Johann van Tonder

Shooting the messenger

2004-10-28 11:46

"Being a foreign correspondent in Baghdad these days is like being under virtual house arrest," writes Wall Street Journal reporter Farnaz Fassihi in an e-mail, which caused an uproar in media circles.

She continues to explain how the reasons that lured her to the profession were being eroded - "a chance to see the world, explore the exotic, meet new people in far away lands, discover their ways and tell stories that could make a difference."

Since the American-led invasion on Iraq, 26 journalists have died and several have been abducted. No wonder Iraq tops the list of the World's Worst Places to be a Journalist, published annually by The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Before entering Lesotho in September 1998 to cover the war there, a fellow photographer and myself stopped at a corner café in Bloemfontein to get some supplies.

The woman at the cash register looked us up and down as we, both males in help-me-look-stronger-photographers' vests, left with coke, gum and tampons. Certainly, you don't have to think for too long about possible uses in combat zones for the latter?

Guidelines for journalists entering conflict zones are also published by the CPJ. Flipping through On Assignment: A guide to reporting in dangerous situations makes for interesting reading.

A lot of it is fairly common sense, such as the warning that media representatives should never carry firearms. "Doing so jeopardises a journalist's status as a neutral observer..."

About body armour, the report is disturbingly frank. "The most important thing to remember about body armour is this: Bulletproof vests are not bulletproof."

We South Africans know that too well after the death of Ken Oosterbrook in 1994. He was killed by a bullet which found a soft spot on the side of his protective vest.

Experience is clearly important, and you'd better trust the right inner voice: "In some situations... it may make sense for journalists to have a high profile, while in others, drawing attention to yourself may draw a hostile reaction..."

Try looking inconspicuous in a foreign country, wearing a helmet with PRESS written all over it, cameras clanging against your bulletproof vest.

Some of the recommended training courses that news organisations regularly send their correspondents on, include hostile-environment security training.

When two colleagues died in Sierra Leone in 2000, Reuters veteran Yannis Behrakis saved his own life by smearing himself with mud and leaves to blend in, a technique learnt on this course.

None of this would've helped Karam Hussein, a photographer for the European Press Agency (EPA) who earlier this month became the latest photographer to die in Iraq. He was not killed in crossfire, however.

Interestingly, according to the CPJ, many war correspondents die from medical conditions and car accidents. Their research indicates that 76% of media personnel killed between 1993 and 2002, were murdered in revenge to their stories and photographs.

Hussein, an Iraqi citizen, was assassinated in a public street outside his house. Wounded, he tried to run away. His attackers pursued him to make sure he's dead.

Self-induced house arrest sounds like a plan.

Send your comments to Johann

  • Johann van Tonder is an award-winning news and conflict photographer, and was previously photo editor at Die Burger. He lectures in photojournalism part-time at the University of Stellenbosch and Rhodes University. He is currently finishing a book on how to break into the exclusive industry of photojournalism.

    Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

    Sources:
    Private e-mail from Farnaz Fassihi, published on Poynter.org
    On Assignment: A guide to reporting in dangerous situations, CPJ
    Iraq dangers increasing for photographers, Photo District News magazine
    Reporters sans frontières website

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