By Elijah Alperin
In international journalism, a local journalist hired by foreign reporters for his or her special knowledge of the local area, culture, and language is called a fixer. This series explores the untold stories behind their largely unrecognized work.
Since uprisings began in Libya in 2011, violence has plagued the country. Since then, reports of journalists killed while covering the conflict—including renowned journalists Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros—have grabbed headlines.
Libyan fixer Suliman Ali Zway began fixing as what he saw as his contribution during the initial uprising, and has worked with some of the best-known names in foreign reporting since then.
Roads & Kingdoms spoke with Zway about the dangers of reporting in a country awash in weapons, his work on the New York Times magazine story “Fractured Lands,” and why reporting in a war zone is so expensive.
R&K: How did you start working as a fixer for foreign journalists?
Zway: I had a construction business. When the uprisings started, I volunteered to work with foreign press because that was my contribution, you could say. Everybody was doing something at the time, and what I could contribute was translating for foreign journalists. And then the translating evolved; you start translating the interviews, but also speaking about the country, trying to fix interviews with people. That’s how I got into it.
R&K: And you also work as a journalist?
Zway: Yeah. It’s a mix of things. What you do in this business, there are so many different names but it’s the same, a fixer is a journalist and a journalist could also be a fixer. It’s just different titles.
R&K: Who are some of the people you’ve worked with?
Zway: [New Yorker staff writer] Jon Lee Anderson, he was one of the first people that I helped, because he was there when the uprisings started. I think he was there within a week or two. The first two journalists that I worked with together, I think it was Leila Fadel, who was the Cairo bureau chief of the Washington Post, and Nancy Youssef, who was with McClatchy.
R&K: How do you connect with the people you work with?
Zway: I never advertised in any way. In this business, there’s a lot of word of mouth. Once you’ve worked with enough people, they start recommending you to each other. There are secret groups on Facebook.
R&K: There have been dozens of attacks on journalists since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi. What are some factors contributing to this violence?
Zway: The country is awash with weapons. There’s nothing that could prepare you for that as a nation. Once the weapons depot’s doors are opened, it’s like opening the gates of Hell, it’s like Pandora’s Box. You know what happens when everybody owns a weapon or two; this is what happens. When we talk about the States, you guys still have that same problem. Teenagers go into a school and they start shooting, because they can, because they have that weapon, even though there is the presence of a central government. Imagine having military grade weapons without a central government that functions.
I think between 2011 and 2014, it gradually became more and more difficult. At that time, the danger lay in the frontlines. If you’re going to a frontline, something is going to happen. You are already taking the risk, as a journalist. That happened to quite a few people. They would get killed on the frontline, not because they were targeted [as journalists], but because it’s a frontline. Everybody’s a target on the frontline. And then you have people who got taken away by the Gaddafi forces or vice versa. Being a journalist, a Western journalist in particular, is associated with being a spy. That adds to the danger.
What I am trying to get at is that specific targeting, and more and more danger, actually started in 2013 onwards. That’s where polarization really started to happen, post-Gaddafi. People started taking sides and people become political, sensitivities were there. Assassinations of all sorts started happening.
R&K: Have you ever been threatened for the work that you are doing in Libya?
Zway: Yeah. A couple of times. I’m not gonna go into specifics, but yeah, it happens.
R&K: What are some of the day-to-day considerations in order to safely cover a story?
Zway: With every journalist, with every publication, it’s different. With print journalists it’s much easier to keep a low profile than it is with a TV crew. A film crew is an even bigger problem, but that’s also what pays more. You have to keep a balance on some level. On average, foreign journalists do trust you as a local. It’s the exception that you have somebody who thinks that they’re seasoned, that they know enough. I think when it comes to danger, everybody would more or less trust [their fixer], but some of them are more stubborn, some of them are more desperate for results, especially when it comes to TV. With TV, they have to point a big-ass camera at somebody and that sometimes gets you into trouble. That’s where I come in.
R&K: Have the foreign journalists you’ve worked generally understood the risks they are taking while reporting in Libya?
Zway: In my case, I’m quite different in the sense that I have been more or less working with the same people since 2011. It’s not often that I work with new people. That’s where it becomes frustrating to me. A newcomer comes in and they try to compare it to the conflict that they know best. For example “I know this because I’ve been to Afghanistan, I know this because I’ve been in Iraq.” Every country has its own challenges.
