Interview with Gunilla von Hall, foreign correspondent in Geneva for the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet

Gunilla von Hall works for the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet as its foreign correspondent in Geneva. She talks to us about her career, her job in Geneva, the issues she covers, and her views about the role media should play in international cooperation.

December 2013

Gunilla von Hall is the foreign correspondent in Geneva for the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet.

Stockholm-based Svenska Dagbladet is one of the leading Swedish newspapers with 300,000 copies a day and more than a million readers. It employs 200 journalists, including 15 foreign correspondents.

Gunilla von Hall has been working for Svenska Dagbladet in Geneva for more than 20 years. Every month, she publishes more than 20 articles related to international Geneva, more than 200 per year. In this interview she tells us about her career, her job in Geneva, the issues she covers and the role the media should play in international cooperation.

 

When did you arrive in Geneva?

I arrived in 1990 as a foreign correspondent. My paper sent me here because they thought Geneva would be a good international base to cover international affairs, which was so true.

From 1990 to 2000 I was a war correspondent, with Geneva as a base. During the Gulf War, 1990-1991, I went to Iraq and Kuwait. Then the Bosnia war started and I covered it from 1992 to 1995, travelling to Bosnia, Belgrade or Croatia.

In 1994-1995 I went to the Great Lakes region, first to Burundi and then to Rwanda. It was very intense. I saw the genocide without knowing it was a genocide. And then I covered the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), formerly known as Zaire.

So in the 1990s Geneva was a suitcase in a way. And the Palais was an excellent international base to go to press conferences, pick up information and hear what was going on. I had the perspective from the field and the perspective from Geneva, where you get all the information about humanitarian needs or refugees. It was a really good combination.

It also offered me the opportunity to travel to the field with the UN. I accompanied for instance the UN High Commissioner for Refugees who went to Bosnia. I also traveled to Iraq with UN weapons inspectors, and to Africa either with the ICRC, the UNHCR or UNICEF.

During the 1990s I also covered some natural disasters, for instance in Honduras or El Salvador. After that I stayed more in Geneva and traveled less to frontlines.

Are you still travelling today?

I do travel today but I don't go to war zones anymore. I went for instance to Sri Lanka with Ban Ki-moon immediately after the war, to do stories about refugees and war crimes. I would also go to Italy if there is a refugee story, for instance in Lampedusa. I will also go to Bali for the WTO Ministerial Conference.

So I go to the field, but not with the same risks. And for that Geneva is a great base. You get a great overview of what is going on in the world. You get some contacts, basic facts and then you can take off.

Do you only focus on international Geneva or do you cover other issues?

I do cover of course the UN, but I also cover Switzerland and Italy. Overall, I would say that I spend 80 percent of my time on international Geneva-related news and 20 percent on Switzerland and Italy.

Regarding international Geneva, I do cover labour, trade, human rights, health and humanitarian issues. I also cover the CERN and I wrote a lot for instance about the LHC. And of course I do report on humanitarian crises, Syria and the Iran talks.

Regarding Switzerland, I was up in Bremgarten last week to write a story about the refugees and the city red zones, where asylum seekers should not go without special permit. I spent a day in the refugees centre, interviewed refugees and the Mayor. It was a great paper. You have these strong stories in Switzerland: I did the minarets a few years ago and, of course, the banks. And I also follow the Gripen saga! And there was this big story the other day, with the pink diamond at Sotheby's, where I have done a live reporting from Beau-Rivage on my newspaper website, from 7:00 pm to midnight!

For Italy, I usually follow what is happening with Berlusconi and bigger government crises.

In relation to international Geneva, which issues would you say are of interest to your readers?

I would say that Swedish people are definitely interested in humanitarian crises, refugees, epidemics and human rights. This is very Swedish: we have this social conscience. World trade also interests people, but it is a smaller segment.

I have colleagues who are leaving, they don't have enough work, freelancers have a hard time, but my paper is happier than ever because Geneva is a gold mine. As a generalist journalist I can do international politics, economics, health or culture.

I have a weekly column in the paper and I can pick any topic that's in the shadow a little bit and I can bring it in. I did for instance my last column on Mia Farrow to bring the conflict in the Central African Republic in the limelight, otherwise nobody reads about it. She was in Geneva to talk about that and I interviewed her. Sometimes I do this column on international affairs, in relation to the UN, and sometimes about Switzerland, especially about my daily life in Switzerland: things from my kid's school, or birthday parties for kids. I try to strike a balance.

