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News The Correspondent From the President: In Prai...

From the President: In Praise of Journalism’s True Unsung Heroes

Dear FCC Members,

For this column, I would like to give a shout-out and a thank you to all the interpreters, fixers, drivers and office assistants around the world who regularly risk their lives to help foreign correspondents get the story. They rarely get the bylines and the glory, but these brave media workers are journalism’s true unsung heroes.

The last two weeks of August were filled with harrowing stories of international media outlets going to great lengths to get their local employees and their families out of Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover. Every report of an interpreter making it out safely with their family members has been a cause for cheer.

I covered the first decade of the Afghanistan war as a correspondent for The Washington Post, starting with the American bombing and the Taliban retreat from Kabul in 2001 and making multiple trips to the country until 2010. I remember all of the Afghan interpreters and drivers who supported me on every visit. 

They helped me navigate the country’s byzantine tribal politics, warned me when a highway was too dangerous to travel and accompanied me on trips from Kandahar in the south to Kunduz in the north. Most left Afghanistan a long time ago and I am eternally grateful to them all.

I also fondly remember my longtime interpreter and my driver from Somalia from when I was the Post’s Africa correspondent covering the 1990s US military intervention. They were always waiting for me at Mogadishu airport when I flew in from Nairobi; they waded into angry crowds with me to interview witnesses to the most recent military clash, and they dutifully went along with my boneheaded ideas to drive to faraway towns like Baidoa and Bardera in our battered white Toyota. They kept me safe, and I thank them.

Some of my former interpreters and drivers I came upon by chance. In Iraq, I found my interpreter through the Red Crescent Society in Basra at the start of the 2003 US-led invasion when I drove across the border from Kuwait; he stayed with me for the next few weeks. 

Flying into Casablanca in 2003 to cover a series of suicide bombings, I found a taxi driver who spoke good French and hired him on the spot for the next week. In Kinshasa, adrift without a fixer, I wandered onto the university campus, found the English Department and asked a professor for his best English-speaking student, who became my regular guide.

Many of the local hires I worked with were longtime Post employees, and they always showed dedication and loyalty, even though most had never set foot in the head office in Washington, DC.

In China, interpreters and fixers are called “news assistants”. They are journalists, although, under Chinese rules, they were not allowed to have bylines. I was lucky to have three of the absolute best in Beijing from late 2009 through 2013. They found scoops, accompanied me on trips and translated the Chinese papers and social media sites for me. And our longtime Post driver could somehow get me through Beijing’s notorious traffic jams in record time.

Some have gone on to become journalists in their own right. One star is the intrepid Atika Shubert. She started as my interpreter and fixer in Jakarta when she was just out of university. She later became The Washington Post stringer in Indonesia, writing stories when I was back in Hong Kong, and together we covered the Jakarta riots and the fall of the Suharto regime in 1998. She covered the independence vote and the militia rampage in East Timor for the Post, among many other stories, before joining CNN, where she is now a European correspondent.

Behind every good foreign correspondent, there’s an interpreter, a driver, a fixer or a news assistant. They rarely get the recognition they are due. Let’s take a moment to sing their praises.

Keith Richburg
Hong Kong
6 September 2021

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