Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Perils of Wartime Journalism

I thought it fitting this month to write an article on the perils of wartime journalism, particularly given that former colleague Anton Hammerl celebrated, if one can even use that term, his death anniversary on the 5 April.

Having experienced first-hand working in the Middle East during the first signs of the Arab Spring, I can say that life as a journalist and photographer is a life-altering experience. Certainly the thrill and excitement of being on the ground and witnessing history in the making is most journalists dream come true, but unfortunately this comes at a price.

For me, what I saw and experienced in Tunisia and Egypt left its mark. A somewhat permanent scar actually. Phrases like man's inhumanity to man and so on take on a new life when you truly see battle on the battlefield. I resolved never to embark on such trips again. While the excitement and thrill were there, and your adrenalin filled veins keep you going, the gruesome death, torture and torment you see and hear whilst you're there only really sinks in days, if not weeks after you return from your assignment.

For others, the not-so-lucky, like Anton Hammerl, the consequences are more dire and far more permanent. Anton was a photo-journalist who was killed by troops loyal to Muammar Gaddafi outside Brega in Libya. Even after his death, Hammerl's family were led to believe that he was alive and safe in detention in Libya - so claimed the Gaddafi regime. Anton's family only learned about his death over a month later after the release of a group of journalists who Hammerl had been with prior to his shooting.

It's somewhat easy to write it off as these things go with the territory when you're in the media industry covering such events. But unfortunately, the public tend to forget that journalists are human too. They are quick to criticise the likes of the BBC about the quality of the coverage, not realising the true difficulties their journalists experience whilst trying to gain credible and reliable information about events on the ground. The public fails to realise the very real risks these journalists are exposed to - not just of injury, but of death itself.

My heart also goes out to the other three journalists who witnessed Anton being shot: US freelance reporter James Foley, a regular contributor to the Global Post; Clare Morgana Gillis, another US freelance reporter writing for amongst others USA Today and Christian Science Monitor; and Manu Barabo, an experienced Spanish photojournalist. Having seen my guide and translator being shot in Tunisia in front of my eyes, I know that seeing such violence against someone you know is not a pleasant thing to live with.

Anton, of course, was not the only journalist victim of the Arab Spring. Even in Libya, just before Anton's shooting two journalist Ali Hassan al-Jaber and Mohammed Nabbous were both shot and killed in Benghazi in March 2011. Maintaining any sense of objectivity when faced with such circumstances is a formidable challenge.

One can only hope that the public grows to appreciate the perils of wartime journalism - perhaps more than just the occassional blog post by jaded journalists and the BBC are required to achieve this though. Hopefully someone produces a documentary about what it's all really like someday.

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UPDATE: As an aside for my blog readers, I realise it's been a while since my last post. I have been travelling in India and the Far East on a photojournalist assignment over the last quarter. It's certainly been much more interesting, although not always pleasant covering the topic of women abuse.

I will also be starting up my own website and hosting my blog off this platform over the next few months once everything is designed and up. The new platform is much easier for uploading photos and so will suit my future blogging much better. Speaking of technology, I will also be helping out NewsView with a series on how technology is changing journalism - specifically the impact of social media on wartime reporting.

In the meantime, I face the exciting task of covering the under the radar gambling industry in the developing world. I will be discussing the legality of an online gambling website like this in India and the booming legal and illegal offline and South African online casino industry. Much better than simply covering poverty although I imagine the bulk of participants in those industries would more likely be the poor. Why can't I ever get an assignment revolving around people who buy lottery tickets online and actually win - I could sure use a trip around the Caribbean photographing all those glorious lottery yachts!

I'll write more and post some of my latest photos from India as soon as my new blog is ready to launch - till then, keep safe.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Analysis of US Military Interventions

In looking at the United States interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, I will try and identify the motivations for each and the different forms they have taken. It goes without saying that previous U.S. military interventions over the past hundred years (from entry into the First and Second World Wars, to Korea and Vietnam, Cuba and Nicaragua) have all shared to some degree or other, the motivations for the latest ones.

