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Jane Ferguson, PBS Special Correspondent, on the role of media in conflict zones affected by mass starvation and her experience as a frontline journalist in Yemen and South Sudan

Jane Ferguson, PBS Special Correspondent, interviewed by Global Rights Compliance's Catriona Murdoch on the role of media in conflict zones affected by mass starvation and her experience as a frontline journalist in Yemen and South Sudan.

24 January 2018


Q1. Please could you explain your professional background and how you came to frontline and special reporting?

I studied at York university in England and was fortunate enough to graduate into the financial crisis of 2007. So, getting any leg in journalism was incredibly difficult. Everybody was laying off staff and newspapers were folding. I knew I wanted to be a foreign correspondent, so I travelled to Yemen to study Arabic. After that I moved to Dubai where I had some entry-level jobs. I subsequently started freelancing for CNN in Abu Dhabi, and after about 18 months with them I then started working more full-time for Al Jazeera. I spent several years with Al Jazeera and I was sent very regularly to many conflict zones, including a year spent in Afghanistan. I stopped working with Al Jazeera in the end of 2014 and the next year I started with PBS, continuing my focus on South Sudan and Yemen.


Q2. We spoke in July for an article you published in The New Yorker on Yemen, can you tell us a little more about your work there and your most recent trip in December 2018?

It does feel rather cyclical on a personal level as well as professional, but unfortunately, I have been reporting from Yemen since 2009 and I have seen throughout time the situation deteriorate. I think it’s important for people to remember that the war in Yemen is really just the most current convulsion in turmoil. The rebels taking over in 2014 and the Saudi-led Coalition forming in 2015 was not the beginning, this all started much earlier. I was in Yemen in 2011 reporting on the hunger crisis and the political turmoil resulting from the revolution, and in 2012, I reported on the increased hunger and malnutrition and the military. So, for me it’s been a case of watching Yemen, as we’ve seen in several other states in the Arab world, move from a revolution movement, a social uprising, through several periods of turmoil and then civil war. My most recent trips have been in the depths of this current civil war, but focusing more on the human impact of the war itself. What makes this phase of the war so distinctive, is its devastating effects on the civilian population.


Q3. Please tell us, if you can, about the sort of challenges you face as a journalist, and a woman, getting in and out of Yemen safely?

Yemen has become the most inaccessible, nation-wide war in the world. I went in during the summer of 2015, and the rebels had partially occupied the capital Sana’a, the Saudi-Led Coalition had only been active for a few months when we flew there. I spent one week there and left, thinking: “Fantastic, I’ll be back, I’ll be back really soon”. In reality, I spent the next two years completely unable to get back. This never happened before: I’ve reported from Yemen several times a year for a decade, and I was astonished when I realized that I couldn’t get back in. They closed the airport in Sana’a, only allowing humanitarian flights in, and they prevented journalists from entering the country. I was issued official visas from the Government, but then I was not allowed to enter. For many other journalists, it was exactly the same, all of the top news organisations that you could think of – from the BBC to 60 minutes – everybody was prevented from entering Yemen.

It became clear to me that the only way to get there would be to fly to Aden, where some journalists were being allowed into, and then somehow give them the slip and try to head North. No one had done it before, and it was not clear if it was possible because there were so many checkpoints. Some journalists had been stopped, a few European freelancers had snuck into the country via Oman, and several of them had been caught. Two French journalists had been caught and flown out to Saudi Arabia – which looked extremely unpleasant and dangerous.

In the end I decided to try the Aden route. I had been working for several years with fixers, in  and I decided to try to take that road north and get through all of the checkpoints by traveling alone with no camera, no equipment and fully covered. That’s the way I did it again in December 2018. I hired Yemeni cameraman, drivers and we were an entire Yemeni team plus me. I had my iPhone and hid a microphone in the very bottom of my suitcase and that was it, I’ve done it twice the same way now.


Q4. As you know the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (‘IPC’) eventually declared famine in Yemen across several regions with swathes of the country in “IPC 4” level. Please can you tell us how these classifications tally with your experience on the ground?

