THINKING ALOUD

Stockholm syndrome

By Andrew Toh
Stockholm, Sweden’s capital city, is known for many things, among them, being the birthplace of the Nobel Prize, a melting pot of ethnicities and a darling of the developed world for its egalitarian values and socially progressive ideas.

Underneath the city’s pristine surface, however, tensions have been simmering.

In May last year, the city made headlines around the world when it experienced one of its worst racial riots in decades. The scale of the violence shattered the illusion of the Scandinavian state as a perfect society, and brought its standing as a safe haven for refugees into question.

Rising income inequality and a surge in far-right nationalism in the recent national elections have also left a blemish on Sweden’s previously spotless reputation.

In September, 14 of us from the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication & Information made our way to Stockholm as part of the school’s Going Overseas for Advanced Reporting (Go-Far) programme, which challenges journalism students to gather compelling news stories in a foreign environment.

The Go-Far Sweden team.
The choice of Stockholm for this year’s Go-Far programme was a departure from previous years. It was the first time the programme ventured out of the Asian hemisphere and was not involved in disaster reporting like the previous year’s trip to Japan, which covered the 2011 tsunami recovery efforts.

The 10th instalment of the programme also saw two Go-Far alumni – Cheryl Ong and Jamie Lee – re-join the programme to provide guidance to their juniors.

Speaking to construction workers to find out more about their working conditions, as part of my story on eroding labour standards in Sweden.
Cheryl, currently a sub-editor at The Straits Times, said accompanying the team to Stockholm was an entirely different ball game from her previous Go-Far trip to Bangladesh in 2009.

“The past trips have tended to focus more on our regional neighbours,” the 27-year-old said. “The challenge here was to find stories that resonate well with Singapore readers.”

Prof Charles Salmon, the Chair of the Wee Kim Wee School, was in Stockholm for the first four days of the trip to watch the team’s progress and give advice. The instructors for the trip were Ms Hedwig Alfred, Mr Tay Kay Chin and Mr Samuel He.

The timing of the trip coincided with the release of the names of the Nobel Prize winners, the first of which was announced on 6 October.

A curtain-raiser on the Nobel Prize presentation written by one of the Go-Far students – featuring the history of the prize and background of its creator, Alfred Nobel – ran in The Sunday Times on 5 October while we were in Stockholm.
Tension and apprehension
We arrived in Stockholm on 28 September to overcast skies and temperatures that were 20 degrees below what we were used to in sunny Singapore.

There was little trace of the violence that had disfigured the city little more than a year ago. It was not hard to discern the cause of the tensions. On the streets, we saw large numbers of immigrants from Asia, Africa and the Middle East interspersed among the ethnic Swedes, a reminder of Stockholm’s racial diversity.

From our conversations with them, it was clear that many of the immigrants still faced difficulties integrating into the Swedish way of life, and were unwilling to let go of the traditions they had carried with them from their homes thousands of miles away.

Stories like Mr Chamoun Zitou, 50, a Syrian who moved to Stockholm two years ago, were not hard to find.

Originally from Aleppo, Mr Zitou left Syria to escape the civil war engulfing the country. He was reunited with his family when they came to join him in March.

Immigrants like him banded together for support when they arrived in Stockholm, forming pockets of communities around the city.

The broadcast team spends the night discussing their shots and the next day’s shoot.
Rinkeby, for instance, a suburb about 10 subway stops from downtown Stockholm, is often labelled a “little Mogadishu” for the large proportion of Somalis living there.

From day one, we hit the streets running to find the stories that best captured the developments taking place in the city.

But for the budding journalists with little experience reporting in foreign lands, it was not all smooth-sailing.

For some, interviews with subjects proved hard to secure, and stories had to be unexpectedly shelved.

Go-Far photographer Tan Pei Lin, 22, for instance, based her photo essay on the city’s Romanian beggars, many of whom line the streets in the day.

Apart from the language difficulties she faced while trying to interview them, there were also other hurdles.

“It was hard to communicate with them because they’re wary of foreigners, especially if you have a camera,” she said.

Go-Far photographers Tan Pei Lin (left) and Hariz Baharudin ready their equipment in a train station as they prepare to shoot members of the Planka.nu community – fare-dodgers who jump or squeeze through the fare gates to avoid paying for their ride.
For a particular interviewee she had fastened upon as the main subject of her story, information wasn’t forthcoming.

“Suddenly, she didn’t want to be photographed anymore. She told her relatives about it and they told her the media wasn’t good for their lives,” she said, referring to previous media reports that had cast the beggars in a negative light.

She continued: “These kinds of things take time. When you point a camera at them, they feel very conscious and that’s a huge barrier to cross. They need time to trust you.”

The story was almost lost until she found a replacement for her main subject.

As the reporting picked up pace, many in the team also had to battle sickness as the stress and near-freezing temperatures took a toll on their health.

However, it was through such incidents that we learnt to work together.

We helped one another to find new angles when stories fell through and shored each other up when the going got tough.

Ultimately, that was the objective of Go-Far: to hone the skills of journalism students, test their resolve in foreign environments and prove their mettle in chasing stories.

Our stories will speak for themselves when they are published in December, and, hopefully, will be true to the story of Sweden we have set out to tell.
Stories by the Go-Far Sweden team will be published in a compilation in December and distributed at a Go-Far exhibition at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication & Information in January

Andrew Toh is an aspiring journalist who hopes to go into conflict reporting someday. The former Opinions Editor of The Nanyang Chronicle developed a passion for international and financial reporting after a six-month internship at Thomson Reuters.