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The Sacramento Press Club hosted its second luncheon of the month Tuesday with special guest Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, National Public Radio’s foreign correspondent – currently based in Cairo, Egypt – who shared her experiences with the challenges and the violence many journalists face overseas.
The Sacramento Press Club is a nonprofit organization that lends itself to informing its members and the public through monthly luncheons that feature reporters and newsmakers from around the country and provides scholarships to journalism students in California.
The renowned journalist, who currently covers the Arab world from North Africa to the Middle East, shared some of her experiences in reporting from her current assignment and her three years as NPR’s voice from Kabul, Afghanistan.
“It’s so difficult for journalists to cover regions so vastly different from our own,” said Nelson, who spent almost a decade as a foreign correspondent.
The job can be very difficult for some who don’t speak the language, Nelson said, though many places do speak French and English. Nelson speaks Farsi, Dari and German.
Drawing from her own experience, Syria,Yemen and Libya, are the hardest to cover due to the amount of resistance, violence, and discrimination reporters can face. Some areas are too violent to go to, and journalists must find that out by talking to people on the street and by “making the decision ourselves,” she said.
Throughout her speech, Nelson repeatedly brought up the violence that is projected toward journalists. She said that in some places she “could not be there as a reporter,” describing the reluctance of many people to talk to her.
In a story she covered about a group of women who were protesting, Nelson said that some were concerned that her presence could influence government officials. She mentioned rumors that were spread around the country, that “we journalists are spies working for the CIA and they should stop us,” adding that journalists were “not people they want to talk to anymore.”
To move freely throughout many of the Middle Eastern countries, she said she had to keep herself from being noticed. Sometimes this meant that she had to dress in a black veil and wear black clothes like the women in the country, disguising her appearance as a reporter.
Discrimination toward women is a widely known issue in the Middle East and throughout Central Asia. The tension toward female reporters was “very high because of the religion and culture,” Nelson said, also stating that the threat is not just to women – “assault and danger is to men as much as women” she said.
Reporters often find themselves in situations that could bring danger upon themselves. Nelson described the need to have outlets – safe havens where one could go to decompress, and the tendency for journalists to travel in groups. She said she had to always try to be in control of situations, and “never sit my back to the glass,”– another way of saying she carries caution with her at all times.
Nelson said she has “suffered sexual harassment- much more in Afghanistan and Pakistan than in Egypt,” but the severity can be take no more than harassment of male reporters.
One of the greatest challenges for journalists on covering the social unrest in another country, Nelson said, is to avoid stereotypes and “make sure we’re covering it in a balanced way.”
About 75 members of the Sacramento Press Club and the community attended the luncheon.
Dr. Becky LaVally, instructor of rhetorical criticism at Sacramento State and former political reporter, responded to Nelson’s balanced review of the violence towards men and women in the Middle East, saying “she was very professional in her description of the dangers facing men and women. The level of danger is so high that sexual harassment becomes a gradation of danger.”
Ann Bancroft, a former reporter and communications director for the California Department of Education, said she found the speech “just fascinating” in respect to Nelson’s “heroism–what she does to give us all the story.”
Bancroft also mentioned her interest in several other issues brought up in Nelson’s speech, which included the progress of women’s elevation being set back in Middle Eastern countries.
Only in the U.S. for a short time, Nelson will soon be returning to her post in Cairo, reporting the news for NPR.
The next seminar for the press club, free and open to the public, is August 16. Find more information on their website at http://sacpressclub.org/attend-seminars
For more information about Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, visit http://www.npr.org/people/7407153/soraya-sarhaddi-nelson