Jeffrey Gettleman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times correspondent, says he travels with “a small militia” whenever he reports from Somalia, the East African country afflicted by armed insurgency, poverty, and hunger. As intrusive as the security detail might be, he feels far more fortunate than the local reporters who face sustained and often deadly risks, or the freelance journalists who don’t have the extensive support system the Times can provide.
Gettleman spoke to a crowd of about 100 at the Half King pub in Manhattan on Tuesday in the first event in the new CPJ discussion series, “CPJ Debrief.” Gettleman, the East Africa bureau chief for the Times, has worked in the region for six years. With East Africa’s needs so acute, and the volume of international reporting on the decline, the assignment has given him a chance to have a profound impact.
The stories affect him as well. On Tuesday, Gettleman read from a November 2011 Times piece in which he tells the story of a Somali man whose daughter died at age 3. “Somalis are not somehow wired differently from the rest of us. They are not numb to suffering. They are not grief-proof. I’ll never forget the expression on Mr. Kufow’s face as he stumbled out of Benadir Hospital into the penetrating sunshine with his lifeless little girl in his arms. He may not have been weeping openly. But he looked as if he could barely breathe.”
Gettleman said accounts of Somalis’ struggles consistently hit a chord with his readers. He said he receives hundreds of emails from readers so moved by these stories that they want to help in some way. In some respects, Gettleman said, he sees himself as a conduit between readers who want to get involved and aid agencies who are trying to help Somalis.
As important as the story is, though, it is intensely dangerous. On Tuesday, when an aspiring freelance journalist sought advice on going to work in a place like Somalia, Gettleman was blunt: “Don’t go.”
Even for experienced international journalists, both freelance and staff, security issues are significant. Gettleman said colleagues often contact him for advice in planning a reporting trip to the region. In one case, he recalled, an international journalist was held captive for more than a month in Somalia, in part because a local support worker was insufficiently vetted.
Yet the risks facing international journalists pale in comparison to those that local journalists endure every day. CPJ research shows that six journalists have been killed in Somalia in 2012 alone, and 42 have been killed in the last two decades, one of the highest tolls in the world.
Gettleman said he’s impressed by the solidarity of the Somali press corps, and inspired by the way these local reporters share information and look out for each other. They work in a country without a long tradition of a free press, often among forces hostile to the free flow of information.
“It’s inspiring,” he said. “You get a sense it’s a real community.”