The murders of Maltan journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia and Saudi Arabian Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi have made 2018 the deadliest year for journalists in decades, raising important questions about press freedom and the role of media in an increasingly intricate and tense global landscape. 2018 simultaneously marks a century since the emergence of modern war reporting during WW1: from the first mass propaganda campaigns, to the first visual documentation of front lines. How has the role of the journalist evolved with the times? A panel of experts in the field of conflict reporting met in Brussels to discuss just that.
Today, it often seems that trust in media and institutions has hit rock bottom, and the complexities of covering conflict are only intensifying. How then do we balance the role of the media, freedom of speech and security while remaining critical of “fake news”?
On the 5th of November, the World Solidarity Forum (WSF) and the Beyond Brussels podcast co-hosted a panel discussion at the European Press Club with some of the world’s experts in covering conflict in the media. All of the speakers, each having an emotional tie to one of history’s many wars, had an in-depth understanding not only what it means to report on war, but what it means to live it.
Meet The Speakers
Alice Musabende is a Gates Scholar in Politics & International Studies at Cambridge University. Former Canadian journalist and survivor of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide against the Tutsis, she was also one of the first women to graduate from the Rwandan School of Journalism.
Jesse Rosenfeld is a Freelance journalist based in the Middle East, who has reported on the sectarian war in Iraq, the Israel/Palestine conflict, the Arab Spring and more for The Daily Beast, The Nation and Al Jazeera English. His work in the region is the subject of the documentary Freelancer on the Front Lines.
Bojan Savic is a lecturer at the University of North Carolina. Croatian in origin, Dr. Savic grew up amidst the Balkan War. His postdoctoral research has combined insights from Critical Security Studies, Critical Geopolitics and International Development.
Renate Schröder is Director of European Federation of Journalists (EFJ).
This year marks a century since the emergence of modern war reporting, when photography had advanced to the point that photos from the heart of the war zone shocked the world and brought the devastating reality of the front line to the public eye. This development in media reporting was revolutionary in terms of presenting a more accurate depiction of the true horror of armed conflict.
As such, the role of journalist was irreversibly transformed, as reporting became more vivid and immediate. This was the first war in which portable cameras and candid photographs were a reality. Propaganda, narratives, and a new dimension to storytelling meant that, for better or for worse, the power of media had suddenly soared.
First Awareness of War
Musabende began by explaining that her first memory of conflict was the onslaught of the Rwandan genocide, when she was just a child back in 1994. She explained the constant sense of fear, and lack of safety. Knowing that you are not safe at such a young age, she explained solemnly, changes you forever.
Rosenfeld added that he also recalls his first childhood memory of war, when his home country the US declared war on Iraq. What stays with him was CNN footage of bombs exploding. Although physically at a distance from the conflict, the media coverage means that as a child he went to Iraq in 2015 to report it, saw the war from the other side. Here, the conflict was felt on a much deeper level than seeing the graphic footage on your television screens in the safety of your home – a far cry from feeling the shakes of the explosions under your own feet.
Schröder went on that although she has been fortunate to not have had any personal experience with war, she had heard a great deal about the harsh realities of conflict from her parents who experienced WW2 in Germany.
Savic on the other hand, having grown up in former Yugoslavia, was just 8 years old when his multi-ethnic Croatian hometown came under Serbian control. He explained that he initially had the impression that war only happens to cities, and that it took a while for him to fully comprehend that his town did not simply fall, but was conquered.
From a different perspective, in 1999 after he had turned 16, NATO launched a campaign against Yugoslavia, and his hometown was bombed. This, he explained, really exposed him to the intimate threat of war, and how this can profoundly affect an individual. As a journalist, he chose to carry out fieldwork in Afghanistan as opposed to former Yugoslavia, in an attempt to maintain a degree of distance between his work and personal life. He later discovered that this attempt to preserve boundaries and protect his emotions was in vein, revealing earnestly that ‘the place where you do fieldwork becomes your home.’ Overall, from a child experiencing war to a scholar studying war, he has reached both a different level of maturity, and a different way of seeing war and conflict.
Similarly, Musabende chooses not to study the conflict of Rwanda: ‘I can’t do it… it’s too personal. Observations come best from a distance.’ Perhaps it is true that in order to study something so tragic in depth, you have to be somewhat removed from it not only in order to be objective, but in order to cope. Musabende adds that upon reflecting on the events in Rwanda, ‘the demons come back and I can’t deal with it.’ She adds that African politics is always portrayed as ‘tribal, ethnic, or even primitive.’
