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One Step at a Time

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I haven't done a very good job, but in my posts about Amanda Lindhout and Nigel Brennan I've tried to avoid using a know-it-all, old-Africa-hand tone. But the truth is that from the moment they were kidnapped it was obvious that they had only themselves to blame. There's nothing wrong with throwing yourself in at the deep end and pushing yourself to the limits to bring back back an otherwise unreported story. The problem is when you put other people at risk through naivety and inexperience.

The hack pack in Nairobi had never heard of Lindhout and Brennan when they disappeared. That in itself was a bad sign. Anyone heading to Mogadishu should take a few days talking to people who know the place - the Somali journalists exiled to Nairobi, the international press corps who have parachuted in and out, and the NGOs and UN agencies who try to keep aid flowing into a broken country- to find out the latest security information. 

Hotels in Mogadishu come in and out of fashion. Who has the best security and which part of the city is free from shelling?

Which stringers are operating in Mogadishu, and who has the best contacts and feel for the situation in the ground?

These are the sorts of thing you learn to ask over weeks and months reporting from increasingly hostile places. My first trip to Somalia was carefully organised by the United Nations. There were two more trips to Baidoa, at a time when it was relatively stable. Only then - and at a time when the fighting had calmed - did I feel confident enough to make a trip to Mogadishu.

In contrast, Lindhout and Brennan seemed unprepared for what they faced.

This piece in The New York Times sums up the lure of wars for the newbie...

Wars have long provided a way into journalism for some adventurous aspiring reporters (as well as death, kidnappings and injury for others). And courageous, if inexperienced, freelancers have brought important stories to light that might otherwise have gone unreported.

But it goes on to spell out how the pair lacked experience 

Robert Draper was already in Somalia on an assignment for National Geographic when Ms. Lindhout and Mr. Brennan arrived. Mr. Draper said that it was apparent that she had been the driving force behind their trip. She had met Mr. Brennan backpacking in Ethiopia. While Mr. Brennan was in Somalia as a photographer, Mr. Draper said, it was not clear whether he had ever sold any photographs.

“She was eager to make a name for herself, and I don’t say that as a negative,” Mr. Draper said. “But a lot of the early and intermediate steps one does to become a journalist, she bypassed. Amanda was very eager to go where the action was.”

They were released after 15 months. But not without a hefty chunk of cash being paid to their kidnappers. Paying up is the only way to get people out. Yet once again the armed gangs are richer and emboldened. Journalists mean cash. And for the long suffering people of Somalia, the two-decade cycle of violence shows no signs of ending.


scepticscott | December 5, 2009 3:22 AM | Reply

Well of course it is easy to be smug and blame them for their own stupidity. How many idiots go mountain climbing every year and need rescuing? Or sailing? Do we leave them to their fate? What about people who have car accidents and were not wearing a seat belt or worse DWI? Should we just leave them by the side of the road?
That is what it appear the Canadian and Australian governments effectively done to their nationals. As a "know it all old Africa hand" based in Nairobi how about some decent journalism in place of your rather holier than though report?
How many Canadian government officials and other hangers on were there on vacation in Nairobi "monitoring the situation" How much tax payers money did they spend on hotels, bars and entertainment whilst they implemented their master plan of "out waiting" the Somalis who have nothing but time and don't wear watches? How many other nationals have been left to languish as long as Lindhout and Brennan?
The fact is the Canadian government were a laughing stock among the security community working to release the 400 or so other kidnap victims. And why is it now that there appears to be an orchestrated campaign among the media and it appears frontline too to discredit Lindhout? Is it possibly because you all did nothing and are trying to cover your shame with the usual falsehoods? "IF" you are as you claim s "know it all old Africa hand" why did you not put these idiots in touch with professional help? Why did you not inform the Lindhout family that their government reps in Nairobi were useless?
And pray tell "know it all" what will you do the next time it happens? Will you sit with a drink and write another load of self congratulatory spiel or as a "know it all old Africa hand" perhaps write something useful to advise the friends and families of the kidnap victims as to what the solution to their problem is?
The "gangs" don't get richer they get to hell out of Somalia. And what would you do if you were a long suffering Somali yourself? How would you fend for your family? What about if you were pushed to the Ogaden what would you do say for food, medication or water?
If journalists should stay clear, how about medical professionals? Perhaps ships should cease plying the route to the Suez? What are your "know it all old Africa hand" solutions?
I know people who work in Somalia, Southern Sudan, Ogaden, and Kenya all the time saving the lives of thousands of people some of whom have been kidnapped. None of them had any proper training all of them saved thousands of lives.
Yes Mog is dangerous even for local staff. But I also know people who can and do regularly get them out when the proverbial hits the fan. It usually takes 3 - 4 months. The outrage of Amanda and Nigel is that it took so long and the families personally after a year of being strung along finally got some advice and professional help. Are you suggesting no one should go? And just to be clear if you are ever kidnapped should we just abandon you?

Rob Crilly replied to comment from scepticscott | December 5, 2009 8:25 AM | Reply

You appear to have misunderstood my post. Somalia is a difficult and dangerous place. Visiting carries risks. Experienced and responsible journalists will work to minimise those risks. Amanda Lindhout and Nigel Brennan didn't do the basic preparations that I would expect of journalists new to the region.

