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.