BBC Radio 4 recently broadcast ‘The Harrages of Algeria’ on it’s ‘Crossing Continents’ strand about migration. It was produced by Lucy Ash who worked with veteran fixer Said Chitour to give us an insight into why so many young men are leaving Algeria in search of a life in Europe.
WF spoke to both Said and Lucy to learn more about the fixer/journalist relationship, working in Algeria and what skills a good fixer needs to have.
Before embarking on your trip to Algeria how sure were you about your story and your ability to get access to it?
I’d read quite a bit, it’s a story thats been covered quite extensively in Algeria and in the international press. It’s an issue, this issue of illegal migrants, thats been going on for at least a decade and caused a lot of concern in Algerian society. There’s been three or four, full length feature films about it, some rap songs… everything, so it’s not an obscure or particularly original story but I just thought it was one that a Radio 4 audience might want to hear more about, and also because all of the problems over the summer with the huge increase in the numbers of people making the journey in little boats – I just thought it was quite timely.
In so far as trying to identify the subjects you would look for or cover when you got on the ground did you come with that already in your mind?
I wouldn’t go anywhere without a clear idea of a possible treatment and people to interview but obviously that sometimes has to change when you get there.
Where does that knowledge come from? Is it from your own sources or do you use your fixer to help with that?
Well, a bit of both really. I sometimes say “I’m looking for this kind of a person, who can we find?”… I mean, (in this case) Said had lots of good ideas. For example I knew that Imams in Algeria had been called upon by the Ministry of Religious Affairs to preach in their sermons on fridays to dissuade young people from trying to leave the country illegally but Said was able to say, “Yup, I know an Imam in Annaba who I’m sure would talk about this”. I think he started as a tour guide originally and he knows the country very very well, he was a fixer back in the ‘black decades’ in the ’90’s when it was very difficult and very dangerous to travel around and speak to people, but he managed it. I was pretty confident there isn’t very much that he finds daunting. Because I was going to Algeria for the first time I wasn’t really sure how much freedom we’d have, wether we’d be followed and things like that.
Said has a massive amount of experience but generally what are the qualities you look for in a fixer?
Obviously having a good contacts book is very useful… knowing establishment people and also people fighting against the government. If you like a sort of 360 degree area of contacts is really useful. It inspires confidence if people see him or her as the fair dealer, someone that will try to be as objective and balanced as possible, report the facts or help us visiting journalists report the facts as clearly and successfully as we can – not operate on a basis of guess work or rumour but to actually find out what happened and what we can actually say for sure. Another quality is someone who doesn’t get too emotional, there are lots of dodgy situations like road blocks and so on, you want someone who has a level head and is able to negotiate. Also I think a sense of humour is very, very important.
Does the industry do enough to foster the standards and ethics that fixers have to have? Do you think there’s room for educating would be and existing fixers in the way you work and the standards you’re expected to operate under?
I think thats really important. Its also important to stay in touch with the fixers after you’ve left. The problems that some fixers have is that in some countries they are left to face the music after a story comes out. I think its important for that reason to talk through the consequences of a story and what might happen. Also, its good for them to know that this is the way we do things, we want to gather the information, we want to gather all points of view, and we are not going to stitch people up, (for example) recording them without letting them know we’re recording them.
Could you have got to your contributors alone? How difficult a subject is migration to get access to?
Maybe but language is a huge issue and a lot of young Algerians don’t speak French and it’s not just speaking Arabic either, its a particular kind of Arabic with a lot of slang words you wouldn’t pick up on unless you were from there so thats really important. And I think also Said has a lot of charm, he knows how to diffuse potentially explosive situations. We had one when some fisherman came up to us when me and my producer were on the beach looking inside a boat – this fisherman thought we were going to report him to the local authorities, I don’t know if he was involved in something like illegal coral poaching or something which goes on there. He got very nervous and quite threatening and Said was able to calm him down. That was a trivial situation compared with some of the ones where people have actually got weapons. I felt a lot safer with (Said), safer to ask a lot of questions than I might have done on my own.
Do fixers get the recognition they deserve?
No, not always. I try and make them part of the story and on radio thats easy to do as they are often the voice that is translating for you so quite often I use them not just as a translator but I ask them “what do you think of this situation?”. Said was filling in, giving a bit of background on this shanty town we were in explaining it dated from French colonial times, it used to be an army barracks. I quite often solicit their opinion or expertise to make them a voice in the program. But I don’t think they always get the recognition they deserve and I think its quite a big issue. People mention them from time to time and some fixers don’t want to be recognised… for their security its better for them not to be too well known by the authorities or whatever but I think they should get more recognition.
