What I didnít learn in journalism school, I learned in Africa
By Emily Coppel Posted Nov 19 2010
I am sitting in a dimly lit living room in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. It belongs to a 29 year-old Zimbabwean man wearing a jersey from the South African national soccer team, Bafana Bafana. I am told that he left his job in Johannesburg in July due to xenophobic threats. As his children stare at me and giggle, I tilt my voice recorder in his direction. His face becomes tight and nervous.
ďCan you tell me about your experience with xenophobia in South Africa?Ē I ask.
When he speaks I can hear his mouth is dry. His words are calculated.
ďI didnít experience xenophobia first hand, but only heard stories from people who experienced it,Ē he said.
I keep prodding. I ask about the challenges of being a migrant worker in South Africa and whether he faced violence. He tells me he wasnít threatened and left South Africa because a work contract ran out.
Leaning against the door, his mother eyes me warily. She asks my escorts if this is dangerous. They reassure her it is fine.
In the U.S., I would have pushed him harder. But here, in Zimbabwe, I am unsure whether his restraint comes from his pride, or fear of the consequences of talking to a journalist. During the interview I sensed the countryís repressive political climate constricting my questions. As a foreign journalist, I have to wonder if this interview will endanger my source.
The local journalist helping me with the story is the manís neighbor. As we drive away from the house, she tells me he didnít want to admit that he left South Africa because he was afraid of being attacked. She also thought the man was scared to say he was living illegally in Johannesburg.
I didnít initially intend to visit Zimbabwe when I first came to Africa, but that is where this story took me.
Three months ago, I graduated from the University of Missouri with a Bachelorís degree in Journalism. Two weeks later, I flew to Johannesburg, South Africa, to report for a year on the impact of the 2010 FIFA World Cup on South Africans.
In journalism school, ethics formed the foundations of my training. For four years I looked up at the stone archway that read, ďWise shall be the bearers of light.Ē But I am quickly learning journalism isnít that simple.
In the weeks before the World Cup ended, South African newspapers reported a resurgence of xenophobic sentiments toward African foreigners working in South Africa. These immigrants were accused of taking jobs from South Africans and bringing violence into local communities. The threats echoed the attacks in 2008 that left 62 African foreigners dead, and thousands displaced.
After the World Cup, some reports estimated that 10,000 African foreigners left the country. But due to South Africaís porous borders, there is no way to know the exact numbers fleeing.
So, I pitch a multimedia piece to the Mail and Guardian Online. The story will juxtapose the lives of Zimbabweans living on either side of the border.
The editors at the publications approve. I take a Greyhound north to Bulawayo.
At the border, a guard with alcohol on his breath clumsily searches my bags. I have two cameras, a voice recorder and a Flip Cam shoved into my shoes. I am so frightened I nearly pass out. Press freedom in Zimbabwe has become more and more oppressive over the last decade.
Zenzele Ndebele meets me at the Bulawayo bus station. He is the news director for Radio Dialogue, the only independent radio station in Zimbabwe.
As I sit on his couch that evening, waiting for the daily power outage, I learn how journalism works in Zimbabwe.
He explains that Radio Dialogue is a non-profit organization without a broadcasting license from the government. RD journalists produce a one-hour newscast each day. This newscast is emailed to a sister organization in the United Kingdom, which then passes it on to South Africa. From there, it is broadcast via shortwave radio back into Zimbabwe.
Zenzele tells me that although Radio Dialogue is a popular news source in Zimbabwe, state officials still refuse to talk to the stationís journalists.
Radio Dialogue has sidestepped government restrictions on free speech but nearly all of the journalists have been arrested and held by the regime at some point, and the station has been subject to several police raids.
The next morning at the Radio Dialogue newsroom in downtown Bulawayo, two local journalists volunteer to help me find subjects for the story. As we leave the office, Zenzele waves at us smiling and says, ďDonít get her arrested.Ē
We head to the office of the International Organization for Migration (IOM). I speak to an official, hoping she will direct me to families who have recently returned to Zimbabwe. I stutter when I introduce myself to her, not knowing how much to tell her about my story. I realize I am unsure if an international organization has to abide by local press restrictions. She gives me the number of the media contact in the border city, Baitbridge and waves me on.
The interviews continue. After a three-hour drive on a bumpy dirt road, we arrive on a small plot of land with several thatch-roof huts. I kneel under a shelter made of sticks and talk to a woman whose wrinkles form deep grooves in her face. She tells me about her son who died in the 2008 xenophobic attacks. Even through a translator, I am struck by the ache in her voice.
I interview a 23-year-old who immigrated to South Africa illegally in 2005. He tells me the story of his border crossing and asks me not to use his name.
ďWhen I left home I thought, ĎIím just going to South Africa. Iím just going to look for a job, look for a better life,íĒ he tells me. ďBut when you see more than 60 to 100 people getting ready, preparing to cross the river where there are crocodiles and hippos and everything, just to go and look for a better life, thatís when you realize itís really bad.Ē
Every interview I do in Zimbabwe contradicts what I learned studying journalism. I use anonymous sources; I donít always tell which outlet is publishing my story. I hide my nationality. My strict journalistic principles formed in America become a loose set of guidelines.
Sections of the South African government criticized journalists for reporting on xenophobia because it tarnished the positive image created by the FIFA World Cup. But this coverage started a national dialogue about xenophobia and immigration. Police and non-profits stepped in to temper the problem in troubled areas. Tensions are still high, but fears of another round of organized attacks have not been realized.
Yet in Zimbabwe, where the mere act of speaking to journalists can compromise the safety of the individual, does bearing light help or hurt my sources? If there is limited forum for discussion about the issues, and no one feels free enough to talk about them openly, how does journalism still benefit the public? Do foreign journalists coming in and reporting just cause further distress in an already unstable country?
Journalism school taught me communication laws, AP style, interview techniques and how to make a radio story. But it wasnít until Iíd reported in a country where journalism is a threat to society rather than a social good, that I realized the true complexities of the profession.