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Q&A with Robyn Dixon, RFK Journalism Award winner

Robyn_dixon_in_zimbabwe Robyn Dixon is one of the recipients of the 40th Annual Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards, which recognize "outstanding reporting of the lives and strife of disadvantaged people throughout the world." Dixon, The Times' bureau chief in Johannesburg, South Africa, won in the International Print category for her coverage of Zimbabwe in 2007, articles that "judges agreed showed truly extraordinary courage in reporting and [painted] a deeply moving and comprehensive portrait of a country descending into a catastrophic nightmare."

"The roads of Zimbabwe sing their own haunting lament for a people and their suffering," wrote Dixon in her piece of Dec. 22, 2007, in one of 10 articles for which she was recognized. Another, from Sept. 3, begins, "Kuda Shumba goes at one speed: fast. He prides himself on being able to get hold of almost anything, and he's open for business day or night. That's what it takes to be one of Zimbabwe's black-market cowboys."

(Links to the articles on which the judges based their decisions are below.)

Wrote her editors in their letter of nomination, "She unveiled the tragedy of Zimbabwe through tales of ordinary people trapped in an Orwellian nightmare.” As Dixon herself wrote in her Dec. 22 article, "Reporting is difficult here. Because the government rarely issues journalist visas to foreigners, most of us work undercover, risking jail."

Dixon responded to questions from the readers' representative office earlier this year. Surprisingly, the reporter listed being on a plane among her fears. Not surprisingly, she doesn't like to be caught in angry mobs.

That hasn't stopped her from flying to any number of places where the risk of being caught amid a throng of angry people is high. Asked about the challenges and rewards of being a foreign correspondent, she wrote, "I felt most fulfilled when I was writing about people, particularly poor or disadvantaged people, and the struggles of their daily lives whether in Russia, the former USSR, Africa or Australia.... Some of the richest and most memorable conversations I've had have been with people whose lives are a real struggle."

Here's more from the Q&A.

Where have you been posted?

I spent nine years in Moscow covering the former USSR and Afghanistan. I was working for two Australian papers for four of those years (the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age) and from 1999 to 2003 I was part of the L.A. Times Moscow Bureau. In 2003, I moved to Johannesburg with my daughter, Sylvia. I got my start in journalism in 1978 and I've done every job under the sun since then. I used to do a night police reporting beat from 2 a.m. until 10 a.m. I covered politics, wrote a TV column, wrote about education, the courts, rural affairs, community welfare and I wrote general features. I loved it all but I felt most fulfilled when I was writing about people, particularly poor or disadvantaged people, and the struggles of their daily lives whether in Russia, the former USSR, Africa or Australia. My younger brother was very severely disabled and died quite young so perhaps that gave me a feeling from a young age for just how tough life can be. Some of the richest and most memorable conversations I've had have been with people whose lives are a real struggle.

When do you feel most in danger?

Well, I'm not a good flier. I once bought a book on conquering one's fear of flying, only to find a line on Page 1 which said the book's assumptions about the relative safety of flying applied only to Western airlines, and not to any of the airlines that I'd be likely to fly. I put down the book.

I do operate on the principle, "Feel the fear, but do it anyway," but at the same time I try to tune in to signals that tell you it's time to get out of a situation. For example I was interviewing angry young men in a Kenya slum in the post-election violence recently and some of them started shouting that I was a government spy. A few of them started banging on my car. The shouting got louder, the men got angrier and at that point we turned the car and left, before things got ugly. But sometimes the signals are not quite so obvious.

I find angry mob situations frightening, particularly if people are armed. Sometimes the situation can turn very quickly; everything seems fine, then suddenly there is an angry, explosive situation.

Because I'm small I do not like to be caught in a tight, uncontrolled crush of bodies, which happened a couple of times, covering the Liberian elections.

In Zimbabwe, it was a different kind of risk: the risk of arrest for working without accreditation, which [until early this year] carried a two-year jail penalty. The problem there is that local people talk a lot about the activities of the secret police, and how all-pervasive they are, so it's easy to get caught up in the atmosphere of fear, which can prevent you doing your job properly if you let it. Going into rural areas is difficult, because you stand out as a suspicious stranger. But in urban areas, as long as you don't take notes or photos in public, it is usually OK although you have to avoid certain places with a heavy security presence where your presence would attract attention. I try to dress and act like a Zimbabwean. Simple things like carrying a backpack can give you away as a foreigner. The time I felt most at risk was one occasion when my car was searched from top to bottom by police and I was worried they would find my interview notes which could be used as evidence that I'd been working unaccredited.