How did you start out?
Before I did this work I was just a tour guide. What happened in my country was that terrorism started and we became jobless as the tourist industry collapsed completely. By collapsed I mean… what’s happening now in Egypt and Tunisia… it was worse. In Tunisia, after the incident on the beach tourists won’t go there – but Algeria was finished, finished, finished for over 15 years. We call it the ‘Black Decade’.
Were you worried about your own security taking on fixing work?
Yes, I got into a lot of trouble in the past, but I was very lucky
Why do you do it?
I’ve seen a lot of friends of mine who were film makers, or journalists being killed…. for me it was a challenge to fight against extremists and radical Islam.
Do you weigh up good journalists from bad journalists? Do you shy away from particular stories?
No, I tell them the truth. I tell them exactly what they can do, and what they cannot do in Algeria. I speak frankly with them and want to be very honest, if they want to make stories that will take them to meet terrorists I will say no, because its not want they think. It’s not like the Latin American guerrillas, they are dealing with crazy criminals. If you come to do a story about the culture, or the political issues, opposition or things like cultural world heritage, or stories about the social issues of the young they are welcome.
What kind of skills do you have to have?
Multiple skills. First you need languages.. French, Arabic and English, perfect. Then you need the skills of a guide, you have to know the region and the places around the country. And number three, you have to have a background in journalism and reporting – you have to know what the journalist is looking for. Is it TV, is it for news, is it print? You need to know about the situation of the country, you need to know the political issues, who is in the opposition, who’s not. Who is independent, who’s not, in terms of talking to the international press. You have to be very honest and explain what’s going on and it’s up to the journalist or the media to take the decision wether to do the story or not.
Journalism itself is changing with more and more independent media outlets hunting down stories all the time. For those who don’t have an established network how can they trust the person they come across on a site like World Fixer for example?
They should test him from day one. Give him some work to do before, some research and he must deliver even before they arrive. They will see if the guy is really able to do the work or not. All the skill I have didn’t come from day one. It’s after many many years.
What kind of relationship do you develop with the journalists you work with?
Some of them very long running relationships. Of course you teach them what they need and show them but you also learn from them, from their own experiences. For example the mistakes they made in Iraq or Syria, they do not want to make the same mistakes in another country.
What advice would you give other fixers out there?
Always do research, always check on the information you have. Just like any journalist, because a fixer is also a very good journalist.
Do you think fixers will be used more and more to create stories?
Yes of course, they will advise that you can do it from this angle, that perspective… you cannot do it from this angle because it’s wrong, or you can give advice. You always want to help journalists as sometimes they come to your country and they have no clue, no idea how it works, or they make it similar to another country – which it’s not. I’ve seen Tunisia for example, it’s not the same system as here, even though we are neighbours.
How is it working in Algeria for foreign journalists?
It’s difficult but depends what you want to do. Sometimes the regime her let you do something but if they find out you’re not doing exactly what you said you will have problems.
Will you be monitored?
Yes, they’ll want to check. They’ll want to see which story you want to do … are you doing real journalism or something else?
What would you want to say to promote Algeria though?
Algeria has a lot of potential, it’s a huge country. It’s the biggest in Africa today, Sudan was but now it’s cut into two pieces. To give you an idea of distances, between Algiers and London is the same distance as between Algiers and the border of Niger. Culturally theres huge differenced between the west and the east, the north and the south.
Are their any particular stories you wish people would pick up on?
Yeah, the culture, the people. There’s a lot of things like music, world heritage, Roman empire, Roman cities. I’m going to do something for PBS soon about the Roman empire – we did something with BBC which will be broadcast next year, with Mary Beard. The history of Algeria nobody really knows but we played a very important role in terms of christianity. There’s a lot of other topics like the berber culture, and the cuisine, the music, there’s a lot of things that journalists could make colourful stories about.
Is the country opening up?
Yes, I have a feeling that the country wants to open up. Even those who have been very stubborn in the past, like the bureaucrats, now they need to change and politically there is a lot of discussion.
The immigration issue – what’s the situation and how does Algerian society view it?
Yes, there are those who want to migrate. They think Europe is desperado but its not everybody, it’s just a minority who want to do that. They think they will go to Spain or Italy and they will find what they need but its just a mirage.
What has you favourite job been?
Working as a fixer, and producer with Michael Palin. He has become a very good friend, a great comedian, famous actor and a humble gentleman. I’m very proud to have worked on ‘Sahara with Michael Palin’.