Yemen and Reuters (3)

Journalists have a hard time in Yemen. Most are badly paid and many take on other jobs to supplement their income. 

The Yemeni press (with one or two exceptions) is also highly partisan. That is far from ideal but it is less of a problem than outsiders often imagine. There's a diversity of voices; readers know where the papers and their reporters stand politically and they take that into account.

The position of international news agencies operating in Yemen is different, however. Readers expect them to be a trustworthy source of information and to make independent judgments about what is or isn't news.

That is the root of the problem with Mohamed Sudam. While working as a local correspondent for Reuters he also had two government jobs: as the president's interpreter and, since 2009, as the president's secretary.

Reuters had known about his presidential interpreting work for years (because he had been honest enough to tell them) but for some unfathomable reason they accepted it. This would still have been continuing – except that in October Sudam was briefly kidnapped by elements opposed to President Saleh. Conflicting reports of his kidnapping described him as a government official and/or a Reuters reporter.

Shocked to discover that both descriptions were correct, a number of Yemenis (most notably Dory Eryani) began protesting on Twitter and the #ShameOnReuters hashtag was born.

Reuters at this point reacted as many large organisations do in response to twittering ... with a mixture of complacency and disdain.

After several days' silence it issued a self-congratulatory statement saying: "For more than 160 years the coverage of Reuters in the Middle East has been a trustworthy source of news" and adding: "We consider that the work of Mohammed Sudam as a part-time reporter rises to the international standards that we adhere to around the world."

Dismissing the complaints in this way was foolish, to say the least. A non-committal statement that they were looking into the matter would have been far better.

Some of the twitterers claimed to detect evidence of pro-government bias in Sudam's reporting. But whether that is true or not, it is somewhat beside the point. The main point is that his dual role as reporter and presidential interpreter/secretary jeopardised Reuters' credibility and its relationship of trust with the public.

There must also have been times when Sudam felt he was in an invidious position – hearing things as he interpreted in private meetings but facing dilemmas as to what, if anything, he could report. (Sudam hasn't commented on the affair so far, but it would be interesting to know how he dealt with these issues.)

By Thursday, when the story had reached the ears of the New York Times and the Washington Post, Reuters made a sharp U-turn:

"Sudam's work as a Reuters stringer [non-staff correspondent] over the course of many years has been fair and accurate. When he became a translator for the president, he disclosed his role to Reuters. On reviewing the matter, however, we believe it's not appropriate to use a stringer who is also working for the government. He is no longer reporting for us from Yemen."

Reuters, I feel, comes out of this very badly. It should have been obvious right from the start that Sudam's dual role was "not appropriate" – and yet Reuters knew about it and allowed it to continue for years. I have slightly more sympathy for Sudam, though he ought to have realised what he was getting into.

Contrary to some of the recent tweets, it appears that Sudam has not actually been fired (and rightly so, because it's mainly Reuters' fault). The statement says he is no longer working for Reuters from Yemen. According to the New York Times, this means he will be offered work elsewhere in the Middle East where, hopefully, his journalism will not be compromised as it was in Yemen.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 18 November 2011