Reporting Undercover in Zimbabwe

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NPR Reporter Jason Beaubien talks with Steve Inskeep about the difficulty of reporting the crisis in Zimbabwe. Beaubien says he must go undercover as a tourist to enter Zimbabwe and report on conditions there.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now, how you get any news at all out of Zimbabwe tells you something about the country, too, so we've kept Jason on the line to talk about that.

Jason, I just want to ask about one thing. I noticed that some of the tape in that report was a little bit scratchy and over-modulated. I understand there's a story behind that?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah. Zimbabwe is an incredibly difficult place to report at the moment. You can't report openly. Foreign journalists can't get visas to get in. If you do go in, you'd have to go through a very lengthy media accreditation process, which would probably end up with you not being accredited. So the only way to get in is to sneak in as a tourist.

So I went with a small, consumer-grade Walkman, Sony Walkman, and some of that I was recording actually off the ear buds of headphones that you plug into a microphone input, and you could pick up the sound that way. The one interview that really sounded the worst, I was actually using a sort of like a telephone headset that you might use for Skype or something like that on your computer. And I would strap this on to whoever I'm interviewing, and if they would get excited and were making an interesting point, they would often end up over-modulating the microphone and completely overpowering it. So it was a very difficult place to record.

INSKEEP: And what about Zimbabwean reporters? What kind of obstacles do they face?

BEAUBIEN: Well, in terms of the private media, they face huge obstacles. The only daily newspaper in the country was bombed several times and then eventually shut down by the government in 2003. There are some foreign journalists that are working there; they are regularly harassed.

Andrew Meldrum, who worked for the Guardian newspaper for 20 years, he was physically thrown out of the country in 2003. And even the people who are there and are accredited, they feel like they're constantly afraid of upsetting someone who's going to upset the government and the ramifications could come back to them personally.

INSKEEP: Did you feel that you got an accurate picture of what was going on in Zimbabwe, despite the obstacles thrown in your way?

BEAUBIEN: I felt like I was able to see what's going on. I mean, this is a country with huge problems at the moment. Inflation is about 1,000 percent, people's spending power is disappearing by the day. Last year, 700,000 people had their homes and businesses destroyed by the government. So I was able to meet with some of those people, but there were long lines outside the banks - I couldn't just go up to people and start talking to people. I'd be arrested, if I did that, by the police that are out on the streets.

So it was very difficult to work there, but I did feel like I was able to get a sense of what's going on in this deeply, deeply troubled country.

INSKEEP: And, in just a few seconds, why is it that some people you spoke with think that there could be an uprising, given that there has not been a successful uprising for more than a quarter century now?

BEAUBIEN: People are saying that things have gotten so bad in Zimbabwe, that people have been pushed so far, and that, at the moment, they're not even able to feed their own families, that this is going to turn people against the government and cause a popular uprising.

INSKEEP: Okay, Jason. Thanks very much for your work. Appreciate it.

That's NPR's Jason Beaubien, who's just completed a difficult reporting trip to the African nation of Zimbabwe. Jason has an audio slide show on the uprooting of Zimbabwe's shantytowns, and that's from last year. You can find it at npr.org.

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