Al Jazeera Journalism Review

Spain prostitution
Al Jazeera English's December 2021 story about the Spanish proposal to outlaw the activities of middlemen involved in prostitution

Reporter’s Notebook: Inside Europe’s largest brothel 

While covering a story about a Spanish proposal to outlaw all middlemen involved in prostitution, AJE senior correspondent Natasha Ghoneim and her team came up against a wall of silence, but managed to get a story nevertheless

 

We spent almost two weeks looking for prostitutes. We found them in the red light districts of Barcelona, almost desolate due to the pandemic, along the highway and near truck stops and parking lots in a town just kilometres away from Spain’s border with France. we found them in a brothel. 

I still can’t shake loose the image in my mind of driving down a narrow alley late one night in Barcelona and seeing three brown-skinned girls, with too much make-up on, clad in sparkling, barely-there clothing despite the chill, being herded by a man who was surely their pimp. When a car began following us, we knew our scouting mission was over for the night.

Our photographer on this shoot was a bi-lingual English and Spanish speaking man. I figured it would be easier if he approached women alone initially, as opposed to the three of us at once. 

Spain 4
Valencia, Spain: People protesting against prostitution in Valencia, Spain, on International Women's Day, 2020. [Mikel Dabbah/Shutterstock]

When approaching people spontaneously in the field, I’m very sensitive about not wanting anyone to feel ambushed. An ambush interview is best reserved for politicians who are refusing to be held accountable.

We wanted to speak to prostitutes because we were reporting on the Spanish prime minister’s vow last year to outlaw prostitution. The multi-billion-dollar-a-year industry has been decriminalised in Spain since 1995. The approach of law enforcement has been to punish the pimps not the prostitutes. 

Brothels have legally opened by renting out rooms for prostitutes to service their clients. However, the current prime minister takes the line that prostitution is violent and tantamount to the enslavement of women. There are also concerns that since most prostitutes in Spain are migrants, many women and girls are being trafficked. 

The thousands of sex workers and the union that represents them are fighting what they see as a threat to their livelihoods. 

In fact, the union representative we called told the producer she would not speak to us if we mentioned sex trafficking in our story saying legitimate sex work and sex trafficking are being “conflated” and she was fed up with journalists “misrepresenting” the issue. Needless to say, our dialogue with her ceased immediately since she was not going to dictate the terms of how we reported the story. 

Spain prostitution 10
A still from the December 2021 AJE story on the ongoing debate about prostitution in Spain

We’d hoped the union would easily lead us to a prostitute that would be willing to share her perspective. Instead, our crew had to go back to the basics of reporting. 

As my revered  former newspaper-editor-turned-professor at Columbia University used to say, we “wore out the shoe leather”. 

We found women who were honest about their challenges. Business had dropped precipitously during the pandemic. Some preferred working the streets as opposed to inside a brothel to make more money, despite the dangers. 

Others clung to the “safety” of the brothel, where security cameras were ubiquitous, the guards poised to defuse trouble and, in at least one instance, there was a COVID-19 testing clinic on site. 

But woman after woman rejected our request to speak with us on camera even though we promised to conceal their identities. I wondered if it was shame more than the typical fear and discomfort.

Ultimately and surprisingly, we found our main character inside Club Paradise in La Jonquera. 

Spain 1
Club Paradise in La Jonquera, Spain - Europe's largest brothel, as seen in the AJE story by Natasha Ghoneim

It is touted as the largest brothel in Europe. You can get there in minutes from France and the manager told us most of their customers were French. We made several trips to the sprawling facility nestled in an industrial area behind a semi-truck mechanic. 

The proposed law in Spain would extend punishment to not only pimps, but any middle men who profit from prostitution. It would effectively shutter the brothels since women pay to rent rooms for their clients. 

Our producer explained to the brothel’s management that we wanted to hear their thoughts and speak to one of the women who work there. They listened politely but were noncommittal. 

The Club Paradise owners are media savvy. They had already previously allowed journalists inside “Europe’s biggest brothel”.  The pandemic had decimated business due to extended COVID-19 closures and, now, the prime minister and women’s rights activists had their sights on closing the brothels again. This time, permanently. 

Spain 3
Julia, who works as a prostitute in Europe's largest brothel, talks to Al Jazeera English

Days later, as we were still searching for a prostitute to speak with us, the manager called the producer to say he’d do the interview before the club opened. He cautioned that he couldn’t guarantee he’d be able to convince one of the women to speak with us.

Daily journalism especially, is often tenacity coupled with luck. All we could do is wait and hope for the best, while continuing the search with a tight timeframe to turn the story. 

We met Julia at Club Paradise. No doubt, Julia is a stage name she gives to her customers. Julia told us she’s a 33-year-old immigrant from Romania who was seduced into sex work by her passion for pole dancing. 

