I’m a lucky girl. Despite being a relatively obscure blogger, I’m in a fortunate position of having access to an amazing network of Somali intellectuals, writers, journalists, and film makers, who not only continue to push us harder, but act as a source of inspiration for many of our media pieces here at AfroLens. I’ve recently had some interesting discussions with many Somalis working within various facets of the media about the proliferation of amateur journalists venturing into Somalia to cover our nation’s fall from grace (but really in search of book deals, and D-list media personality-hood). Until now I’ve resisted the urge to engage these amateur political paparazzi and expose them for what they really are; shameless self-promoters. This group believes that they can skip key steps to becoming a journalist like formal educational training in the craft and years of work experience, and skip right ahead to notoriety and success on the backs of Somalis and Somalia. I’ve really resisted. And boy oh boy, have they tried to bait me with their gratuitous media coverage. I’ve remained resilient and silent, but then something happened.
For those of you unaware, there is a new site called SomaliaReport, and while I’m sincerely regretful to inform you of its existence, there’s no way around this issue (your welcome Monsieur Bahadur for the unintended promotion). Before I start asking big questions, allow me to give you a brief background into my reservations about this particular website. The man behind SomaliaReport is the illustrious Robert Young Pelton. Some of you are asking, ‘who the %$# is that?’, others are in a face palm position, and the rest of you have not been clued in yet. Well this fine gentleman is famous for going to dangerous places. I’m being serious. This is actually his real occupation. I must acknowledge that any introduction done by moi will inevitably overlook the intellectual prowess of this media tycoon, and it’s only fair that I use his autobiography as a reference point for us to get to know him a little better.
According to his personal website, WWW.COMEBACKALIVE.COM. I swear I’m not kidding, this is the name of his website. Come back alive from what exactly? We can ask him that later, but from what we know, Robert Young Pelton is an author, filmmaker, and journalist who, “continues to overcome extraordinary obstacles in his search for the truth. In his travels to and through the world’s most dangerous places, Pelton shares risks with his hosts, and is often the sole surviving witness to history-shaping events.” You don’t have to be Edward Said to be in awe of the lunacy of all this. My god, this man is a like a travelling Canadian Yoda. What does one ask the ‘sole surviving witness to history shaping events’?
What a fascinating lad. I would love to get the opportunity to ask him to help us answer an age old philosophical dilemma that has even Spike TV baffled; “who will win in a death duel between the Medellin cartel of Colombia or Somali Pirates?”
After all, this is his area of expertise, and a subject fit only for the ‘soul surviving witness to history shaping events’. Anyway, Mr. Pelton through his extensive network of Somali journalists has decided to start a non-partisan website dedicated to groundbreaking coverage of Somali politics. Now, there isn’t anything particularly wrong with this venture. Sure he may be a shameless self promoter, who has garnered success through dehumanizing black and brown people, and glorifying civil strife. But who am I to judge Mr. Pelton, especially when people like this can hold office, and are considered serious presidential contenders….
Despite his eyebrow raising prolific career, Mr. Pelton still has every right to provide the international community with a website dedicated to serious journalism about issues effecting Somalia. So what does one do, when they are looking to gain a modicum of legitimacy from the Somali community as potential subscribers and supporters? (I’m being extremely generous in assuming we are his intended audience, as a lot of us have some ideas about who his intended audience is). You hire the best of the best to spearhead this ambitious project. For your editor, you would logically hire a person with an extensive reporting history in Somalia, and the larger East African community. Someone connected to local populations, and respected as serious journalist by his peers. It’s fair to assume they might be in possession of several degrees, if not formal journalism training. At minimum they should be proficient in the language of the community they intend on covering. This all makes sense right? I mean this is what you would do, if you were running a website called SomaliaReport.com? Well, Mr.Pelton has a different approach. Instead, he hired this guy……
Who needs serious journalists when you can hire a ragtag reporter famous for foolishly travelling to Somalia, so that he could trick pirates into divulging their dirty little secrets by bribing them with qaat (a drug substance consumed in East Africa, and parts of the Middle East). He gave the west a salacious insight into the world of pirates by observing their odd idiosyncrasies, like how qaat (the drug of choice in Somalia) makes pirates ‘sex craved and really talktative’. jay-bahadur is quite insightful if you’re from Boise, Idaho, and have never heard of a place called Somalia, and I suspect Mr. Bahadur is aware of his demographic reach, and exploits the willful ignorance of his audience members.
