Getting armed for conflict zones


  • Nation
  • Sunday, 30 Apr 2017

Young freelance journalists eager for a slice of action in conflict areas should know that they must be well-trained and well-prepared before they embark on their assignments.

JOURNALIST Peter Greste (pic) can never forget a freelance journalist who showed up one day in conflict-ravaged Afghanistan, looking all macho and tough.

The man said he was working for a Guns & Ammo magazine but Greste and the other war journalists there could tell he was a young adventurer.

It wasn’t long before his lack of experience showed.

Greste was out looking at the frontline when a commander came rushing over saying “you have got to help us”.

“Your ‘friend’ (the young adventurer) is out there in that forward post which is under attack and he is panicking. We can’t speak to him because he has no translator. And he has no body armour and has completely lost it.”

“I asked him ‘what do you want me to do?’ And the commander said ‘you have to go and get him!’.

The commander said he was sending ammunition and troops out to that post and told Greste to go with them and extract that guy out.

“It was crazy. I had to sit on top of this pile of grenades, ammunition and God knows how much explosives, and drive out to the gun battle to knock some sense into him and pull him out!

“He had no hostile environment training, no equipment, no body armour, no back-up resources and no news organisation behind him. I’ve seen this far too many times where freelancers get themselves in trouble.”

Without the proper hostile environment training, Greste says a journalist in a conflict zone is not only putting himself at risk but others too.

“If you want to be gung-ho or stupid, that’s your responsibility. But when you put others at risk, you are doing a lot of disservice.”

Covering conflict, he says, is difficult, expensive and takes a great deal of commitment.

When Greste was covering the conflict in Sudan, he had to hire vehicles and pay “eye-watering amounts for fuel”.

“But that was the only way we could go in with the rebels and cover that.”

In Somalia, he had to hire “six guys with guns” as security which cost his media organisation US$1,500 (RM6,500) a day.

“You can’t operate without them. If you don’t do that, you could get yourself kidnapped or killed.”

He says media organisations should know that they can never cover conflicts on the cheap.

“That is a very difficult thing for editors to hear. But if you can’t make that commitment and put in the resources in, then don’t cover. Because people will die. It is as simple as that,” he said during a luncheon talk with the Malaysian media in Kuala Lumpur recently organised by the National Press Club.

In his 25 years as a reporter, Greste had been a correspondent with the BBC, CNN, Reuters and Al Jazeera and covered a number of conflicts.

There are always risks when covering conflict and war and while you can mitigate the risks, he says you can never ever totally eliminate it.

He draws a parallel of journalists covering conflicts with being an electrician.

“If I simply charge into the fuse box in my house and start fiddling around with it, I am going to get zapped and hurt. But an electrician has training and understands how things work.

“He is still vulnerable to being zapped because he works with a dangerous material (electricity) but with the right training he can reduce the level of risks to a point which is acceptable.

“It is the same with covering conflict. It is inherently dangerous but with the right training, you can operate reasonably safely even though you cannot eliminate the risk.”

Greste has seen “far too many times” young journalists, particularly freelancers and also some from respectable news organisations, who get sent off to conflict areas “without a shred of training, without equipment and without the financial resources to do the job properly”.

“That puts them at phenomenal risks.”

For him, the way for journalists to approach conflict is “with your eyes open” and to fully understand the risks and consequences.

“I have said to my parents if anything happens to me, if I am hurt or killed because of a mistake someone else has made, you have to understand that these are calculations I have already made, these are risks I have considered and am prepared to take.”

“So if something goes wrong, you need to understand that I have accepted those risks. I’ve done everything to mitigate the risks. And I felt the job is worth it and there is a purpose important enough to justify me being there.”

There has been quite a few challenges for Greste.

In 2013, when he was in Egypt as a correspondent with Al Jazeera, he and two of his colleagues were hauled up by the authorities during the Christmas and New Year break, put in a cell, then charged and sentenced to seven years jail for reporting “false” news that supposedly defamed Egypt.

He had only been in the country for about two weeks and was reporting about the Muslim Brotherhood. Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood was ousted in a military-led coup just six months earlier. And the military government that ousted him had outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood and declared it a terrorist organisation and did not like any neutral reporting about the Muslim Brotherhood. So they went after Greste as a way to intimidate journalists.

Greste, who is Latvian Australian, stayed in jail for 400 days until he was released due to international pressure and then deported.