On my visits, I always ensured that one of my employers would take responsibility for my safety. Other journalists who have been kidnapped have been released once their newspapers have swung into action, paying substantial sums of money to security firms and ultimately the kidnappers. Relying on governments - with policies of not paying ransoms - appears naive.

I also did work to put security analysts in touch with diplomats involved in this particular case. A contact was in direct contact with the kidnappers but when we tried to reach diplomatic staff we ran into problems - it was a Friday afternoon, no-one was at their desks and mobile phones were out of range, presumably because they were up-country. When finally he was able to pass on his expertise and information, they weren't interested.

Nowhere in any of this have I suggested abandoning journalists who run into trouble. The point is that there is a danger that more young freelancers will be tempted to prove themselves in Somalia - particularly as the industry relies more and more on stringers. LIndhout and Brennan made a series of fundamental mistakes and it is important that others are better prepared. Too many journalists down the years - and ones much better equipped than these two - have come undone in Mogadishu. Isn't it right that we do our best to make sure it doesn't happen again?

Focusing on the failure of diplomats misses the point. Journalists must also take responsibility for their own safety.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that the surge in piracy off Somalia is largely due to the growing involvement of security firms in negotiating settlements. Piracy has been a problem for 15 years. It was only when former British soldiers began dropping parcels of cash out of helicopters or sailing through the Gulf of Aden to deliver wads of notes - thus cutting out the middlemen in Dubai and Nairobi who used to take a hefty cut - that the racket really took off, the higher returns attracting more and more young Somalis.

Hernán Zin | December 8, 2009 7:07 AM | Reply

Dear Rob, to speak about oneself to critise others, it is not very elegant and shows a big ego. As a journalist, who has been working in war zones for the last 15 years, I find your post pretty disgusting and completely contrary to the spirit of Frontline.

How do you know about their preparations? This year I have been many times to Congo and Sudan, from Nairobi, but I don't know anyone at the "hack pack". Does this mean that I have no prepared well my trips??

And who else have you spoken to about them in Nairobi? Tell us, please, that could be very interesting to know... As you well know, there are hundreds of fixers, journalist, NGOs. Have you spoken to all of them? To all the MSF sections, for example, based in Nairobi? Ot al the different Oxfam, from Oxfam Novib, who is in charge of the water in Somalia, to Oxfam...

Well, surely you put a lot of effort to write your blog, cause it is a research that takes months!!

Amanda was young, but she had already been to Afghanistan and Iraq. It is not an experience to underestimate.

I just hope that, if anything so brutal and traumatic happens to me in the near future, the reaction from my companions is more serious, deep and compassionated than yours.


Rob Crilly replied to comment from Hernán Zin | December 8, 2009 8:51 AM | Reply

Sudan and the Congo are very different to Somalia. If you think the places are similar then you are rather naive. The level of preparation is very different.

If you think I am disgusting, then you might at least acknowledge the views of someone who saw the pair before they were kidnapped in Mogadishu. I have quoted his thoughts.

I spoke to plenty of people inside and outside Somalia for 15 months while the pair was kidnapped, sometimes providing information on to the family of Nigel Brennan other times posting about the latest news - in collaboration with the Frontline Blogger - to keep this case in the minds of people who would otherwise forget about them

Also I don't speak for The Frontline Club.

You are also rather silly to conflate criticism of their approach with a lack of compassion. They were unprepared and out of their depth but no-one deserves what happened.

scepticscott | December 14, 2009 11:15 PM | Reply

So if you were so on the ball how come that it was not until a certain post on Frontline in May 08 that either family knew their respective governments were making a hash of negotiations? Why didn't you report on the huge sums the government officials were blowing on hotels, bars, safaris and an extended jolly in Nairobi?
Which annalists did you put in touch with which diplomats? For sure as hell JC, DV, SW never heard from you and they are the ones who finally swung into action.

Since Payton no mainstream media outlet will go near Mog and no one will get KRI. So I guess in your book that means the plight of the Somali IDR deserves not to be reported. Or perhaps you were on the job in Ogaden? Or is that also very different?

Criticism, lack of compassion? No just a lack of reporting and you have the nerve to write such self congratulatory rubbish about the only two people with the guts to try and tackle the problem?

The problem of piracy in the Gulf of Aden is a direct result of EU and for that matter Canadian factory fishing their waters to depletion and dumping toxic waste. Where are your reports on that? What about the US backed Ethiopian invasion? No?

And which former British soldiers are you referring to? I think you have your sources screwed again the operation to which you refer was a US affair. But of course in your 'reports' what do a few details like the facts matter when you don't reveal your sources? As in other recent hostage situation in Mog there is always some idiot journalist interfering with communications, causing angst to the family and achieving what precisely?

Go back to the bar.

scepticscott | December 15, 2009 1:31 PM | Reply

previous post should read;
Frontline in May 09
annalists / analysts

Rob Crilly replied to comment from scepticscott | December 16, 2009 9:40 AM | Reply

Canuck's rescuer feels in danger by Michelle Thomson (QMIA/TorontoSun)
The Alberta woman freed after 15 months of captivity in Somalia has returned to her Sylvan Lake home -- but one man says her freedom could cost him his life.

What do you think?