Communication on the border

Stephan Kloss is a qualified journalist and sociologist. He investigates causes as well as consequences of social upheavals and is currently studying psychology online.
For television, Stephan Kloss has reported from the Balkans, the Syrian conflict, the 2003 Iraq war, the Middle East, Africa, India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and 30 other countries.

Your subject is societies in transition. Your travels have taken you to more than 40 countries in over 30 years and you speak 6 languages: German, English, Spanish, Russian, Hindi and Urdu. What role does communication play and what does language mean to you in your profession as a journalist and foreign correspondent?

Communication is what gets across. Language is a basic prerequisite for communication. So it is obvious to learn the language, as well as you can, of a region where you are staying for a longer period of time and, above all, about which you are reporting. I noticed this very much when I was often in Afghanistan, sometimes for weeks, sometimes for a few months: the country with its diverse people, their customs and thoughts remained somehow closed to me. Later, when we lived in neighbouring Pakistan, I learned Urdu, which is closely related to Hindi. I had previously learned Hindi in India, but it was through learning Urdu that I began to understand the region, the soul of the people, so to speak. It was always a completely different interaction when people realised that I could communicate with them in their language. Urdu is also spoken in large parts of Afghanistan, so it was easy to communicate there as well. By being able to talk to people in their language, I got the impression that they trusted me much more and told completely different stories. I often had the feeling that the effect of social desirability was weaker, that people did not tell me what they assumed I wanted to hear because I was a foreigner, but they told me things as if I were someone from their village. This developed into very authentic contributions, especially as I was able to talk directly to the protagonists, without an interpreter.

My last newsletter was about lapis lazuli – the “blue gold” of Afghanistan. You know the country as a theatre of war and were in the middle of it as an eyewitness. What did you take away from this time? What made you grow the most and what gave you hope and courage to face all this?

The most important thing I learned from my time in the Hindu Kush, which I have been travelling since 1997, is that there is no point in trying to change a country and its society from the outside. That doesn’t achieve anything. The people themselves have to find the consensus on how they want to live together. And they can do that, they are capable of it. They may need a lot of time for that, but it is their time. Because it is also their country, where they have lived for thousands of years. What I have grown the most is knowledge on a personal and professional level. There is no recipe for facing all the difficulties. One should be able to get involved without forgetting oneself. Professionally, you should always keep an objective distance from a topic or a protagonist. In quite a few situations you also have to have courage, that’s true. But that’s a basic instinct that we all possess, but which is buried deep in some people’s heads. We must always have hope. Without it, we can’t do our day’s work.

I imagine that you have met many people and experienced, filmed and portrayed their fates, dreams and truths. Which encounter would you describe as the most formative and why? In your view, how close are role model character and human failure?

There are so many meaningful incidents that I have been able to experience in the past 30 years as a journalist. They have all enriched my perspective as a human being. Often you don’t realise it until much later. All of them have left their mark. One impressive experience was when I wanted to interview a member of the Afghan parliament in 2005. Because she had spoken critically of some warlords who were also sitting in parliament, she was threatened with death. In order to interview her, I had to travel through half of Kabul via middlemen and in secret via several phone calls with different telephone numbers. It was like being in a James Bond film. Even then it was clear to me that if an elected member of parliament had to go into hiding because of death threats in a country where we, the West, had introduced or imposed democracy, then the project had failed. Unfortunately, my premonition has come true. Now NATO, i.e. the Western community of states, is pulling out. And is Afghanistan safe and prosperous? Absolutely not. The hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees who came to Germany after 2015 speak a clear language. But I would like to mention one hopeful episode. In 2010, I was allowed to accompany the former Bundeswehr doctor Dr Reinhard Erlös in eastern Afghanistan. He and his family have been building schools there, especially for girls, since 2002 with their organisation “Kinderhilfe Afghanistan” in the middle of the Taliban region. These were fantastic days that I was able to experience. Because Dr. Erlös was well known and respected, we were able to move around freely, in local clothes and in local taxis. You get to see the real Afghanistan: hospitable, humble and life-smart people. The schools – all financed by private donations – where tens of thousands of children now attend, are the seeds of a more hopeful future. But it takes time and patience. We in the West apparently no longer have that. When there are problems, a quick solution is needed. If you are sick, you have to take a pill quickly. That’s not how a country is built. And that’s why the Western states are actually leaving the Hindu Kush empty-handed – in my opinion.
Role model character and human failure are always close together.
Role models, they do and talk less. They take care of their social environment. In doing so, one can also fail. Failure is human. There is nothing wrong with that. You shouldn’t see it as a failure.

How do you define journalism? What is good journalism for you? How does your view from a journalistic perspective differ from the view of other journalists?

Journalism means reporting on what is happening. Objectively. There is no place for personal opinions or emotions. Good journalism is actually very simple. It is difficult to say how my perspective differs from that of my colleagues. But I can’t hide the fact that I am concerned about my profession.

What motivated you to start studying psychology at the online university at the age of 50? What added value does it form for you in the future and in the context of your previous work?

In my life I have experienced numerous unbelievable, incomprehensible, terrible, beautiful, disturbing, devastating and incomprehensible situations, to use a few adjectives. And it is always about the latent behaviour of people. Psychology is by definition the scientific study of the experience and behaviour of individuals in their environment. Now I’m beginning to understand a lot of things better. It changes me. It is fun. A new universe is opening up. Now, in my 4th semester, I look at our world and the zeitgeist in a completely different way. For example, I can read a study, understand how it is structured, what parameters were set by the respective scientists, how the study came about and whether the authors’ statement is consistent with the results. That is very helpful in these times. When colleagues tell me: This or that study has found out such and such, then I ask them, have you read it yourself? No, of course they haven’t. Only the press release … After more than 30 years of journalism you have experienced everything. Really everything. Maybe it is time to look at other horizons.

What do you wish for future generations of journalists? If you could change something in education, what would it be and what do you think are the omissions and the opportunities for journalists to contribute to the change for society?

I would like to see more scientific interest and understanding, openness and curiosity in future journalists. Journalists, I think, have only a limited chance to participate in changing a society. It is also not their task. They are supposed to report objectively, independently and as unideologically as possible. That alone is a monster task that is becoming increasingly difficult. I don’t know journalism training that well. What is important is that a journalist is right with himself, that he knows where he comes from, that he maintains a good social environment and remains internally autonomous. That alone is difficult nowadays.

What do you love about Leipzig? Favourite places, people, regions, food, … What keeps someone in Saxony who has seen the whole world in many facets?

I now live a little outside Leipzig. After all these years of travelling around, I realised that I am firmly connected to my native soil, without really being aware of it. My realisation was: to live well, I need my circle of family and acquaintances, the region where I grew up, where I also understand the nuances of the language. The world outside is beautiful, I like being there. It was and is nice to open up everything. But you recharge your batteries at home. My favourite restaurant in Leipzig is the “Shams” – an Afghan restaurant. They serve really cool food there. The world.