CNN reporter on covering modern-day slavery in Mauritania: ‘We had to do much of this reporting in secret’

CNN’s John Sutter and Edythe McNamee spent nearly a year trying to gain entry into Mauritania, where 10 to 20 percent of the population is still enslaved. Their project, “Slavery’s Last Stronghold,” shows the effects slavery has had on this West African nation, and is part of CNN’s ongoing effort to strengthen its international reporting.

I talked with Sutter via email about what he learned from the reporting experience.

Mallary Tenore: What was the hardest part about reporting on this story?

John Sutter: We had to do much of this reporting in secret — often in the middle of the night, watching our backs to make sure we weren’t being followed. It was tense at times.

And I think the really frustrating thing was trying to tease out the line between getting enough information so that we could report this story and do it fairly and also making sure that we didn’t get in trouble with authorities, who could have taken all of our equipment and notebooks. I e-mailed notes to myself at night in case that happened, and the videographer on this project, Edythe McNamee, mailed a hard drive back to the U.S.

There was one night where we were out in the middle of the Sahara, speaking with people who formerly were enslaved. But because a government minder was there, we couldn’t ask about slavery directly. That was really hard for me to deal with — being in a remote place where you could gain so much information and insight, but not being able to report. I actually asked if we could stay the night in that village, thinking the government reps might fall asleep and then we could conduct real interviews late at night. They vetoed that idea, of course.

The stories we heard also were very emotional — and that was hard to deal with at times. Usually it’s pretty easy to put on your reporter hat, at least while you’re having a conversation, and to distance yourself from the content of the interview. That wasn’t possible with several of these interviews, both because I was surprised by what people said — a liberated slave didn’t remember the moment he started getting paid — and because some of the tales of slavery were so horrific and graphic.

What are you most proud of about this project?

This may sound like a cop-out, but I’m honestly most proud of the people who were brave enough to speak out about slavery. Both escaped slaves and abolitionists had truly breathtaking, heartbreaking and incredible stories to tell, and they’re putting themselves at risk to do so. The story of the slave master who became an abolitionist touched me deeply, especially because books and education opened up his world and changed the course of his life — maybe the course of his country’s history. I’m proud to be able to relay a story like that to the world. And to have met such a courageous person.

I also saw an article about our coverage that said while CNN was not the first news organization to report on slavery in Mauritania (very true), that we made the subject vivid and real — and by doing so hopefully gave people a reason to care about this far-flung place. I take that as a huge compliment because that’s what we set out to achieve.

You specialize in tech and environment reporting. Had you covered modern-day slavery prior to working on this project, and do you think you’ll keep covering it moving forward?

That’s a good question. I’ve covered a bunch of topics here at CNN — including the Gulf oil disaster, the Census, Rep. [Gabrielle] Giffords’ shooting and also many tech stories. Sometimes I go back and forth between weighty topics and light ones. While I was writing this Mauritania piece, for instance, I flew to San Francisco to cover the launch of the new iPad.

I was new to this topic when I started researching it about a year ago, but I think that newness can be a strength in some ways. If you’re new to something you see it with fresh eyes. Also, while I’d never been to this part of Africa, my degree is in international studies with a focus on African affairs, and I’ve worked briefly in South Africa, Madagascar and Tanzania. So I have some limited experience in international storytelling.

As far as what’s next, I’d love to be involved in more stories about human rights. CNN has made an incredible difference in the world through the Freedom Project — which focuses on ending modern slavery — and it’s humbling to be a small part of that.

Why do you believe in this kind of international reporting? Why do you think it’s important for journalism, and for the public?

I really believe we’re all connected — all people, all over the world. And as nerdy and kumbaya as that may sound, it’s true. What happens in Africa matters because it’s happening to people who live on the same planet we do. Someone once told me that when you first travel to a really foreign-seeming place, you notice all the differences; but if you stay a while you start to see only the similarities. I like that, and it’s true.

Our struggles are intertwined and I think we make smarter decisions as people and as a nation if we understand those connections better. I also think people on opposite sides of the world have a lot to learn from each other. I’m a better person for having met a man who grew up as a slave owner and, against his family’s wishes, set them free and became an abolitionist. I’ll never be confronted with a situation like that, but his story taught me that information — written, shared, spoken — has the power to open up worlds and change people for the better.

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