Katharine Houreld on exclusive on how Somalia luring defectors
In January, Reuters exclusively revealed how a Western-backed push by Somali officials to encourage Shabaab defections has lured commanders. The Reuters report, by East Africa Bureau Chief Katharine Houreld, offered a rare window into secretive efforts to undermine the al Qaeda-linked insurgency from within and the slowly growing stream of defectors to the U.N.-backed Somali administration. Senior defectors provide operational intelligence - such as how al Shabaab makes armored vehicle bombs - and insights into its leadership. Most importantly, the government says, those defectors sow suspicion among al Shabaab’s leaders and encourage further defections by contacting former comrades. In a Reuters Best: Journalist Spotlight, Katharine offers a look at the reporting behind the story.
Q. How did you land this exclusive?
A. I first heard about government efforts to encourage defectors a year ago from an old and trusted contact. When regular spot news items about individuals defecting confirmed what he told me, I went to Mogadishu in February 2017 to try to write about the subject, but couldn’t get anyone to talk to me due to the transfer of power between governments. I kept pursuing the subject, speaking to people who were involved, and finally had a breakthrough after convincing a senior person I would not jeopardize the security of the individuals involved.
Q. What was the hardest part of the reporting?
A. I tried to imagine how to write the story before I went out, and thought I might frame it by telling the tale of a defector and the person who persuaded him to defect. I did those interviews, but the personalities and circumstances lacked the immediate drama I was looking for. So I asked for access to another defector I’d heard about – the al Shabaab operative who planned assassinations. It wasn’t clear if he’d agree to talk, and pacing around a shipping container in Mogadishu, waiting to hear if I’d get the interview that I knew would make the story – that was the hardest part. Having waited a year to be able to write it, I was desperate for the interview that would make the best story. I also knew it was my last shot for a while – I was seven and a half months pregnant, and would soon be unable to fly while on maternity leave.
Q. What makes you passionate about journalism?
A. Before I was a journalist, I was backpacking around the world, meeting wild and wonderful people, having adventures and finding out new things in strange places. Now I get paid to do that.
Q. What is your beat and what do you find most fulfilling about it?
A. I write about just about everything, but I’m particularly drawn to people who are working to improve the societies they live in – they often face extreme danger in taking on the authorities, whether it’s persuading radical Somali Islamists to give up their guns, defending death row inmates in Pakistan or campaigning against corruption in Kenya. Over the years, I hope my writing has evolved from “people are suffering here” to “this is why they are suffering” to “this is who benefits from it and how much they are making”. If you can answer the third question, you can often have an immediate impact on the first two.
Q. What have been your most rewarding and most difficult experiences as a journalist?
A. It’s always hard to see someone else’s pain, then walk away. So many people want to tell their stories and believe that somehow, if the world knows about it, someone will help them. Sadly, that’s almost never true. But occasionally you write a story that can make a small amount of difference to a few people for a short time. Those stories still shine for me – one about leprosy drugs being stolen and sold in Liberia that got a corrupt doctor fired and the drugs sent to some kids, or a piece on people accused of blasphemy in Pakistan that ultimately helped get a woman out of jail. The most dispiriting thing is having someone share their story with you, and not being able to even publish it because the injustice they have suffered is so common it’s not news. I found that very hard when reporting on things like honour killings in Pakistan, for example.
Q. Can you imagine being anything other than a journalist? If so, what?
A. The more I learn about how other countries and societies work, the more I learn about my own. One day, I’d like to take all the lessons I’ve learned home and do something with them – try to push for one good change in my own home. But for now, I’m still learning, and still having adventures. I’m still taking notes and watching other people struggle.
Q. Anything else you’d like to share?
A. I often get asked by young journalists how to kick start their careers. You have to take that first jump – work whatever job you can get for a year and save all your money. Identify a country you can work in safely and afford to live in, and that is undercovered, and research it. Move there, (or stay home if you feel your own country is undercovered). Start pitching stories. Hustle. Make mistakes and learn from them. Make friends and learn from them. You’ll be broke, probably single and super stressed. You’ll also have the best time of your life.