Comment: Is war correspondence a necessary risk?

Judith Welikala - Co-Editor 12 March 2012

The recent death of Marie Colvin made her the most high profile victim of the violence ravaging Syria. It has also brought to light the life-threatening situations that war correspondents are routinely placed in. Colvin and her colleague, Remi Ochik, became the fifth and sixth journalists killed this year in Syria. The death toll has since risen. In the week that Colvin and Ochik died, four more journalists were killed in Syria.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 66 journalists in war zones were killed in 2011, 17 during the course of the Arab Spring uprisings.

Death is not the only peril that war correspondents face. While covering celebrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, following the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, CBS correspondent Lara Logan was savagely beaten and sexually assaulted by a mob of roughly 200 men who had been “whipped up into a frenzy”. While Logan escaped with her life, and has since recovered, her attack prompted fresh calls for the position of female reporters in war zones to be reconsidered.

This poses a more fundamental question: is war correspondence really worth the enormous risks not just to the safety of journalists, but of the translators who usually accompany them, and to those who invariably need to rescue them?

On 28th February, 13 Syrian opposition fighters were ambushed and killed, in the process of trying to rescue four foreign journalists in the besieged city of Homs. Only one of them, British photographer Paul Convoy, survived the ordeal.

One might suppose that lives would have been spared had the journalists not been in Syria. However a Syrian activist group, the Local Coordination Committees, has stated that on the same day 102 people in total were killed throughout Syria. Without the coverage of war correspondents, this figure most likely would have remained unknown outside Syria.

In the UK, the reputation of journalism is currently at an all-time low. Last summer’s News of the World phone-hacking scandal and the ongoing Leveson Enquiry have brought all the ills of tabloid journalism to the fore, which has tarnished the status of the entire profession.

War correspondence presents something far removed from this. Journalists in war zones aren’t out for a scoop, nor are they concerned with chasing minor celebrities falling out of nightclubs, but instead have a dedication to presenting the truth.

In her distinguished career, Marie Colvin always aimed to demonstrate the human cost of conflict, beyond the stark facts; to show the harsh realities of ordinary people who had little alternative but to live through war.

Yet it is not just the morality of journalism that is being questioned. The onset of social media has fundamentally altered, and, some might argue, removed the necessity for journalism altogether. The Arab Spring is increasingly being referred to as the first “social media revolution”, in which Twitter, Facebook and YouTube became used as means of organising and coordinating uprisings.

The most striking images of war are now more likely to be taken on the phone of a local bystander, and directly uploaded online, rather than through the lens of a seasoned war photographer.

One of the most disturbing videos of recent years was the shooting and subsequent death of a young woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, during the 2009 Iranian election protests, captured on the phone of an onlooker. Nevertheless, the footage gained such high international attention precisely because it was picked up and replayed by major news networks outside Iran. Moreover, the mass of video footage and other information of the Arab Spring owes considerably to its wall-to-wall coverage by Arabic broadcaster Al Jazeera.

The fact remains that in war, trusted authoritative voices are the strongest and the most likely to be heard.

Colvin realised this, and made it her mission to speak for those who could not command attention on their own.

War correspondence is one of the world’s most dangerous professions, something that those who enter it are fully aware of. People of Marie Colvin’s character should be applauded for their bravery. They should not be discounted.

Judith Welikala – Co-Editor