Last week, Reuters exclusively reported that the Tunisian man accused of piloting a migrant boat that sank off Libya is himself a migrant who was forced at gunpoint to captain the ship because of his experience as a fisherman, according to his brother. Italian authorities say the man named in court as Mohammed Ali Malek was in charge of the heavily overloaded fishing boat that capsized, killing more than 700 people. The man’s brother told Reuters the Tunisian’s real name was Nourredine Mahjoub and he had first traveled clandestinely to Europe five years ago, spending time in Italy and France before being deported. In a Reuters Best: Journalist Spotlight Q&A, Tunisia correspondent Tarek Amara offers a behind-the-scenes look at how he landed the scoop.
Q. How did you score this exclusive? What types of reporting/sourcing were involved?
A. Since the sinking of the boat, I started working with North Africa Bureau Chief Patrick Markey to seek details on the story. After the accusation that the captain was a Tunisian, I began contacting my sources in several cities where I worked years ago covering immigration, including Zarzis, Mahdia, Kiliblia and Sfax.
After two days of talking to contacts, I got unconfirmed information that the captain was from Chebba, a small city near Mahdia. I used my relationships and I contacted old friends from university in Chebba to help me find a family contact. Finally I got the number phone of the family and the man’s brother spoke to me.
Q. What was the hardest part about reporting the story?
A. The hardest part in reporting the story was getting the contact information for the family, because the authorities had refused to talk on the subject, saying only that a Tunisian was detained in Italy in the case of the sinking of immigrants without any more details. No information on his identity or where he was from was available. And it was not easy to convince the family to speak.
Q. What makes you passionate about journalism?
A. For me, the press is more than it’s just a profession. Journalism is something that I have loved since I was 15 years. Since that age, every day I cannot have dinner without reading newspapers at the table. This has caused much laughter among my family members.
Q. What have been your most rewarding and most difficult experiences as a journalist?
A. In 2011, I was one of few a journalists who covered the Tunisian revolution. It was a serious and dangerous – but very important – experience. But it was rewarding because I helped to bring the voices of marginalized people to the world.
Q. Can you imagine being anything other than a journalist? If so, what?
A. Not really. I was a good football player, but I left in order to be a journalist. Being a teacher at a journalism university may of interest in the future.
To read the latest from Tarek Amara, click here.