THE BLOG

A Rush of Journalists

23/12/2013 16:25 GMT | Updated 22/02/2014 10:59 GMT

A few weeks ago, before the latest violence in Central African Republic, a UN official in Bangui asked me why all of a sudden there were so many journalists in town. There were around a dozen or so journalists from around the world on board our Air France flight from Paris.

For months this official has been trying to raise awareness about the humanitarian crisis, now, journalists are contacting her every day.

During the past year, Al Jazeera has been among the few international news networks committed to covering events in Central African Republic. This is one of the reasons why people watch our channel, because of our focus on ignored parts of the world.

In November, we uncovered a massacre in Bouar, eighteen people, including women and children, were gunned down as they took shelter from the fighting and rain in a mud hut. At that time we were the only International English speaking media on the ground.

On a number of occasions journalists have been in touch, interested in reporting from the country. More often than not other big stories have diverted them elsewhere and on occasion there just isn't the will or the money from their deployment managers, to send staff to what is a dangerous and logistically challenging place.

Travelling outside Bangui without a UN or African Union escort is difficult; the problem is getting through the many unofficial checkpoints along the way. Sometimes, a Press flag is enough, at other times it isn't, and one bribe can lead to many bribes along the way.

In Bangui, hiring cars and fixers is also an issue, there aren't many English-speaking journalists, and transport is expensive.

Some drivers refuse to leave Bangui, because of security reasons. Of course there are freelance journalists who arrive, stay with a local NGO or friend, and use motor taxis to get around.

There have been very few direct threats towards international journalists in the country, but getting caught up in the crossfire, being robbed, or even sexually assaulted are all daily risks.

Some writers still managed to get the story out from a distance, relying on telephone or email interviews, and press releases from Human Rights Watch or Doctors Without Borders to embellish their copy.

So, what changed?

I think part of what changed is that the violence in Central African Republic has become sectarian. After more than six months of systematic looting, and killing, by a mainly Muslim Seleka force, local Christian self-defense groups started to hit back. Soon they were known as Anti-Balaka, which means anti-machete in Sango, and reports amplified that Anti-Balaka was increasingly better armed, and that its members included officers from former President Francois Bozizé's army. As stories of massacres based on religion grew in intensity, so did the interest from the International media.

The conflict in Central African Republic is of course far more complicated than a simplified label of sectarian violence. There are Christians within the Seleka coalition; and there are many Christians who backed the rebellion against Francois Bozizé tired of years of abuse, a corrupt economy, in one of the poorest nations in the World.

Some of the members of Anti-Balaka, have a political interest in stirring up animosity towards Muslims. Moreover, there are members of Seleka who want to preserve instability in the country, so that they can continue to steal, and control vast swathes of mineral rich territory.

Genocide

To add to the mix, the French announced the country was on the brink of genocide, the UN Security Council then voted to beef up numbers of African Union peacekeepers and French soldiers in the country. The entrance of more than a thousand French soldiers, also led to the arrival of a contingent of French journalists. Once, a forgotten crisis, Central African Republic had swiftly become newsworthy.

Muslims and Christians have lived on the whole, in peace, for hundreds of years, and many people here blame outside forces within Seleka, for some of the worst atrocities. Central Africans call them "Arabs" because they don't speak the local language; they are fighters from Chadian or Sudan.

The worrying thing now is that the violence is no longer just between Seleka and Anti Balaka. In Bangui, and elsewhere, I witnessed a frenzy of hatred, Christians are ripping apart mosques, and mobs are hunting with machetes for their next Muslim victim. And Muslims are turning to dangerous armed fighters for protection, as well as revenge attacks.

Mandela

When Nelson Mandela passed away, editors had a decision to make. Redeploy their staff to South Africa, or keep them in Central African Republic, even if their stories would slip for a while off the television and radio running orders, or the front pages of print and websites.

However, many journalists saw echoes of 1994, when Nelson Mandela's election as President dominated the news agenda, and the genocide in Rwanda was forgotten.

Some news networks predictably succumbed; one channel even sent a private plane to pick their team.

However, for some including us, it actually served as a good reason why journalists must stay. The question we were asking ourselves was what Nelson Mandela would have thought of the violence here. History is full of examples of where intervention came too late. The great man would not have wanted his death to lead to the world forgetting again.