November 21, 2017

Nima Elbagir knew what might happen to her if her attempt to document human slave auctions in Libya went badly. Her mother and father were newspaper publishers in Sudan. Her father, Abdullah Elbagir, spent the first three years of her life in jail because of his reporting.   

Elbagir has made a living covering dangerous stories that could cost her life. As a young journalist, she covered the war in Darfur for Reuters in 2002. She reported on international arms sales in Darfur, and her reporting on the kidnapped 276 Nigerian schoolgirls for CNN was awarded a Peabody, one of broadcast journalism's highest honors. 

"I grew up in an environment where there was a very good sense inculcated in risks that were managed and risks that matter," she told Poynter. It would be hard to imagine a topic that matters more.

People for sale

"You are watching the auction of human beings," Elbagir said in her CNN report Nov. 14. The undercover video supplied to CNN by a source showed a young man described by the "auctioneer" as "big strong boys for farm work." The bidding begins, "400, 700, the numbers roll in, these men are sold for 1200 Libyan pounds." That would be about $400 U.S. The sellers called the men "merchandise."

The video of the slave auction was the product of months of building trusted sources while covering the migration of refugees from Syria and across Africa into Libya. "Our amazing producer Raja Razek built a network of contacts while covering the refugee stories," Elbagir said. "We have come to learn that if somebody is doing something, somebody else is filming it. Someone will always be that stupid." But when she saw the auction video, she was struck by how casually everyone involved was treating it. The people were property. 

See it for ourselves

Even while there was no doubt that the video that their contacts had supplied was authentic, CNN wanted to see it with their own eyes, record it with their own cameras. Elbagir, Rezek and photojournalist Alex Platt traveled to Tripoli. Their story on CNN takes the viewer into the Libyan countryside and right to an auction, where a dozen men were being sold into slavery. 

Journalist Nima Elbagir is shown in a screen shot from her report.

Elbagir and Razek secretly recorded everything using two hidden cameras. They attended the auction under the guise of being Sudanese women looking for a lost loved one who might be held in a warehouse of humans to be sold or shipped away. 

"Is the auction ongoing?" she asked. The seller told her "the auction is over." She not only had the sale on video, she has proof that it was an auction. Elbagir said it was one time when being a female journalist is an advantage. "They are just not used to thinking of women as posing a threat," she said.

The contacts told Elbagir that the auctions happened in at least nine spots around the country and that humans were being sold off like cattle every month. The slaves are immigrants who come from sub-Saharan Africa, including Niger, Nigeria and Mali. The immigrants were hoping to make it to Europe but when they were not able to pay off their smugglers, the smugglers would sell the men at auction. But as the smugglers realized they could make more money selling the slaves, they began selling slaves to order. "They would ask, who needs a gardener or who needs a digger," Elbagir said. 

They needed context and a memorable face

If CNN had stopped its reporting with the undercover video, it might have been easy for doubters to believe what the team captured was an anomaly. So Elbagir, Razek and Platt pushed further, this time gaining access to a Libyan immigration detention center where they were swarmed by prisoners who said they had been sold as slaves. CNN documented the overwhelmed Libyan immigration officials who have no international support to deal with the flood of illegal migrants who now live stacked in prison, awaiting deportation back to their war-torn impoverished home countries. 

A man named Victory put a face on the story that people could identify with.

A 21-year-old Nigerian stylist named Victory told Nima that he had been sold as a slave. His family sold everything to help him escape Nigeria so he could go to Europe, where smugglers told him he would find work. After almost a year and a half trying to get to Europe and his dream of being a designer, he ran out of money and his smugglers sold him. When he didn't bring enough at auction, he was sold again and again. Then they demanded the family pay ransom for his release. 

In the days after CNN ran the story online and on air, Elbagir said she has been surprised by how many people have mentioned Victory. "He put a face on this story," Elbagir said. But the most disturbing fact is that the CNN crew could have told the story of hundreds of people just like Victory. The team found itself surrounded by prisoners who told them similar stories of horror, and they said the people holding them don't even know their names. Razek posted a photo collection of what she saw in that detention center that day.

The risk and the reward

Elbagir said she has learned not to share too much with her parents about where she is going or what she is covering. "I don't get into too many details with my mother.  She is proud and terrified in equal measure. She is a journalist. She is incredibly hardcore. She accepts this is important and meaningful." 

CNN would not reveal details about the measures it took to keep the team safe while it traveled undercover. "We had the ability to raise an alarm," Elbagir explained. Executives at the highest level of the network were involved in the project. "We talked with Atlanta just before we went in," she said. And CNN executives wanted to know immediately after they finished undercover work. "I didn't call my mother until the next day," she said, laughing.

The CNN investigation has had global reach.  Protestors gathered in Paris, outside the Libyan embassy.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres responded to Elbagir's reporting saying he is "horrified" by what she proved and calling on the UN to “actively pursue this matter.” 

Guterres said, "I abhor these appalling acts and call upon all authorities to investigate these activities without delay and bring the perpetrators to justice." The UN condemnation carries some weight because CNN found the auctions were occurring in parts of Libya that are controlled by the Government of National Accord (GNA), which the UN backs.  

The Libyan government also promised an investigation.  

Elbagir told me that once she finished our phone call she was going to take three days off. That's not enough time to clear her memory of what she witnessed or the pressure she feels to make it matter. "When you are talking about slavery you are sticking your finger into so many open wounds," she said. "We were not just reporting a story, we were entrusted with proof that there are real humans beings being sold." 

It was the kind of reporting her mother and father can no longer offer the public in the country where Elbagir grew up. The Sudanese government "suspended" publication of their newspaper. 

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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