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Shaunagh talks to Nima Elbagir
Nima Elbagir is an award-winning senior international correspondent for CNN based in London.
We talk about being Nima’s experience of being a person of colour in a very white industry, her investigation into slave auctions in Libya, the time she was given a machete for protection in the DRC and the difficulties of being a journalist and a mum.
For more on Nima
Hosted and produced by Shaunagh Connaire and edited by Ryan Ferguson.
Welcome to Media Tribe. I'm Shaunagh Connaire, and this is the podcast that tells the story behind the story. It's an opportunity for you and I to step into the shoes of the most extraordinary media folk who covered the issues that matter most.
And it was like this curtain of these beautiful yellow butterflies just lifted. And underneath was a pregnant woman who'd been butchered to death.
Today, I'm speaking to CNN senior international correspondent, Nima Elbagir. Nima is a fearless, brilliant and brave journalist who's reported from places like Yemen, the DRC, Sudan, Nigeria, and Libya, where she witnessed to African migrants being sold at slave auctions.
Nima, thank you so much for coming on Media Tribe today.
Thank you so much for having me.
It's a very interesting experience for me because I started off and Unreported World office in Oxford, and there was a great big picture of you, and a film you'd made in Sudan called Meet the Janjaweed. And I asked, "Who's this wonderful woman, and where is she?" And the response was, "Well, she did very well, Shaunagh. She's now at CNN." So why don't you tell us, Nima, about your journey to becoming a wonderful journalist?
Well, I just want to say, well, first of all, thank you. And secondly, that was how I spent my honeymoon, doing that, Meet the Janjaweed documentary. So you too can leave your husband a week into your marriage and spend it with Arab tribal militia in the wilds of Darfur and end up with your poster in the Quicksilver office in Oxford.
How did I start? I feel like I had two starts. So I come from a journalist family. So in Sudan, my father's a publisher, my mother's his business partner. My grandfather was a journalist. I grew up around journalists. I trained in my father's newsroom. And then I feel like there was almost starting all over again, which was coming here and coming here as, I didn't have a British passport at the time. So even though I sound very British, I'm not, and coming into TV journalism, which in and of itself is a very closed world. And I feel very, very lucky because I had help in ways that you can't plan for. I think I had just, I'd been in the UK for about a month and a half, and I was on the Reuter’s graduate trainee programme, and I was invited to speak at the British Museum.
They'd just launched an exhibition about Sudan and they were like, "We should probably get someone who's been there recently, maybe even a woman. That would be nice." And Jon Snow was heading the panel, and afterwards he gave me his card and he said, "I think you should, you know, what do you do?" And I said, "Well, I can film, very badly, but I can film." And he said, "Well, Channel 4 News is launching a channel, called More4 News, and I think you should come and try out for it." And looking back now, when I compare that to the experience of every other, not just person of colour, but most women who go into that environment, it sounds like a fairy tale. I'm 42 this summer. So I am of a generation where someone like me is a fixer. You know, people like me are not in front of the camera. We're the people who help the people who are in front of the camera.
And it was really Jon. Jon was extraordinary, and he met me for coffees, and he helped get me the interview. And then Lindsey Hilsum, who's also a legend and terrifying, but mainly a legend, but also terrifying, she had just started being incredibly interested in China and Africa, and Sudan was very much the template for the Chinese investment into the rest of Africa. And she said, "I really want to do a piece about Chinese investment in Africa," and it was incredibly prescient. And I said, and I have never since then produced, and never before then had I produced, but I decided that the person I was going to try out producing for is one of the most talented, important women, or journalists, full-stop, in British journalism. So I came back and I somehow managed to talk my way through a friend into the archives of Sudan TV, where they had been filming all of the breaking ground ceremonies with all the Chinese dignitaries that I turned up, and half of the footage didn't have any sound.
We've all been there, Nima, but yeah, go on.