In its contestation with Stalinist Russia (which had imposed direct control over other peoples in the form of the Soviet Union and indirect control in the form of the Soviet Bloc), the US used only the proxy method. This meant that the US had to select potential allies within the competing rivals in a given country. Characteristically this meant supplying arms and political recognition to a political movement that agreed to US penetration of its markets, US access to its mineral and energy resources and support for the US in its battle for world supremacy over the Soviet Union. This resulted in the US tolerating regimes that were often little more than dictatorships or oligarchies operating in flagrant disregard to human rights and economic equality. Examples of these were Apartheid South Africa, Mobutu’s Zaire, Saudi Arabia, Pinochet’s Chile, South Vietnam, Marcos’s Philippines and the Shah’s Iran. As such, the US track record since 1945 as a champion of democracy and political freedom is severely tainted. Moreover, the unrivalled US hegemony occasioned by the collapse in 1990 of the Soviet Union and the Soviet Bloc was short-lived. The rising economic power of China, India, Brazil and South Korea has meant that, in percentage terms, the US share of world economy has declined quite appreciably in a remarkably short time. The precariousness of its financial system, the stripping of its manufacturing base and its enormous debt have also contributed to the US economy’s stuttering performance notwithstanding its IT dominance. A further factor is obviously the energy crisis. All these, taken together, constitute the context in which the latest interventions have to be seen. But what are the specific factors that have given rise to each one?

Taliban rule in Afghanistan was marked by adherence to the narrowest forms of Islamic law, extreme intolerance of other religions, suppression of the human rights of women and gay people and a gross lack of internal democracy/freedom of expression. However, the US, though perhaps irked by the extreme nature of this religious fascism, did not at any stage take active steps to give effect to ‘regime change’ even though Taliban support for Al Qaeda was common knowledge. It was only the 11 September attack on the US mainland that precipitated an outraged and vengeful reaction – on a world wide scale. In this scenario, Afghanistan was to be isolated and invaded so as to drive out Al Qaeda; the overthrow of the Taliban was a collateral act.

As such, the 2001 intervention was directly precipitated by the 11 September terror attack and had to do with assuring the physical security of the US mainland and with reasserting its prestige and influence across the world. And because of universal abhorrence at the deaths of so many civilians (almost 3,000), the invasion in fact enjoyed much global legitimacy.

That US troops are still there over a decade later is testimony to enduring fears of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism and the instability of the new dispensation - not a result of economic imperative.

What then are we to make of the intervention two years later in Iraq?

Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1992 had been universally criticized. US oil interests were affected but could probably have been restored through diplomatic and other non-military means. After all, Saddam Hussein had not threatened to stop sales to the US or any other country or to renege on existing contracts. As such the resulting coalition formed to eject him, led by the US but reflecting wide ranging North-South support, while having underlying resource control motives, could be sanctioned on the basis that Iraq had no more right to annex Kuwait than any other party. A more general concern was the need to show Iraq international displeasure at the use of force to expand its territory and ambit of influence. It goes without saying that the growth of such a regional super power terrified other small Gulf states and Saudi Arabia. As such, having regard to all factors, Iraq was not expelled from Kuwait in order to bring democracy and social justice to that small tribally-led principality. The intervention was primarily about disciplining an expansionist regional dictator. In general then, the coalition enjoyed a global mandate if only to restore the status ante.

The second invasion of Iraq in 2005 was, however, an entirely different matter. Here we had gross distortion and manipulation by oil and military-industrial complex interests of US and British public fears in regard to physical security. An imaginary bogey (weapons of mass destruction) was created and a climate of hysteria to support invasion and regime change was engendered by outright falsification of evidence.

The objective was simple: to impose US/British control over an important energy source. Sanctions imposed on Iraq following the restoration of Kuwaiti sovereignty had crippled the Iraqi economy and severely undermined its military capacity. Secular Nationalist Baathist Iraq had no contact with Al Qaeda and was isolated in the Arab world. The looming shortage of fossil fuel, however, and Iraq’s major reserves were the impetus to an adventure that has grossly back fired on its sponsors and brought untold suffering to the Iraqi people. A civil war sparked by the brutal and politically inept US/British occupation has destroyed the fabric of daily life and devastated the economy. It will take decades for Iraq to recover from the trauma. This was US imperialism at its ugliest – Britain was also responsible, but being a junior partner, to a lesser degree.