Before his success, Jay Bahadur was a market researcher living in Toronto with his parents when according to several interviews, a ‘brilliant’ person convinced him that the key to journalistic acclaim was to go somewhere, ‘crazy’. For Mr. Bahadur, and many Orientalists, ‘crazy’ is code word for Africa. And pirates. Sweet heavens, this is like a sensationalist’s wet dream. Success was sure to follow, and boy did it follow.
During his U.S media blitz, Mr. Bahadur informed Jon Stewart of the Daily Show, about his crazy plan and stated that he, “never knew anyone whose been to Somalia…it’s a country that is totally manufactured out of newspaper”. Mr. Bahadur’s plan once he arrived to Somalia was to “ask for directions to a pirate base”. And his first reaction upon setting foot in this supposed wild and new terrain was, ‘I’m in fucking Somalia’. While this reaction is natural for a man who’s had little contact with Somalis or Somalia, it’s incomprehensible in a city like Toronto, which is home to one of the biggest Somali diaspora communities outside of Somalia. But anything is possible with melanin-challenged privilege. Surely this is the last man you would go to for legitimate information on Somalia or piracy. Nope. It gets crazier. According to his biography featured on the website for publishing giant HarperCollin’s, Bahadur was invited by the U.S State department to serve as an advisor on issues relating to Somali piracy.
So now that we’ve covered some of the awkward background details of this story, it’s time for big questions. What’s wrong with this picture? When did Africa become the stomping ground for talentless thrill seekers with stars in their eyes? Should we as Somalis, and Africans be concerned about opportunists who come to Africa for fame and glory they would rightfully be denied in their first world nations? Is there anything wrong with a website called SomaliaReport, that has no visible Somalis in leadership roles? How authentic and fair is the reporting? Do we care? How important is media ownership to a people seeking peace and development?
As Jay Bahadur so poignantly stated, we are a nation that has been manufactured by media reports. We are synonymous with starvation, corruption, warlords, piracy, and now terrorism. We have no one to blame but ourselves for the continued exploitation of our plight, and our lived realities. We can only hold ourselves accountable for encouraging this influx of ambitious hipsters, who come to Mama Africa for cheap thrills and a chance at a Huffington Post write-up. While our nation suffered through one of the worst famines to hit our continent, people like Jay Bahadur were riding the pirate train to success. Good on him. As Somalis say, niinkaan waa libaax (he’s a lion) and has more chutzpah than your average hipster, and congratulations are in order for his successful bamboozling of marqaan (high) pirates. The aim here is not to boycott his website, or even discourage people from engaging with these types of media personalities. Instead, we are asking some serious questions about the ethics of media reporting in Somalia. There are serious journalists and communication experts who risk their lives everyday to give us authentic news and analysis of Somali politics sans the brazen self-promotion, and who also reject the reductionist accounts of Somali issues.
For example, many of us involved in the social media world are excited about a new project conducted by www.ushahidi.com, which is an ambitious initiative that allows for local populations in Somalia to send in reports and feedback about local politics, and the frustrations they’ve endured as citizens of a country embroiled in a twenty-year plus civil war. The people behind the Ushahidi initiative have done great work in Haiti as well, and feel that authentic reporting can only be achieved when you engage local populations in an accurate manner. They’ve recently partnered with Al Jazeera to conduct the biggest survey of Somalis about issues such as development, the war, famine, and other facets of Somalis lives.
This work is revolutionary, and can be an amazing tool used throughout the continent to reclaim narratives about our homelands, and report our own stories with class, dignity, and authenticity. This is a great example of cutting-edge journalism that’s working with local populations and increasing access to accurate information, and not sensationalist reportage. Initiatives such as Ushahidi should be used to address issues of peace, reconciliation, and development. We, as Africans do not have the time nor the luxury to promulgate aspiring guerilla journalists into actualizing occupational fulfillment. Lastly, we must be skeptical of any organization, private or public that speaks on our behalf, yet excludes our voices. It’s vital that Somalis and Africans act as a media watchdogs and hold these journalists accountable to their stories, and question their ambitions in Somalia, and Africa. Why Somalia? Why not report about the oil sands of Fort Mcmurray? Or immigration in Canada? What is the motivation behind venturing into the ‘world’s most dangerous places’ or seeking out pirates without any real concern or connection to our homeland? Are we allowed to be suspicious of these people? I think so. If Mr.Pelton had an iota of integrity, he would at least attempt to hire a Somali national from the pool of seasoned Somali journalists in Nairobi, and instead he chose to fly a novice from Toronto to serve in a leadership capacity. I will leave you with the words of Jay Bahadur reflecting on his quick rise to fame, “I tried to skip a few steps successfully so far in journalism … to become editor-in-chief,” he says with a laugh.” I think this man owes some pirates a few royalty checks. Oops, I forget, he paid them in qaat.