“Who are you, really?” the fat Australian expatriate said.
It was April 2007, at a bar in Dili, the capital of East Timor. I had just arrived, with the intention of reporting on the Australian and New Zealand peacekeeping force helping oversee the country of one million’s first presidential election. I had met the expat — a long-time Dili resident — on the Internet, and had asked him to show me around the city. But when he arrived at the bar for our first meeting, he took one look at me and posed that question: “Who are you, really?”
“A journalist,” I said. “Like I told you weeks ago.”
“I don’t believe you,” the expat said, looking me up and down over the mouth of his beer bottle. “I think you’re CIA.”
I’m the farthest thing from CIA. But there was no convincing the man, and we never met again after that. In his mind, “journalist” was just a cover for “spy.”
I was reminded of this strange encounter on Monday, when a friend of mine in Somalia emailed me with news that two Frenchmen had been abducted at the Sahafi Hotel in Mogadishu. “Some of the agencies say that they are journalists, but that is null and void,” my source wrote. “They are not journalists. They are French intelligence officials who arrived some four days ago to train the Somali intelligence agency.”
I checked the news on-line. Sure enough, the first report from Associated Press identified the men as journalists. I asked my source how he knew the men were spies. He wrote back, “I have made contacts with some government officials and an officer at the airport whose duty it is to welcome guests at the airport’s VIP hall, and [he] had chats with them on the day of their arrival at the airport.”
I was still skeptical. But within hours, the A.P. had edited its story to confirm my source’s claims. The men were indeed “security consultants” working to train Somali security forces. But the Frenchmen, who were last seen by the Sahafi’s manager being “bundled” into a car by 10 armed men, had reportedly registered at the hotel as journalists. Their clumsy attempt at cover had fooled no one.
It was like my Dili situation, only this time the expat’s suspicion would have been correct.
Whether the kidnappers had targeted the Frenchmen believing they were journalists or spies, is irrelevant. Both spies and reporters represent juicy targets for Somali criminals and insurgents. What’s important is that the spies tried to appropriate journalists’ theoretical neutrality to protect themselves.
I don’t know how common it is for spies to claim to be journalists. I hope the Frenchmen’s actions are the exception, not the rule. For any overlap — or even a perceived overlap — between journalists and spies, will result in journalists getting killed. It’s one thing to endure the scorn of a chubby expat in a Timorese bar. It’s quite another to face heavily armed Somali thugs who have no reason to believe you, when you insist you’re an impartial journalist, interested only in reporting the news.
True objectivity is impossible, of course, but good journalists are careful not to toe some political party line. Instead, they publicly report what they openly see, and give even the “bad guys” fair treatment. In that way, journalists are the exact opposite of a clandestine, partisan spy. If spies use journalism as a cover, and combatants are unable to tell the real journalists from the undercover operatives, then they might assume that everyone claiming to be a journalist is actually a spy. That would mean the death of journalism in conflict zones. From that moment on, conflicts would be cloaked in darkness for the public, more than they already are,
It’s not just spies posing as reporters. Some New Media reporters desperately want to be spies. This has the same damaging effect on journalism.
More than a year after my encounter in the Dili bar, I met with the publishers of Blackfive.net, a prominent, right-wing, military news blog, at a bar in Washington, D.C. Jim Hanson, who uses that nickname “Uncle Jimbo” when posting at Blackfive, asked if I were interested in joining a new private intelligence network that he was organizing, with Blackfive as the framework.
This network, Hanson explained, would send young freelance reporters on reporting enterprises to the world’s conflict zones, ideally with corporate sponsorship. That much was broadly similar to the way many freelance journalists already operate. The difference would be in dissemination, Jimbo said. He described how Blackfive would develop connections with intelligence analysts in the U.S., and channel the reporters’ material into the analysts’ hands.
That way, the reporters wouldn’t just be reporting the news. They would be actively, albeit indirectly, assisting with intel operations. For all practical purposes, they would be spies posing as reporters. This would be better than the traditional “objective” model of news-gathering, Hanson proclaimed, for it would take “useless” journalism and make it a practical tool of national security. Would I like to join?
Not only did I say no, I practically screamed it. “If you do this, you’ll get a bunch of stupid kids kidnapped or killed — and you‘ll put legitimate journalists in danger, too,” I said. Hanson, angry, insisted I was wrong. A year later, two clumsy French spies underscored my point. Spies get found out. When they get found out while posing as reporters, they make all reporters seem guilty of spying, by association. And that’s bad for everyone.
(Photo: Somaliland Times)