Moscow Correspondent, The Washington Post
I met Amie Ferris-Rotman on a grey day in July at the Starbucks on the corner of Sadovaya Samotechnaya and Tsvetnoi Bulvar in Moscow. Over coffee, we discussed her career as a foreign correspondent in Russia and Afghanistan, and how her experience reporting in Afghanistan lead her to start 'Sahar Speaks' which trains Afghan women as journalists.
Amie thanks for taking the time to talk to Women in Foreign Policy (“WiFP”). You are currently the Moscow Correspondent for the Washington Post, what does that role entail?
The primary focus of my work at the moment involves Russia’s re-assertion on the global stage. The Washington Post is trying to figure out what this means for an American audience and a growing international audience. There is a lot of work involved in explaining Russia to an audience who are often quite biased in the way they see it. Russia is a very complicated place.
The Washington Post has a small bureau in Moscow and it is just the Bureau Chief, myself, and a Russian Researcher and Office Manager. The Post has been here for over 40 years and is one of the older publications that was here during the Soviet-era. As we are a small bureau, we can’t cover everything, but we never have a shortage of stories. Obviously, we are a Washington-focused outlet, so the Trump-Russia story looms large in our day-to-day work and with the recent indictment [of Paul Manafort] we have been very busy with that. There are also times when we don’t focus on that story at all, for example, I recently did a piece on the rehabilitation of an ISIS wife from Chechnya.
How did you end up as the Moscow Correspondent for the Washington Post?
I have been a Russophile since university, where I studied Russian language and literature. I fell in love with the culture, the language, the place, and the madness of what is Russia.
I came to Russia as a reporter for Reuters, and I was here for five years during what I now call the ‘Medvedev Years’ - little did we know then that ten years later Putin would be back in charge. I covered all sorts of stories from the oil and gas industry, to the North Caucasus and the so-called reset with the West.
From Moscow, I went to Afghanistan where I was senior correspondent with Reuters for two years. I then went to do the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship (the “Knight Fellowship”) for a year at Stanford University and as part of the Knight Fellowship I developed Sahar Speaks. I then spent a couple of years in London before coming back to Moscow.
When you were at college, was journalism something you always wanted to do?
To be honest, never. I was always interested in human rights and women's rights and I never thought of myself as being a journalist. I was on the university newspaper, and I have always been into writing, and I used to write a journal as a kid, but my dream job in college was working for a place like Amnesty International in Russia. After my Masters, I fell into journalism after I saw an ad for a job working at a steel publication which required a Russian speaker. I thought I would do this to make some money and it actually kick-started my career in journalism. I ended up enjoying reporting about steel, and it was fascinating learning about that world. I loved reporting and also had the opportunity to travel to Russia for work.
What kind of opportunities and challenges has being a female reporter in Russia and Afghanistan presented?
In Afghanistan, being a female reporter was actually extremely advantageous as society is largely segregated by gender there and as a woman I had access to the women's stories which neither Afghan men nor foreign men had access to. In these highly genderised societies, foreign women are often seen as a sort of third gender as local men don't really know how to deal with them. When I was in Afghanistan, local men saw me as a rare, strange woman from the West with no husband and doing a man’s job. I was treated seriously by them and given proper interviews – despite them thinking I was extremely weird.
The situation is not like that in Russia as genders are not segregated here. Nevertheless, women are totally underrepresented in foreign reporting roles around the world, especially in writing roles. The New York Times by its own admissions says that the vast majority of its international newsrooms are staffed by men. There are various reasons given for this, such as women having partners who won’t want to move for them. .
Foreign Correspondent roles are also coveted, and when something is highly desired, it usually goes to the men and the particularly privileged white men. Some newer media companies like Buzzfeed News address this issue very openly, while legacy companies like the older newspapers are not doing as good job as a job as they could. It’s a serious problem.
When you began reporting in Russia, you had an academic background in Russian culture and language and experience living there. How did you find moving to Afghanistan and reporting from there without the same depth of background knowledge and contacts?
It was tough and was in many ways, a baptism by fire. I went to Afghanistan for six weeks at the height of the war when Obama had announced new troops as part of the surge, and when the country was pretty much the number one story in the world. News outlets were rotating journalists in and out for short periods of time, and I volunteered to go. I found Afghanistan so exciting and I fell in love with the place. I had been in Russia for almost five years. After my rotation in Kabul, I applied for the role of senior correspondent with Reuters.
Building contacts at the height of war was obviously difficult, but there was, in fact, a whole infrastructure for journalists there through the military, the UN, the relief agencies and the international organisations, that just did not exist in the same way in Russia. It was all set up in a way that was a journalist's dream. It wasn't easy, but it was much easier to navigate than Russia.
