Testifying from the front

By Shiraz Sidhva - The first casualty when war comes, is truth," observed U.S. Senator Hiram Johnson in the midst of World War I. Nearly a century and many conflicts later, technological advances have brought wars into living rooms across the world. But truth still remains the first casualty, buried under layers of propaganda, vested interests and fear.

Reporting from the battlefront has never been technically easier, with satellite phones and live news relayed in real-time. But this has only accentuated the dilemmas that journalists encounter when covering conflicts: authoritarian regimes and even democracies go to even greater lengths to conceal the truth.

The last century has seen large-scale battles between countries give way to deadly internecine conflicts, often between governments and their own people. From Africa to East Timor, from Kashmir and Sri Lanka to the killing fields of Chechnya, Bosnia, Colombia and Sierra Leone, old ethnic hatred is rekindled, and wars are fought not on battlefronts but in the midst of civilian populations. According to Robert Manoff, director of New York University’s Center for War, Peace, and the News Media, mass violence is so "universalized" that there are currently over 200 communal groups fighting political and military wars in 93 countries.

The media’s role remains essentially to act as a messenger. Yet journalists also have the power to change the course of conflicts by influencing public opinion. "The outcomes of these small, post-modern wars may depend as much on how they are perceived as on how they are fought," writes Tom Gjelten of U.S. National Public Radio. Gjelten, who has covered major conflicts worldwide, believes journalists must recognize that their task is not to please diplomats or facilitate peace processes, but to describe a conflict as truthfully as possible.

Local journalists are prime targets

Do the exigencies of war justify a different set of ethics from those of peacetime? The principles are essentially the same, but for one major difference: journalists are more vulnerable in war. In Sierra Leone, East Timor and Chechnya, the bulletproof jackets that Western journalists donned provided little protection from the wrath of a killer squad or a vindictive soldier’s bullet. For local journalists, the terrors are even starker. Yves Sorokobi, who coordinates the Africa programme for the Committee to Protect Journalists, recounts that ten reporters were executed by rebels in Sierra Leone over 21 days in 1999

Reporting is also hampered by government restrictions on access to trouble spots. Since 1995, hardly any journalists in Sri Lanka have had access to the area where the government is fighting a deadly battle with the separatist guerrilla group, the Liberation of Tamil Tigers’ Eelam. "We don’t get anywhere close to the conflict," says Nirupama Subramanian, special correspondent of The Hindu in Colombo. Instead, both sides transmit their version of the news via contradictory press releases. "It is a fax war we are covering," Subramanian says. "There’s no way of knowing the truth."

The proliferation of real-time news has made political control even tighter. Journalists often find they have little training for the choices they are forced to make in tense situations. When two countries are at war, whose "truth" should the correspondent convey–that of the country to which the journalist belongs or that of the enemy, whose version might be more compelling? For the writer and war correspondent John Pilger, it is exactly this "virulence of an unrecognized censorship, often concealed behind false principles of objectivity" that serves to "minimize and deny the culpability of Western power in acts of great violence and terrorism, such as the Gulf and Kosovo."

Powerless observers of unfolding dramas?

War reporting has nevertheless come a long way since the two world wars, when most journalism was an uncritical arm of the war effort. Twenty years later, governments learnt from Vietnam that unrestricted access to war zones, particularly with the advent of television, was potential political suicide. In his classic book The First Casualty, Phillip Knightley concludes that the freedom journalists had to operate in Vietnam "to go anywhere, see anything, and write what they liked is not going to be given again."

"In a democracy, you cannot get away with the crude authoritarianism of closing down newspapers or taking over broadcasters," writes Steven Barnett, senior lecturer in communications at the University of Westminster, reviewing Knightley’s book. "You can, however, have a subtle mixture of information control, drip-feed propaganda stories about the enemy, cosy briefings for ‘friendly’ journalists and more blatant attempts at intimidation for the less obliging."

The British devised an excellent strategy to manage the media during the Falklands war in 1982–they denied access, except to "friendly" journalists willing to report defence briefings.

The Gulf War was the first in history where the public expected regular reporting from an "enemy" capital under siege. Fought mostly from the air, with attacks deep within enemy territory, it was impossible for international journalists to verify military information or report on Iraqi casualties. It was only later that the deceptions were exposed, whether it was Iraqis flinging premature Kuwaiti babies out of incubators (which turned out to be the work of an American public relations agency commissioned by the Kuwaiti government), or the filmed preparations for an allied landing on the Kuwaiti coast, which was never part of the military plan.

During the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999, the press was actively used to drum up public support. The pitfalls of instant news became all too obvious during the conflict. With 2,700 media personnel in the region when NATO entered Kosovo (compared with 500 in Vietnam at the war’s peak), the war could have produced unprecedented free and fair reporting. But instead, the story behind the sound bytes was missing. "The public drowned in wave after wave of images that added up to nothing," writes Knightley.

Above all the clamour, however, several war correspondents have worked at great risk. John Burns of the New York Times, a Pulitzer Prize winner, spent more than a year in besieged Sarajevo, sharing many nights of terror with the local people to tell the world what was really going on. For such journalists, objectivity may have little to do with neutrality, especially when the choice is between hapless victims and perpetrators of genocidal crimes.

For many reporters, the greatest dilemma comes down to how involved they should get. Often, journalists are overwhelmed by fear and helplessness, but are still called upon to provide the only link between a war-afflicted people and the outside world. "I couldn’t stop the smallest part of it," recalled Lindsey Hilsum of the British news service ITN about reporting the massacres of Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994. "I could only watch and survive." Yet Hilsum decided to testify before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. "It was not my responsibility, and testifying could even have compromised my role as a journalist," she explained. "But I also have responsibilities as a human being."

Courses at journalism school and professional guidelines drawn up by media organizations like the Freedom Forum are widening the debate on professionalism in war reporting, though most agree that the basic qualities needed are integrity and a good dose of common sense. Anthony Borden, executive director of the Institute of War and Peace Reporting in London, stresses the importance of engaging and valuing the work of local journalists, especially at a time when commercial pressures threaten the continued coverage of conflicts in regions not perceived to have strategic importance.

Given all the dangers, why do journalists choose to cover certain conflicts? It is unlikely they do it for fame or fortune, or as some people believe, for the thrill of it. Most reporters believe their writing will make a difference. The legendary correspondent Martha Gellhorn, who covered wars for nearly half a century, explained it best: "… in all my reporting life, I have thrown small pebbles into a very large pond, and I have no way of knowing if any pebble caused the slightest ripple. I don’t need to worry about that."

Shiraz Sidhva is UNESCO Courier journalist. His article was first published in the UNESCO Courier, March 2001

Texts published in 'Points of View' may not reflect UNESCO's position.

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