A panel of foreign correspondents has spoken of the challenges of war reporting because of the increased dangers involved as well as cuts in media budgets.
During a debate entitled ‘An Endangered Species: the Foreign Correspondent’ – organised by the London Press Club in co-ordination with Index on Censorship – the journalists discussed the risks faced by war reporters, especially local staff on the ground, and the challenges of verifying footage.
The panel – which included Kim Sengupta, defence and diplomatic correspondent at The Independent, the photojournalist Paul Conroy, freelance journalist Samira Shackle, Iraqi journalist Dr Haider Al Safi and Caroline Lees from the European Journalism Observatory – agreed that journalists should continue to be sent to war zones but argued that they are now operating in much more dangerous circumstances at a time when foreign desk budgets are being slashed.
“Journalists have now become targets,” Ms Lees told a packed audience at the Frontline Club. “We used to be seen and tolerated as neutral observers, but now we’re aimed at.”
Mr Sengupta said: “Foreign reporting has become far more dangerous than it used to be. I used to go into war zones repeatedly but now in Syria for example there is a real fear of ending up in an orange jumpsuit, with the knowledge that your government will not pay the ransom.”
The panel agreed that this increased risk had left local journalists and fixers shouldering much more responsibility – despite having no security and earning little credit.
Dr Al Safi said that international news desks “don’t give much attention to local staff, if they die they won’t get named while the foreign correspondent will.”
He also said that media outlets did not do enough to “introduce local journalists to their rights”, such as the right to refuse a particular assignment, the right to insurance or the right to an exit visa in order to be able to leave the country if things got too dangerous.
“In Syria there is a real fear of ending up in an orange jumpsuit, with the knowledge that your government will not pay the ransom”
Ms Shackle agreed, arguing that in Pakistan, which has been the focus of much of her reporting, there is “an assumption of a real difference between the locals and the foreign correspondent.”
She said that the mentality of news organisations had to change in this respect as increased responsibility was being placed on people whose rights were then not necessarily upheld.
The correspondents paid tribute to their foreign colleagues, who risk their lives to impart the truth and help visiting correspondents.
Another problem, highlighted by Ms Lees, is widespread access to the Internet which enabled fighting groups to find out instantaneously what is being said about them.
She said: “Before I could write about the Taliban and know they’ve not read what I wrote, so I could go again the next week and ask them the same thing, but now they have their own media centre so they know what you’re writing about them and can target you.”
During the debate, chaired by Rachael Jolley, editor of Index on Censorship, the journalists also highlighted the need for credible local experts when verifying footage posted on social media – material which, they said, is now regularly used by international newsrooms instead of dispatching their own crews.
Mr Conroy said that while covering the Arab Spring lots of footage emerged with both rebel and government voiceovers on it, making it difficult to discern its provenance.
He said: “For all foreign groups the best thing they can do is get an independent source to publish their footage because it gives it credibility.”
But, he said, journalists had to be very careful because on a number of occasions it had taken a local to recognise that an accent was out of place or something was not right.
He added that the “layers of confusion” was in itself a tactic. He said: “misinformation is a weapon of war.”