June 4, 2002

 






 

 

 

 

 

photo by Getty Images

Walter Cronkite gives a report in a bombed out area while covering the Vietnam War for CBS News, February 28, 1968.

 

Warriors of information:
The changing role of war correspondents

by Renaud Revel

French journalist Renaud Revel recently took a look at what it means to be a war reporter covering conflict in foreign countries. In this story that originally appeared in L'Express, he spoke to both young and experienced photojournalists to find out how war reporting has changed over the past several decades, from Vietnam to the war on terrorism being waged in Afghanistan.

It's a dirty story.

Traveling as part of a Northern Alliance caravan, Johanne, Pierre and Volker were ambushed on Nov. 11 by the Taliban. In Afghanistan, just a few hours away from the town of Khodja Bahaoudin, Johanne, Pierre and Volker died.

They were the first killed in the conflict. Johanne Sutton, 34, was a reporter at Radio France International. Pierre Billaud, 31, worked for French TV network RTL. Volker Handloik, 40-years-old, was reporting for the German magazine Stern.

These three deaths crudely shed light on the enormous risks incurred by a profession that pays a heavy toll - eight deaths to date - to cover this war, in which the tangle of the battlelines has transformed into a horrendous match of Russian roulette.

It's a dirty but beautiful story, that of those who are not soldiers but who wear bulletproof vests. Behind the landmark photographs and reports, they are journalists different from any other. They are an army without uniform "that doesn't belong but to itself," said Catherine Jentile, from French television station TF1.

According to Jentile, war reporters are a "brotherhood," that seems to be proud of being on the front when even the boldest wouldn't be there for anything in the world.

It is a unique job that consists of pursuing an impossible objectivity in the name of an equally improbable neutrality, a job that consists of running after stories while conquering your fears and dislikes. You are divided between the emotions that embrace you and the imperious obligation of getting results. This obligation becomes stronger every day.



"...The camera that I was carrying was a lot more dangerous than a machine gun."

- Pierre Schoendoerffer, documentary filmmaker

According to Nicolas Poincaré, a reporter for TF1, "I was amazed at encountering peasants one day at Khyker, a backwater town in the midst of the desert, near the Pakistani-Afghani border. Everybody wanted only one thing: a witness. Their faces in front of the camera, with the hope that their words were recorded by CNN or Al-Jazeera, networks that they received along with the parables of fortune."

The only variations on war reporting through time are the nature of the warfare and the number of reporters on the battlefield. The handful of journalists that camped on the front lines in Vietnam 40 years ago has been replaced by an oddball armada. And the quest for immediacy and the race for the scoop has completely changed the way these new wars are covered.

In the aftermath of September 11, some 1,500 reporters from all over the world - photographers, agency and independent journalists, weathered professionals and Rambo wannabes - went en masse to Pakistan, invading the cities of Peshawar, Islamabad and Quetta, transforming them into a "medialand" - an immense media circus endowed with the latest technologies (satellite screens, digital phones, Internet connections, fashionable laptops) - following the conflicts that erupted here and there.

Documentary filmmaker Pierre Schoendoerffer remembers his arrest on May 7, 1954, the day of the fall of Dien Bien Phu, which he filmed for the French army. Schoendoerffer said, "But what was I doing in the middle of this circus? It was a 'Viet' that answered me explaining to me that the camera that I was carrying was a lot more dangerous than a machine gun."

The director of The Andersen Platoon, a documentary about the Vietnam War, Schoendoerffer sees little resemblance between the profession that he practiced on the front lines and the one that is practiced today by his colleagues.

"Two reasons make me think that Vietnam does not have a common measure with contemporary conflicts. First of all, there was a great freedom to maneuver. This war was covered, on the American side, without the slightest censorship, until the United States, defeated, decided to forever chain up their information, conscious of the consequences of media-influenced public opinion. Another point is the clarity: the existence of true front lines, watched by troops immediately identifiable by their uniforms, greatly eased the work of journalists present in the field. It was an inverse of how it is today."

photo by Getty Images

Russian documentary photographer, Viktor Temin in a well camouflaged position in Mongolia in the 1930s. He is using a version of the German 35-mm Leica, which revolutionised combat photography.

