Fixers save foreign journalists’ lives

Fixers are the unseen hand guiding news gathering for western journalists in foreign countries.

By Adrian Lee

Fixers are a foreign journalist’s translator, navigator, driver and in many cases lifesaver. They jeopardize their own safety to take journalists to the centre of the story. But why?

Laurence Magloire was the fixer in Haiti for Stephen Puddicombe of CBC Halifax. He credits her with saving his life. (supplied photo)

By Adrian Lee

Graeme Smith has been bombed, shot at, mortared, hit by a suicide bomber while riding in a convoy, chased through the streets of Kandahar city by a man he was sure was intent on kidnapping him, and had his office broken into by masked gunmen.

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And he can’t count the number of times a fixer has saved his skin.

“Every time they said, ‘No, Mr. Graeme, this is not a good idea’,” said Smith. “And that happened every single day.”

For western journalists like Smith, fixers—in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Haiti—are the unseen hand guiding foreign news gathering. In faraway places bridling with danger, in places beyond the safety of the military base, fixers serve as a cultural guide: translating, navigating and, crucially, taking journalists’ lives into their own hands.

“The fixer is quite often the more important journalist,” said Smith, a Globe and Mail correspondent speaking via Skype from Delhi, India. “The fixer is the journalist in many ways. In many ways, I am just the writer.”

It’s a fundamentally imbalanced partnership. Fixers supply vital, reliable sources in foreign countries, and tell journalists what’s a story and what’s a death wish. They provide accessible news off the military base, where reporters often feel spoon-fed by NATO and Canadian forces.

Risk and reward

Fixers also risk their lives, negotiating with terrorists for interviews, and going into conflict-scarred territories to make contacts. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 51 fixers were killed in Iraq alone between 2003 and 2009. Many fixers fear the reprisal of being even associated with westerners, wary because members of insurgent forces like Afghanistan’s Taliban sometimes pose as journalists to find and kill them. Some fixers don’t allow any foreign reporter to put their number in their cell phone. Others demand that the journalist never use their real name, even when that journalist is speaking to their editor. And most fixers don’t tell their families they’re involved in this line of work.

Graeme Smith, left, in Kandahar, Afghanistan, with an officer of the Afghan National Army. (contributed)
Graeme Smith, left, in Kandahar, Afghanistan, with an officer of the Afghan National Army. (supplied photo)

And yet fixers do it all without the glory of the byline.

The pay is part of the job’s appeal: according to Canadian Press journalist Colin Perkel, the salary ranges between US$1,000 a month for fixers who exclusively translate or drive, and $3,000 a month for fixers who actively assist and connect journalists to stories. In war-torn, impoverished nations, fixers weigh the risks and decide feeding their families is worth it. “I don’t understand the situation,” Smith said. “I have fistfuls of US dollars, and almost nothing else.”

But it’s also the stories the fixers are helping to uncover—the journalism that they begin to learn and practice—that for many further justifies the risk. Fixers are often limited to connecting the journalist with contacts, leaving the rest of the work to the reporter. But increasingly, and in situations where it is too dangerous for a western reporter to get the story, fixers are tasked with being a journalist—interviewing and asking good questions.

It’s a practice Smith used to produce his Emmy Award-winning multimedia series, Talking to the Taliban; he sent a fixer with a list of 20 standardized questions to ask 42 on-the-ground Taliban insurgents. He noted that the fixer largely stuck to the listed questions, but eventually developed basic journalistic skills—listening to answers, and asking follow-up questions.

“Without them we’re dead. We’re just dead.”
— Stephen Puddicombe

“I felt sometimes in Kandahar like a preacher—like I was proselytizing the values of journalism,” said Smith. One time was in 2007, while preparing a series on how jailors within Afghanistan’s domestic intelligence agency were abusing detainees—Smith told his fixer he expected the piece to create change. “He looked at me like I was crazy, of course, because… my words made little sense in a place where political accountability doesn’t really exist. Journalists don’t have that kind of power in Afghanistan.”

But then the change that Smith promised started to happen. Western governments were quickly up in arms, worried about the human rights implications. The governor of Kandahar, alleged to have participated in the abuse, was eventually removed from his post. Countries drew up new bilateral agreements with Afghanistan to eliminate loopholes that would permit the torturing of Taliban captives. And the fixer’s contacts in Kandahar city started telling him that the National Directorate of Security (NDS) was easing up: “They did not stop abusing prisoners entirely,” said Smith, “but they got the message.

“I think a light bulb went off in his head. In that moment he was a journalist,” said Smith. “I saw it happen. I remember the day he moved from being an employee to a journalist.”

Journalist and Fixer Deaths

From the start of the US invasion in Iraq in 2003 until 2008, the Committee to Protect Journalists collected data on the number of journalists and fixers (“media support workers”) who have died in Iraq:

  • 2003: 2 media support workers, 14 journalists
  • 2004: 17 media support workers, 24 journalists
  • 2005: 3 media support workers, 23 journalists
  • 2006: 15 media support workers, 32 journalists
  • 2007: 12 media support workers, 32 journalists
  • 2008: 2 media support workers, 11 journalists

– 43 of the 51 deceased media support workers were murdered. Eight were killed in crossfire or other acts of war.

– All but one of the 51 deceased media support workers were men.

– Of the 139 journalists who died in Iraq in that time period, 117 were Iraqi reporters.

Fixers as lifesavers

“(Fixers) are what keeps foreign news going,” says Stephen Puddicombe, a foreign correspondent for CBC News. “Without them we’re dead. We’re just dead.”

