If you follow the news from Yemen you have almost certainly come across reports from Reuters' long-serving correspondent in Sana'a, Mohamed Sudam. You may not have been aware, though, that over many years he has also combined his work for one of the world's leading news agencies with another job – as President Saleh's English-speaking interpreter.
Inside Yemen, Sudam's dual role has never been much of a secret and has rarely aroused more than a passing comment, but recently it has been attracting wider attention through a Facebook page (Shame on Reuters) and a Twitter hashtag of the same name.
Last month Sudam was briefly kidnapped by forces affiliated to the defected general, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, and later released in an exchange of prisoners. Al Mohsen later said he didn't know that Sudam was a journalist – only that he was president Saleh's interpreter. Meanwhile, a report of the incident on the government's26 September website did not mention Sudam's job as presidential interpreter – only that he was a Reuters reporter.
Sudam has been photographed at the president's side in numerous high-level meetings and it might of course be argued that this gives the Reuters correspondent special (even privileged) insight into what is going on.
At the same time, though, it surely creates difficulties for Sudam in deciding what he can or cannot report. Ultimately, it raises the question of whether he can effectively serve two masters. For instance, might he be at risk of losing his interpreting job if something he wrote for Reuters offended the president?
Reuters appears to have devised a kind of semi-solution to this problem by making it difficult to tell which parts of its reports from Yemen – even those carrying Sudam's byline – have actually been written by Sudam himself.
For example, one recent story about the conflict in Yemen carries a note at the end saying: "Reporting by Mohamed Sudam; Writing by Angus McDowall and Isabel Coles; Editing by Andrew Roche." In other words, Sudam is not solely responsible for the article's content. There's an implication that others have checked it for any pro-government leanings, while Sudam can presumably blame the work of colleagues if any of its content upsets the president.
Some of those complaining accuse Reuters of bias in favour of the government. But even if they are wrong about that, it still leaves Sudam in an invidious position. Most self-respecting news organisations would judge that his dual role as independent journalist and presidential interpreter gives rise, at the very least, to potential conflicts of interest.
Sudam really ought to decide which of his two jobs he values more – and ditch the other one.
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 15 November 2011