kristof in sudan
Where in the world is Nick Kristof? Late last week, he posted a series of secretive tweets alluding to his trip to an unsafe destination:
On Saturday, Kristof revealed that he's been reporting from Sudan's Nuba Mountains, a point confirmed by his Sunday, February 19 column:
"The Sudanese armed forces try to keep aid workers and journalists out, so the story of suffering has not received much international attention. I’m going to try to slip into the Nuba Mountains and report back. Stay tuned. "
According to a tweet from earlier today (Monday, February 20), Kristof made it to the Nuba Mountains, where he interviewed SPLM soldiers.
Setting aside the fact that the Nuba Mountains story has actually gotten quite a bit of attention over the past six months or so, it's obviously a tragic situation that needs to be reported. However, there are a few problems with Kristof's approach here:
- There's an obvious bias in the story. While I'm not one to defend the murderous Bashir regime, the Sudanese government does have a legitimate concern that aid coming into the region along that route will fall into the hands of the rebels rather than the people it is meant to help. Kristof needs to be more clearly focused on the fact that just because Khartoum is bad does not mean that everything that the rebels and their South Sudanese compatriots do is perfect. (As Louisa Lombard aptly notes, South Sudan is guilty of discrimination against minority ethnic groups as well). The point here is not that humanitarian aid is not urgently needed to help the Nuba; it obviously is. Rather, the point is that the kind of journalism that takes sides does not help in the goal of getting Khartoum to allow aid through or to give them assurances that the rebels won't take control of that aid for their own purposes. Biased reporting reinforces Khartoum's belief that agencies like Samaritan's Purse (which Kristof names in his story) are politicized, biased, and out to destroy their rule, which makes it harder for all aid agencies and the UN to help.
- Other reporters now can't get access. Kristof is on a short reporting trip to the region, but there is a strong cadre of experienced reporters in Sudan who have covered the region for a long time and will be there for years after Kristof is gone. Because Kristof has announced to the world that he's sneaking around in the Nuba Mountains, their jobs are now more difficult. Already, several journalists have had to cancel planned trips to South Kordofan due to concerns about the safety of Westerners. Many journalists working in the region are under the impression that a manhunt for Kristof is happening, a perception reinforced by an apparent uptick in bombings along the road from the Nuba Mountains to the nearest refugee camp in South Sudan over the last couple of days. There's no way to prove that this rise in violence is linked to Kristof's announcement, of course, and I don't think there's solid evidence to support that claim, although we do know that there have been a lot more ambushes of buses along the route and rocket attacks by the SAF over the weekend. More importantly, though, is that people are behaving as though it were true. Why does this matter? Because if reporters who are in this for the long haul can't get in, the story won't be told as it unfolds. There is no question that the attention brought by Kristof will make it more difficult for reporters to get legitimate access to the area. If the famine many are predicting does break out in South Kordofan in the months to come, those same reporters won't be able to tell the story without risking their lives to do so. That will be tragic for those who will need that reporting to draw attention to their plight.
- NGO's are on edge. Most of Kristof's trips to places like the Nuba Mountains are done in conjunction with an international NGO that wants to get publicity for its efforts. The NGO provides logistical assistance and, in return, the reporter mentions the NGO's good work in his or her column. The NGO gets good press, the reporter gets the story, and everyone is generally happy. The problem now is that because of Kristof's shenanigans, NGO's in the region are very reluctant to help reporters get the story. Moreover, as it's pretty clear from Kristof's column that Samaritan's Purse is likely helping him, that puts aid workers - especially those working for SP - on the ground in danger, especially if the SAF really is out trying to find Kristof. Rather than being perceived by those on the ground as a neutral humanitarian agency, Samaritan's Purse is now seen as an ally of South Sudan. That's an incredibly dangerous situation for those who are trying to carry out neutral humanitarian work.
- There's no Sudanese agency. As is his modus operandi, all the Sudanese quoted by Kristof in the story are victims: a rape survivor, people who've been shot at, refugees. This reinforces stereotypes of Sudanese passivity and a lack of agency. It's not surprising; Africans are almost always victims in Kristof's reporting, but it's an utterly incomplete picture of what's actually going on.
It's easy to criticize Nick Kristof for his longstanding pattern of irresponsible and thoughtless reporting from dangerous locations, but I do think there are some challenging questions for journalists and academics here. How do you balance getting the story with not putting others in danger? Should you announce to the world that you're in a dangerous place in the name of awareness? How do you protect those who help you get the story, as well as the people they're trying to serve?
In my view, Kristof could have told this very important story after his return from the region, thus avoiding creating some of the dangers into which he has now inadvertently placed others. He also could have discussed in more detail why Khartoum is afraid to allow aid in, and what could be done to convince the Sudanese government to take another approach.
What do you think?
Correction: The worst-case scenarios for South Kordofan are not a famine, they are for a Level 4 (Emergency) Food Insecurity Situation. My apologies for the error.
Labels: the kristof strikes again