Properly reporting the news from Africa requires a great deal of risk, explained New York Times East Africa bureau chief Jeffrey Gettleman.
Gettleman, who lives in Kenya, addressed a crowd of 35 at a Branford College Master’s Tea Monday. He discussed the challenges and life-threatening situations he has dealt with while covering some of Africa’s most tumultuous and dangerous regions for the Times since 2006.
Gettleman recounted being captured by the Ethiopian military while investigating human rights abuses, a story which he said illustrates “the risks, the adventures, and then the payoff of what we do.”
In May of 2006, Gettleman, along with a photographer and his wife, who takes videos for the Times, traveled with an Ethiopian rebel group to get to an area suspected of having serious human rights abuses. Afterward, the government accused the three of being foreign spies, jailing Gettlman for a week and marching him into the middle of the desert at gunpoint, he recalled.
While the government eventually released them, Gettleman said the way they were treated was telling of the Ethiopian government’s larger attempts to cover up what was going on in the country, an issue he said he worked to expose.
“We really put this conflict on the map,” Gettleman said.
His front page story prompted a United Nations fact-finding mission and a congressional resolution, he said. He added that the expense of reporting such stories and the financial trouble facing many newspapers makes it increasingly rare to have such in-depth coverage of issues in Africa, a challenge which he said the Times is in a position to take on.
“We can use the power of The New York Times and the fact that millions of people read the paper across the world to go investigate something that nobody’s really talking about,” he said.
At the same time, Gettleman emphasized that journalists must remain objective reporters and cannot try to use their position to advocate for certain causes. He added that in foreign countries he is sometimes seen as an agent of the American government, and establishing himself as objective and independent is important for getting his sources’ trust. Gettleman said it is up to him to weigh the risks and benefits of his work, and ultimately decide which trips and investigations to pursue.
“The bigger risks you take often give a bigger payoff, and you have to decide if the story’s worth it,” he said.
Organizing a trip to Somalia, for instance, can involve hiring 20 soldiers and two trucks to get around safely. He also has to hire multiple militias to protect him as he passes through different clans.
Despite these obstacles, Gettleman still recalls his first trip to Africa after his freshman year at Cornell University, which inspired him to report later on the continent.
“I was totally smitten by Africa, blown away by this different parallel world that was out there, totally alien from what I had experienced growing up in a Chicago suburb,” he said.
Gettleman marveled at the availability of his work online. While some journalists are weary of the Internet’s increasing role in journalism, he said, he is excited by the fact that the people whom he is writing about can easily read his stories.
Branford master Steven Smith invited Gettleman at the request of Jessica Letchford ’11. Letchford grew up in Kenya and came across Gettleman’s writing while researching Somalia for a class last year. She said she appreciated getting to hear him in person and that he sounded much like he did in his articles. (Letchford is a staff reporter for the News.)
Rebecca Suldan ’13 said she was impressed by Gettleman’s stories and the commitment he showed to his work.
“It makes me feel good that there’s a reporter there who’s so devoted and who knows the area so well,” Suldan said.