“We begin, as they say, with breaking news,” said John Avlon, a senior political analyst with CNN, at the 10th annual Women in the World Summit on Thursday. Sudan’s long-standing dictator, Omar al-Bashir, had just been forced out of power in a military coup. Sitting next to Avlon on stage, Nima Elbagir nodded her head. A senior international correspondent for CNN, Elbagir has reported tirelessly — and at considerable personal risk — on the Sudanese pro-democracy uprising that may have toppled al-Bashir. It was a perfect example of how foreign correspondents inform our understanding of the world at every moment.
“This is a generation that grew up under this dictatorship,” said Elbagir. “These are his children. These are his boys and girls. They have no freedom of press, they have no freedom of expression, and yet in spite of that vacuum they have been able to visualize what it is that they want. And what they want is what everybody else wants.”
Elbagir was joined onstage by Lynsey Addario and Alexandra Ulmer — a lineup that Avlon described as “three of the most accomplished, respected foreign correspondents in the world today.” Each woman shared stories of challenges they’ve negotiated while working on the front lines.
Venezuela: “It is essentially a black hole”
A special correspondent for Reuters, Alexandra Ulmer has been embedded in Venezuela for four years investigating, among other things, corruption in the state oil company, PDVSA. Working day to day in a failed state poses certain challenges, Ulmer said. How do you find facts when a government is committed to rewriting truth? What can a grocery bill tell you about the national economy?
South Sudan: “I couldn’t stop crying”
One of the most celebrated photojournalists of her generation, Lynsey Addario has reported on conflicts and humanitarian crises everywhere from Afghanistan to the Democratic Republic of Congo, often for the New York Times. While she usually avoids inserting herself into a story, sometimes her subjects — like Chuol, a 9-year-old refugee from South Sudan — make it difficult.
Nigeria: “If you’re raped, don’t struggle”
Elbagir has built a reputation by putting herself into situations that most people would run from, all in the name of exposing injustices around the globe. In Edo State, Nigeria, she took this to a remarkable extreme when she decided to allow a sex trafficker (a “pusherman”) to smuggle her from Africa to Europe on a route that many desperate women are forced to take. “If you’re raped, don’t struggle,” the trafficker told her.
John Avlon finished the panel by posing a question: Why, “at a time when America seems to be turning inwards,” is it so vital to keep international reporting on the front pages of newspapers? All three journalists agreed: It helps us understand what’s happening in our own countries.
Recently, Addario found herself reporting on women in Syria, where she watched ISIS fighters firing at people in the town of Baghouz. The official narrative of the American government was that ISIS had been defeated. “That in and of itself really tells the story of the importance of frontline journalism,” Addario said, “because we were able to say, actually that’s not the case.”
Additional reporting by Gloria Teal.