R&K: What is a challenge unique to Libya?
Zway: Navigating the local rivalries. Doesn’t make it unique to Libya but you can’t apply what you know about navigating the local rivalries, which also exist in Afghanistan and Iraq, to Libya and vice versa. This is where you have to rely on the local people, the fixer, in Libya and trust them. [For example] the way that you talk to the militants for the interview. Instead of saying the word “militia” to the militias you say a “brigade.” There are small things that to an outsider do not mean anything but it’s all about the sensitivities.
R&K: Do you think that Western readers in general have a meaningful grasp on what’s happening in Libya?
Zway: No, I don’t think so. They are distracted. There’s a very short attention span when it comes to news these days. It’s not specific to Libya, it’s “Oh, there’s an explosion here! Oh look, there’s a ferret over there.” I don’t think that journalists are to blame for that, I think it’s the internet.
In terms of journalists from the American perspective and the European perspective, they completely look at it differently. The Europeans would always go for the illegal migration narrative. The Americans would always go from the terrorism narrative, although you might be reporting the same story. In an American setting you say, “Oh there is ISIS, this is the city where an American ambassador had been killed,” while if you are writing for a European paper you’re like “Oh, this is the city where the waves of migration started flocking to Europe.”
R&K: You worked on the New York Times magazine story “Fractured Lands.” In that article, Majdi el Mangoush is an air force cadet in the Libyan Army who ends up changing sides. How did you and author Scott Anderson find him?
Zway: I was reporting on a different story for the New York Times, for the paper. [Majdi el Mangoush’s] story was a story of history and how things worked, and that wasn’t interesting from a news perspective. You have to find the right platform for a story. From a news perspective, it was a few years too late. So I kind of hoarded the story and saved it for later, for a better platform, a documentary or a magazine piece, and then this came and I thought to myself “this is the time to get this story out.” The unique part of it was that everyone was covering it from one side or another and this was the only guy who has seen it from both sides. He was on the Gaddafi side, he was on the rebels’ side, he was torn between friends and family, there’s a lot of drama, there’s a lot of human emotion. And the guy was actually a real, genuine human being, who tells it very beautifully, and he’s really good with remembering the small details. It’s almost like a reflection, really. He goes into really great details and he’d written down the story once he came back from the front. I just thought that “Fractured Lands” would be the right platform for it, when it came.
R&K: How did the reporting go?
Zway: It was actually one of the easier stories, working with Scott. All we had to do was hang out with the character and speak about his life. We weren’t seeking permissions, we weren’t going to dangerous places and trying to negotiate with local militias. There was just this guy who had already agreed to speak to us. I think the biggest challenge every day was which café we were going to. But this is from my perspective. I think from the perspective of somebody who had never been to Libya prior to that, coming to a place that is awash with weapons, where foreigners are targeted, I’m sure that it can be stressful to them.
R&K: Anderson has said that the reporting for the story was very expensive. What contributes to the costs of reporting in Libya?
Zway: I think it’s expensive because of the lack of options. Any war zone is expensive to report in. As a foreign journalist, starting with your flight fees, if you’re going into a war zone you have to pay for your insurance, which increases in places like Libya. And also, there aren’t that many people working in the field of fixing; it’s a simple supply-and-demand thing. As a fixer, I don’t think I would do it for any less money, because it’s not an everyday job with a salary at the end. Add that to the danger of the place. Why should anyone take a risk for a small amount of money? To be honest, it’s not worth it.
R&K: When “Fractured Lands” was published it doesn’t look like you’re credited. Is that something that you expected?
Zway: Yeah. With the New York Times magazine … that’s the downside with having the title “fixer.” With the same publication, the New York Times, the paper, there’s always a credit. But as a fixer, you aren’t always credited, and that can be the frustrating part. That’s where the title fixer doesn’t get you anywhere at the end.
You know beforehand that there is no recognition. I think the writers, the good ones at least, they recognize you in different ways. I don’t know if that’s enough or not, but in many cases that’s what they can do. You sign up for this kind of work knowing this is how it’s going to be. Change the title and you’ll get the credit. There has to be change in policies where they credit local fixers for the work they do.
Elijah Alperin is a native of San Francisco. He studies History and Economics at the University of Chicago. He spent a year in Japan learning Japanese and is currently tackling Arabic.