How do you stay safe?
I try to be conservative in estimating danger and to find ways to get close to the story without putting myself in physical danger. Perhaps the most dangerous time for a journalist is when you "parachute" into a situation that is moving quickly and with which you are unfamiliar. You have just arrived; you are trying to get a grip on the story as quickly as possible, moving around and reporting, and your guard may be down. You might be unfamiliar with which areas are safe or what kind of actions you might take that could anger people or put you in danger. It's sometimes hard to remember to play it safe in those situations, because you are so eager to get to the heart of the story, find out what's going on and file news as soon as you can.

Estimating the risk is often difficult. The best thing to do is to talk to local people about the situation to get a feel for how risky a situation is. There often is a calculated risk, but the idea is to keep it to a minimum level that you feel comfortable with. There are some places which are always dangerous, even when they feel OK, like Mogadishu.

There are other dangers that people tend to forget: malaria can kill you, for example. And driving, given the condition of the roads and the driving culture in some of the places I have worked, is one of the most dangerous things of all.

Below are two lists: the first, the stories from 2007 that earned Dixon the award; the second, the stories that Dixon provided when asked what she found memorable for whatever reason. Those on the second list, Dixon says, "bring to life all kinds of memories for me. Some are poignant, some are sad, and others some are exhilarating, happy stories."

Odyssey through a sad land” Dec. 22

Zimbabwe may shatter” Dec. 15

Corruption fuels hunger” Dec. 9

Theater of fear” Nov. 19

Lining up for loaves” Nov. 13

Angry and unyielding” Oct. 3

“Running for their lives," Sept. 9

He can get it for you fast” Sept. 3

An economic noose tightens” Aug. 20

Even loyalists are disloyal” March 29

Robyn Dixon's "memorable stories" and her comments:

"Boys with guns in Afghanistan," Nov. 9, 2001. I brushed up against several furious young teens with Kalashnikovs who shot at our car and briefly took us prisoner. That incident got me interested in the gun culture in Afghanistan.

"Poachers ply a sea of secrets," June 8, 2001. I did not meet one Russian sailor who did not have a hair-raising tale of surviving some harrowing storm. No one wanted to talk about the illegal poaching industry, but eventually some did.

"South Africa, told in a pony's tale," Dec. 9, 2006. This is a story about South Africa's first black show jumper, Enos Mafokate, and the skinny gray coal horse in Soweto that he saved from cruelty, called Lucky.

"Lessons in resentment, resilience," Feb. 6, 2005. A bittersweet story. I was moved by an 85-year-old man in Kenya who had such a passion to be educated that he went to primary school to learn to read, even though it cost him many friends in his village.

"Rejecting a ritual of pain," July 3, 2004. I was struck by the courage of a group of young girls who fled their village in Kenya to escape female genital mutilation.

"I will eat your dollars," Oct. 20, 2005. This story is an inside peek into the world of the cyber scammers who send out thousands of emails trying to fraudulently extract money.

"On their toes for a way out," Nov. 15, 2005. An inspiring story about children from the crowded South African township of Alexandra, who won the chance to become ballet stars.

"The booming, broken 'New York of Nigeria,'" June 25, 2007. I always loved the fast, exhilarating atmosphere in Lagos, so I wrote a portrait of the city.

"A passage buoyed by hope alone," March 16, 2007. A story about the brave young men who flee Africa in tiny fragile vessels, trying to make it to Europe by sea. They are seen as heroes in their villages, and I could see why.

"The dream houses of Iraq's Ali Babas," April 24, 2003. This story attempted to capture the exhilarating sense of freedom many Iraqis felt after the fall of Saddam Hussein, when people started stealing whatever they could to try to get ahead in life, and in one case to build a house -- with orange walls because "everyone likes the color orange."

"Flights of fancy from a harsh life," Jan. 3, 2001. One of my favorite stories about the indefatigable human spirit. It's about eccentric Russian inventors who built submarines and airplanes in their attics or back sheds during the Soviet era.

Photo by Francine Orr, Los Angeles Times, of correspondent Robyn Dixon in Zimbabwe. "Life here is full of Catch-22 dilemmas that would strain credulity," Dixon says.

 
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