WITNESS: "Hi, is that the Somali pirates?"

NAIROBI Sun Apr 12, 2009 3:48pm EDT

1 of 3. Reuters East Africa Bureau Andrew Cawthorne sits next to a Somali gunman during his visit in this July 2006 file photo. Reporting on Somali piracy can be surreal. While some in the world only woke up to the phenomenon with the first seizure of an American hostage, Somalia's modern-day buccaneers have been marauding off the Horn of Africa for years, taking hundreds of captives and millions in ransoms. Covering their exploits is a near-daily task for reporters in Somalia and foreign correspondents in East Africa.

Credit: Reuters/Andrew Cawthorne

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NAIROBI (Reuters) - Your best source is jailed. You track high-sea hijacks by text and email. You get through to captors on a satellite phone but are then roundly abused.

Reporting on Somali piracy can be surreal.

While some in the world only woke up to the phenomenon with the first seizure of an American hostage, Somalia's modern-day buccaneers have been marauding off the Horn of Africa for years, taking hundreds of captives and millions in ransoms.

Covering their exploits is a near-daily task for reporters in Somalia and foreign correspondents in East Africa.

At times, like the saga of just-released American hostage Richard Phillips on a lifeboat with four gunmen, it becomes a 24/7 job, requiring moral judgments and canny journalism.

Reuters reporters in Somalia were able to contact Phillips' captors -- on their fuel-less, floating lifeboat stalked by U.S. warships -- at the start of the standoff. They issued various defiant messages to the world in barked conversations.

Having then been informed, however, that their remarks were making instant headlines on TV networks across the world, the pirate gang became less cooperative.

"We are tired of your calls. We have no time for journalists," is a polite translation of some of the last quotes our team managed to extract from the pirates.

"If you bother us again, we will order someone in Mogadishu to meet you," a gang member added before the line went dead.

Often, though, the pirates are friendly and helpful, though they detest use of the p-word. "We never kill people. We are Muslims. We are marines, coastguards -- not pirates," one said.

Hostages say the pirates are normally as friendly as they can be under the circumstances. While they threaten to shoot or beat them if they do not cooperate, they also roast goat for their captives and pass phones around for calls home.

"ELECTRONIC" HIJACKS

At Reuters, news of dramatic hijacks can often break by texts, sometimes in the middle of the night, from sources.

On a warship in the Gulf of Aden, one journalist was first to report the hijacking of an Italian boat from staff who got a distress call then saw communications disappear in minutes.

One of the best sources on piracy in the region is Andrew Mwangura, coordinator of the East African Seafarers' Assistance Programme. Based in Kenya's Mombasa port, the body is a champion for sailors' welfare, essentially a human rights group.

Mwangura believes some authorities in the region, and wealthy kingpins in places like Nairobi, Dubai and London, are complicit in masterminding and sheltering piracy.

Last year, Mwangura accused Kenya of trying to cover up the real destination of tanks on board a hijacked Ukrainian ship.

Mwangura was labeled a "mouthpiece" for pirates by the Kenyan government, and went to jail on charges of giving "alarming" information and possessing $3 worth of marijuana.

He was later released, but the case hangs over him in what he says is a crude attempt to gag him from telling the truth.

Kenya's sensitivity over Mwangura mirrors some of the moral ambiguities over covering piracy. Are journalists fanning criminality when they speak to the gangs, or adding to a necessary understanding of the phenomenon?

Answers, please, in a bottle on the Indian Ocean.

(Editing by Jack Kimball and Richard Balmforth)

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