And Job Rabkin, who now heads the Indie Fund, and Lindsey just looked at me, and I was just like, "Okay, well, there goes my career." And amazingly, that was not it for my career. And Lindsey was amazingly, amazingly kind, and acted as my referee for the interview. But I just, she just looked at me, and I just remember thinking, "I just, if those a way to go back in time and not be born so that this moment cannot have happened to me." And she, yeah, she was extraordinary. So I came in to Channel 4 News. You got to be around all these legends, but it was still an incredibly white place.
It was still an incredibly white place. And to their credit, they were aware of it. And so people like Lindsey, like Jon, were very happy to spend their capital.
And I always think about that. And I always think about when people ask me, "What is the most important thing we can do?" And that is spend your capital. Get someone else in the door. And it doesn't have to be a person of colour. If it's about getting someone from a different socioeconomic background than is usually represented in journalism, because let's face it. It's expensive to become a journalist, to be paid crappily for years, to get women in positions, to model good behaviour for people. And I'm just incredibly grateful that I managed to meet people who are willing to spend their capital.
What you've just said is so, so important. And it's completely serendipitous that we're chatting this week, Nima. I know I've been hounding your press team for probably a month now. I'm in New York. The protests in memory of George Floyd are happening right now. And I think it's really a time for white people in our industry to stop and take a look around and say, "Actually, we really, I mean, we have to do so much better." My experience is that people are aware that our colleagues need to be a lot more diverse. And then what I feel like happens is sometimes, it's a little bit of tokenism and there's diverse faces and voices put in front of the camera. But if you actually just step behind the camera, there's a hell of a lot of white people there.
And I think also what you've said there, as you call them legends, helping you out, and now you are a legend, a woman, a woman of colour. And it's so important that you're in this position and your legend of a sister, Yousra who I hope to get on, who's in the background there, but it's so important that you're there and that other young, aspiring journalists of colour see you.
My next question, Nima, might be very tricky because having gone through your work, everything you do leads to impact, tangible impact, but is there one story that, you could set aside and you say, "I'm really happy with what we achieved there."
Oh, wow. I don't know. It's so tough. Reporting on Sudan was amazing because I got to do it with my sister and with my brother's production company, [Gaily 00:07:47]. And I got to at home for that. And I got to really live that with my family, and live out with the Sudanese people. For us, it was both being able to get in and expose what was happening in Sudan, but also exposing the hypocrisy of the Americans, that the Trump administration was willingly negotiating to normalize relationships with the Sudanese right up until the week Bashir was forced to step down, and Bashir really only was forced to step down after we add our piece, and the Americans withdrew their support by suspending talks.
So I think for me, it was... if this last year, if this last week, but especially this last year, this last three years, has taught us anything, is that we are all the same. This idea that there is an exceptionalism and that there is a robustness to institutions in the West that we somehow missed the memo on in Africa and in the Middle East and in parts of the developing world, fundamentally people will abuse their power to the extent that they are aided and abetted in that abuse. And I think that that is what has been so telling is the way that the connective tissue of all the stories that we've done over the last two, three years has finally kind of come together in that way. That it isn't just, I think, whereas before you did foreign affairs reporting, and there was a them and an us. And even with the Libya slave story, I think it really brought home that your actions have consequences.
This populist push in Europe, you don't get to sleep easy at night when ships full of migrants are being turned back to Libya. There is a consequence to that. And if you're happy to live with that consequence, then that's fine. But don't pretend that you don't know that this is happening. And I think for me, with Libya, perhaps what we were most proud of was the fact that this wasn't a story that nobody knew was happening. People knew this was happening. But for me, it just drove home why filmmaking is so important because, and we've seen that this week-
Just for anybody who didn't see your Libya piece, your footage was, it was mind blowing. You actually saw black men being put up for slavery, being auctioned off for slavery. So if anybody doesn't know what you're referring to there.