She excitedly swiped through her iPhone to show me impressive videos and asked me to feel her stomach. “Like steel.” 

Julia made it clear she is “proud” of what the job has afforded her - a home, the ability to take classes and support her family. She says with a “normal” job, she was barely subsisting. 

That said, she knows her choice of work has an expiration date and she’s studying, planning and dreaming of a time when she can open a gym. 

Spain 5
AJE films Julia going to work at Club Paradise, Europe's largest brothel, which is located in Spain, close to the French border

Julia stood out from the prostitutes we’d been seeing and talking to. She was confident and extremely articulate despite English not being her native language. She looked healthy. 

She still had the musculature from her childhood days in Romania as a gymnast. Her complexion glowed sans make-up. She spoke to me about the strict diet she kept to maintain her physique and energy. When she told me she didn’t drink or smoke, I believed her. 

Despite Julia’s unapologetic stance that sex work was a choice for her and a bridge to achieving her goals, it was with those goals in mind that she asked that we conceal her identity. With the COVID-19 pandemic, she had a surgical mask on hand and she kept it on when the camera was rolling. 

As smart as Julia was, there seemed to be a complete void in her experience and view on sex work and the intersection of sex trafficking. She told us she did not know anyone for whom sex work was anything but a choice. 

She even explained - and we saw - husbands and boyfriends dropping their partners off for work at Club Paradise. But she simply could not acknowledge that some women and girls are forced into prostitution. 

Spain 6
Natasha Ghoneim, senior correspondent for Al Jazeera English, reports from Barcelona on Spain's proposal to outlaw all middle-men involved in prostitution in December 2021

I had hoped to find a woman who was recuperating from the trauma of sex trafficking to use as a counterpoint to Julia. We’d been looking for one the whole time. 

In the end with our looming deadline, not only could we not find a victim, we couldn’t find a representative from one of the organisations combatting sex trafficking to speak with us. 

Although I mentioned sex trafficking and gave statistics in the story, it remains the one thing I’d wished we’d been able to develop more through character, in this three-minute story. 

It’s a shameful global issue which primarily affects women and girls, that warrants more action, attention and news coverage. 

And I keep wondering about that trio of brown-skinned girls in the Barcelona alley. Are they safe now?

 

Watch the Al Jazeera English story by Natasha Ghoneim:

 

 

More Articles

Virtual reality in the newsroom - placing us in the middle of the story

Journalists can use virtual reality to get a much clearer view of what is happening on the ground during conflict or other major events. This is how it works

Hadeel Arja Published on: 23 Jun, 2022
Why are so many journalists being killed in Bangladesh?

A decade after the brutal murders of a prominent journalist couple in Dhaka, the killers have still not been brought to justice - they remain at large along with those responsible for the deaths of many other journalists

Rokeya
Rokeya Lita Published on: 20 Jun, 2022
She showed me a picture of her dead son - moments later, she was back with the tea and cake

Listening to stories of trauma and loss caused by conflict and natural disaster - such as those of women in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir - is what many journalists must do to find and report the truth. The way in which we listen while setting aside preconceived notions of how victims ‘should’ behave is critical

Anam Z
Anam Zakaria Published on: 16 Jun, 2022
‘I still have nightmares’ - reporting on hate crimes in India

A handful of brave journalists have taken on the task of documenting and exposing hate crimes - often at great personal cost

Safina
Safina Nabi Published on: 14 Jun, 2022
Caught between warring factions - life as a journalist in Cameroon

Cameroon’s anglophone crisis has resulted in large parts of the country becoming no-go zones for reporters who must find other ways to do their jobs

Akem
Akem Nkwain Published on: 8 Jun, 2022
'We are not scared; we will tell our stories' - introducing Somalia’s first women-only newsroom

Braving threats from Al Shabaab as well as disapproval from their own, often patriarchal communities, six pioneering women have set up their own news agency in Somalia

Abdullahi Mire
Abdullahi Mire Published on: 1 Jun, 2022
‘You will be silenced’ - investigating human traffickers in Nigeria

REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK: Philip Obaji Jr has devoted years to uncovering and reporting on the sexual abuse and human trafficking of displaced women and girls in Nigeria. This is his story

Philip Obaji Jr
Philip Obaji Jr Published on: 18 May, 2022
‘Like walking on a tightrope’ - navigating a career as a journalist in Vietnam

THE LONG READ: Through a series of in-depth interviews with journalists in Vietnam, our writer - who remains anonymous for security reasons - paints a picture of censorship and journalists facing fines and even prison for mentioning ‘toxic’ subjects

headshot
Al Jazeera Journalism Review Correspondent Published on: 12 May, 2022
‘It takes courage to be a journalist in India’ - charting the collapse of press autonomy

THE LONG READ: With a rising number of journalists in India receiving ‘summons’ from the police and even finding themselves in prison just for doing their jobs, we ask - why has the profession come under so much pressure in recent years?

