Public Diplomacy Forum - USIA


May 1998

Conflict Reporting in West Africa
Public Diplomacy in the Iraq Crisis

About the Public Diplomacy Forum

Spotlight presents new articles about public diplomacy, USIA's exchange programs and international projects, and cooperation with our private sector counterparts.

The current Spotlight features two stories that highlight the overseas focus of USIA: a piece by VOA correspondent Purnell Murdock about broadcast reporting from Central and West Africa; and an account of USIA activities in support of U.S. policy on Iraq during the Winter 1997/98 crisis over UN inspections.

Viewer comments or questions are welcome at

"the biggest challenge for me has been covering--and surviving--civil wars and political turmoil."

journalists under fire
"It was not unusual to be trapped in the cross-fire of opposing forces battling to control a city block."

central africa
Central Africa


" a foreign correspondent in a volatile part of the world, I have had to put fears aside to get the job done."

purnell murdock reporting

VOA's Purnell Murdock, reporting from West Africa
Conflict Reporting in West Africa

By Purnell Murdock

Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire

Life as a Voice of America (VOA) correspondent in West and Central Africa is one of frequent challenges and harrowing adventures.

Covering this region is not a typical job, or even typical in the fast-paced world of international journalism. The hours sometimes seem endless. On a regular workday, the first information I receive at my bureau in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, comes from the news wires. My morning is spent evaluating the news and contacting regional sources to gather more information and perspective on breaking stories.

VOA correspondents are relied upon to provide daily news coverage for broadcast around the world. Senior editors at the Washington, DC, headquarters and at VOA news centers in London and Hong Kong help coordinate the news gathering and focus process.

Deadlines are tough, as the multitude of VOA programs depends on timely reports from the field. The work can grow to encompass every day, every week. A weekend retreat with the family or even a good night's sleep are not guaranteed.

The West and Central Africa region, comprising some 23 countries, is vast and mostly underdeveloped. Consequently, frustrations go hand in hand with the job. Telephone, fax, and computer-based communication is often difficult and sometimes impossible. Regional travel is problematic. Flights are infrequent and often behind schedule. Getting through airports without paying off customs and immigration officials can be a hard-won victory.

But the biggest challenge for me has been covering--and surviving--civil wars and political turmoil. I have been in the midst of violence in many countries, including Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, the Central African Republic, Nigeria, the Congo Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire). But the most life-threatening experiences occurred while I was covering the civil war in Liberia.

For three-and-a-half weeks in April 1996 I lived on the front line of a devastating battle for control of the Liberian capital, Monrovia. Every day I moved cautiously through the streets, witnessing and reporting on the tragic violence engulfing the city.

Sometimes I would be pinned down by sniper bullets. Other times, I had to flee the onrush of attacking fighters. It was not unusual to be trapped in the cross-fire of opposing forces battling to control a city block.

At night I filed my news stories and listened as rockets and artillery shells exploded nearby, never knowing if one would hit my tiny hotel refuge.

The rebel fighters usually respected journalists covering the conflict. But sometimes the bombs and bullets fell a little too close. One day, several colleagues and I were captured by a group of fighters during a fierce gun battle. They interrogated us at gun point. We pleaded for our lives and were set free only after I gave them my wrist watch.

Life in West Africa has its positive side, together with its inconveniences. There is a wealth of cultural experiences to be explored. The food in West Africa is similar to spicy cuisine in the United States. Good seafood, beef, and poultry are available.

Rice is a staple in West and Central Africa and most dishes are eaten with it. Native dishes such as foufou and attieke are made from the cassava root. These side dishes are usually served with a sauce made from vegetables or tomatoes. Spices are also popular. Pimente, a really hot spice, adds flavor to just about any dish.

The adventurous can attempt exotic foods such as "bush meat." This can be practically anything wild: armadillo, monkey, crocodile--even maggots. The maggots come from the forest and are eaten deep fried. They taste like fried pork rinds. Delicious!

It can be frightening getting close to political violence in the course of one's day. But as a foreign correspondent in a volatile part of the world, I have had to put those fears aside to get the job done. The reward has been the response of listeners who say they tune in to Voice of America broadcasts because they look forward to the very best news coverage.

Purnell Murdock is the Voice of America's West and Central Africa correspondent, based in Abidjan. He began his career at VOA ten years ago and has held progressive positions in administrative, producing, news writing, and correspondent fields. A similar version of this article appeared in the USIA International Broadcasting Bureau newsletter.

Further information on USIA's Voice of America
U.S.A.I.D.'s Africa programs

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