What I found extraordinary was that it came out at the same time as that amazing piece that Vice did about Charlottesville. And you could argue that both of those pieces of journalism did the exact same thing, which is that the teams that went in leveraged access. They leveraged an ability to disappear in that situation. And they leveraged a certain amount of local knowledge. But the ways that they were viewed were different. And the number of people who spoke to me about what Raja Razek, who was my producer, who is Palestinian American, and Alex Platt and I did as if it was easy. I mean, Raja always makes me laugh because she's like, "Sometimes I feel like I just went and knocked on my uncle's door and was like, 'Oh, are there slaves here?'" It is just extraordinary that people really thought that it was that it was easier than it was.
I mean, did we leverage access that other journalists couldn't have gotten? Absolutely. And Yousra has a great line that she's saying a lot at the moment, which is there is a fetishization of white journalism. So when we are in these places, it is almost seen like, "Well, of course you are there. Of course you're somewhere dangerous. That must be your village." Whereas when you see white journalists, white American journalists at the moment, being teargassed, it hits people differently. It hits the audience differently. It hits the editors back in the newsroom differently. And for me, that really hit home when we did Libya. Now, I'm not Libyan, but there are a lot of Libyans of a similar ethnic mix to me. And Libyan Arabic sounds similar enough to the ear, and there are enough Sudanese in Libya that we were very aware that we were leveraging access to get in and tell that story.
When you see a white woman or a white man in Syria, your perception of the risk that they are taking to get that story is very different. And that was my experience. I started my career reporting on the ethnic violence in Darfur. The risks that you take when home is no longer a safe place for you are exponentially worse than when you can fly in and fly out, even just psychologically. And we have to get to a place where we value that, and we don't fetishize the people that fly in and fly out, because what happens when you can no longer report from your own home in a safe manner? Where do you go? Where is safe? What you risk as a Syrian? What Waad Al-Kateab did reporting from Aleppo. Yes, the access is easier, but the risks, and what it takes out of you to feel like you can never go home again, or even if you go home, home is never the same place because of what you have done, because of what you've exposed.
And I also think what happens is that either it is dismissed or it is fetishized, so then you are not viewed as a journalist. Waad is an extraordinary journalist, and I hope and pray that she goes on to do extraordinary work as a filmmaker. But what history has told us is that history has not been kind to people who become famous for storytelling in their own homeland. They are doubted in ways that Western journalists who fly in and make their name, we all know plenty of journalists who make their name covering Iraq, or covering Syria. No one doubts that they can take that skillset and, and transfer it to somewhere else.
I'm just thinking like a person of colour, you should be able to go and tell the story about abortion in Ireland, for example. Why is it that you might just be allocated to parts of Africa and the Middle East? You obviously speak Arabic, Nima, and that's what we all need to do better within the media. I mean, there's so much space for progress and improvement.
Nima, my next question, one I'm quite excited by admittedly, because I know you're Unreported World alumni, is there one particular crazy moment you might've had in your career that the audience mightn't be privy to that you would like to delve into and tell us a bit about?
Oh gosh. Okay. So I'm kind of concerned that most of the stories I tell will only be a reflection of just the level of stupidity it clearly required to be a journalist. I'm slightly worried that that would be anybody's takeaway, that you need to be an absolute, abject moron. Who can I embarrass the most? Ed Watts, who I know a friend of both of ours, and who's an extraordinary filmmaker, now, Oscar nominated for his work on For Sama, we went to the DRC together, and it was just after the Christmas Day massacres. So it is the most beautiful place on Earth, and also it is one of the places where you will see some of the most inhumane things. And I remember two things that I don't think I will ever forget. I remember going on patrol with the Congolese Army with Ed, and it was the first time that they had been able to go into the bush after the Lord's Resistance Army had begun its massacres.