Journalist Jean Lartéguy added, "Today it's a jungle. Since the Algerian war, the classic war of yesterday has left space for a succession of civil wars, which have seen confused journalists endanger their lives trying to navigate them."

A generation of journalists has undergone rough training that hasn't been made easier by technological progress. Because as technological advances have accelerated the speed of information transmission around the world, it has simultaneously shortened the time that journalists, under competitive pressure, have to verify sources and become familiar with the surrounding environment.

"Finding information in such a mess has become a real challenge," said René Backmann, head of foreign coverage for Le Nouvel Observateur.

Economic contingencies have been added to the demands of rapid information delivery. Budget imperatives constrain television teams to maximize heavy investments by networks. Worried about justifying their expenses, the owners of American networks have demanded optimal results.

"Shit pays," affirmed the very cynical CBS chief executive officer Richard Salant at the height of the Gulf War, "under the condition that it's delivered instantly."

Catherine Jentile was in Kabul in 1992 and remembers "the total disorder" that reigned there. "It was every man for himself and Allah for everyone! Twenty years ago, in a classic conflict, things were clear. The country that you covered was controlled with a censorship worthy of that word, and when you were detained, it was by militaries recognizable by their uniforms that confiscated your notebooks or your cassettes before stuffing you in a plane," said Jentile. "Currently, it's anarchy, we don't know who is who anymore."

René Backmann agrees with his colleague, explaining that at the height of civil war in Beirut, the experience of being a journalist was similiar. "You risked your life trying to distinguish a member of the Fatah from a Walid Joumblatt militian when approaching a checkpoint," he said.

And in some cases, journalists simply become cumbersome witnesses, targets to be shot, for lack of other suitable hostages. From Sarajevo to Grozny, passing through Jerusalem, the examples of incidents abound.
Bertrand Aguirre, a TF1 correspondent in Jerusalem, received a bullet to his chest (though the bulletproof vest he was wearing saved his life) a year ago from an Israeli border guard, who calmly shot the reporter without ever removing the cigarette from his lips. Aguirre, standing with his microphone in hand next to his cameraman, could hardly have been confused with a Palestinian demonstrator.

Reporters present in Bosnia at the beginning of the war remember that driving around in a car marked with the initials "TV" guaranteed protection. Two years later, those same vehicles were made targets by the Serb snipers.

So send them or not? That is the question posed at every second to media directors. For the information director at TF1, Robert Namias, who sent five teams to Afghanistan, the response is clear. "I try to put my reporters in a psychological situation of absolute calm. The mission I give them is simple: no exploitation and leave at the least doubt," he said.

This war has cost his network 25 million francs since the beginning of the conflict. This includes the price of security. Everything is done to effectively preserve reporters on the field, from the purchase of bulletproof vests to the acquisition of armored cars. At France 2, Olivier Mazerolle demonstrates the same attention to safety for the armada of reporters that hurried into Afghanistan. The network's chief of information assured the press the network did not demand "any obligation of results."

Security is also one of the reasons why stations like TF1 and France 2 have sent larger reporting teams, of four to five persons, to Afghanistan - in contrast to some photojournalists who have found themselves alone with just their cameras.

"Being in a big group in such an environment is a source of relief for our cameramen. They know that we guard them when they film," said Jentile.

To go or not go? That is one of the most important questions. But it made every single one of our interviewees almost smile. All of them confess to having the thirst for adrenaline, which can translate to a lethal attraction to this profession. What about the risk? They all dismiss it with the wave of a hand. Says Jean Lartéguy: "We discover it most often afterwards, rarely in the midst of the moment."



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