By Sameepa Shetty November 3, 2014
Covering business stories in conflict zones requires extra mettle. Not only do you have to worry about your own personal safety; it can be more difficult than usual to follow the money trail through a war torn country, given that business may be irregular, documents more difficult to locate, government offices in upheaval and the economy teetering. But some of the most revealing stories about war are stories about business: who’s profiting from the war, who’s paying for the weapons, how local economies stay afloat in spite of the chaos, what’s being sold on the black market, where the wealthy and political classes are stashing their money.
We spoke with Patricia Sabga, veteran war correspondent and global economics reporter, about how to find and report business stories in a war zone. Sabga covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as a foreign correspondent for CNN and NBC News between 2001 and 2004. She has also served as Chief Business News Anchor and Senior Business Editor for CNN Headline News, and Anchor for CNN Financial News. Today, as global economics reporter for Al Jazeera America, she reports daily on topics ranging from the finances of the Islamic State to the cost of war. Below is a summary of selected highlights from our conversation.
Q: Where do you start?
A: With a map.
Many journalists struggle with story pitches because they fail to understand the basic geography of the conflict zone they’re covering.
The military uses the term “MSR” – Main Supply Routes – to describe the flow of traffic in support of military operations. Victory and defeat often hinges on how well the military understands the functioning and topography of these routes. Thinking about geography like the military will lead you to questions others aren’t asking.
From a domestic perspective, understand the main trade routes – the national highway routes, key airports and strategic ports. We all know Iraq has oil but how exactly the oil goes in and out of the country is vitally important because, in most conflict zones, the groups that control transport routes control commerce. “There’s a reason we’re leaving behind nearly 10,000 troops to protect Afghanistan’s airbases,” Sabga says.
From an international perspective, map out the conflict zones’ economic ties with the outside world. “This goes beyond export and import,” she says, advising journalists to think about the means of production, raw materials and trade routes. For instance, you cannot do a business story on Egypt without factoring in the strategic importance of the Suez Canal. A story about Turkey is incomplete without taking into account the countries that surround it and thus the conflicts that threaten it.
Q: How much do you need to know about the history of the place you will be reporting from?
A: A lot.
“The rest of the world has long memories,” says Sabga, so go back at least a 100 years in history. You cannot fully understand Iraq’s current “failed state” status without knowing how the state came about, the “artificial lines drawn” and the ethnic backgrounds of the factions at war.
Q: How do you follow the money?
A: Figure out how they exchange it.
Find out if the region is part of the international banking system or if it’s a self-contained, isolated system. The Islamic State, for example, is reliant on revenues from smuggled oil and extortion taxes from controlling regions, Sabga points out.
In a war, always look at the black market. If you’re not in the region, speak to specialized firms or individuals devoted to tracking the shadow economy. Friedrich Schneider, research fellow at IZA and professor of economics in Austria, is one noted authority on global shadow economies. In case of the Middle East, intelligence firms track the black market for big corporations and they offer the best source of information. Make sure to pick commercial-intelligence firms with ears on the ground. Today, there are also big data tools that can help unravel hidden networks, such as those offered by SynerScope, a Holland-based startup.
Q: How do I protect myself?
A: Train, get insurance, bring gear, be careful.
You must have completed an accredited hostile environment training course, including a basic trauma/ first-aid course. The Committee to Protect Journalists offers a list of training providers.
“Do not go as a freelancer,” Sabga urges. AFP said it would no longer accept freelance work from rebel held parts of Syria following the tragic deaths of Steven Sotloff and James Foley. Go as part of an established news network, which has you fully insured with kidnap and ransom insurance.
Your kit must include body armor, a ballistic helmet, medical pack, go bag with pressure bandages and QuikClot to stop traumatic hemorrhaging, antibiotics, and a door-wedge to keep people from easily opening the door while you’re sleeping.
While it’s good to have your smartphone and computer, you need a satellite phone that can bypass terrestrial networks, which often go down or are blocked in war zones. It can also register your latitude and longitude, which you should regularly ping back to your assignment desk. Your safety and ability to report news from conflict zones often hinge on your satellite phone.
And always, always listen to your security advisor.
Q: What kinds of questions should I ask on the ground?
A: The most basic ones.
The on-ground economy will tell you everything about the state of the ongoing military campaign and the state of mind of the populace, says Sabga. It almost always foreshadows future events, she adds. “I knew Iraq was going pear-shaped back in April 2003 when arms became the ‘currency of exchange.’”
A simple question, “Why aren’t the lights on?” led Sabga to an important story.
U.S. authorities had promised the infrastructure in Iraq would be “restarted” by April of 2003, but by September of that year most of Baghdad’s power stations were still not fully functional, providing at best sporadic power. Sabga wanted to know why. This question led her to the contractor on the job, Bechtel, who she found was so busy protecting itself given the deteriorating security environment that it had been to Baghdad South Power station just once — in May of that year.
Get to know the price of fruits and vegetables, find out how people are paying for them and the cost of labor. What cars do you find on the streets? The answers to these questions can offer revealing insights, such as, how expat presence affects the price of goods and services, how NGOs skew the cost of labor and why that local merchant is unable to afford the fruit he sells. “In many wars, the end of the war is often the start of the best business in big cities where expats congregate, but it’s tough on locals,” says Sabga. In Kabul, the expat community was referred to derisively by struggling locals as the “Toyota Taliban” because so many expats drove Toyota 4x4s.
Finally, resist the urge to be parochial in your thinking. “You have to shed your cultural baggage and cultivate an unbiased framework of inquiry,” says Sabga. Try not to bury assumptions inside your questions. “That’s hugely difficult.”
This entry was posted on Monday, November 3rd, 2014 at 8:05 am. It is filed under On the Beat, Q&As and tagged with Al Jazeera America, CNN, Friedrich Schneider, ISIL, NBC, Patricia Sabga, SynerScope. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
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