How do you see the evolution of international Geneva's media coverage?

I would say that the journalistic "Old World" is leaving international Geneva in a way. European correspondents are fewer and many Anglo-Saxon journalists are gone. You used to have The Independent, The Guardian, Le Monde, El Mundo, El Pais, or La Repubblica, but they are all gone. The news agencies are still there but they are cutting down: AP has cut down dramatically, and Reuters and EFE have cut too.

Instead, there are several journalists from Asia, the Arab World, North Africa, Brazil or India coming. I would say that the number of correspondents remains more or less the same but the faces and characteristics are different: You also have much more freelancers and fewer staff correspondents.

Geneva was for a while a little bit slow, a little bit in the shadow. But since a year or so, everything is coming back here. You have Syria, Iran, the CERN with the Nobel Prize, and also the WTO with the upcoming Bali Conference. And you have many journalists coming in for the big events, like Iran and Syria. They fly them in. It's a shame: they should have people based here, especially now that so much is going on. But Geneva is expensive and media have no money.

So it is a contradictory picture: more things happening than ever and, at the same time, a shrinking press corps.

How would you explain that all these important negotiations are taking place in Geneva?

You have many of the actors here. Geneva is also a neutral place, where you can meet easily, logistically and politically. If you go to New York, it has the American side to it. So Geneva is seen as a neutral ground with all the facilities.

What role do you think the media should play in international cooperation?

We have an important role in making news about topics like humanitarian crises, wars, conflicts, human rights and trade negotiations known. You may also say that we give these issues a voice by putting them in the limelight. Without the media, many of these news events would never be known. Thereby, it would also be harder for many humanitarian agencies to get attention for their work, fund and political commitments.

How is your typical day?

I wish there was a typical day! I start by checking the news and different medias in the morning: Swedish and Swiss newspapers, Italian media, international media and Twitter feeds. The problem we have is the information overload: we have too much. So you do a quick scan and then you have a feeling like "this is happening today". Or you line up something you know you have to do. For instance today I started planning WTO interviews for a feature.

It is a mixture of finding today's news, because I write almost everyday, and at the same time planning for longer-term stories. As a newspaper we also have to bring some added-value as compared to news agencies.

Your next story?

It's going to be Iran, in parallel with WTO and the negotiations about a global trade deal and the revival of the multilateral trade system. I am also planning to write an article about the sex boxes in Zürich. So three very different stories: big politics, international trade and a Swiss story.

This is the frustration maybe: Geneva has so many stories to offer and if you are a general news reporter you cover everything but you are in the surface. You don't become an expert on one topic.

On average, how many articles on international Geneva are taken by your editor per month?

Between 20 and 25. I write almost every day, including weekends, on issues related to international Geneva. If I was an editor for a newspaper and a news outlet I would send a reporter to Geneva to cover international affairs and use it as a base!

Does Svenska Dagbladet have correspondents in other international cities?

We have 15 foreign correspondents, including in Brussels, Berlin, New York, Washington, Bangkok, South Africa and of course Geneva.

Your impression about working and living in Geneva?

I would say very good. It is easy to get around and people are very reliable. It is very pleasant to interview people here. I like the Swiss people, as they are civilized and polite. So it is a good base.

I just have sometimes the feeling that we are missing things going on in Geneva because we are in the international Geneva. How could one make a bridge, I don't know, but there might be more contacts between the international Geneva and Geneva. In a way you have here different and parallel worlds: you have the banks world, the humanitarian world, the trade world. And Swiss with the Swiss and internationals with internationals. You almost have parallel universes that do not mix. And this is a shame because there are so many interesting topics and people here and it would be great if there were more exchanges!

One thing that is very different from Sweden is transparency. In Sweden, almost everything is public.. I can go for instance to the tax authorities and get your papers, know how much you earn. I can know almost everything about you. In Switzerland it is different, it is so non-transparent, and this is a shame. I know it is a different country and a different way of thinking but it makes it more difficult to get information because the doors are often closed. 

 

Interview realized on 19 November 2013

 

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