What then of the Libyan intervention? This year, following a series of uprisings in several countries of the Middle East and in the Mahgreb, popular demonstrations broke out in Libya against Gaddafi’s forty year dictatorship. This movement was met by bullets and sought regional and then world support, which it received (from the Arab League and the United Nations) in the form of sanctions against the Gadaffi inner circle. Then, on its own, the movement organized an armed response to Gaddaffi’s assault. When this armed response began to founder, the appeal for external armed support became controversial. How far could the outside world go in challenging the existing state?

An interesting way to test the legitimacy of armed external intervention is to ask how would the world have reacted had the New Egyptian army invaded Libya in order to spread the Arab Spring? Would this have been more effective than a US/NATO action?

The answer is undoubtedly ‘yes’ – particularly if other Arab League countries had participated. This would have been unquestionable popular support for democracy and social equality and laid to rest any suspicion that the US/NATO intervention had a hidden agenda: Libya’s oil. Having said this, there are many reasons why this regional intervention did not take place; so the fact that US/NATO firepower was instrumental in toppling Gaddafi was positive. And the likelihood of a hidden agenda being successful is made more difficult by the fact that they are not physically occupying Libya. There is every chance now that Libyans themselves will determine the direction of their society.

In conclusion, the US intervention in Libya was of a very different order to the second invasion of Iraq and can be supported. In fact, one must ask why the democratic forces in Syria are not getting the same regional and global support.

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As a random aside from the sometimes drab world of international politics, you may want to venture out and buy lottery tickets online or have a browse at some of the best online casinos in the hope of never having to hear another story about US foreign intervention!

On a personal note, I'm just about at the end of a 6 month sabbatical and looking forward to my next assignment - definitely in a nation not at war this time thankfully!

I have to give a special mention in this post to my personal strategy coach who has helped me discover some pretty amazing things about myself over the last few months. If ever any of you require a personal coach or need to hire a facilitator, then I would highly recommend getting in touch with Pratish through his executive coaching site or directly through Fusionfields.

I leave for South East Asia for a short stint and then I'm back to a dream photographic assignment in Botswana. At some point in this lifetime, I will actually deliver on my promise to post my photos on this blog... Until then, enjoy!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Covering Libya and the Middle East

Photography can be a very calming pastime. Often when people meet me for the first time and ask what I do for a living, the response I receive is usually associated with exactly that impression.

"Oh, you're so lucky - it must be wonderful to go around and take photos all day," they'll say. And yes, to some extent that's very true. On some assignments, however, you experience capturing moments that you would rather not. Moments that are deeply precious for those experiencing them and somewhat opportunistic for those trying to capitalise on them For me, my recent experience in Libya and the Bahrain, was exactly that.

People abroad want to get a reflection of what's happening on the ground and they rely on journalists and photographers to provide them content to help them do so. After all, how else are foreigners expected to base their decisions on whether and when their respective governments should intervene. (As though the general public ever have a say in such decisions made by their governments in any case).

Witnessing carnage and murder first hand is something I'm not sure I have the hunger or stomach for any longer. When I was younger, that type of challenge excited me. But there is an element of unpleasant consistency you see in the pain. Certainly the money is welcome, but the trauma in dealing with the atrocities you see is really not worth it and I believe I will stick to the likes of photographing sporting events like the Commonwealth Games and the joyous Cricket World Cup in the future.

Enough for now, but more soon when I recover from my trip. In the meantime I think I could definitely use some more of that executive coaching I had at the end of last year and I'm definitely going to play lottery in India in the hopes that I would never have to work again.

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If you're bored, be sure to check out some of Wonkie's latest recommended links or read up a bit more about strategy coaching here.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Making New Year's Resolutions that Count

Over the last couple of years I haven't really taken out much time to ensure that everything was on track in all areas of my life. My focus has mainly been my career and to be honest I've thoroughly enjoyed it. I've photographed at some major world events this year including the Commonwealth Games in India which was certainly an unbelievable experience. Just recently I've completed a photo stint for the World Festival of Youth and Students - also amazing. Despite the disorganised nature of the event, experiencing the diversity and energy of young people was something I'll never forget.

Today was a kind of sad day - it normally is for many people that are away from their families and loved ones during this time of year. Christmas is not a great time to be alone. Sure, the day was fun and I spent some time with local friends and colleagues from the BBC and Czech newspapers, but for the first time I did miss the snow and the traditional Christmas eve dinner (carp not turkey!) in Czech Republic. it did get me thinking a bit about what I really wanted for myself in the longer term and I set out to find a decent guide to making effective New Year's resolutions.

