“It can be difficult to convey just how sensitive a topic this issue is in Morocco”

IWMF Reporting Fellow Portia Walker about her trip to Western Sahara

by Nora G. Hertel

July 18, 2013 — When Portia Walker joined a group of IWMF fellows to report on issues in Western Sahara, she thought she would focus on the security situation after the conflict in Mali. But after arriving, Walker was drawn to the plight of the Sahrawi people.

“I focused more on the personal experiences of some of the individuals we met and used their stories to talk about the larger political issues,” said Walker.

IWMF led two trips with six female journalists, including Walker, to Western Sahara and Morocco, which controls the territory, to explore and bring more media attention to diminishing phosphate resources and food security. They traveled from May 3 to May 11.

Walker produced a number of pieces, including a story in USA Today, exploring the Sahrawis’ ongoing struggle for independence from Morocco.

Walker has been published in The Washington Post and The Economist. She is an independent journalist who works for BBC World News and other outlets, and she previously worked on the Al Jazeera English show “Frost Over the World.”

IWMF: You studied Arabic while you were in high school and after completing your degree. Why were you drawn towards that language and the regions in which it?s spoken?

Walker: I grew up in London in an area with a lot of people from the Middle East so I?ve always been exposed to – and interested in – that culture and part of the world. Then of course the attacks of 9/11 took place and like many other people at the time, I desperately wanted to know more about the Islamic world and make sense of what had happened so I began learning Arabic and reading more about what was happening in that part of the world.

IWMF: What led you towards a career in journalism?

Walker: I was always fascinated by stories and travel, but I really didn?t think I would work in journalism. While I was weighing up studying Arabic for longer or training as a lawyer, I took a temporary job a receptionist at a television network and realized pretty quickly that I didn?t want to leave. I made myself as useful as I could until they gave me a job as a journalist. In my first week, I got sent to New York to produce interviews with Henry Kissinger and George Clooney so I felt I?d made the right decision.

IWMF: What issues do you usually focus on? What kind of stories most invigorate you?

Walker: So far I?ve worked mainly on the Middle East and Arab world. It?s been extraordinary to see the changes that have taken place there in the past two years and that I’m sure will continue taking place for years to come.

IWMF: What attracted you to the IWMF fellowship program in Western Sahara?

Walker: It sounded like a great opportunity to learn about an important story I knew very little about. Western Sahara is not an easy place for journalists to work, and there’s comparatively little international coverage of the story there. Since the story isn’t that high on the news agenda, it would have been very hard to convince an editor to pay for a trip on this scale but the IWMF fellowship meant we were able to do and learn a huge amount in a short period.

IWMF: What expertise did you bring to the team of fellows that came in handy while reporting together?

Walker: I think I?m pretty good at typing while in the back of a moving car which can come in very useful for transcribing interviews on the go. But seriously, I would say I learned far more from the other women I met on the trip. It was a diverse and really interesting group, it was fascinating to hear about all their very different experiences.

IWMF: How did your foreign language skills help you communicate?

Walker: Luckily we had translators but it’s always useful being able to introduce yourself and speak some words of people?s language when you?re in their country. It’s useful for reading signs too.

IWMF: Do you have any stories/experiences from the trip that weren’t included in your reported stories, but made an impact on you?

Walker: It can be difficult to convey just how sensitive a topic this issue is in Morocco. I was struck by how heated interviews could become in a very short space of time.

IWMF: Did being a woman offer any advantages or disadvantages in reporting in Morocco?

Walker: The nature of the trip meant that we always worked in groups so I didn?t ever have any concerns about safety. In some of the more combative interviews we did, I was curious whether the interviewees would have used the same tone if they had been dealing with a group of male journalists.

IWMF: What was the most impressive experience of the trip to you?

Walker: The digital security training we did in Madrid was very good. It was useful to learn about how to keep information stored on computers and phones safe.

IWMF: What advice do you have for women hoping to enter broadcast journalism or report from Arab countries?

Walker: If you want to work in broadcast journalism, be prepared for very early mornings. The Arab world is absolutely fascinating, especially at the moment, but don?t forget that they are plenty of other interesting and neglected places out there.

IWMF: What?s next for you?

Walker: I?ll have to wait and see. So far my career has held plenty of surprises. I?m sure there are plenty more to come.

Photos by Whitney Shefte

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