And we walked into a clearing and we were right up front with the lead soldier. And as his boot hit the ground into the clearing, there had been this beautiful spread of butterflies, and the butterflies just took flight, and they had all been across a body. And it was like this curtain of these beautiful yellow butterflies just lifted, and underneath was a pregnant woman who'd been butchered to death. And I remember looking over, and Ed, who had worked in Iraq and had worked in Gaza, and so he wasn't an ingenue, and I just remember thinking, "I hope you're okay." And Ed was so extraordinary, because he was the one who was filming. So there was no escape for him. There was no respite. And he filmed and filmed and filmed.
And then we walked out and he was so incredibly brave because he was like, "I'm not okay. I am not okay." But then he was also the person who made me laugh the most because he's utterly godless, he's utterly irreverent, and the only way we could get anywhere was to curry favour with these missionary pilots, and Ed just refused. Every time we got on a plane, you would have to pray before you're got on the plane. And every single time, Ed would go, "No." And I would elbow him and be like, "No, of course we will pray." And Ed would be like, "No, I've prayed for today." And I'm like, "Ed, will you just pray? Just once, can it be easy? Once we get on the plane, we buckle up, the crazy person up front goes 'Bow our head in prayer,' and we bow our head in prayer." And I said, "And I'm here. I don't know what your problem is. I'm here being blasphemous, but I am doing my bit to get to where need to go, and my mother would be ashamed. Just shut up."
Like the last time I was just like, "I will throw you off this plane." So we get there and the lovely French MSF doctors, so he still, he never lets me forget this, because the lovely French MSF doctors were, one of the blessing was like a caricature of, you know, French chivalry and charm. So we turn up, he doesn't even look at Ed. Ed does not exist as far as he's concerned. So he's carrying my bags and Ed's like, "You are a shit feminist." And I was like, "I don't care what you think." We turn up. And he's looking at me and I'm looking at him.
And the French doctor is like, "I mean, obviously because you're the only lady." And Ed's like, "Lady?" I'm like, "Shut up, Ed. Yes." And then I walk in and there's a machete on the bed. So Ed walks in, and I look at Ed, and Ed was like, "Well, this is the lady's room, so I guess that's the room with the machete." So I walk out and I find the lovely French doctor, and I said to him, "Thank you so much. Did you forget something, perhaps? Is there something you might want to take with you?" And he's like, "No." And I said, "Did you leave your machete, your personal machete lying?" And he said, "Oh no, I left that for you. That was a present." And I said, "Okay, why?" And he said, "Well, because our evacuation plan is run. So I thought the machete might be helpful."
And Ed was like, "Yeah, well that's the lady's room with the machete that's at the front of the house. So they felt the need to give you a extra help. So you enjoy that. I'll be at the back of the house, where apparently it's safer, without the need for machete." And I still don't regret it because I had my own bathroom.
But also I guess a machete is a lot more helpful than a towel folded in the shape of a swan?
I have not heard that story, but that is exactly the reason why I've decided to do this podcast, to get those stories out there. So Nima, you're not only a journalist, you're also a mum.
Yeah. I have a three and a half year old, Ali who's amazing, and a handful, and mental in the way that toddlers are.
I think the really important thing to hear from someone else is that it's really, really hard. I remember reading something Beyonce said, that she had recorded Homecoming just after having the twins. And not only did she have to get back into shape to fit into the costumes, she had to get back into rehearsal shape. She did this feat of, and I'm not a Beyonce fan, but this technical feat on the stage at Coachella. And she says it almost killed her. And I was like, "Uh huh, yeah, Nope. I recognize that." I took eight and a half months for maternity leave. I kind of wish I'd taken a year. And then two weeks after coming, I just stopped breastfeeding to be able to go back to work, and two weeks after I came back, I went to Iraq, and I don't think I can adequately describe it, other than to say, I felt like somebody had amputated a limb.