The wording of the IPC declaration in Yemen is very vague. It wasn’t like when they announced famine officially in South-Sudan in 2017 which caused a huge splash, it was very clear cut that there was famine. I think the reason the language is so unclear in the Yemen IPC declaration is linked to what every single doctor that I had spoken to in Yemen has told me: they believe very strongly that they are not seeing the worst cases.

Very often families cannot afford transport costs to get to the hospitals, so it is difficult to know how many children or adults are actually dying. As I said in my most recent report in December, the head pediatrician at Hajja hospital said for every one child that comes, there are maybe 20, 30, 50 that don’t make it.

I spent time with one family with a two-year-old child that had already spent a month in the hospital, malnourished, because the mother couldn’t breastfeed and the child had become sick again. They couldn’t afford to go back to the hospital because of the transport costs and the fuel crisis. People have to hire a car, or even take a taxi, which would beyond the means of most. It is not just the cost of getting to the hospital but the costs associated with a stint in hospital, they have to find accommodation, the hospitals provide accommodation for one parent, usually a mother, leaving the other children uncared for. It is a conservative society so the women are unlikely to travel to town alone and the other family members will have to find accommodation, they will have to eat in restaurants. These sort of things that perhaps wouldn’t occur to your average viewer. These are basically the difference between life and death in Yemen.

What I noticed from when I was in Yemen in June to December is the difference in the rural clinics, they said they’ve had a big uptake in the last few months. They were filled with children not just from the immediate area. The density was intense. When I spoke to the World Food Programme (‘WFP’) in December, the numbers that they are dealing with are unbelievable, they said that 20 million people need their help now. They are going to try to reach 12 to 14 million next year. The problem with the IPC is also that it is difficult to put that across to viewers as a journalist, because people hear “Phase 4” or “nearly famine”, but it is not quite famine. Whenever we say “Phase 4” we are talking millions of people. It is also important to point out that the situation has deteriorated without much change in the military operations. What scares me the most as an observer on the ground, is that things get worse without there even being an offensive in the city centre of Hodeidah.

“The status quo also could push Yemen further into famine, I think that’s perhaps not being as clearly reported as it could be.” 


Q4. Your focus in Yemen has been increasingly on starvation crimes and the impact of the famine on civilians, this has included posting some harrowing footage of children, which has caused some mixed reactions. How necessary do you think it is to show this type of footage?

It’s absolutely essential. There is a reason that I chose to work in the visual medium of war journalism. I think broadcasting is a great example of how to really communicate to the rest of the world what is happening. When someone reads an article that says, ‘children are malnourished’, no matter how wonderful a writer you are, the photographs that will accompany that article will be what people often remember. Look at the New York Times article that had the little girl on the front page, and Michael Buerk’s reporting from Ethiopia in 1984 for the BBC.

“Unfortunately, unpleasant as it is to see these images, I know of no better way to show people what the reality of hunger looks and feels like. Saying “malnutrition”, saying ‘Phase 4, Phase 5’, just doesn’t it have as much of an impact on people.” 


Q.5 The shame of suffering from starvation is rarely discussed, the blame attached to picking which child to feed and which to go hungry is often internalized and unrecognized as attributable to external forces. What has been the reaction of the victims of starvation, what do they see as the causes and who do they blame for this man-made catastrophe?

One of the most striking things I’ve noticed in Yemen is that it’s always been a very proud culture, especially the tribal cultures in the North. People don’t like to admit that they are having trouble feeding their children. One of the reactions that I almost always get when I go to a hospital, which is obviously a time when as a journalist you have to be incredibly sensitive, as I approach usually the mothers and ask them about their child that’s on death’s door, 90% of the time the answer is: “Nothing, it’s fine, the child just got sick”. They almost always deny that there is a problem in the house financially, initially, then we will talk and eventually they open up and tell us their stories.

