Zhang Cuirong was giving a lecture in Beijing on May 10 Photo: qq.com
Tears dropped from her eyes like rain as she talked about the death of Kenji Goto, a Japanese independent reporter, at the hands of IS last September. Someone used to say, “Where there is turmoil and conflict, there is she.”
Zhang Cuirong, an independent journalist from Hong Kong, gave a lecture in Beijing on May 10 sharing her journalism experience mostly in the world’s most chaotic regions. She was passionate in answering every question posed to her.
Zhang used to work for BBC World BBC Service, Inter Press Service (IPS), Hong Kong Economic Times (HKET), and Modern Media. Since the May 1998 riots in Indonesia, she has been covering international news, and traveling alone all around the world, often in the most troubled regions such as Afghan, east Timor, Balkan Peninsula, Cambodia, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Israel.
During that period, Zhang transformed from a backpacker to a backpack journalist, also known as independent journalist, something she termed as the “fifth estate”.
Usually, “fourth estate” refers to the news media which are supposed to supervise the government, but during a war they turn themselves into the voices of the government and the military that are often the news sources. Sometimes the truth of the war and stories of the victims in the war are buried and misunderstood.
For Zhang, independent journalism or the “fifth estate” came into being to supervise the “fourth estate” and tell stories of the ordinary people from the battle field.
Also, an independent journalist is different from a citizen journalist “who posts online with a phone whenever and wherever there is something new happening, but without a firm goal in their journalism life”, Zhang said, “While everyone can be a citizen journalist, only professional journalists can do independent journalism.”
“Before becoming an independent journalist, you have to work for other media so as to make connections and let the world know about you.”
Independent journalists are not hired by any news media; they are more experienced in journalism; and they do not accept any advertising money, just some occasional donations.
While mainstream reporters live in five star hotels having meals transported from their own countries even during the war, independent journalists make every effort to find cheap accommodation and eat whatever they have brought with them.
“At first I was envious of them, but now I am not.”
“It seems that I am seeking agony while other people are pursuing happiness,” Zhang said half-jokingly, “But I think experiencing some agony in life makes me think more and get much closer to the local people. I see what they see, and feel what they feel. They are willing to tell you more stories about themselves when they trust you.”
“I remember once in Tunisia, I saw people selling Holy water on the street. It was very expensive, but I wanted to talk with them, so I bought one bottle. Luckily, he was kind and he told me ‘we are well educated. The world has sunk, and we have to go back to Islam’.”
From backpacker to backpack journalism
The first step to become an independent journalist is to become a backpacker. Yet, traveling is not for fun in this case, according to Zhang.
“Like what Ernesto Guevara decided to do in 1951, we travel to the places that mainstream media will never go, and discover stories unknown to the rest of the world,” Zhang said.
As a backpacker journalist, Zhang has a very “close relationship” with the whole world having a global map with war zones marked in colors. She also shares information with other independent reporters from other countries through the Internet.
While some of her friends think that she must enjoy traveling around the world, she joked that she traveled only because she was poor. And the journey is always full of hardship and danger.
“You have to learn to handle everything by yourself. Design your traffic route, book the flight, and find a living place in the war zones. Now I am very good at finding a cheap flight and a cheap hotel,” she laughed.
Speaking for peace
Over the past 10 years, there has always been one question hovering in her mind: why so many people want to report in the war zone, even when it does not affect their material lives.
“People always say that seeing is believing, but it is not always the case in a battle field. Many ordinary people want you to report about their conditions. The truth is always veiled by the war. You have to not only bring a pen, but also your heart and conscience to discover the true stories.”
While independent reporters uncover the behind-the-scene stories to the rest of the world, sometimes they are blamed of overlooking other people’s soreness, and profiting from it.
“Not everyone in real life can go to the frontline. If there is no one going to the battle field and bring back the stories, people will be held back from the truth forever. If there were no reporters in the war, those who triggered the war could do whatever they wanted. If a journalist is brave enough to report from the war, he or she is speaking for peace,” Zhang noted.
“But you have to remind yourself all the time: don’t pollute your soul by your ambitions of a journalist.”
Always on move
“When one journey comes to an end, it means another will begin,” Zhang said, “It’s just like completing a puzzle. When you have one piece and it’s not complete, you have to go and find the other pieces until you can put them together.”
Kenji Goto was a Japanese independent journalist who was killed by IS last September. Zhang burst into tears as his photos were shown on the screen.
“People may say independent journalists like him are stubborn, but it is totally fine to be stubborn in such an era. People like him wouldn’t care about their lives if they could achieve their journalism dreams. Besides the independent journalists who have been reported by mainstream media, there are still many killed secretly,” she said with a heavy voice.
During more than 10 years on the road, Zhang never thought about changing this career path or choosing a much easier life.
“I feel really thankful to the God for giving me such a chance to get into the life of the ordinary people, experiencing their happiness and sufferings. I hope that I can keep running, and share the stories from all around the world with you,” she said.
The Other Sea, published in 2014, was written by Zhang Cuirong, based on her own reporting experience. Historic events in this book include The Arab Spring, Eurozone Crisis, and the Trap of Neoliberalism. Photo: Douban