US President Donald Trump’s ban on all people from seven countries arriving in the United States regardless of whether they have a visa/green card will cripple reporting from the region. Foreign journalists, cameraman and photographers in the seven countries in question — Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen — will no longer be able to rely on the loyalty of their local staff, who are basically their conduit into complex and often dangerous societies.

The role of local staff in covering these countries cannot be underestimated. The foreign correspondent will often fly in and out relying on their translators, drivers and local journalists to update them on the situation and basically keep them alive. Often the very act of working for a foreign organisation is enough to make local media employees — and their families — targets for murder and kidnapping.

The huge risks local employees take are not for money. They often take these risks because of a belief that if their terrible situations in these countries were accurately reported in the Western media, things would change. As CNN’s senior correspondent in Iraq, Ben Wedeman, said yesterday: “These people risk their lives for us. Now it is going to be a lot harder for them.”

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Basically, there has been a long history of translators and media workers being assisted to get out of danger when things have become lethal for the employees of Western media organisations. This has not always been easy. I myself have been involved with two of these situations. In one case, it took the near death of a translator in an improvised-explosive attack in Iraq to get him and his family permission to come to Australia. In another case, it took years and years of lobbying to get a translator/journalist out of Afghanistan. Both, thank god, are now safely in Australia. Now, with the stroke of a pen Trump has made that impossible for those who work for US media organisations, which it has to be said is, due to budget cuts, where most of Australia’s foreign news now comes from.

One of the first of those detained at New York’s JFK airport under the new laws was a man who had worked since 2003 as a translator for the US military in Iraq, for the famous 101st airborne. It had taken him years to get his visa. He arrived after the deadline and was detained as an illegal despite the fact he had a visa. If the US military cannot protect its own, what hope has the media? Be prepared to get no, or very sketchy, coverage from those seven countries banned from the US. 

Peter Fray

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