LONDON: When the PBS NewsHour special correspondent Jane Ferguson says that journalists are facing an increased physical threat, she has plenty of experience to draw on.
Just last week, she posted a video on Twitter in which she appeared in a car with a blotched red face after her broadcast team escaped a barrage of teargas fired by Israeli forces toward the press in the West Bank.
She said that they were deliberately targeted, along with dozens of other journalists, as they covered a small protest in Ramallah against the US-organized economic conference for the Palestinians in Manama.
“This was huge, at least 15 gas canisters came careering down on everybody,” Ferguson told Arab News. “One smashed the window and the car was engulfed, there was gas everywhere and we could not see anything.
“It was very scary because there was a lot of other press running around trying to escape and we were trying to drive our car and not hit anybody in these really thick plumes of smoke.
Rough day reporting for the @NewsHour in the #WestBank today. #Israeli Forces gased the press covering a small protest nearby. Then they gased us as we tried to drive away. #manama pic.twitter.com/EXOGcbpxtN
— Jane Ferguson (@JaneFerguson5) June 25, 2019
For Ferguson, who has been covering the Palestinian-Israeli conflict since 2012, the incident illustrates the new era of challenges faced by journalists covering the region.
From County Armagh in Northern Ireland, Ferguson was inspired by the journalism around her to pursue her career. But she completed her studies at a time of tightening budgets and major job losses in the media industry.
“I had always grown up wanting to be a foreign correspondent. I grew up in Northern Ireland watching the BBC but it was simply impossible to get the job in 2007,” Ferguson said.
Instead, she decided to go to Yemen to learn Arabic in 2008.
“I chose Yemen admittedly because it was cheaper and I was on a small budget and I wanted to go somewhere that I knew nothing about,” the 34-year-old said. “I’m really glad that I did because I fell in love with it.”
For young journalists, that period was also the start of the expansion of the freelance industry as news organizations were not hiring young people and “so they had to go to the field and sell their own work.”
After a spell at a newspaper in Dubai, Ferguson got her break in broadcasting in 2010, freelancing for CNN’s Abu Dhabi bureau.
She then started working for Al Jazeera English in 2011 as the Middle East became embroiled in uprisings that dominated global news agendas.
And with the seismic changes that shaped the region came bigger challenges facing the journalists covering them.
It is becoming more common for governments to make it difficult for journalists to operate in places such as Syria, Turkey and Egypt, said Ferguson, who is based in Beirut.
As a woman working for an American news network, she said that she does not experience more challenges than other journalists in the region, partly because they are all facing repression against freedom of speech. But she said reporters in the Middle East are also being seen as less honest and independent observers.
“There was at least a semblance of respect for journalists being there for a reason and I think that that is eroding at the minute and I think all journalists are feeling that,” said Ferguson, speaking on the phone from Gaza.
She also believes journalists in the region are facing challenges gaining access to stories because governments are making it harder to operate.
Sept. 15, 1984 in County Armagh, Northern Ireland
The Royal School Armagh
The Lawrenceville Prep School in New Jersey
English Literature and Politics, University of York
Freelance roving correspondent for CNN International 2010-2011
Freelance roving correspondent for Al Jazeera English 2011-2014
Special correspondent for PBS NewsHour 2015-Present
2019 George Polk Award
2019 Peabody Nominee
2019 Livingston Award shortlist
Overseas Press Club of America Citation 2017
From a female perspective she said that the Arab world is so diverse that her level of access differs from country to country.
Throughout her coverage of the offensive against Daesh in Iraq and dealing with Kurdish troops in Syria and the Iraqi military, she said she was respected as a woman and was never denied access that was given to her male counterparts.
“I’m not sure that it is getting harder for women to do the job and maybe we are just becoming tougher,” she said.
But when she was working in Afghanistan as an Al Jazeera correspondent, she said it was much harder to gain access.
“It’s harder for me to drink tea with government ministers or to be invited into social circles where men, who are typically the power brokers that we as journalists need to talk to and to build relationships with, that is harder as a woman in Afghanistan,” Ferguson said.
She added that “in the Arab world I find it to be less of a handicap,” referring to several senior editorial posts held by women in the Middle East, including The Washington Post and The New York Times.
On her current assignment in Palestine, Ferguson, who joined PBS in 2015, is at the forefront of the latest major story to engulf the region.
From the reactions she has seen on the ground, she said it is difficult for the Palestinians to accept the economic component of the Trump administration’s plan without seeing the political one.
“They are trying to separate the two,” she said, adding that it is hard for the Palestinians “to discuss economics and international investment without talking about occupation, parameters and the relevant laws.”
She said there is also confusion about whether the Trump administration would support the two-state solution, which has been a deadlock in negotiations for decades, or opt for a one-state solution, which she said would be a huge policy shift and raises several questions.
“I think that is certainly causing a level of anxiety around the region, not knowing whether or not there is still commitment to a two-state solution, because if there isn’t, then where do you go from there?”
Having lived in Yemen, and having had to go back there several times since 2008 as a reporter, Ferguson expressed her sadness over the current situation in the country.
“Every time I go there, I can’t believe it could get any worse, the violence, the hunger, the humanitarian crisis, and yet it always does. It is just incredibly sad to watch,” she said.
Ferguson has also worked in Egypt and Somalia, but with fresh protests taking place in north African countries this year, she said the initial reasons for the Arab Spring had not gone away.
“I think they are actually intensifying. The Arab Spring was about Arabs, young people especially, wanting a brighter future for themselves, an economically viable future, more dignity, less repression,” she said.
She said on a psychological level especially, it has not gone away and it does not surprise her that it comes back in waves.
“I do not want to generalize about the Arab world because it is very diverse but that is one common thread,” she said.
As part of her work, Ferguson has also worked with Syrian and Palestinian refugees and displaced persons.
She said: “A huge part of our job is trying to tell their stories and also try to maintain interest in their stories.
“What is most striking for me is that an entire generation of young people are growing up without an education, and perhaps during times of war an education sounds like a luxury, but in reality and in the longer term what is that going to do to an entire generation of Syrians?”
On the recent escalation of tensions between the US and Iran, Ferguson claims that one of the most difficult things about covering this story is that there is so much that we do not know due to all the backroom discussions.
“I think it is very clear that neither side really wants a war. I think the danger is overestimating how far you can push either side and that is why everyone is rightly nervous,” she said.
Ferguson advised young journalists to not look at journalism as a lifestyle or an exciting job, but rather consider what to do with your intellect, time and life.
“It’s great to have a wonderful life and a great job but it is most important to have a sense of purpose in what you do. And journalism really gives you that.”