Also, time itself felt different in Afghanistan. I was there for two years, but it felt like five. You are living in a compound above your office, and you have a lot of cabin fever. It is not like you can spend your evenings going on a stroll, or going to the cinema, or hanging out in the way you can here, or in most places in the world. There is very little to do, and it is extremely dangerous. It was a very intense and high octane environment, and that was why we had ‘R&R’s - when they shipped us out every six weeks to recuperate.
What was your approach to assessing risk and ensuring you were safe when you were reporting in Afghanistan?
I had hostile environment training, and we were not allowed to go to Afghanistan without that, but the training was primarily first aid. Mostly you have to learn on the job.
I was with Reuters, so we had a big Afghan team who were all men. However, they were not the best judges for what was and was not dangerous, as they had spent their whole lives in Afghanistan and were understandably very jaded by the danger there. It was a question of trying to navigate what was and what was not dangerous and talking to editors who might be based in London or Singapore who had never even been to Afghanistan. There was a lot of guesswork and risk-taking. You get used to having your little patterns for how you survived.
Kabul itself was dangerous but not like it is now – I was there in March, and it is way more dangerous today. Almost a different city than when I lived there.
In 2015 you founded Sahar Speaks which provides training for Afghan female reporters. Can you talk about your motivation for setting up Sahar Speaks?
Sahar Speaks was set up because I was so angry and frustrated that not a single Afghan woman was employed by any of the foreign news outlets in Kabul. There were plenty working for local Afghan media, but none for the English-language, international media, which meant that their stories were not reaching international audiences. The overriding reason for this seemed to be that working for foreign bureaus were very well paid for Afghan staff so naturally, the men got the jobs. Harassment is also endemic and Afghan women often endure non-stop verbal and physical harassment from their Afghan male colleagues, as a lot of men do not want women to be in public spaces. I knew that these things could be overcome, but I left Kabul angry as I had tried and failed to get Afghan women to work for Reuters. They had all been pushed out or harassed, or both.
I arrived at Stanford for the Knight Fellowship and had this kernel of an idea of what I could do. That is what the Knight Fellowship is all about: getting journalists to come up with ideas that can change journalism. Much to my delight, Sahar Speaks secured seed funding and launched in 2015. So far we have trained 23 Afghan female journalists, and our alumnae have gone on to work for the BBC, the New York Times, Al Jazeera and German and Norwegian newspapers in Kabul.
I was just there in March for the third round of training but things are different now, which is heartbreaking. A lot of the women whom we initially trained have got asylum in other countries, as the security situation in Afghanistan is simply abysmal. Very few young Afghans see a stable future there.
And are there any other gender issues you have encountered reporting for the international media in general?
Journalism suffers a lot from editors warning reporters not to focus on “soft issues” like domestic violence and to focus on “harder” issues like politics. I think domestic violence, abortion and women's rights are all serious issues – obviously - and not “soft” at all. It is a horrible approach that many editors perpetuate.
The editors want tanks and Brexit?
Exactly. One thing I always try and do is to make sure that there is a woman’s voice in every story I report, whether that is a female analyst or policy adviser, or a female vox pop. I think it is a good thing to strive for at least one.
What kind of advice would you have for anyone who wants to become a foreign correspondent or report on conflicts?
I always say to aspiring journalists to try and do something you find to be perhaps not the most interesting at the start. I started as a business journalist, focusing on steel, and it sounds weird, but I really think that trained me to become a good journalist and to understand how the world works. Having to report on things that you are not particularly interested in initially really trains your eye, as you have to find stories out of quite dry material. If you can do that, imagine what you can do in a place where stories are falling out of the sky in front of your eyes.
If you are a young or a freelance journalist, and you decide that you want to be a war correspondent and you rock up to Gaza, that can work sometimes. But it can also be really disastrous as you don’t have solid training – and conflict areas are very dangerous. Not least because the world of media, largely, has a history of abusing underpaid freelancers by giving them work and providing them false security when they are unaware of what is too big a risk.
Journalism training is very important. I didn’t do a journalism degree or Masters, and I don’t know if that is the best way, but some form of training is essential. I was part of the Reuters graduate scheme, and I think quite a few newspapers in the U.K. and the U.S. have training programs which are a great way to start out. You are thrown in the deep end and you have to write real headlines, but you also have classroom training.
There are not as many women foreign correspondents as men, so I think women really need to help each other. Mentoring is very important. For Sahar Speaks, we had correspondents from around the world guiding our Afghan journalists. I am also part of the Second Source, a new mentoring program based in London for female journalists. It is important for women to know that it is hard out there, but you can make it.