“With no one around to tell the tale, things would be worse”
MAASTRICHT. Decapitation, kidnapping, torture. Who would want to make a career in war journalism these days? Lisa Dupuy (23), alumna from University College Maastricht, has almost finished her master’s in War Studies in London. She also has her doubts, but emphasises the importance of it at the same time, especially now in these turbulent times. “I could choose to hang back, stay behind the frontline, and see what news comes in. I might do that; it would be a little safer, but I’m not sure if it would be enough.”
“Well it’s kind of your time, isn’t it? I don’t doubt there is a need for you guys …” My parents’ faces peer at me from my laptop screen during our weekly Skype date, on Sundays. I’m in London. They’re in Breda. It’s just after the evening news, which presented to them ‘the times’ we live in: extremists wreaking even more havoc in the Middle East, Russia and Ukraine in a tense stale-mate exacerbated by a plane shot out of an already muddled sky.
By “you guys” my parents are referring to the individuals who have been making the news in scary ways lately: war reporters. My parents are not too eager for the prospect of that job, adding that I could “always look for a job as a security analyst, or in diplomacy,” or anything else that requires regular hours spent in a proper office. I must admit that spending several more years in comfort is not a bad prospect – over the last months the phenomenon of ‘cold feet’ has crossed my mind on a regular basis. But when I left Maastricht for an MA at King’s College London, it was to specialize in War Studies, more specifically weapons of mass destruction, and a minor in war journalism, and to be close to the hub of international media.
I have always been fascinated by foreign correspondence, an interest that was no doubt fostered by Tintin (Kuifje in Dutch), a fictional character, a reporter who travels around the world.
Part adventure-driven, part morally constructed; my interest comes first and foremost from a drive to tell stories. I love journalism as a way to open up the world, and I have set myself a goal: I don’t want to just tell stories using words and pretty pictures. I want to be involved in the ‘big ones’. The really good stories help us understand the world a little better, and maybe even in righting some of the wrongs. To me, that is the main purpose of war journalism.
But that does not mean that I remain unfazed by the occurrence of the beheadings we have seen (or not seen). The risk has increased and I have found that I will need to do everything I can to be more prepared: take the RISK (safety) training, team up with experienced people and ideally a legitimate news or media organization, speak the language and read up on current developments. Also, I will have to draw on my desire to be a ‘badass’ – but a well-informed, rational one – and actually go. I must try to lose the naivety, and at the same time remain convinced of the importance of the job.
Journalists are not soldiers or humanitarian aid workers, but they are a kind of first responders, to me. Their words, unlike those of politicians, are not lawmaking. Journalism hangs in a precarious balance between the different actors involved in conflict and sometimes considers the questions that can tip the scale in anyone’s favour: on issues of responsibility or blame, humanity and security and stability. And ideally, and in contrast to the others involved, journalists have nothing to gain from (the perpetuation of) war in either money or power – but of course that is not completely true. There is a career to be made from being the ragged seen-it-all adventurer, and for media companies, war is drama. Drama sells.
“I’m drawn to the drama,” said James Foley, the American journalist who was kidnapped in 2012 and whose beheading was filmed and posted on YouTube by Islamic State (IS) this summer. It did not only bring IS’s actions closer to home – the deliberate killing of a ‘Westerner’, and by an English jihadi – it also represented the polar opposite of Foley’s motivation: “[I am] trying to expose the untold stories … I am drawn to the human rights side.”
I don’t want to paint too heroic a picture of Foley, the other beheaded journalist Steven Sotloff and their colleagues but I do ascribe to this notion in the role of the war reporter. ‘The privilege to bear witness’ is practically the slogan of the tribe of war correspondents – and for the ones that I have met, that sentiment is still the bottom line of their work. I am convinced that with no one around to tell the tale, things would be worse many times over in many parts of the world.
“Journalists seem to have become the enemy,” said Wouter Kurpershoek, a Dutch former war journalist, when I interviewed him for my thesis on foreign correspondence at UCM. He remarked on the war on terror and the conflicts that had spun off it. It contrasts to other conflicts he had experienced (former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, for example). His PRESS-jacket made him a target rather than a nuisance or outlet in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it is definitely the case in Syria today.
Correspondents are now seen as propagandists. In the information wars of the 21st century, when so many media have become available to the masses, journalists are like journalists, apparently. As such they are considered targets of assignations or ‘collateral damage’, or kidnapping.
The kidnapping of internationals is a source of income for militias. France is known to pay ransom for its taken citizens, while other countries like the US, UK and the Netherlands refuse to negotiate with terrorists.
All in all, the security situation for frontline correspondents has deteriorated, meaning a serious complication for the journalists themselves and the industry. Like governments, media outlets are unwilling or incapable of paying ransom. There is the option of freelancers, but that in itself presents risks, as freelancers go where others do not, because they need to sell a story in order to get paid. In 2013, Italian journalist Francesca Borri’s account of life as a freelancer in Syria went viral: it spoke of low pay, low security, and little engagement from her editor.
During my time in London, I was an intern with the Frontline Club, and organisation that aims to promote independent journalism as well as support journalists’ safety. On the day following Foley’s beheading, the Committee to Protect Journalists (PCJ) published its data: an estimated 20 journalists, local as well as international ones, are currently missing in Syria. There could well be more, as such kidnappings are often held under ‘media blackout’. Many of them are believed to be held by IS.
Recently the AFP (Agence France-Presse) published its editorial position on IS as well as its policy on the use of freelancers in Syria. It will no longer send correspondents there, instead relying on locals who make use of social media. Sending people ‘in’ has become too dangerous for one of the most respected agencies in international media. It unveils a paradox: we still want news from these war-torn places. I still want the news, because I regard it a humanitarian imperative to pay attention to civilians who have nowhere to go or no one else to tell their stories to. I think ignorance is not only a moral crime, but also a dumb character flaw that will come back to bite us, comfortable as we are. Politics and aid can only function if there is some insight. I don’t think that journalists who go into conflict are all action heroes, nor are they eager to sacrifice life or limb for their jobs – at least no more than NGO doctors are, for instance. But they are convinced of the necessity to strive for understanding.
War reporting serves no purpose in shocking the audience – but for that audience it is also important to realize that war is not clinical. I don’t need more drama, but I want to bring more empathy.