Mariam Fam is a Bloomberg reporter based in Cairo, where she covers the economies and governments of North Africa.
In Depth recently spoke with Mariam to discuss the challenges she faces reporting in Egypt and North Africa and what she sees as the key issues emerging from the region.
You cover a variety of different topics, from the political unrest in Egypt to the North African economy. How do you balance covering such different topics on a day-to-day basis?
Juggling and prioritizing are the key. It is not uncommon to see me gasp and abruptly end a phone interview for a political story, for instance, to report on an economic indicator that has just popped up on my screen. Prioritizing is also important. Because so much has been going on in the region in the last three years, you learn to dedicate time and resources to stories depending on their potential impact and on their relevance to our readers.
I like working on pieces that connect the dots between the various tidbits of news, uncover a trend and show how the political and economic are intertwined. I particularly enjoy field reporting, illustrating the impact of news on ordinary people’s lives and walking into a situation with lots of curiosity and leaving it with a better understanding that I can then use to write articles that put the news in context and show what’s at stake.
How do you protect yourself when covering potentially dangerous situations, like the recent protests in Egypt?
You prepare ahead as much as possible and hope for the best. If you know of people who are already there, you can call them and get a feel for the place before arriving at the scene. Once there, be alert, use your judgment and trust your instincts. If you feel that crowds are getting agitated or security forces will intervene, move to a safer position. If things are getting too ugly, leave altogether.
There are certain situations that I wouldn’t walk into unaccompanied. After seeing my eagerness to throw myself into almost any situation to witness news firsthand, My very first boss told me that no story was worth dying for and that if you are dead, you cannot tell the story anyway. Makes sense. Is it worth being on the frontline of clashes for that extra piece of color? Probably not. You can do as good a job and get color while standing somewhere safer.
Have you faced any specific challenges as a woman reporting in a conservative region? Has it impacted your ability to gain access to sources or locations? How do you combat these barriers?
There are both advantages and challenges. In some conservative areas, women reporters gain access to the homes and worlds of local women in ways men wouldn’t be allowed to. At the same time, you usually have the same access to men. I have been at events where I was the only woman among hundreds of men and it wasn’t an issue.
At times, though, you do find people who want to keep you only with the women. I usually explain that I am there as a reporter, not as a woman, and I need to move freely and be where the news is. More recently, the largest threat to women reporters here has become potential sexual violence and mob attacks. All things considered, being a woman hasn’t held me back or stopped me from doing my job which, at times, has entailed embedding with the U.S. military, shadowing Iraqi militiamen and spending nights on the street in Egypt with families searching for loved ones, many of whom turned out to have been swallowed by the sea when their ferry sank.
Why are the issues that you cover important for Bloomberg’s readers to know about?
My colleagues and I aim to break news on economic and political developments, keeping readers informed about things like the security and political environment in the country, the thinking and policies of the government and the opportunities and risks ahead. This can provide them with a better feel for the place and help them make informed decisions about the country. Egypt, where I am based, is the Arab world’s most populous country and a traditional regional trendsetter, so if you are interested in the region at all, it is important to know what’s going on here. We also strive to provide forward-looking pieces that help readers make sense of the news and get an idea of what may follow. In the coming weeks, it will be interesting to see, for instance, if the new Egyptian government manages to put in place policies to help lure back the investors and tourists it needs to boost a suffering economy while meeting high expectations from Egyptians wearied by years of turmoil.
The rise of militant groups in the region, such as the Islamic State in Iraq, and sectarian and ethnic tensions there are also worth keeping an eye on.