This wasn’t the absolute worst thing he had experienced.

In 2005, when he was with the BBC, his producer Kate Peyton was murdered in Mogadishu.

“She was shot in the back by a drive-by and still conscious. We rushed her to hospital but she died after surgery,” he says, pausing as he reflected on that painful memory.

Over the years, conflict zones have become increasingly dangerous for journalists.

Militant groups like Islamic State (IS), al-Qaeda, Al Shabab and Taliban, among others, now consider journalists fair game.

There have been a disturbing number of journalists kidnapped, held for ransom, even beheaded. Some of those brutal murders were videotaped by these terror networks and posted on websites.

And it is not just militant groups that pose a danger to journalists in conflict zones. In countries like Syria and Yemen, the government has been responsible for targeting and killing journalists.

The Assad regime killed veteran war correspondent Marie Colvin in Homs.

Despite losing one eye to shrapnel in 2001 while covering the conflict in Sri Lanka, she wore an eye patch and continued reporting at other frontlines for over a decade, until she was killed in 2012 along with award winning French photographer Remi Ochlik.

When Greste began his career in the early 1990s, journalists were not deliberately targeted.

As the BBC correspondent in Afghanistan in 1995, he would often cross the frontline to talk to the Taliban.

“The government encouraged us to do that because they didn’t have particularly strong connections with the Taliban and they wanted to understand what the thinking was of the Taliban at that time. We had a working relationship with the deeply conservative Islamists.”

Greste says all that changed with the 9/11 bombing of the Twin Towers in the United States.

President George W. Bush declared to the world that “either you are with us or you are with the terrorists” and the Taliban started murdering journalists. Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Pearl was one of the first killed.

In its war on terror, the United States also targetted a few “unfriendly” media like Al Jazeera.

When the United States bombed the Al Jazeera bureau in Kabul in 2001, Greste says the United States insisted that it was an accident but it was hard for any journalist there to see it as an accident.

The targeting was precise and Al Jazeera was the first organisation at that time to get an interview with Osama bin Laden, he says.

Over the years, Greste has lost a number of friends in conflict areas.

He says these journalist friends who have been killed have enormous integrity and professionalism.

“As long as you go in with your eyes open and understand that this is risky, you are prepared to accept those risks, you have to also accept the consequences if something goes wrong. I believe what we do is valuable and worthwhile.”

“I never cover frontline stories that I didn’t think was worth it. I have been lucky. I have been able to get away relatively unscathed.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says at least 48 journalists were killed last year. Of this, half died in combat or crossfire, mostly in Syria.

CPJ says for the fifth year in a row, Syria is the most deadly country for journalists.

In the past, he says one had to spend US$50,000 (RM217,000) on a TV camera and photographers would need an SLR camera and about US$5,000 (RM21,000) for professional lenses, so the entry level for getting into the business was quite high.

“Now, anyone with a smartphone can do it,” he says, so the level of professionalism has gone down.

“I think this is why the public is so cynical and have little trust in the media now. The business models have collapsed, the new organisations are finding it harder and harder to make a living.

“And there are more and more people who want to be journalists so the place (conflict zone) is awash with freelance journalists and there is a price war going on.”

“What we are doing is producing a new product that people are becoming less and less satisfied with. At some point, news organisations would need to stand up and restore some level of professionalism and standards.”

There is also a huge ethical question for media organisations who are buying the news, videos and photos from these freelance journalists.

He says many freelancers rush into conflict zones without the proper training, experience, body armour, enough resources and back up to be able operate safely in a hostile environment.

According to CPJ, of the journalists who died last year, about 20% were freelancers.

Calling himself an evangelist for training, Greste believes “we have to embed a culture of safety and professionalism in freelancers”.

“It is just too dangerous and irresponsible not to have the training.”

He says media organisations have to accept a certain amount of responsibility for the work the freelancers are producing and treat them as employees and have a duty to care for them.

“I recognise it is really tough for news organisations, given the economics of it all, but I still don’t think it is any excuse for putting people’s lives on the line.”

Some young journalists think conflict reporting is glamorous. What does Greste think?

“It can be when you are sitting back at a party telling someone your war stories. But it is not glamorous when you are sitting in a ditch somewhere with no food, in the freezing cold, with people shooting at you.”

“It is really hard work. It is physically, intellectually and professionally very challenging. For me, I find the challenge satisfying.”


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