it more difficult to get the sort of investigative pieces you do to air?
Yes and no. We do less work that isn’t Trump-related, but the work we do—by virtue of how strong it needs to be to break through—is given more investment and time and support. Before, we were having to fill so much air, we were bouncing from story to story. Now, I know my bosses are supportive of me doing the labor and having the quiet time. What I’ve heard from [CNN President] Jeff Zucker has been that this is what he wants. He wants enterprise; he wants investigative; and it doesn’t have to have a Trump relationship to make air. I think people have an appetite for something that isn’t Trump.
Speaking of that, you’ve just returned from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Yes, we have a piece on the use of child labor in cobalt mining. This is with regards to this extraordinary green-power revolution, and electric car batteries specifically. There seems to be a sense that we all kind of rocked ahead without thinking about the actual impact of where these resources are coming from. Where is the cobalt coming from? Who is mining your cobalt? The resources curse is something we talk about so often that it almost becomes a truism. In the Congo, the wealth and the riches there have become this extraordinary curse. The Economist memorably described the government there as being seven years into a five-year term. You have a government that is refusing the very basics of democracy; every single corner of the Congo is inflamed in some form of conflict. And yet this is the place that is completely integral to what should be an ethical green revolution. So where is our complicity in that as consumers? What are the questions we should be asking?
When people want to establish that we are not to be believed and we are not to be trusted, it’s because they know we are capable of changing the climate and the culture, and opening people’s eyes in really powerful ways.
What does your reporting say about our—consumers—unquestioning complicity in this global marketplace?
I think what it says is that we as consumers still don’t see these multinationals for what they are and the immense power they wield. Whereas we would be questioning of authority from a government entity, questioning of the potential for hidden agendas, we treat multinational companies as if they exist to serve us. As if they are honest brokers, and of course they’re not. They exist to turn a profit. So we have to educate ourselves and be willing to be as suspicious of them as we are of the actions of nation states, because in certain circumstances they can often wield more power.
Have you seen any immediate reaction from the multinational companies mentioned in the story?
What shocked me was that the information was hiding in plain sight, in SEC filings where Tesla and others acknowledge the complexity of their supply chains and what that means for traceability. They just didn’t share that with consumers, and they clearly didn’t expect consumers to understand the ramifications. Daimler was among the few who did acknowledge to us early on in the right-to-reply process that supply-chain complexity meant they were unable to fully trace their supply chains. We sent through our findings a month ago, and since our investigation was broadcast, they have announced a full supply-chain audit, saying they’re willing to trace materials all the way to the individual mine if need be.
China’s Congo Dongfang Mining (CDM), the largest international supplier of artisanal Congolese cobalt, told us they have launched an investigation in to our findings. They also say they are launching a report in the coming weeks which will fully trace their supply chain and be made public, a move they have resisted in the past over concerns it would impact their competitiveness.