It hurt all the time. Having been with this little human for days and nights, and it was just us. And then, and then also, you're unprepared for it because, well, first of all, how many other people have ever experienced that? I was really lucky in that Christiane Amanpour was extraordinary. And she reached out. She actually, she hosted my baby shower. She was lovely. She was checking in on me. She thought I was a little insane for going to Iraq, but then she did lots of insane things once she first came back, so she acknowledges that. I think the best thing you can do for someone else is just tell them, "This is the hardest thing you will ever do in your life. And it will get easy, but it will not be easy for a long time."
I remember coming back and we won the Courage in Journalism award, and I wanted to cry. I got up on that stage and it was all these wonderful well-meaning people, all of these men who lead newsrooms. And I remember thinking that the hardest thing that I have ever done is to stand here and explain that you may think that you are sitting here and you have done your duty by throwing money behind this extraordinary organization, that funds these women who go to war zones, and these women in the developing world. And you are not actually looking around your newsroom and asking yourself, "What am I doing for the women in my newsroom who are facing this uphill battle for coming back?"
I really had to reckon with how hard that was to admit publicly, that somehow, because it was humiliating. It was humiliating to admit that being a mother had reset the clock in some way that nobody had warned me about, that somehow I was expected to do certain human interest stories, even at the front lines, and I always did stories that focused on children or women, or the places that I got access into, but it was amazing that suddenly that carried a different weight.
It's a bizarre one. And I can definitely empathize. I would say, I mean, we were kind of chatting about this before I pressed record, but I was a freelance journalist, I guess, as a correspondent who travelled abroad a lot. And I did take a step back and say, I looked at my age and I said, "I really would like family if I'm lucky enough to have family." And I said, "Right, I actually probably need to pivot here," because being a freelance correspondent and producer who wants to have a baby isn't very conducive. You wouldn't have a wage for 18 months. So I did that. And I work at the Financial Times, and it's a very, very different role, but do you think our industry is deeply flawed in that way? That there isn't a mechanism for people like yourself and myself, who wants to do it all?
Yeah, I think it is also, there is something, you feel really... It is a difficult topic to talk about because you feel like you made a choice, and somehow it is almost too much to ask for, to ask that this choice be allowed for. But then, my question is, are you prepared to lose everything that you will lose if so many women and so much talent walks out the door, men and women, because they feel that this choice is not incorporated into the way that the institution functions. But also this is something that women have been doing since the beginning of time, and until both men and women feel, because men feel a different pressure about taking paternity leave. So until you or I walk into an interview for a new job, and you and I are equally as much of a risk as the male colleague that walks in for the interview afterwards to cost the company money in maternity or paternity leave, there will not be genuine equality because there is going to be something...
I mean, I actually had someone who shall remain nameless cause it was after they had had quite a bit to drink, say to me, "Well, I mean, you know, there is also the reality of the fact that you're now on a go-slow track because you only have a certain window before you want to have a second one."
I said, "First of all, you are presuming a lot because that child almost killed me. I don't know that I'm going to have another one. But secondly, this is massively illegal. And thirdly, I actually take great pride in telling people, I think sometimes it is okay to show off a bit, I have done more career-wise, the awards that the teams that I work with have won, has been more since I came back from having a baby."
Awesome. Well, that is bloody inspiration all us mothers and journalists who are trying to do it all and admittedly failing right now, but thank you so much. As I said, you're such a legend. Your work is amazing. Everybody who's listening to this should really continue following your work at CNN. Thank you so much for coming on today, and definitely tell that sister of yours she must come on at some point. Thank you so much.
She should definitely be added to your list and I will work my magic this side.
If you liked what you heard on this episode of Media Tribe, tune in next week, as I'll be dropping new shows every week with all sorts of legendary folk from the industry. And if you could leave me a review and rating, that would be really appreciated. Also, get in on social media @shaunagh on Twitter or @shaunaghconnaire on Instagram, and feel free to suggest new guests. Right, that's it. Until next week, see you, then. This episode is edited by Ryan Ferguson.