Mon, Jun 21, 2004 - Page 9 News List

The highs and lows of war reporting

Last week's shooting of a TV news crew in Riyadh could lead journalists in war zones to start carrying guns

By Jeremy Bowenthe  /  THE GUARDIAN

ILLUSTRATION: YU SHA

NO JOB IN journalism is more difficult or more satisfying than war reporting. In a war zone, reporters have to deal with people who regard killing as just another part of the day, they have to get the story right and then deliver it on deadline in places where just stepping outside can be fatal.

War reporting is exciting, upsetting and stimulating. Sometimes it is a lot of fun. Bearing witness to the world's evils beats going to work on the tube any day. Successful war reporters, going back to Richard Dimbleby in the second world war, become stars.

But war reporting has a terrible downside. It can kill you. Every journalist going to war should remember one fact - this assignment could end your life, or leave you maimed in body and mind. No matter how experienced or careful you are, if you lose your luck, you could die. Careful journalists and responsible employers can find ways to reduce the risks. But the only really safe way for a journalist to report a war is to sit in a newsroom and pick up wires.

So it is alarming and depressing for people who are already in a dangerous business to have to conclude that a whole new danger has arisen. It is not just a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, as Martin Bell was when he was wounded by shrapnel in Sarajevo in 1992. We are no longer collateral damage; we have become targets. TV journalists are especially at risk, because they are more conspicuous and because of the power of TV news in a globalised world. These days, everyone with a message to push wants to get it on television. Killers seem to have realised that the impact of their actions expands exponentially once it is beamed around the world.

Sometimes, I suspect, their reasoning is not that sophisticated. People who have concluded that the west is their enemy just want to kill one of its representatives.

The Saudi authorities - and the BBC - are investigating why Simon Cumbers was killed last week and Frank Gardner left fighting for his life in a hospital in Riyadh. I have no idea what they have uncovered. But it is a fair hypothesis that Simon and Frank were shot because they were westerners with a camera.

Journalists all around the world are in danger. Just glance at the website of the Committee to Protect Journalists (www.cpj.org). In the last week alone, it details attacks on the freedom of the press in Vietnam, Zimbabwe, Grenada, Bangladesh, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Russia and Venezuela. Al-Jazeera believes it has been targeted by the Americans and in Jerusalem, where I am working at the moment, many Palestinian journalists believe they have been singled out by the Israel Defence Forces. Both governments deny it. My friend Mazen Dana, a Palestinian who worked in Hebron for Reuters, talked about it whenrnalist and cameraman in a city of lost hope like Hebron requires great sacrifices," he said. "Gunfire, humiliation, beatings, prison, rocks and the destruction of journalists' equipment are just some of the hardships." Mazen was shot dead by an American soldier outside Abu Ghraib jail in Iraq last summer.

So, if we accept that a new danger exists, what do we do about it? In Baghdad, some reporters operate with armed bodyguards. The BBC employs unarmed ex-military safety advisers to work alongside its correspondents. It also has local men with guns protecting the BBC house, which has concrete blast walls outside it. Sometimes they fire in the air if they see suspicious-looking people getting too close, to show them that they are armed and to warn them off. There has been a lot of discussion in BBC News about hiring armed bodyguards for news teams in the field. If director of news Richard Sambrook and his advisers decide the circumstances are exceptional, it might happen in the future.

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