Armagh-born reporter Jane Ferguson: “Shutting down cellular service is sometimes more effective than coming in with tear gas”

Jane FergusonFor a long time, one of Northern Ireland’s chief exports has been people. Austerity has recently reinvigorated the flow of young people and families seeking employment and a better – or at least warmer – lifestyle in other parts of the world.

Jane Ferguson was born and schooled in Co. Armagh. Graduating in the late 2000s when journalism jobs were scarce, she grasped freelance opportunities in the Middle East and worked for CNN and Al Jazeera English.

Currently reporting for PBS NewsHour, she lives in Beirut [which featured in a post last week about their political garbage crisis] and in advance of her appearance at ICONS Festival, she spoke to me yesterday about her journey into journalism.

Foreign reporting along with the media industry is “all in a massive flux on various levels … editorially, practically and technologically”:

… budgets are tighter than they have been for a long time, the region is more dangerous than it probably ever has, and technology has changed.

Freelance foreign reporters are not a new phenomenon, but they are on the increase.

News organisations of the past would have had bureaux in almost every capital city … it’s just not practical anymore, they simply don’t have the budgets. So freelancers who are already in the field are becoming even more of an integral part of coverage. And that goes for everything from camera operators, to producers to correspondents.

Over a Skype connection that did little to disguise Lebanon’s poor internet connectivity, we discussed the emergence and role of citizen journalists as well as the continuing role of local stringers feeding news and footage to correspondents who can be absent from countries due to security constraints.

In the post-Arab Spring world, the line between activists and journalist gets blurred. Journalists have to take information from activists and then try to confirm it with their own sources and there’s an incredible amount of journalism being done right now by Skype – for better or for worse – when it comes to places like Syria. It is simply too dangerous to even have a bureau anywhere inside Syria at the minute …

Will the revolution be Periscoped?

Protests in general just simply don’t take place in this part of the world without a major online presence, it just doesn’t happen. To the extent that – not so much in Lebanon, but in other countries – you’ll see that governments will shut down cellular services if they want to shut down a protest. Shutting down cellular service is sometimes more effective than coming in with tear gas.

However, user generated content doesn’t negate the value – indeed, the need – for journalists to be on the ground.

There’s no true substitute for going somewhere. There never will be regardless of the technology and the communications. When you’re there of course you’re relying on your own ‘smarts’ and your own perceptions as a journalist. [You can] assess the people you’re getting the information from, whether or not they seem to be reliable sources and what motivates them … casualty figures – you need to be able to go and look at some pretty uncomfortable sights to be able to confirm things like that. There really is no substitute because everything that comes through on YouTube [and] everything that comes through on Skype still is unverified.

There are many countries – “places that journalists used to be in and out of all the time” – with limited access for reporters, and some with no access.

I don’t know of any journalists going in and out regularly of rebel-controlled Syria. It’s simply too dangerous. Even Yemen is becoming incredibly dangerous. I was in Sana’a in June but it’s an extremely difficult place to visit now.

Jane suggested that “for many journalists it’s governments who are as much a hindrance as the physical danger of terrorist organisations”.

The Egyptian government arresting, fining, imprisoning journalists. The Turkish government are arresting journalists, accusing them of being terrorists. And in Sudan as well. The South Sudanese government increasingly hostile towards journalists.

As a consequence, foreign reporting is incomplete.

The increasing censorship and intimidation of journalists by governments in the Middle East and South Asia and beyond, unfortunately is working in many places. There’s no picture coming out of the Sinai of what’s going on there, how people survive there and what life is like. It’s a complete lockdown on journalists … Journalists can’t get visas to go to Baghdad anymore. … And that of course was famously a place that journalists were in and out of for years and years.

This is an increasing problem: unfortunately it’s working. That’s why you’re not seeing picture from places like that. That’s why you’re not seeing reports. Because, essentially for television journalism, it is a visual medium. Even if there is a story in the Sinai, it will never get the same amount of coverage as it would if there was picture or – even more so – if there was a journalist stood there from the network who could actually report on it from the ground …

People may not necessarily be noticing, but there are black holes in coverage in terms of certain countries in the Middle East and beyond.

Where would Jane like to report from? Iran would be high up her list of countries along with Myanmar (which is due to have democratic elections on 8 November this year).

Despite some spells “working 20 hours a days and living in very rudimentary conditions” Jane reckons she has found her dream job.

If you’re interested in travel and current affairs, and you like to meet people, and if you’re really, really interesting in connecting with people around the world I don’t think there’s a better job than this. I’m incredibly lucky.

You can hear more from Jane Ferguson at ICONS Festival’s (ticketed) Tech Conference on Friday 25 September.

Aaron Taylor and Jim FitzpatrickBelfast is full of festivals: big and small, populist and niche. ICONS is one of the newest, the brain child of Aaron Taylor and Jim Fitzpatrick. [Ed – If you turn up without a ticket, these two heavies won’t let you in!] Spread across four days in the recently erected Titanic Exhibition Centre, it’s celebrating the creative industries, under the themes of Technology, Music and Screen.

Lots of start-ups will take part in a two day pitch competition. Saturday sees the doors of the Titanic Exhibition Centre thrown open to a Careers Carnival with more than 70 employers attending. There are also film screenings, and even a pub crawl.

ICONS Festival logoOn Friday, around 40 speakers will take to the ICONS Tech Conference stage. Standing alongside Chuck D (Public Enemy), Nicola Roberts (ex-Girls Aloud) and Jane Ferguson will be a strong contingent of tech industry experts with strong links back to Ireland. The “array of world class speakers” will – in the words of co-founder Aaron Taylor – “engage and inspire the next generation of icons”.

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