Puddicombe estimates he’s covered 30 conflicts in the last 20 years, from Guatemala to Afghanistan. Today he’s sitting in his closet-sized office in Halifax. Souvenirs of his travels are scattered around: photos, passports, foreign press credentials. He knows he wouldn’t be here today without the help of his fixer in Haiti, a filmmaker named Laurence Magloire.

“She’s all of five-foot-nothing and weighs maybe 10 pounds and she’s a skinny little thing and she saved my life,” he says. “She physically saved me from being shot in the mouth with a shotgun.”

On his first trip to Haiti, in 2004, Puddicombe convinced Magloire to take him to a nearby carnival, which was packed with supporters of then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. After a couple of interviews they headed home, driving back over a hill. That’s when two armed men ambushed their car from behind a tree, and demanded that the pair roll down the windows. One then pressed a shotgun to Puddicombe’s face.

Magloire wasn’t fazed. Telling her side of the story, over the phone from New York, where she’s promoting a new documentary, her Creole accent is syrupy, her tone jocular. “I just turned the window down, and I said, ‘Hey man, what are you doing to me, you making me ashamed, I have this white guy, journalist,’” said Magloire. “And they said, ‘Oh mami, it’s you, oh, sorry mami.’”

Born in Port-au-Prince, Magloire grew up in Quebec and worked for 11 years as a producer on CBC-TV children’s shows. She moved to Haiti in 2000 to make documentaries about untold stories in her birth country. Wanting to tell untold stories is also why she is a fixer. “Part of the reason I went back to Haiti is to show Haiti in a different light,” she said. “I like to give the journalists the real news. I want them to be informed in a good way.”

CBC’s go-to guy

Untold stories fuel Shokoor Feroz, as well. Feroz worked as a fixer in Afghanistan because he believed there were people who needed defending and whose voices weren’t being heard. “Bad things could happen to good people, to just innocent people, to passersby,” the 30-year-old Kabul native said over the phone. “That was my passion to work, as a journalist, as a fixer with a journalist.”

A graduate of the University of Kabul’s journalism program, Feroz quickly got work as a fixer, and word of mouth found him working with CBS, BBC, and CBC.

“Whenever I remember that, that’s what makes me suffer, and I’m sure I will suffer until I am not alive.”
-–Shokoor Feroz

He had become one of CBC’s go-to fixers in Afghanistan when he and Mellissa Fung, a national reporter for CBC-TV, travelled to a refugee camp to speak to people displaced from the southern provinces. Many were now living in tough conditions. “That’s why the story had to be told,” Feroz said.

But something went wrong.

“We were filming and interviewing people, then—” he pauses. It’s clear this is a story that hurts to tell. “That was the time some armed men came”—another pause, then a sharp breath in—“and snatched the reporter who I was working with in front of me, and pointed the gun toward my face.”

“It was the worst time of my life, I can tell you. Whenever I remember that, that’s what makes me suffer, and I’m sure I will suffer until I am not alive.”

Feroz stopped there, not willing to say more. According to a release by Reporters Without Borders, the National Directorate of Security arrested Shokoor and his brother, Qaem, as suspects in Fung’s kidnapping.

Giving back

That’s when some of the friends Feroz made in Afghanistan stepped in, ready and willing to serve as his fixers. Journalists like Derek Stoffel decided, after Feroz’s work to keep them safe in his homeland, to help bring him to theirs.

“What stood out to me was how much he really cares for his country,” said Stoffel, who currently covers southern Ontario for CBC National Radio News. “He was really concerned with how Afghanistan was portrayed to westerners. He felt he could play a big role in making sure people got a fair portrait of what was going in Afghanistan by helping us.”

CBC's Derek Stoffel, centre, reporting from Afghanistan in January 2010. (supplied photo )

Stoffel was impressed with Feroz’s dedication. “There’s a number of reasons I think they do it, and at the top of that list is they truly want people to find out about their country, and I can only applaud them for that. I don’t think a pay cheque is enough motivation.”

Stoffel recalled filming a TV stand-up on a busy Kandahar street in 2007, as Feroz kept careful watch. “He was looking around focused on people, because a tall, white guy standing in front of a camera wearing western clothes attracts a bit of a crowd,” said Stoffel. “Soon it got very busy, and he felt there were some people in the crowd that… could present a threat.” Stoffel did just two takes before Feroz, usually a “shy, gentle soul”, became quite forceful, demanding they leave right away.

When Feroz’s former CBC collaborators realized he might be at risk— Stoffel says “there were some indicators that didn’t sit well with us about his potential safety”—he and others sent a letter to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, petitioning for the release of the Feroz brothers. “Each of us has placed our lives in the hands of the Feroz brothers,” they wrote. “Neither has ever betrayed that responsibility and thus we have immense trust in both.”

The Feroz brothers were eventually freed, two weeks after Fung was released in November 2008. Today, Feroz lives in Toronto, and just last year he completed his studies in journalism at Sheridan College. Now he is working with CBC again—this time as a video editor.

“I think it was one of the greatest things to be involved in, to help him here,” said Stoffel. “The life he’s got here now is just absolutely incredible.”

And, for better or worse, Feroz knows it was his life as a fixer that brought him away from his native country and to Canada.

“I don’t regret what I was doing there,” he said. “This kind of event—it happens. War is going on; anything there is a risk. It only reinforced my passion to tell these stories.”

Listen: Laurence Magloire and Stephen Puddicombe; combined interview snippets

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Homegrown publisher fends off multinationals
Media plays into policing strategy at G20 Summit