Warzone journalism : why it matters more than ever

THAT AUTUMN we went everywhere with armed guards. It continued into the Caucasus winter. By the spring, with the separatists driven to mountain hideouts, it became clear that it had probably been safer than we thought all along. Anyone who might have kidnapped us was probably fighting the Russian Army as it sought to bring Chechnya back under the full control of the government in Moscow.

Russian soldiers in Grozny, Spring 2000 ©James Rodgers

Russian soldiers in Grozny, Spring 2000 ©James Rodgers

I often wondered how much protection our guards, members of the local, rather than the Russian Federal, Security Services, really afforded us. Still, the dangers were real. A year earlier four Telecoms engineers, three British and one New Zealander, had been kidnapped in Chechnya. When no ransom was paid, they were beheaded.

Their fate was often on my mind that winter. In the couple of years before, the threat of being taken hostage was seen as so great that journalists travelled only rarely to the North Caucasus. The region had not received wide international coverage since the earlier war had reached an uneasy end two years previously. Now the fighting had flared again, and the international press returned in large numbers.

The nature of the conflict had changed, though. Those bearing arms against the government in Moscow seemed increasingly to draw inspiration from their version of Islam. They had no more love for the West than they did for their political overlords in the Kremlin.

Reporting all armed conflict involves risk, sometimes deadly risk. Whatever training and equipment a journalist may be given, the only way to stay safe is to stay away.

I was fortunate enough to be working for the BBC, which gave us the resources we needed to do our job. While the presence of larger news organizations inevitably meant that prices for taxis and translators increased, presenting a further challenge for freelances, there were at least times when freelances could also get help in the form of a lift or a phone link to file.

Great though they were, the risks we faced then seem small compared to those involved in working in Syria or Iraq now. The beheadings (let us not use the word ‘execution’ which, whatever one thinks of the death penalty, does at least include the idea of there having been a trial) of James Foley and Steven Sotloff — along with the deaths of dozens of other journalists — show that.

So why on earth would journalists venture there? There are a number of reasons, and many reporters’ motivation combines some or all of them: curiosity; career advancement; a desire for adventure. There is often, though, a sense of duty, too — a sense that this needs to be done, and so someone needs to do it.

Reporters know the risks, even if they may sometimes underestimate them, or just trust to luck. Those covering conflict have spent enough time among people let down by failed diplomatic initiatives to know that United Nations resolutions about protecting the press count for little either.

Kidnapping is not new. Social media are. The internet has created the opportunity for murderers of journalists to stage public killings of which the 18th century London hangman could not even dream. Public executions drew crowds then. Perhaps they would now.

There is another technological factor here, too. Drone warfare has led to espionage as surveillance from above, rather than words on the ground. Yet for all the opportunities offered to journalism by new technology, nothing has yet replaced the value of talking to people. It also means that journalists are increasingly among the only outsiders who venture to war zones — making them easy targets for those who do not care whom they kill.

The Islamic State have demonstrated that they no longer need traditional media organizations to reach a mass global audience. We still need journalists — those willing to travel to war zones — to explain to us what is happening.

For which is more informative, the horror shows, or the work of journalists like James Foley and Steven Sotloff? As we seek to understand the world today, we would be lost without the latter.

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