As luck would have it I stumbled across a life coaching website that had an interesting article on the exact topic. In fact it offered a free making New Year's resolutions tool. I was rather sceptical about at first - you know, I thought it might be one of those let's fill in a personality questionnaire and we'll send you some generic email that could be applicable to anybody types. I decided to give it a try though and I'm so glad I did. The quiz was a short one - not more than 2 minutes to complete, even with some thought. The results however were really interesting - not so much the content (which was mostly my own input from the form) but the presentation of it. It gave me an incredibly clear view of what was most important to me and how well I was faring in terms of my own goals from a holistic perspective - spirituality, career, work-life balance, money, family, relationships etc. There were a series of thought-provoking questions which really struck home too - both in terms of relevance and in terms of importance.

All in all, it triggered a bit of pondering on what I want for myself for next year, 2011. More importantly, it allowed me to think of aspects of my life in relative priority which I had not really taken the time out to do before. If that's what personal life coaching is about - I'd say it's definitely worth the time. Even if you don't hire a coach - do the questionnaire... it's worth the effort! It certainly was for me. You can find the coaching questionnaire on http://lifecoach-pro.com/20101212/make-new-years-resolutions/

All the very best for 2011 - it's going to be a great year ahead!

Saturday, October 9, 2010

India Commonwealth Games miracle

So when I first heard about the snakes in the village where the athletes for the 2010 Commonwealth games were going to be living, I almost had a heart attack. Then with foot bridges collapsing along the way I was even more certain that the games were going to be a total disaster. What a change in organisational effectiveness when compared to South Africa when they hosted the 2010 FIFA World Cup earlier this year! An MBA case study if there were ever going to be one.

Upon arrival in New Delhi, India however, both the atmosphere and actual delivery of the games has been nothing short of spectacular. In an incredible turnaround - and incredible it was - the village was ready, the opening ceremony was amazing and the athletes in India are certainly doing their nation proud. Over a dozen medals to the hosts and counting - India's largest tally in similar international athletics events to date.

Opening Ceremony - Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games

Above are some of the photos of the facilities. To imagine that these were largely constructed purely for these games and were in a horrid state just last month, India has certainly pulled one out bag this time. The events have been a pleasure to watch and photograph as a freelancer - certainly one more once in a lifetime experience for me!

In other local news in Delhi, it seems some government lobbyists for India casinos licenses have been staying in my hotel near Connaught Place. The reports of corruption from the games sounds like it is barely a drop in the ocean compared to what I've been hearing in terms of the process of government regulator lobbying for gambling licenses in Assam. Gaming (of the non-sport kind!) is currently only allowed in Goa in India at present.

On the whole, the trip to India so far has been amazing as always. I was quite doubtful before I arrived but once again the media seemed to have blown things completely out of proportion in terms of their reporting. Either that, or a miracle took place in India last week!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

A to Z of ZA - Positive South Africa!

Just came across this pro-South Africa campaign that I think is just what the country needs - with all the negative press around these days around Malema and kill this and shoot that, it's nice to see someone promoting the good in SA. Check out A to Z of ZA

This comes at a time when despite the good energy around the world cup in 2010 in SA, there are many internal fault lines being exposed particularly in terms of service delivery.

The photo books on display truly illustrate both the diversity and the energy of the country - I'll certainly be submitting my entries soon in the hopes of securing one of those neat MacBooks!

All is well otherwise - I've been completing an African photo journal that will be published in Prague later this year. Some stunning shots in it taken at the Kruger Park last week!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Alas - no luck for the romantic

Ok - So, I couldn't resist and wound up dropping the guy an email to find out if she had responded.. it turns out we met at a writer's conference quite a few years ago - talk about a small world! In any case, sadly she had not responded so he was pretty disappointed but who knows right? I still think it is probably one of the cutest things I've seen anybody do for a random stranger they've never spoken to... her loss for sure!!

On brighter news, I'm going for a leadership conference in Canada over the month of July this year - it's going to be great. It has been ages since I have photographed in Whistler, Banff, the Rockies.... sigh - I cannot wait to get going! I've just recently completed the first volume of a photo book... you know someday I will get all these formally published for more than just my friends! ;)