The Changing Face of War Reporting

Citizen journalism and social media have changed the way international news is covered, but they are no substitute for the seasoned approach and well developed contacts of a skilled reporter.

Not all that long ago journalists working for major media organisations thought nothing of grabbing their notebooks, typewriters and tape recorders before heading off to cover conflict.

Today such comparatively relaxed attitudes are less prevalent, partly because of the huge compensation payments  for which media  groups are liable for if any of their staff get killed in the course of duty. Insurance companies  are equally demanding about precautions reporters must take  before they can be covered. Hence the increasingly popular practice of embedded journalism where reporters are required to wear protective gear and only move about in the company of professional soldiers. Reporting from the comparatively unprotected “other side” is much more difficult today.

The perils of reporting from a ‘safe zone’

In current conflict zones like Iraq and Afghanistan, Western reporters in particular routinely attach themselves to front line military patrols, so that they can report the action as it evolves. The advantage of this comparatively sheltered reporting context is that it offers minute-by-minute exclusives of evolving conflict. The scenario was similar during the 1965 war between India and Pakistan. Reporters rarely went to the border, but were briefed by officers who often sold them a line.

Reporters who write their stories only from the soldiers’ perspective sometimes run the risk of ignoring the larger political story that may be developing at the same time. The other danger is that hostile extremist groups, such as the al Qaida, Taliban and ISIS, may see embedded reporters as a part and parcel of the foreign invading army and hence as legitimate targets. However, this was not always the case.

Before embedded journalism became common place, reporters were welcomed with open arms by all manners of resistance fighters and guerrilla groups anxious to ensure that their side of the story was properly told by the international media. Reporters in turn understood that their professional and objective coverage would give them the kind of access needed to all sources.
Much of this started to change during the Lebanese Civil War in the mid 1980s when Shia militias, operating under the banner of Iranian supported Hizbullah, concluded that kidnapping journalists would guarantee them additional media coverage. The first to be snatched away was Terry Anderson, the Associated Press’ bureau chief in Beirut. He was released six years later, but other journalists were also kidnapped.

Perhaps the most well known journalist captive was the Mumbai-based Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl, who was kidnapped and killed while on assignment in Pakistan. Al Qaida is believed to be responsible for his death. 

Reporting the reality 

Just like so many of my colleagues at the time, I too had my fair share of brushes with death. One them was while on a trip to Afghanistan in 1980. l can never forget the experience of waking up one bleak morning near Ghazni where my mujahideen captors – supporters of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar – abandoned me on the main road between Kabul and Kandahar.

Before releasing me, they had helped themselves to my personal belongings, including my wallet, which had all the money, about $3,000, that l was carrying for my trip.

I had no prior plans of visiting either Kabul, Ghazni or Kandahar. I was in South Asia covering the death anniversary of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto when our foreign editor contacted me saying, “I want you to leave immediately for Kabul to cover ongoing developments”. This was long before the internet came along, which today permits you, as a part of a global audience, to follow developments by the second. 

In those days, the eyewitness accounts were few and far between, so there was much international interest when my colleague, Robert Fisk, reporting for the London Times, claimed that he had been stopped by a Soviet colonel while crossing the border into Afghanistan and was asked whether The Beatles were still alive.

Fisk’s front page story quoting the colonel was unique, which is a challenge for the rest of the international press corps. When l ran into him in a hotel lobby, l speculated that his story couldn’t all be true. “Some of it must be journalistic licence,” I commented, to which he furiously responded, “Don’t think yourself so superior. If you don’t believe me, go and see for yourself.”

His angry comment provoked me into leaving for Kabul’s main bus depot and boarding the first available public transport leaving the Afghan capital. Inside the bus heading to Kandahar, it was so cold that I fell asleep right away. An hour later, the bus was stopped by the followers of Hikmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami, who were determined to kill all supporters of communism.

Those who had red-coloured identity cards – the colour of communism – were taken outside and shot dead one by one.

What saved me from an instant execution was my foreign, blue-and-gold-coloured British passport. The leader of the killing gang said something to me in in Pashto before hitting me hard across the mouth with the butt of his rifle. My false front teeth are a reminder of the terrible incident.

The reason for the international interest in Fisk’s story, and later in mine, was that they provided first-hand accounts about what was really going on. Yet, the editors of conventional news desks are far less likely to clamour to send reporters to cover breaking news stories about war, disease, terrorism and other disasters.

Harnessing the power of social media

Some are still grappling with how to fully harness the power of the internet and social media, which means any breaking news story is guaranteed instant coverage all across the globe without there being any space restriction.

This is what happened with the recent terrorist attacks in Dhaka and before that in Brussels, and still more recently in Nice and Munich. In Dhaka, it was the chef in the kitchen and other survivors who were able to feed information to the world. In Brussels, a South African tourist gave his account to Reuters, who then flashed it all across the world.

Google, Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms have undoubtedly changed the way stories, including international stories, are being covered. Anyone armed with a smartphone equipped with a still or video camera is now a potential reporter. The old maxim that a picture tells a thousand words holds more true today than ever before. Pictures of Rahul Gandhi asleep in the Lok Sabha get broadcast across the internet, and even amateur videos of extremist gunmen flogging and killing women somewhere in the outer reaches of the Islamic world have a global impact that could not have been anticipated as recently as a decade ago.

No alternative to seasoned journalism

But social media, and the instant coverage it provides for breaking news stories, is not an option for interpretative analysis, either in print or online. What is available via social media is no substitute to the seasoned approach of a skilled reporter who uses his knowledge of local languages and contacts to explain what happened and why.

An old fashioned scoop, for which l took credit, happened in 1979 in Cairo when US President Jimmy Carter, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat gathered to discuss a possible peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. Reporters who were covering the negotiations were forced to endure an information black out.

I owed my break to carefully cultivated contacts with the staff of the Mena House Oberoi Hotel, which is adjacent to the famous pyramids and is an obvious meeting ground for local and international visitors of all backgrounds. This was inevitably a treasured source for several stories.

It was here that the hotel’s Egyptian head chef told me how his son, who worked in a government run metal foundry, had been involved in the manufacturing of unique coins with pictures of Carter, Sadat and Begin on one side and ‘Heroes of Peace’ written on the other. A few days later, because of that tip off, it was possible for me to write a relevant story and the Observer newspaper was the only media organisation in the world to accurately predict how and why a peace treaty was a done deal.

Shyam Bhatia is the author of Bullets and Bylines: From the Frontlines of Kabul, Delhi, Damascus and Beyond, published by Speaking Tiger.