This ignorant depiction of politics in the African world simplifies what is actually a much more complex and varied topic. Just as in every other region of the world, it takes years of rigorous study to fully comprehend the dynamics and backstories of the relationships and state of affairs of African countries. European media coverage of the Rwandan genocide is a prime example of how conflict within Africa is still often written off as tribal silliness.
This cocktail of teenage angst, haunting memories and a fervent urge to tell the world the truth about the Rwandan Genocide is what caused Musabende to turn to a career in journalism. Ultimately, it this path was chosen as a way to expose truth, and to start difficult but essential conversations. But indeed, Musabende still asks herself how she and other journalists can move beyond simply telling the story: It is one thing to report what happened, and another to actually inspire change.
Media, Conflict, and the Burden of Truth
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) represents 320,000 journalists through unions and associations to protect all within the profession. Despite the many issues in the past regarding journalists worldwide, in Europe, safety and press freedom were not as severe issues as in other regions, but this has unfortunately changed tremendously in recent years.
The recent deaths of several European journalists are made even more sinister by the fact that some of these reporters were not covering conflict zones, but cases of corruption, which this year’s casualties have suggested to be even more dangerous than reporting from a war zone. Another terrifying example? 24 journalists are currently under constant police protection in Italy, which is a sad reality of journalist safety in Europe in 2018.
Rosenfeld added that working as a freelance journalist in conflict zones is a particularly precarious position to find yourself in: with no backing from military, or an influential entity such as the BBC, protections are limited and it can be hard to gain trust and respect. That being said, he explains, most journalism is now done freelance. This shift in media reporting has not only transformed how journalists make a living, but also how they carry out their work.
Savic raised the point that on the one hand, the media are powerful when it comes to creating images and influencing perceptions. On the other, there are vulnerable journalists on the ground who are the labour force in this corporate industry. ‘In my opinion the truth has never mattered.’ he declared. ‘I see these huge gulfs in narratives, how people really experience conflict and how the global media report it. In the West fake news is a buzzword which is putting pressure on the west, when in fact this is not a new problem. Populists are good at twisting the truth. I’ve seen populists dresses up as anchors my whole life… it’s not a tactic limited to Trump or Brazil’s new president Michel Temer.’
Is Journalism Evolving?
We have modern technology and social media to thank for the journalism industry’s new-found reliance on clicks, along with the public’s diminishing attention span, but this has also transformed the way in which news is communicated. More instantaneous than ever before, with footage and photography which is improving in quality every day providing untold immediacy.
However, with the internet compiling the likes of the Guardian, CNN and the tabloids all in one space, news outlets across the board are now all competing with each other for the snappiest headlines, most evocative photos and most exaggerated language in order to tap into the increasingly hard-to-reach attention of today’s online browsers, rather than people routinely reaching for their go-to morning paper. This has irreversibly altered the way in which journalists tell a story. And reveals why sensationalism often wins against the hard facts. But what, ultimately, is the role of journalists? To provide entertainment? To provide arguments to be used by governments and advocacy groups? Or simply to provide the public with truth?
One thing to note is that the exoticism we currently see within war politics (such as the photo of a Palestinian protester which recently went viral) is used to draw in people who wouldn’t otherwise be interested and bump up the readership, but this also often means simplifying and embellishing, prioritising entertainment rather than truth.
Is Storytelling Unified in Europe?
Schröder commented that despite the European Commission may be striving for, Europe is far from being unified voice or identity, there remains a lack of cohesion despite EU-supported efforts to encourage mutual European media hubs, such as Euronews.
On top of that, EU correspondents have been greatly reduced, meaning that for many European stories being reported elsewhere in Europe, on-the-ground reporting is being replaced by a cut and paste job, which is proving to be a real problem for the integrity and quality of European journalism.
The Journalism of War: What lies ahead?
Freedom of expression remains a fundamental human right. It is crucial not only that journalists feel safe and able to tell the truth, but also that the public are able to receive it, uncensored and unmanipulated.
However, instead of getting safer, it seems that the death toll for journalists – both in overseas war-zones and right here in the EU, is only increasing. We must prioritise the freedom of journalists to report freely to assure that the public receives the accurate information they are entitled to, but also reconsider the role of the journalist to fit more closely to the reality which has emerged. Reporters are no-longer simply parroting what they see, but have the vital role to expose the issues of today to push for a more peaceful tomorrow.