As one of the world’s most secretive nations, Eritrea has been closed to foreign journalists for a long time. Each year, thousands of people flee from the African country to Europe. Recently, however, the nation has begun allowing foreign journalists entry — and so at Blankspot, a digital platform for longform journalism, we knew it was time to go.
Over the past year, I have reported on this development in Eritrea — a country where I myself was imprisoned for 438 days in 2011 to 2012, during an investigative trip. In Blankspot’s new 360-degree video project, I reported from the border of Eritrea and Ethiopia on the plight of Swedish citizen Dawit Isaak, who has been jailed in Eritrea for 14 years. Many of his colleagues who were jailed with him are now dead.
I know from my own experience how important media attention is to journalists who are jailed or held prisoner. It is more important than bread and water in keeping you alive. Our 360 project was about returning freedom of expression to a jailed colleague, who showed what journalism should be.
The difficult thing about reporting from Eritrea was that most media stories are not based on actual visits in the country — rather, they are reported only through outside, secondhand sources. This time, we were actually there and reporting firsthand. And so even though we were using a technologically new technique with 360-degree video, we were telling the story the old-fashioned way: with our feet on the ground.
Besides telling the story, we also wanted to give readers a better understanding for the journalistic process. Readers engaging with the reports could add their questions, perspectives, views, and angles; and they could also follow the team from day to day in a members-only Facebook group.
There is a lot of talk around VR/360 reporting these days, with many news entities trying to figure out how to use it. From an editorial standpoint, we feel that the media must always put the story first. We must answer the most basic questions: What do I want to tell, and why? Only when that part is crystal clear, can we start to think about the “how” aspect.
The challenge for a foreign correspondent is to take readers along with you to a destination and to make them feel what you feel. In this case, the destination was so unique — as was the access we had to it — that we felt 360-degree video was the optimum way of bringing our readers and viewers into the story.
Though ours was the first 360-degree film shot from the closed nation of Eritrea, we hope it will be the first of many more.