Foley and conflict reporting

BY sevanti ninan| IN Opinion | 03/09/2014
"When you start to take risks you know that it is pure luck that you didn't get killed there… It's not worth these things. It's not worth your life."
SEVANTI NINAN on freelance war correspondents. PIX: Foley at Northwestern University in 2011

Sevanti Ninan

When you are in a country  where there is little sustained conflict reporting it is  difficult to comprehend what drives a freelance reporter like James Foley who was executed last week in Syria. There is a small tribe of such reporters in those countries—Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Libya, Afghanistan-- who do it though there isn’t that much money in freelance conflict journalism. And very little risk coverage. 

More than the grisly video put out by ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) another Foley video brings home the total vulnerability of a journalist drawn inexorably to the world’s theatres of long running violence. It has to be seen to understand the conflicting reasons of head and heart which drive people like him to head repeatedly for war zones. He was in Libya before Syria, in Afghanistan as an embedded journalist, and in Iraq as a USAID worker before that.

He is being interviewed before an audience at the Medill school of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2011, shortly after being released after 44 days of captivity in Libya. It is his alma mater. He was a school teacher in his thirties when he decided he wanted a career change.

Foley gives a long graphic account of operating there, scrambling to get to the front line, slowly comprehending that the firing you hear is not crossfire, it is aimed at you. “This is the moment when we are in that vehicle, in a rebel vehicle. We are past the last frontline. Our plan was we wanted see who had (captured) Brega. (An oil port in Libya).

So why is he trying to get there?

“…they call it like these Facebook revolutions, and part of the problem with Facebook is, as we know, it is lot of rumours, man. Amazing what was being spread—so hard for a journalist to nail down some facts. That’s part of the reason why you are drawn to the frontline. You feel I just got to confirm this. Who had Brega.”

After last week’s ISIS video the media focused briefly on how freelance journalists are now becoming the backbone of coverage in places like Syria, Gaza, Iraq, Libya. They are many of them. Foley mentions Claire Giles, a freelance reporter in Benghazi, who is a Harvard PhD. She too ends up in jail in Tripoli with him. When he went missing in Syria in 2012, the news was broken by another freelance journalist Nicole Tung who had been working with him there.

A Reuters story quoted the Pew Research Centre which has documented the scaling back in international coverage in the US with at least 20 newspapers closing bureaus abroad. They just cannot afford it any more. (The Hindu here which has had the most foreign correspondents of any Indian newspaper is now doing the same--its West Asia correspondent of many years has been redeployed to in the Delhi bureau.)

So small online news start ups like the one Foley was on assignment for, Global Post, are filling the void in international coverage, because they believe in it. And they can find reporters who share their conviction.

Says Foley in the Medill video, “Conflict journalism is very important. We need to know what’s going on in the world... that most of the world is a dictatorship. In most of the world you cannot speak your mind, in most of the world there is no due process…”

He talks about the risk taking. “When you start to take risks you know that it is pure luck that you didn’t get killed there…Its not worth these things. Its not worth your life. Its not worth seeing your mother and brother and sister bawling. Your grand mother dying because you’re in prison. ..its never worth it.“ Yet the next year he went to Syria.

He describes with wonder watching a member of the better-taken care-of tribe of war correspondents operate. “Conflict zones cannot be covered safely. C J Chivers from the New York Times…watch how he operates. Wearing full body armour. He has a professional driver, a professional photographer…. It is an extremely dangerous place. But see how he operates. He is the number one war reporter for the NYT. He is not trying to be the first guy there. We didn’t follow a lot of those practices.”

To hear him tell it, the freelance war correspondent tribe has is own rules of empathy and kinship.  “Another beautiful thing is how these journalists in Libya and Iran and Tripoli closed ranks around us. They were writing about us. In Facebook and Twitter it builds up. We were kept in the media by my friends”.

An Anglo-Palestinian freelance journalist Medyan Dairieh has just made a five part documentary on the Islamic State, released by Vice News, another US start up. He spent three weeks embedded with the militant group. He captures young boys who look into the camera and pledge to “kill infidels. “Without this tribe of journalists would the world even begin to understand these movements?

Reprinted from Mint August 28, 2014

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