Journalists in the Jungles of Peru Face Disease-carrying Mosquito and Other Challenges

Feb 242011

When you mention Peru, most people think of llamas, the imposing Andes, and the mythical Machu Picchu without realizing that over 60 percent of its territory is jungle. Actually, the Amazon River which is surrounded by some of the thickest rain forest in the world, begins high above the Peruvian Andes, and winds its way 4,000 miles into the Atlantic.

This portion of Peru is referred to as La Selva, or the jungle, one of the three distinct regions in the country. The other two are La Costa (the Coast) and La Sierra (the Mountains). But it’s la selva which holds the biggest mystery and allure, even for Peruvians themselves. That’s where the 5th TV station in the journalism training rotation for RED TV is located, in the Ucayali Province, near the border with Brazil. The Fellowship has partnered with RED TV, an association of 35 stations in all of Peru, to provide training to the journalists outside Lima.

To visit Pucallpa is to jump into a world unlike any other, with colorful people who speak Spanish in a haunting sing-song reminiscent of the Louisiana bayou. Everything is bigger here: the heat, the humidity, the fruits, and the mosquitoes. And covering the news means doing it on motorcycle!

My visit coincided with the beginning of rainy season which means the arrival of the dreaded Dengue Fever. However, this allowed me to witness ingenuity at its best, in the form of a resourceful photographer who knew just what he needed to do to get the perfect shot.

We were working on a story on what people were doing to prepare themselves for the arrival of the mosquito, such as removing potential breeding sites, and using nets over their beds. UTV (Ucayalina de Televisión) photographer Frank Mori was waiting for an interview when a mosquito landed on his hand and started biting him. Since video of mosquitos is incredibly difficult to come by, and you need quite a bit of b-roll to cover weeks of an ongoing story, Mori decided to keep his left hand still, while slowly grabbing the camera with his right. Three bites later, he was able to get one of the most incredible close-up shots of a mosquito in action I have ever seen. We nicknamed him Mr. Dengue because of his courage, and crossed our fingers that he wouldn’t get sick, which I am happy to report he didn’t.

The week-long training included sessions on Digital Journalism. The journalists weren’t quite sure what impact the Internet had on what they were doing when news came in that a gentleman in Lima had seen one of their stories on the Enlace Nacional website. The story was about an impoverished woman with a 22-pound (10 kg) tumor in her belly who was asking for help. A few weeks after it aired, the man saw it online and offered to pay for the surgery. That’s when it hit them that the web could provide them with a much larger audience than they had ever imagined.

This awareness has led to the production of a series of stories on issues, instead of events. For example, they did a profile on their local zoo where the animals live in deplorable conditions, with many too sick to do more than cower from the vultures clustering inside their enclosures. The former director, who employees said did nothing in four years, left, and was replaced by a veterinarian with plans to fix the place. UTV was able to get their cameras in. They captured the plight of the animals, bringing awareness to the neglect. Last they heard, the government was approving and sending over the budget so the new zoo director could get working. I told them they need to continue following the story to make sure it happens.

The rains have started in the area, and heavy floods are now their biggest concern. I’m not quite sure how they’re getting around on their motorcycles, considering the conditions for news gathering aren’t the best for the journalists in Pucallpa. But still they persevere, and they eventually do live up to the name someone yelled at us as we whipped by on our bikes: There go the “News Hunters.” I wonder if they could decal that on the side of their motorcycles.