Abeer Khan Published on: 21 Apr, 2022
Beyond bystanders: Citizen journalism during the Egyptian revolution

A journalist looks back at the founding of RASSD News Network during the Egyptian revolution, which trained and supported ordinary citizens to become journalists

Khaled Faheem
Khaled Faheem Published on: 14 Apr, 2022
‘The bottom of human misery’ - reporting on Rohingya refugee women and girls

THE LONG READ: How should we go about reporting on members of vulnerable communities in an ethical way? We examine the case of Rohingya refugees, overwhelmed and struggling for survival in the refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh 

Azraa
Azraa Muthy Published on: 11 Apr, 2022
How smartphones are changing the face of news journalism

The telegraph transformed the way that newspapers could report the news more than 150 years ago. Now, smartphones are doing the same for TV news organisations

Rokeya
Rokeya Lita Published on: 5 Apr, 2022
Telling the stories of brutality - reporting on political prisoners in Belarus

REPORTER’S NOTEBOOK: Constructing a long-form feature to document the narratives of Belarusians imprisoned for protesting after the 2020 presidential election was a pain-staking, months-long task fraught with danger

Olga
Olga Loginova, Ottavia Spaggiari Published on: 30 Mar, 2022
From Syria to Ukraine - telling the stories of Russian aggression

REPORTER’S NOTEBOOK: Omar Al Hajj, a Syrian journalist working for Al Jazeera, explains what it’s like to go from covering war in his own country to bearing witness to another on a different continent

A picture of the author, Mohammad Ahdad.
Mohammad Ahdad Published on: 15 Mar, 2022
‘A sense of belonging has been taken away from us’ - the closure of the Kashmir Press Club

THE LONG READ: The closure of the Kashmir Press Club in January this year has come as a major blow to independent journalists in the troubled region who relied on it for camaraderie, respite and a ‘place to share ideas’

Meher
Meher Qadri Published on: 10 Mar, 2022
Investigating racist conviction laws in America - and seeing a man freed after 25 years

REPORTER’S NOTEBOOK:  How a team of journalists spent nearly a year investigating the conviction and 25-year imprisonment of Brandon Jackson and then watched him walk free

Jeremy Young
Jeremy Young Published on: 2 Mar, 2022
Reporter’s Notebook - on the trail of Boko Haram

For one journalist in Nigeria, covering the activities of the militant Islamist group, Boko Haram, primarily means documenting the horrifying stories of its victims, sometimes to his own cost

Philip Obaji Jr
Philip Obaji Jr Published on: 21 Feb, 2022
Avoiding mistakes in the newsroom - verifying video from external sources

When video of Osama Bin Laden surfaced around the time of the September 11 attacks on New York in 2001, many people questioned its credibility. We examine how Al Jazeera verifies the authenticity of outside materials, much of it produced by 'citizen journalists' 

A picture of the author, Montaser Marai.
Montaser Marai Published on: 15 Feb, 2022
Branded a ‘troublemaker’ and summoned by the police - life for female journalists in Kashmir

The repeal of Kashmir’s autonomous status by the Indian government, combined with a crackdown on press freedom, has made life extremely tough for women journalists in the region.

Safina
Safina Nabi Published on: 10 Feb, 2022
Making the world a better place - one camera ‘click’ at a time

REPORTER’S NOTEBOOK: How one photojournalist in Nigeria takes a ‘solutions-based’ approach to the images he captures.

Femi2
Femi Amogunla Published on: 2 Feb, 2022
Deploying news teams to dangerous places - what media organisations need to know

Reporting from the heat of battle or covering the tragedy and desolation of a humanitarian disaster can be perilous, but the risks are less if media professionals are prepared for the task. 

Aidan
Aidan White Published on: 27 Jan, 2022
When war is on your doorstep - the impossible road taken by a citizen journalist 

REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK: The 11-year war in Syria has shone a light on the struggles of local journalists who are often dismissed as ‘mere’ activists and whose plight is largely ignored by the international community. 

Zaina
Zaina Erhaim Published on: 20 Jan, 2022
Can you spot the fake news? Steering clear of conspiracies in science journalism

The world is full of fake news, nowhere more so than when it comes to scientific issues, so science journalists must develop a keen sense of scepticism. We look at why it’s so important to keep a clear head and search out the facts.

Ali
Ali Shehab Published on: 12 Jan, 2022
How to do science journalism - and do it right

THE LONG READ: With a new variant of COVID-19 sweeping the world, putting healthcare systems under strain, good science journalism has never been more important. This is our guide to how to report responsibly, accurately and ethically on scientific issues.

Ali
Ali Shehab Published on: 9 Jan, 2022