The cause is almost always, that the father has lost his job. Very often the family don’t understand why their child is sick, because the adults can survive on one meal a day of just rice or bread and tea, they are terribly malnourished but they are alive, and they don’t understand why the baby is so sick. So, yes, there is a real sense of pride and I do believe there is shame involved. I don’t think people understand how children are more susceptible to starvation and that they can’t survive on one meal a day. We could do more in the media to open a conversation about that.

The lack of understanding is also linked to the fact that a lot of primary healthcare has disappeared as their health system collapsed.  The small amounts of healthcare that would have been available, like nurses teaching mothers how to breastfeed and basic nutritional advice, has disappeared. Some mothers don’t understand why they are unable to breastfeed when they are just eating bread and tea. There is a certain degree of shame in that.

Almost everybody I’ve spoken to that has malnourished children, are completely apolitical in terms of who is to blame.They just blame this ‘crisis’ as they call it. They may be in a village that has never experienced an airstrike, has never experienced fighters moving in or moving out.

“To them it’s an economic crisis, and I think that’s more of a reality for the vast majority of the people in rural Yemen, who are struggling to keep their kids alive. They understand that it is because of the war, but I don’t think they see anyone to blame.” 


Q6. In addition to Yemen you have covered numerous other conflict and frontline zones including South Sudan. Here again you called in your PBS news hour another ‘man-made famine’, can you explain why you came to that conclusion?

South Sudan was a different kind of conflict-driven famine in the sense that, it was almost clearer when you were on the ground how effectively specific military moves had starved people. The military offensives would move into a village and it would be a case of “scorched earth”, medieval tactics – burning down villages, burning down houses, attacking civilians, using terrorism against civilians to terrify them so much that they would leave everything behind. People were fleeing those villages into the swamps so they could avoid military vehicles. They were literately running barefoot into the swamps. Outside the villages, there are swathes of rural areas where there is no way of feeding yourself.

“People starved there, it was fast, it was quick, it was also difficult to report as a television journalist, because there was nothing to film. We didn’t see malnourished children, because they didn’t have time to become malnourished, they ran into the bushes and they died.”

We would interview survivors and their stories were like nothing I have ever heard in my life before. One child out of five survived the journey. It was a different situation, in the sense that it was a faster and brutal starvation of people.


Q7. What parallels, if any, could you draw between South Sudan and Yemen in relation to starvation and the ‘man-made famine’

In terms of the parallels, from a broader perspective you’re still seeing people starving and dying as a result of a war that is not gunshot wounds or airstrikes. From a journalist’s perspective when trying to ascertain what is deliberate and what is not, what is a war crime and what is not, inside South Sudan it would appear to be that chasing people from their only food source is inevitably going to kill those people.

“In Yemen, collapsing an economy is inevitably going to kill some people. So, we are still dealing with hunger as a direct result of men’s actions in war.”

Yet in Yemen there remains some confusion for the viewer, you have a humanitarian crisis, which whilst an accurate description, gives a little distance between the reason and what’s actually happening.


Q8. What do you think lawyers or those within the international community can do to ensure that the use of deliberate starvation and its victims are not ignored

I think we could definitely benefit from more certainty. From the media’s perspective we tend to use analysts, political or history experts in our reporting. I think we could do better at getting lawyers on board in our reporting, quote them in our articles, or on our shows, discussing what exactly constitutes war crimes. We need more of a discussion about the way wars are being fought.

“As a war reporter, what my colleagues and I have seen in recent years, not just in Syria, but the war in Iraq and the war here in Yemen, and inside Sudan, is a total disregard for human rights law and the laws of war.”

I think we can bring more of an understanding of this and an urgency to our reporting when we talk to experts like yourselves.

In addition, more cooperation between human rights lawyers and journalists in terms of education is needed to help us understand the laws of war. We see war crimes so often that it almost just seems normal. I think that it would be helpful for people like myself to learn more from lawyers like you, and, I think would be helpful to make such training compulsory.


To watch and read more of Jane Ferguson’s work click here.

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