Defend Truth


Journalists and conflict, a reflection

Born in South Africa in 1962, Greg is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative photojournalist and is co-author of The Bang Bang Club, a nonfiction book on South Africa’s transition to democracy, and Murder at Small Koppie based on his investigations into the Marikana massacre of miners by police. He is an associate editor for Daily Maverick. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University in 2013/14 and teaches photojournalism and visual journalism at Boston University’s Journalism school, where he also indulges a passion by leading analogue workshops on archaic film cameras.

I have been following the Syrian situation with interest and concern. All that wild wavy cell phone footage on television was really making me nauseous. I was pretty pleased to see that professional journalists had found a way to finally enter Homs, or at least the neighbourhood of Baba Amr that the free Syrian army had liberated from the state. Maybe I could watch television again. By GREG MARINOVICH.

Despite my opinion of Syrian cellphone camera-people, the best of the Syrian activist bloggers and video live-feeders was a young guy called Rami al-Said. He was based in Homs. His final Facebook posting was “Baba Amr is being wiped out now, complete genocide, I don’t want you to tell us our hearts are with you because I know that, I want projects everywhere inside and outside I want everyone to go out in front of the embassies in all countries everywhere because we are soon to be nothing, there will be no more Baba Amr – I expect this is a final letter to you and we will not forgive you.”

Syria had been very effective at stopping journalists getting in since their assault on their own people began. In such a tightly controlled state, this meant no foreign journalists had gotten in for months, leaving all reporting to largely unskilled and brave local activists.

It was inevitable that a dictatorship like Syria would want to permanently silence Al-Said’s voice. I think it is safe to say that it was Al-Said’s powerful output that prompted many journalists to venture across a tightly controlled border and into the incredibly dangerous warzone that was Baba Amr. The Syrians finally figured out where the live feeds were coming from and shelled the makeshift media house. Al-Said was killed in the barrage and his latter-day death mask appeared all over the blogosphere.

The news that two foreign journalists were killed in the same attack as Al-Said broke a little later: veteran war correspondent Marie Colvin and photographer Remi Ochlik were dead.

It was a real loss to the profession, their readers and mostly their families, but Marie was among the first to say that journalists must not whine about what befalls them in conflict zones.

What followed next was another chapter in the rather pathetic trend of aggrandizing the messenger as opposed to the real hero, antiheroes or villains of conflicts. This breathless reporting on what happens to other journalists bothers me. A lot. Before you jump down my throat, I have to say a kind of mea culpa inasmuch that João Silva and I wrote one of the journalistic bodice rippers of our time – The Bang Bang Club

If you have read it, you will know that we went to great pains to demythologise the craft and the practice of it conflict zones. Weirdly, that message doesn’t sink in, and a naïve, romantic perception of covering conflict seems to survive our best efforts. If nothing else, then the loss of João’s legs in Afghanistan in late 2010 should really cut the jive about war reporting. Or perhaps read Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop.

At any rate, a couple of weeks ago, I was flipping through the television news channels when I caught a BBC report about Syria. The footage showed a very French-looking female journalist talking to camera (shaky, as is traditional in these things), managing an occasional brave smile through obvious pain. Edith Bouvier spoke about the severe leg injuries she suffered during the shelling that killed Colvin, Ochlik and Al-Said. Another journalist, photographer Pat Conroy was also wounded. She spoke of how the local doctors had done their best to assist her, but they said she needed urgent further treatment. Bouvier, with wide, appealing eyes, called for an immediate ceasefire so that she and Conroy could be evacuated.

Huh? The mellifluous BBC presenter moved onto the next item but I was feeling pretty conflicted abut this weird little piece of telly.

On the one hand I have known a lot of journalists that had been killed or maimed covering wars. And despite what we tell ourselves about machismo and all that, when someone you have shared a trench, a beer or even a bed with is killed violently, it hurts. And I can well understand the fear Bouvier felt – I have been there and felt the same gut-wrenching, mind-blocking response to my imminent or imagined death. But as a former great Transvaal rugby player Moaner van Heerden said when asked about an unsavoury incident on the field, “Cowboys don’t cry.”

What are we meant to think when a journalist decides to go into a warzone that is extremely hostile to prying outsider eyes, and have happen to him or her exactly the type of personal catastrophe that they had gone to report on? Bouvier’s call for an entire war to press the pause button for her to be allowed to go home does not quite fit into Moaner van Heerden’s sense of how the game is played.

Of course, there never was a ceasefire, but the beleaguered, injured and grieving people of Baba Amr did what decent, humble people all over the world do when some Westerner demands that he or she be given special treatment – they complied. Imagine if they said, “tough shit, bite the bullet ferenji”; well, who knows how the capricious Western media might portray them next week – as crazed Islamists, warlords, etc.?

Al-Jazeera online reported that “A friend of French reporter Edith Bouvier who has been in direct contact with the journalist told Al-Jazeera that she and British photographer Paul Conroy had refused to leave until they were guaranteed diplomatic or Red Cross escort. They also said they would not go until a humanitarian corridor had been opened for all Syrians in the city.”

Of course that corridor was never established, and instead of dozens of armed and unarmed Syrians braved tanks and snipers to get the wounded and trapped journalists out. Bouvier and Daniels (an unwounded French photographer) got out without major incident, but 13 people died in the effort to evacuate the apparently lightly wounded British photographer Pat Conroy (along with some 40 wounded Syrians). The Scottish Daily Record reports that when asked if he would return to cover the conflict if rebels were to mount another attack, Conroy said: “Oh yes, I’d do it again tomorrow.” 

Really? DM


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